Thoughts on Funding the Cost of Rescues, and How I Got Lost

A while back, a poll went up on the Adventure Journal about how rescues should be funded. Between that poll and this post on ice climbing expert Will Gadd's blog, I got to thinking about how rescues in the backcountry work. If you're stuck out there and call for help, are you responsible for paying for the help you receive? According to Outside Magazine, the Transport Secretary of the United Kingdom announced that they'll no longer send military helicopters to rescue hikers and climbers. Instead, they'll use a private for-profit fleet. Should it be that way here, too?

It's a debate that continues to spring up as people get into sticky situations in the backcountry. Adventure Journal Author Steve Casimirio highlights the American and European approaches to paying for rescues, and cites examples of folks who were told they'd have to pay after various organizations came to help. I took the Adventure Journal poll and chose the "Government agencies except in cases of extreme recklessness, then the rescued should bear costs, too" option. But boy did the article get me thinking, particularly about an experience I had on one of my first outdoor adventures.

(Temporarily) Lost.

Being aware of your surroundings can help if you get lost.
This stream helped me find my way in Maryland.
Back when I was first starting to explore my love for playing outside, I went on a car camping trip to the Green Ridge State Forest in Maryland with a friend. It felt incredibly remote to me; primitive sites were our only options, and there were no other sites within earshot of ours. Just two girls and a dog out for a little adventure. I'd just bought my first real sleeping bag and couldn't wait to test it out. While she was setting up camp, I took a short walk on a nearby trail. No backpack, no water, no nothing.  Just my phone and camera in my pocket.

The trail followed a beautiful stream at first, but branched off into the woods. My desire to explore got the best of me and I found myself off trail and completely lost. I couldn't have been more than a mile from where I'd started, but well out of earshot. I knew camp wasn't far, but I also knew I had no clue where the trail was. I ended up walking downhill enough to locate the stream and followed it back to the trail. Prior to figuring out how to get myself out of trouble, I panicked for a second, pulled my cell phone out of my pocket and discovered I had reception. If I hadn't been able to find my way back to the trail, or got hurt, and called for help, should I have had to bear some of the cost of the rescue?

Paying for Rescues and "What If's"

Bottom line, it's a tough situation - one there doesn't seem to be a clear solution to. I do think people who needlessly put themselves in harm's way due to poor decision-making should bear some of the cost of their rescue. People who are, for example, obviously and wholly unprepared for a given undertaking. Or, as another example, if there's a giant sign at the trailhead during your hike that says, "Trail Closed Due to Dangerous Conditions" and you venture in anyway, that's a poor decision. It's right up there with the rope-ducking example in the Adventure Journal post. Should you be rescued? Absolutely. Should you pay for it, at least part of it? Maybe.

Heeding a warning sign on
Mount Marcy in the Adirondacks.
"Don't Proceed Without Proper Gear!"
But there are a great many "what if's" to consider as well. If we charge people who are "willfully reckless," who decides what is and isn't reckless? Does that mean we penalize beginner hikers who simply underestimate how long a given day-trip will take them because of lack of experience? I'd guess at least some of the beginners who make mistakes seasoned outdoorsfolk deem reckless might just be due to a lack of knowledge.

But is venturing out without enough knowledge reckless in the first place? As Donald Rumsfeld said, "There are known knowns. These are things we know that we know. There are known unknowns. That is to say, there are things that we know we don't know. But there are also unknown unknowns. There are things we don't know we don't know."

Then, there's the question of the "extreme" adventures. If you're attempting something no one's done before, something so unimaginably daring, and you find yourself in trouble, should you pay? Is that reckless? Or should we just chalk it up to your being bold and exploring uncharted territory? Still extreme, what about climbing mountains like Denali? In 2011, there was a debate about fees to climb in Denali National Park around increased fees to cover the National Park Service mountaineering program there.

Should people who take on endeavors that have historically resulted in significant costs to rescuers pay to fund the programs? Should people who use the same land, but don't take on the same endeavors, bear the burden too? It's tough to come up with a concrete solution for every circumstance. 

What do you think? Who should pay for rescues? Should it vary? Leave a comment!


