SOS protocols...

posted Jan 17, 2013, 3:18 PM by Paul Wagner

Every year there are new stories of people hiking up into the mountains and then calling for help.  And every story seems to provoke a flurry of discussion in the internet backpacking community.  While some of the hikers have clearly had accidents and need assistance, others seem to use their cell phones to call for help because they are tired….and want to go home. 

That rubs a lot of people the wrong way.  Search and Rescue (SAR) squads are often volunteers, and almost always underfunded, and it’s hard to argue that they should be called out every time someone has a blister on their heel and wants a ride.   Or maybe they have a sprained ankle, or a broken toe, or a broken leg or… Whatever the situation, there is always a lot of second-guessing and Monday morning quarterbacking about what they SHOULD have done, and whether they really needed rescuing at all.

What’s the solution?  Some regions now charge people to be rescued, although most SAR experts oppose this.  If people are afraid to call SAR for fear that they will have to pay, they might hold off until it is too late.  And that’s an outcome nobody wants. 

But in all these discussions, there is one element that we think is often missing.  Many of the people who call for help are already admitting something pretty obvious:  they have made at least one serious error in judgment.  They got started too late, ignored the weather, didn’t take the proper equipment, took the wrong trail, got lost, etc.  They are quite likely to be either dehydrated or slightly hypothermic, which is likely to make them less rational.  And they have already realized that they don’t/can’t trust their own judgment. 

That’s a pretty good reason for us not to trust their judgment either.  And if their judgment can’t be trusted, there’s a good chance it won’t get them out of the trouble they’re in.  They have already made at least one bad decision, and usually more than that—some of which they may not recognize as such.  And there is no guarantee that is going to change any time soon.

Most SAR experts take that into account.  And so should the backseat drivers.