Should outdoor adventurers pay for their rescue?

17 Apr 13
Should outdoor adventurers pay for their rescue?
Illustration by Wade Mickley

YES: Live Free and Die

PrintI was born and raised in New Hampshire, home to the state motto “Live Free or Die” and the White Mountains National Forest, a big chunk of wilderness that attracts hikers, climbers, skiers, and snowshoers. More and more of these folks need rescuing every year.

The Fish and Game Department oversees all search-and-rescue missions, with much of the field work done by volunteers and, in certain areas, by rangers employed by the U.S. Forest Service. Since 2006, there have been 957 missions costing $1.8 million.

Even with a New Hampshire law that allows negligent hikers to be charged for rescue, fewer than 60 percent pay up.

Every rescued wilderness traveler should pay a portion of the cost. Negligent or not, prepared or not, accidents happen. Rather than place blame on the lost and injured, we should assign shared responsibility for all those using the wilderness. As for the notion that some people might not call for fear of getting a bill? Well, isn’t that one of the categories for getting a Darwin Award?

One solution, currently under consideration in New Hampshire, is a voluntary, once-yearly “Hike Safe Card,” which would entitle the bearer to no-charge search and rescue, with an estimated cost of $18 per card. This shares the cost and undercuts the risk of stranded hikers being too scared to call for help. And if it works in New Hampshire, maybe other states, not to mention the National Park Service, can also ease the massive cost of their rescues with similar measures.

If the card becomes a reality in New Hampshire, you can bet I’ll be the first in line. In fact, I’ll give them as birthday presents until everyone I know who might need one has one. Until then, if someone needs rescuing in the wilds, send ‘em a bill.

Tim Milton is the executive editor of and lives and hikes in New Hampshire.

NO: Don’t Charge for Rescues

We live in a sound-bite culture that seduces us with remarks like “let the idiots pay for their mistakes.” This is the same mentality that says lion attacks strengthen the zebra herds, but there are two small problems: We’re not lions, and we’re not zebras. We’re people, and we take care of our own.

I can see why people are tempted to think it’s a good idea to force lost hikers to pay for their rescues. And I can see why cash-strapped agencies would like to recoup some of their costs. And I would like to do something to recognize the incredible risks careless hikers impose on their rescuers when they stray from the trail and remain lost for days. I just don’t think forcing the rescued to pay for their rescues is a humane response to any of these issues.

Few things in life are more disorienting and terrifying than being truly lost in the woods. The one thing that sustains hope is the prospect that people will come looking for you. It’s a pretty short trail from billing for rescues to placing a dollar estimate on the value of human life. And let’s not forget the unintended consequences of what lost hikers might do if they know they’ll get stuck with a $25,000 tab for a rescue. Will they panic at the first sign of being lost? Will they take even more risks to get “found” sooner, and get themselves into deeper trouble? Will they never step foot off the main trail and abandon the spirit of adventure that got them hooked on hiking to begin with?

I’ve seen the “you could be billed for your rescue if you get lost” warnings at trailheads and they make sense to me, especially at remote wilderness locales. And I understand when an agency might feel an outdoor adventurer has behaved so recklessly that he deserves punitive damages. But when it comes to setting a general policy I say: We find our people in the hope that on the day we’re lost, they’ll find us. Don’t put a price tag on that.

Tom Mangan is a hiking enthusiast and freelance journalist hailing from North Carolina. He shares his hiking thoughts at Two-Heel Drive


  • I’ve been injured in the back country, but was able to make it out safely on my own. I DO think people should be responsible for their situations. Sure, there are people that have an accident, who was not their fault, but the expenses should not be placed on the area rescue. The ‘Hike Safe Card’ is a great idea. When participating in earth sports, you accept the possibility of something could create a problem, so also accept the monetary responsibility!

    Bill   02 May 13, 10:50 am

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    Racing in North Carolina   17 Apr 13, 2:59 pm

  • I believe that fining people who need rescue pursuing outdoor activities is discriminatory. Statistically there are many suburban and urban activities that are high risk and we dont fine them if they need an ambulance- crossing the road, riding a bike, smoking in bed,
    driving, running on a greenway, an electrocuted person, etc.

    Ambulances and fire trucks speeding through town and traffic is dangerous for those drivers.

    Mountain search and rescue are properly trained for those environs, not to minimize the risk to them.

    People pursuing outdoor activities need to be properly trained and educated about Leave No Trace principles which make it safer for people. For example, the principles such as plan ahead and prepare could reduce risk in the outdoors.

    Glacier National park issues back county permits and require the permit holder to watch a video on keeping a clean camp and what to do if you encounter a grizzly bear- this was very effective as I had a grizzly bear encounter and I followed the Park Service vidoes advice.

    Punitive measures on a hiker will not change the weather, eliminate mud and rocks, snow, aggressive bears made that way by other ignorant hikers, etc. Education for ignorant people can reduce accidents but as we all know accidents happen.

    I was in Shining Rock Wilderness this past year and a man had fallen and broken his leg and needed a rescue. I observed at least one search and rescue vehicle from every county in the area, in it at least two men per truck. Some were too out of shape to hike in and rescue anyone so that sat in there truck, talking on the radio. There were also multiple ambulances on the scene for one injured man.
    They were all in the same parking lot at Black Balsam. It was quite comical. Would that injured man have to pay for each of those trucks, ambulances and radio talkers?

    Caboosy   29 Mar 13, 3:10 pm

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