Friday, June 12, 2020

Flattening the curve…of backcountry rescues

During the pandemic this spring and early summer, hiking has continued to be an activity that people have engaged in to stay healthy and find respite.

One indication that people are out and about is the weekly search-and-rescue bulletin issued by the state Department of Environmental Conservation. The most recent one contains nine incidents in the Adirondack region, indicating that forest rangers have been keeping busy.

In one case, forest rangers were called to rescue three hikers who failed to complete an ambitious trip in the High Peaks Wilderness. The group had hoped to hike Marcy, Skylight and Gray, but were unprepared for the trip and failed to complete the final peak. Without adequate lights, they became lost in the dark near Marcy Dam and were eventually found by the DEC.

These stories are good ones to read if you like to explore the Adirondacks. They often contain anecdotes that you can learn from. In this case, the story emphasizes the importance of bringing flashlights or headlamps on trips into the backcountry, even if your journey starts early in the day.

Here’s the full report:

Editor’s note: This column first appeared in Adirondack Explorer’s weekly “Backcountry Journal” newsletter. Sign up here:

Join the conversation: What should forest rangers’ priorities be? And on Facebook: should ill-prepared hikers be tickets for reckless behavior that leads to rescues?

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Mike Lynch

Mike Lynch is a staff writer and photographer for the nonprofit Adirondack Explorer, the regional bimonthly news magazine with a focus on outdoor recreation and environmental issues.

Mike’s favorite outdoor activities include paddling, hiking, fishing and backcountry skiing. In 2011, he paddled the 740-mile Northern Forest Canoe Trail from Old Forge to Fort Kent, Maine.

From 2007 until 2014, Mike worked as an outdoors writer and photographer for the Adirondack Daily Enterprise in Saranac Lake.

Mike welcomes story ideas and can be reached at [email protected]

25 Responses

  1. Mitch Edelsetin says:

    If people are charged for rescue, people will NOT call for rescue or at least delay call for rescue until rescue is more difficult, Beware the simple solution, it inevitably creates the next problem.

  2. Marion Weaver says:

    Yes, the New Hampshire hikers might well be charged the cost of their rescue (see article above.) And yes, there’s been talk over the years of charging Adirondack hikers who might be “… stranded without a map, compass or light source while hiking …” Or proper clothing. Or proper footwear. But I ask what are the failures that lead to the problem? I suspect the primary one is a lack of education. We advertise the beauty of the Adirondacks and the top notch recreations of hiking and canoeing, but we don’t spend proportionate amounts of time and dollars on preparation. In addition, if New York charges rescue costs, the said hikers most likely will try to avoid such costly penalties and not call for help. They thus get into much more trouble for themselves and potential rescuers.

  3. John Musgrave says:

    I remember when individuals actually had self accountability. I wouldn’t go scuba diving without proper training and equipment. Why should taxpayers pick up the rescue cost of people who go hiking without proper training and equipment? I agree this is an educational issue. Perhaps a few landmark cases in which unprepared people are charged would deter similar instances in the future. I’d rather spend $15 on a headlamp than pay for whatever a rescue costs. Not to mention needlessly putting the health of the rescuers in jeopardy. Hold people accountable for their actions. Sadly, it’s something that’s fading from our society.

  4. Vanessa says:

    Yeah, I second the comments above, though I’m not entirely against charging for true negligence. But where’s the line we draw? It needs to be super specific for the law to be fair, and I think that that would be challenging.

    Further, we’d need a *lot of education so that people know, for example, “bring your map, it’s the law.” It’s hard to get some people to wear seatbelts, despite so much evidence of their safety. Backcountry safety isn’t as well known yet – and I will admit, people are especially unaware that the ADK isn’t like your average national park that is heavily paved in popular places, etc.

  5. Zephyr says:

    So, let’s say you or I twist an ankle well into the woods, our flashlights run out, then we call for help. Is that negligence? Should have had spare batteries, shouldn’t we have? Should have maybe had an inflatable splint. Maybe should have hiked with more people so we could have been carried. What is proper preparation and what is not?What about carrying spare food, spare water, a map, a compass, know how to use them, a space blanket, rain gear, sun gear, bug gear, a tarp, spare socks…Who decides what you need to be prepared?