Chris Garby said…
S* happens and the possibility for anyone to be injured on the trail is there. Not sure how I categorize getting lost. I think we all bear responsibly (no matter the experience) to "know before you go" and be prepared with clothing, food, equipment, map, light. I've gotten 'lost' once in the Great Gulf Wilderness but luckily was able to find my way back to a trail. I guess s* happens in that case too.

The rescue'e' should bear some burden of cost if he/she is "negligent". In NH, Fish and Game uses the term "reckless" to define whether a hiker could be charged. How is that judged? There is always going to be some degree of interpretation by law enforcement/search agencies in this. We've seen a lot of cases in the White Mountains of people going out, over-extending themselves and finding themselves on the wrong trail, sans proper gear, map and light; using cell phone to get a rescue. I find this more liable for charging than an accident on the trail, or someone well prepared for conditions that gets caught out in a storm and needs help.

There will also have to be some degree of public cost to this. NH rescues are funded in part by a fee on recreational vehicle and boat registrations. Maybe we can move beyond this to the hiking community. $1 fee added to parking pass?
Katie L. said…
s* happens for sure, Chris, without a doubt. in this case, though I didn't need rescue, I was negligent. I deliberately went off-trail without proper equipment or knowledge, but thankfully didn't need rescuing!

I like the NH model, and yes, there'll definitely always been some degree of interpretation. I would imagine a number of folks venture up to Mt. Washington and get themselves in trouble on a regular basis. I agree that organizations should consider charging folks who are "negligent" or "reckless," rather than folks who are prepared, but find themselves in bad weather or as victims of accidents.

Do you think it makes sense to charge everyone, every user of a given set of lands, a little extra to fund rescues? It seems unfair to only charge recreational vehicle and boat users. I like the idea of spreading the cost around, but can see how some folks might not want to bear financial responsibility for other people's accidents and bad weather issues.
@jessicamacho said…
This is a huge debate! Who should pay for search and rescue costs? I know in Boulder, the volunteer S&R teams don't bill parties rescued. Some feel that billing those in need of S&R will deter those needing assistance from calling in for help.

Colorado has a CORSAR (Colorado Outdoor Recreation Search And Rescue) fund. By purchasing a $3/year card, 2/3rds of the money goes into the search and rescue fund which helps S&R teams with replacing damaged equipment etc. For $3 (which is less than the cost of my fast casual lunch!) hikers, backpackers, climbers, and outdoor enthusiasts can help S&R off set of their costs. Which is nice, if you ask me. It can take up to 30 ppl to carry a person down a mountain, many ropes, medical supplies, litters, and climbing devices - it's truly astounding how much goes into to rescuing a person.

I've also heard of private pre-paid search and rescue programs for those that are consistently adventurous to the nth degree!

Lastly, I've also heard that membership with the American Alpine Club will cover up to $5000 in trailhead rescue and up to $5000 in domestic rescue should one require it while mountaineering or rock climbing or hiking.

Great post and great blog topic!
Brendan said…
Wow, Katie, this is a can of worms for sure. I have always told myself that my No. 1 goal is not dying, and No. 2 is keeping my name out of the news as someone who was rescued. But to me, the good stuff is way out there, where rescue really isn't an option. Sometimes when I start a climb, and I think how long it took me to get to the base of it (4 hours of slogging up scree and snow, etc.), then think of how long it would take my partner to run back to the trailhead to get help, and how long it would take a team of rescuers to get back, then I just take a deep breath and think about if it's worth it, and what would happen if I broke a bone back there.

The absolute accountability is part of the appeal for me, but it's not for a lot of folks, like the guys who called for rescue helicopters from the Grand Canyon three times in a row for ridiculous reasons.
Katie L. said…
Wow, Jess, it sounds like Colorado has a great system going! It's great that people support the CORSAR fund, and ensures people are given a voluntary way to help offset the cost of rescues. The AAC does have great membership benefits, too. 

It definitely makes sense that those who know they're undertaking something way over the top work out rescue programs beforehand!

