Should I Pay the Cost When You Get Lost?

Candice Gaukel Andrews by Candice Gaukel Andrews | January 19th, 2010 | 8 Comments
topic: Eco Travel


My son was visiting me during the holidays recently. I accompanied him to a local cell phone store, where he purchased a Droid. On the five-mile drive home, he entertained me by turning on its GPS feature; and we listened and laughed as the automated voice instructed us to turn left here and right there, over a route that we knew like the back of our hands. It did get me wondering, though, if it’s possible — in this information technology age — to get lost anymore.

And if our GPS units and cell phones have taken away our excuses for not knowing where we’ve gotten ourselves to, we face a new question of responsibility. If a “reasonable person” should no longer get lost, doing so suddenly becomes irresponsible behavior.

Bill Due Upon Receipt.

In an article in the December 2009/January 2010 issue of National Geographic Adventure Magazine, it was reported that last April a 17-year-old boy turned his ankle while hiking the Presidential Range in New Hampshire. When he didn’t return home by the time he was expected, a search was organized for him. Soon the Androscoggin Valley Search and Rescue, the Appalachian Mountain Club, a Maine Forest Service helicopter, the Mountain Rescue Service, and the New Hampshire Fish and Game Department got involved. Four days later, the boy was

When forest road signs fall down, it’s easy to get lost. ©Candice Gaukel Andrews.

When forest road signs fall down, it’s easy to get lost. ©Candice Gaukel Andrews.

found — in relatively good health — by the fish and game department. His parents sent $1,000 to the department as a token of thanks. New Hampshire Fish and Game sent back a bill for $25,238.

We’ve all heard of stories like this, where someone climbed a mountain, say, or rafted a wild river who had no business taking on the challenge because he or she lacked the required skills. Thousands of dollars later, the adventurer is back home, safe and sound, leaving cash-strapped communities and local rescue groups to carry the costs. Why shouldn’t those who take the risks also foot the bill when things go wrong?

A Free Wilderness — Of Rescues, That Is.

On the other hand, charging those in danger for their rescues would certainly discourage people from calling for one — probably until it’s too late. Usually in circumstances where a rescue is required, time is of the essence. Delaying a call for help could mean the difference between life and death, extend the time it takes to complete what earlier would have been a far quicker and easier rescue, and put search-and-rescue personnel in grave danger.

Since 1984, a man named Leo McAvoy and other outdoorsmen have been proposing “rescue-free wildernesses.” In these designated remote areas, a person would enter at his or her “own peril.” McAvoy’s contention was that you can’t have a real wilderness experience without complete self-sufficiency, and you can’t have complete self-sufficiency if there is always someone standing by to bail you out if you get into trouble. Only those who understand the deal up front should be allowed into these areas, where they can then have a richer, more fulfilling nature and wildlife adventure.

Daniel Boone is reported to have said, “I have never been lost, but I will admit to being confused for several weeks.” It’s quite possible that with the wide availability of pocket technology equipped with GPS features, society will no longer be willing to pay the expenses for those who get “confused” once in a while.

In a forest, one logging road can look pretty much like another. ©John T. Andrews.

In a forest, one logging road can look pretty much like another. ©John T. Andrews.

Do you think people who venture outside their comfort zones should pay for their own rescues? Or should we continue to subsidize them, just as we still pay for a rescue from a house fire or auto accident?

On December 29, 2009, USA Today reported that a Nevada couple got stuck in the snow for three days in Grants Pass in eastern Oregon, after their SUV’s GPS unit sent them down a remote national forest road.

Looks like we humans aren’t the only ones who can still get a little confused.

Happy trails,


Feature photo: Are outdoor adventures only for those who have the know-how? ©Candice Gaukel Andrews.


  1. Boy, that’s a tough question, because what it really does is asks communities how much value they place on human life.

