New Hampshire's Tuckerman Ravine. (Photo: Cavan Images/Getty Images)

New Hampshire’s Bad Search and Rescue Rules May Get Even Worse

Hikers in New Hampshire can already be charged for lifesaving, and a proposed law would punish those who refuse to pay. Editor Adam Roy thinks it’s a terrible and dangerous policy.

Adam Roy

from Backpacker

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Hypothermia, falls, losing your way—there are a lot of hazards hikers need to be aware of when they step onto the trail in New Hampshire’s White Mountains. Thanks to a new bill wending its way through the state’s legislature, officials may need to add a new one: losing their driver’s license.

New Hampshire is the only state in the country that regularly charges rescuees for search and rescue operations. While a handful of states, including Hawaii and Maine, have laws that allow them to bill hikers who they claim acted irresponsibly for the cost of their rescue, those rules are rarely, if ever, invoked. (Some counties in Utah also periodically charge visitors who require rescue, though there’s no statewide policy.) In contrast, New Hampshire authorities send a bill to roughly 6 percent of the hikers they rescue annually, alleging negligence or lack of preparation. 

Currently under consideration, SB 13 would allow the state’s Fish and Game Department and Division of Motor Vehicles to suspend the drivers licenses of hikers who refuse to pay those charges, which can range from a few hundred to thousands of dollars, until they agree on a payment plan with the state. The state senate has already approved the bill, though there’s currently no word on when the house will vote.

Authorities say that charging hikers is necessary to support New Hampshire’s overworked and underfunded SAR system. Over the past 10 years, calls for help have ballooned; as the Appalachian Mountain Club wrote in a blog post in 2020, the department’s annual expenditure regularly exceeds its paltry SAR budget, forcing it to dip into money that could have been used for equipment and training. In one interview with the New Hampshire Union-Leader, Colonel Kevin Jordan, the head of Fish and Game’s law enforcement, said he hoped the prospect of losing their licenses would “cause some people to pause and be responsible.”

Around the United States, there’s no question that SAR systems are under pressure. The Covid outdoor recreation boom sent thousands of newly-minted hikers out into the wild; rescues are hitting record highs and teams are bleeding volunteers as they burn out from the constant stress. But punishing hikers the state deems irresponsible won’t help that. In fact, it’s likely to make the problem worse.

New Hampshire has been asking negligent hikers to repay the costs of their rescue since 2008. In the intervening 15 years, rescues have gone up. As the New Hampshire Bulletin noted in December, the amount that the state has spent on SAR has steadily increased over the years, rising from $189,841 in 2013 to $315,588 in 2020. In 2022, Fish and Game spent more than a half-million dollars on rescues. If sending those bills on to hikers was supposed to convince them to think twice before hitting the trail unprepared, it clearly hasn’t worked. But instead of reconsidering its punitive strategy, the state has doubled down, hitting some allegedly reckless hikers with criminal charges, and now seeks to strip driving privileges from people who skip out on their bills.

hikers on top of rocky mountain
New Hampshire’s Mt. Monadnock is a popular destination for hikers—including some who may be new to the mountains. (Photo: Brooks Payne / Moment via Getty)

The overwhelming majority of search and rescue organizations in the United States oppose charging for rescue. The Mountain Rescue Association (MRA) and National Association for Search and Rescue (NASAR) both take the position that the fear of being hit with thousands of dollars in bills could cause stricken hikers, climbers, and paddlers to put off calling for help until it’s too late. (Need proof? Colorado’s state SAR board identified 18 real-life cases where people delayed or refused rescue due to worries over cost.) That’s not only dangerous for people in need of rescue, they argue, but it’s also dangerous for rescuers, who could end up taking bigger personal risks as they race the clock to save someone whose situation has already degraded. 

Ironically, these policies are more likely to scare off responsible hikers than irresponsible ones. People who hike into a snowstorm in short sleeves, climb a rock face in tennis shoes, or wander off-trail in an unfamiliar area are rarely knowledgeable enough to be aware of the risk they’re taking, let alone that they could face financial penalties for it. But otherwise-responsible hikers who end up injured or lost because of an understandable mistake may now find themselves having to consider the possibility that when they call for rescue, they may effectively be calling the police on themselves.

State officials have emphasized again and again that they only hold the most negligent hikers responsible for their rescue bills. The problem is there’s no concrete set of standards for what constitutes negligence on the trail, leaving Fish and Game to make their own decisions about who deserves to get hit with a hefty bill. 

Take the case of Edward Bacon, a 59-year-old hiker from Michigan who received a $9,100 bill after dislocating his hip and requiring rescue on a five-day solo backpacking trip in 2012. New Hampshire officials argued that Bacon, who had an artificial hip, had no business tackling a long backpacking trip on his own and acted irresponsibly when he chose to jump over a rock ledge. Bacon, who said his doctor had cleared him for hiking, fought the charges all the way to New Hampshire’s Supreme Court, where he lost. Afterward, he said to New Hampshire Public Radio that “the decision to whether you are negligent or not is pretty much up to Fish and Game.”

The majority of emergencies start with some kind of mistake. Someone gets caught in traffic and starts their hike too late, doesn’t check the weather report, or forgets their crisis puffy in the closet. Yes, some mistakes are egregious, but drawing a line between those and the forgivable ones isn’t always simple. When a hiker is under stress and facing a potential emergency, do we really want them wondering which side authorities will decide theirs fell on?

It also bears saying: If you want to diversify the outdoors, threatening hikers with a multi-thousand-dollar bill and the loss of their driver’s license is about the worst thing you could do. Throughout the justice system at large, fines and other punitive charges privilege those with money, who can pay up and get on with their lives, while those without the ability to pay have to suffer the consequences. Taking away a driver’s license for non-payment only compounds the problem. Without transportation, workers—especially low-wage workers—face job loss, which is often the beginning of a spiral into debt and financial crisis. If new hikers look at this law and see one more sign the outdoors aren’t meant for them, I can’t blame them.

SB 13’s supporters are right about one thing: Search and rescue in New Hampshire, and across the United States, badly needs help. Over the past 50 years, hiking and backpacking has gone from a subculture to a mainstream activity, and it’s past time to change how we fund SAR to reflect that. From taxing outdoor gear to using federal funding, there are a plethora of different ideas on how to do it, each with their own pros and cons. But using tough love on hurt hikers isn’t the way.

Adam Roy is the executive editor at Backpacker.

Lead Photo: Cavan Images/Getty Images