I'd argue that charging for a rescue might be a slight deterrent when people think about calling for help, but really, if you're in dire need to assistance, would you not call for help because you're afraid of the cost? I'd absolutely call for help in the event of serious injury or real peril. But perhaps it would deter people who arguably aren't in real trouble from calling (like Brendan's link above)?
Katie L. said…
It is a can of worms, without a doubt, but I like your perspective. Don't take on things you're not prepared to be absolutely accountable for. Do you have any Wilderness First Aid type of training, knowing you have a habit of going to places where rescue would be a real challenge? 

And man, that article makes me a little twitchy...
Sarah said…
I know that up here, all rescues in Banff NP are paid for by park passes.  Kananaskis is a neighboring provincial park and rescue costs are paid by the provincial government.

I think our system works very well but with the increased availability of SPOTS, I wonder if the number of 'avoidable' rescues will increase.  If so, I can see people getting frustrated about contributing to paying for rescues when they're only going to Banff to ride the Gondola.
Chris Garby said…
Maybe you were but it was an informative event in your life (I think). I got lost after using the "facilities" at night in the backcountry. It was informative for me as I was able to see how someone (me) acts initially when lost. PANIC!!! Once I calmed down I was able to figure some things out.

I like the CO model to supplement the cost of SAR. I think the NH model isn't enough. NH searches are funded from recreational and boat registration because NH Fish & Game is the main gov't agency (and they are funded from that source). We also have great volunteer groups.
Daniel Beach said…
I think that the person in trouble should pay the full cost. Actions have consequences in life, including in outdoor adventures. People need to know what they are doing, and even if they are a "pro" and need to be rescued, someone has to pay. When you cut your finger and go to the hospital you have to pay, I believe taking responsibility for your actions is the "moral" thing to do. 
Katie L. said…
Actions certainly have consequences, you're right. Like Jess said below, there's concern that folks won't call for help if they know they'll get slapped with a huge bill. But for me, if I'm in trouble, even if it's going to cost me, I'd still send out a distress signal. Do you think that fear of people who need help not reaching out is viable?
Jill, Head Geargal said…
Charging for rescue. OK, so as a volunteer mountain rescue member am I now going to get paid when I drag myself out of bed at 2am to go get a lost person, or give up a work day to work an avalanche scene? Great! Nope, doesn't work that way. The people who actually do the rescuing don't get any of the money from the rescued person, and if the rescued person delayed calling for help because s/he was concerned about getting a huge rescue bill (can very much be a factor), it makes life harder and the rescue more dangerous and time consuming for the volunteers who actually do the work.

I think it'd be super nice if mountain rescue got paid like firefighters or cops get paid, but as yet that doesn't happen. Until it does, no agency or municipality has any business charging for rescue unless they hand all that money straight to the rescuers, and paying them for all their training time and equipment, etc. Lots of people do stupid stuff every single day and we all pay to make sure stupid mistakes don't ruin lives any more than they have to, by paying police and firefighters to go out and help. If we don't charge for stupidity in town, we shouldn't charge for it out of town.

In general charging for rescue makes things much more difficult and dangerous to resolve. Imagine if every time you got in a fender bender you knew you'd get a hefty bill from the police or fire department if they get called to help. You'd do just about anything to avoid having that 911 call placed unless circumstances are super dire. We don't want that happening in the wilderness; dire circumstances are dire for everyone and it puts rescuers at greater risk.

All that said, if you spend a lot of time outdoors and have any skills and fitness at all, you really should put some time back in and volunteer for mountain rescue or search and rescue. Pay it forward and all that. Then you don't have to feel guilty about needing some help at some point.

In general most rescue organizations are heartily against the idea of charging for rescue - that should give everyone a clue about the implications of putting rescuers at greater risk just to punish people for getting lost or hurt.
Katie said…
I think your perspective is particularly valuable, Jill, given your experience, and I really appreciate you weighing in.

I didn't think about the fact that rescuers might not get appropriate compensation, or the fact that many rescue organizations are volunteer. Interesting how priorities work! And I agree, if I knew I'd get charged by the police if I called in a fender bender, I'd think twice about calling it in.

I also didn't realize most rescue organizations are against the idea of charging, and it definitely gives a clue about the implications if those doing the rescues don't want it to happen! What are some of the best rescue orgs you'd recommend looking into volunteering with?