    • Balian the Cat says:


      I understand that you are playing devils advocate, but ‘cmon. Yes, you should have plenty of water and a means to filter more in the back country. Yes, you should have a map & compass with knowledge of their use. If your headlamp runs out of juice, sit down – dark never killed anyone, but falling can. There is already infinite education that states DON’T go into the back country unless you are prepared to stay for the night.

      I get your point…but?

      • Zephyr says:

        The point is that the definition of being prepared or not prepared is a huge gray area, making the idea of having to pay for rescue very problematic. We could always be more prepared, so where do you draw the line? Accidents can happen to anyone, no matter how well prepared. Reading these reports for many years some of the most difficult and most expensive rescues have been for people who were actually quite well prepared, but got themselves into trouble deep in the wilderness.

    • Boreas says:

      The ADK and 46rs have pretty reasonable guidelines for backcountry safety that haven’t changed in decades. People need to read them and head them. I have no problem with charging people for backcountry negligence based on those guidelines or perhaps a sentence of community service. Who decides? Rangers and judges are pretty good at judging once basic guidelines are established. When a Ranger says someone was unprepared, is there anyone qualified to argue?

      • JohnL says:

        I’m not a native Adirondacker and when I and my friends started our 46r quest, we did what in retrospect were some pretty stupid things. Luckily, we only suffered some discomfort and never required any ‘saving’. By the time we completed our quest, we were infinitely more capable of handlling ourselves in the woods. My point is, inexperienced people can do some dumb things. So, how about giving everyone a ‘Mullligan’, keep a database of rescues and charge hikers for their 2nd (and subsequent) unprepared rescues? Not sure of the legality of this, but hey, somebody must know that.

      • Zephyr says:

        So we should charge the newbies who make a dumb mistake because they get lost in the Lake George Wild Forest but we shouldn’t charge the experts who get injured climbing Marcy in the winter requiring night ops and a helicopter? The experts will be prepared with all the right gear, so they get off free for the expensive rescue?

        • Sula says:

          Not sure where we’re going with this. If you fall and break a leg on Colvin (this happened a few years ago) and have to be helicoptered out, the state pays for the expensive rescue and all is cool with that, or so it seems. I spent four seasons in the Nepal Himalaya, twice as a trek leader. Everyone was required to have insurance, because in Nepal helicopter rescues must be paid for by the person rescued. (There is also a caviat that if you die on the trail your body will be cremated on the spot . . . ) So, yes, Zephyr, personal responsibility should be attended to, and we all should have health insurance.

          • Zephyr says:

            I’m just pointing out the muddle that charging for rescue in the Adirondacks would be. First, I don’t believe it would actually deter the neophytes getting into trouble, because they don’t know what they don’t know. Second, the costly rescues aren’t necessarily those of people who aren’t prepared. Third, I believe the authorities drastically overstate the actual costs involved. The people are already employed, they own the equipment, they might instead be doing training, etc. Fourth, it might actually be counterproductive. A person gets in a bit of trouble in the backcountry and knows perfectly well he might be charged if he calls for help so instead keeps trying to get out only to get really lost with a dead cellphone battery, leading to a longer and more difficult rescue, that ultimately reaches him too late. Law enforcement is not the solution for every social problem, as is being proven over and over and over again right now.

        • Balian the Cat says:

          I actually think there might be something to this. A repeat offender status or something. It’s outside the box and worth some conversation.

          Perhaps riskier (a term that would need to be defined) activities could be required to carry some form of insurance?

          I don’t think it’s that hard to say that a well prepared hiker who breaks their ankle deserves more consideration than some clod who calls because their candy bar is gone and it’s getting dark.

        • JohnL says:

          Read my post again Zephyr. 1st time offenders get off the 1st time only. Charge them for offenses 2-??