    Sometimes you head out for an adventure that you’re perfectly capable of handling, you have the required skills, and an extreme force of nature or act of God changes the situation and your life is at risk. Should a community that has rescue services on hand send folks out or sit on their resources, because they feel they can’t make the rescue or the individuals to be rescued wouldn’t or couldn’t pay for the assist? I think rescues need to be executed with as much vigor as possible and then decisions made on a case by case basis whether individual stupidity or negligence suggests some reparations should be pursued.

    Art Hardy | January 22nd, 2010 | Comment Permalink
  2. Part of the problem is that people are using such things as GPS as a subsitute for common sense and necessary preparation. Just because you have GPS doesn’t mean you shouldn’t also have a paper map and familiarize yourself with the route you want to take. If I recall correctly, those same people who got stuck on Grants Pass also stated that their GPS chose a different route that they wanted to take but they chose to follow the GPS.

    I think the question of whether they are charged for their rescue should be based on the circumstances and not just a blanket policy. Accidents wil happen after all.

    Liz | January 22nd, 2010 | Comment Permalink
  3. Interesting. My husband and I hiked the Hermit Trail down into the Grand Canyon at the end of June. We left the Ranger Station with a stern warning that we would probably not make it. I’ve jumped out of a plane and run 4 marathons and can honestly say this was the scariest and most difficult thing I’ve ever done. But it was also one of the most rewarding. I am so happy we did it. If we needed rescuing, it most likely would have been our own stupid fault, so I guess I would have expected to pay the price. But, would knowing rescues aren’t free dissuade some folks from taking on these great challenges? Maybe. It would be a shame for people to miss out on these life-changing experiences. I agree with Art – rescues should be made, if possible, regardless of the situation. Payment required if extreme stupidity is the cause.

    Jen G | January 22nd, 2010 | Comment Permalink
  4. How about at ranger stations each hiker has to sign a document stating they are physically fit for the activity and agree to pay any and all expenses for needed rescues resulting from personal stupidity? An itemized listing of things like helicopter search hourly rates, wages for personnel, etc. might make a few folks think twice. :-)

    Fiona | January 22nd, 2010 | Comment Permalink
  5. Left up to the community that footed the bill, provided that it was a local force using the manpower as opposed to a federal one. What if the person remains lost? What’s the protocol for that: is a grieving family still billed?

    Jack | January 22nd, 2010 | Comment Permalink
  6. I don’t know if I’m quite ready to trust google maps “at my own peril.”

    Fern | January 22nd, 2010 | Comment Permalink
  7. I certainly don’t think people should be required to pay for emergency rescue services, and for much the same reason that people don’t pay for other emergency services. The point of having a publicly-funded service is so that people can receive life-saving measures without being financially crippled by costs that no one person can reasonably be expected to afford.

    That said, it is reasonable to fine people for abusing emergency services; making frivolous rescue calls would certainly constitute abuse of the system.

    Nine Quiet Lessons | January 26th, 2010 | Comment Permalink
  8. Good question ! Who is responsible for are safety ? Should the parks have to foot the bill for maintaining a rescue squad and for any rescue ? Or should the community , county , or state that the park is in be responsible ? How about making visitors to the parks have a , rescue in the parks insurance policy , before they can enter . Just make sure they are carrying their proof of insurance card when they do enter . I think the insurance companies will like this idea . As for having a area that is , rescue- free , where you can wander off with your GPS in hand sounds great , at frist . But are you responsible enough or well enough trained and equipped to handle any emergency that could arise ? Laying on the ground with a broken leg in the middle of a no rescue wilderness area dosen”t sound like fun to me . Unless you have a friend along who is skilled at making a travois and is strong enough to pull you out . I personally think we need a rescue service for people who become lost or injured in are parks . Who should pay for it , maybe we all should contribute because its to much to ask for from any one state , county ,community or for one individual to bare the cost . One more thing , like Daniel Boone , I also have never been lost in the wilderness, but at times I didn”t recognize were I was .

    John H Gaukel | January 29th, 2010 | Comment Permalink

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