          • Zephyr says:

            I just wrote above that I don’t think this should become a law enforcement problem. I just helped some lost folks get out of the woods over the weekend. They were the poster children for this problem: poorly equipped, in poor physical shape, no map and no idea where they were. But, I blame the problem on lousy trail marking–I got lost several times on the same trail, multiple side trails that should be brushed in, and the lack of any sort of map or information at the trailhead unless you searched around the back of the sign. In other words, the failure was in education and trail maintenance. What if instead of scolding people we made mades, guides, and maybe more trail stewards available to help people have an enjoyable experience?

            • Zephyr says:

              No way to edit–what I meant was maybe some giveaway waterproof maps/trail guides available at trailheads that cost say $1 each and include safety information? Make the price high enough so some profit can go back to the people who create them. ADK? The #1 problem seems to be people getting lost in the first place.


    Better maps and trail signs. What a concept. Yes, let’s reduce the number of rescues by helping hikers. Educating instead of punishing.

  7. Todd Eastman says:

    Make a classic Adirondack trail mud hole at the beginning of the trail…

    … that’ll help sort out the soft…?

    And people want to improve trails, why?


      It is hard not to reply personally. So let’s come to terms with the high level concepts here. The Adirondack public space belongs to all of the people of NY. “We” can welcome, even encourage, people to come here and enjoy the beauty and wildness. Or “we” can decide “they” are not worthy, and put up barriers. I believe that the long term future of the Adirondacks that we love is best served by welcoming, albeit with education and encouragement to be caring users of the wildness and peaceful places.

      Be kind, be nice – it will make you happier and a better person. We have strayed far from just rescues, however the overall attitude should be positive, not negative.

      • Balian the Cat says:


        It’s impossible to disagree with your overall tone, but I would add the following two observations: How do “we” pay for it? The DEC is completely strapped. There is lots of talk about Rangers because they are a wonderful unit and a sexy topic, but it’s the Foresters, Natural Resource Planners, and Operations staff that do all the signing, maintenance, and outreach being talked about here. Their budgets are practically nonexistent. Secondly, and this is more of an opinion, we have completely legislated personal responsibility out of American society. How do you propose we reach any demographic who doesn’t know enough to research something as serious as a back country trip on their own? People are required to take courses in order to drive or boat or hunt, etc but anyone can simply walk off into the wilderness and be surprised that it’s not an insignificant undertaking. I would not fly to a foreign city, get out of the airport and just start walking. I would have spent weeks planning it if not longer. I want to be nice and welcoming, but I don’t want to coddle people where risk is concerned.

        • Boreas says:

          I agree. Perhaps in the ADKs we could make it an “offense” where if the Rangers determine there was lack of preparedness or caution, they would write a citation. The people would get their day in court or they could simply pay a fine or community service in their community. The fine could have a WIDE range – up to and including cost of rescue – depending on how a judge would see fit. Just like traffic violations- the more egregious and the more frequent, the higher the fine . If the Ranger doesn’t feel there was sufficient fault, then he/she doesn’t write a citation.

          Automobile regulations were pretty sparse when there were few automobiles on the roads. With few hikers and sufficient Rangers, there was little need for regulation . With increasing usage, increasing amount of state lands and fewer Rangers to patrol and provide rescue services, the safety of everyone involved may well require regulation. Without an unlimited supply of Rangers and search volunteers, how do we keep an unlimited supply of hikers safe?

  8. Zephyr says:

    We also have to keep in mind this is really a tiny problem. I think Rangers respond to something like 350 incidents a year, which is up significantly but still not very many. How many deaths result? Not many, though I can’t find a figure for that. I suspect most people are in far greater danger just driving to the trailhead than they are out on the trail. Most people have enough commonsense to avoid going beyond what they are capable of. Of course there is always bad luck, and with more people more will have something go wrong. But, still it seems the best solution is to improve trails, education, and hire more rangers/foresters/etc. I doubt fines would ever be a significant revenue stream.

    • Boreas says:

      I don’t believe anyone is suggesting fines would pay for backcountry interventions any more than traffic fines pay for police forces. It is a deterrent to help people choose to be more responsible for themselves – hopefully resulting in fewer interventions.

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