Should we stop rescuing people in wilderness?

We need more forest rangers! We can’t afford more forest rangers!

That, in a nutshell, is the debate we’ve been hearing for many moons.

In 2018, rangers participated in 346 search-and-rescue missions. Forest ranger Scott van Laer,  who is based in the High Peaks region, says the more time rangers spend on rescues the less time they have to patrol the backcountry and help visitors stay out of trouble.

There is a simple solution to the problem: stop rescuing people.

This is not my idea. I ran across it in a collection of papers titled “A Wilderness Round Table” published by the state Department of Environmental Conservation in 1987. The papers had been presented the previous year at a symposium on wilderness management sponsored by DEC.

I bought this publication at a library book sale last year. I was intrigued by the essay “The Case Against Search and Rescue,” by Robert Kruszyna, a New Hampshire resident. I later learned he is a physicist who has climbed mountains all over the world and helped write guidebooks to some of the Canadian ranges.

Forest rangers help a man who fell on the Cascade. DEC photo.

In the essay, Kruszyna recounts the foolhardy exploits of hikers and mountaineers and the perilous and expensive efforts to rescue them. He seems to lament the passing of the era of the rugged individualist and our reliance on government to bail us out, whether from poverty or wilderness, and to watch over our health and safety. He comes off as a wee bit of a curmudgeon, but a witty one. “I anticipate that any day now Senator Kennedy will offer a resolution that no American ever need die and it will be approved by acclamation,” he writes.

Kruszyna argues that people who venture into wilderness should accept the risks and the consequences. “Climbers who exercise good judgement and who know their limitations rarely need to be rescued,” he writes. “Those who are unprepared, cocky, irresponsible do not deserve our concern. Let their sad fates serve as a warning, rather than bringing them back to cause us trouble another time.”

No doubt such a policy would save the state money and free up the rangers. Just as important, though, is that it would deepen the wilderness experience, at least in the eyes of Kruszyna.

“Personally, I view the prospect of a guaranteed search and rescue as robbing climbing of its sense of adventure, which is probably the only meaningful justification for an otherwise useless activity,” he says. “Risk is an intrinsic part of that sense of adventure.”

Kruszyna was not alone in adopting this philosophy. Back in the 1980s, some people called for setting aside “no-rescue wilderness” on federal lands—areas where hikers and climbers understood that if they got into trouble, no one would come to their aid. Backpacker magazine even ran a debate on the topic, but the idea did not gain much traction.

Neil Woodworth, executive director of the Adirondack Mountain Club, says the notion of letting recreationists suffer and die for their mistakes appeals only to those with a radical idea of wilderness. “We have a lot of wilderness in the United States, including the Adirondacks, and nowhere is that the policy,” he remarked.

Now 87, Kruszyna stopped climbing a dozen years ago, but he hasn’t altered his views. “People need to take responsibilities for their actions in society in general,” he told the Explorer.

His late wife, Harriet, felt the same way. When the two of them ventured into the wilds of the White Mountains, “we never even told people where we were going,” he said. So strongly did they hold this belief that they flouted a regulation, then in force, that required people to sign trail registers.

Kruszyna once asked a forest official what would happen if he failed to sign in at the trailhead. “He told me I could be fined twenty-five dollars,” Kruszyna recalls. “So I then asked him: ‘Can I pay in advance?'”



About Phil Brown

Phil Brown edited the Adirondack Explorer from 1999 until his retirement in 2018. He continues to explore the park and to write for the publication and website.

Reader Interactions


  1. MDKADK says

    Finally! An answer to the overcrowded and less than wilderness ADK experience! Although I personally have said for years that there should be a disclaimer at the trailheads that warns of rescue costs for anyone found hiking without necessary preparations, this extreme idea would actually do a better job in “thinning the crowds.” With all the recognition that the ADKs are too congested, why do we see so much advertising and “improvements” to invite even more people in for a spin. I see so many sneaker and flip-flop hikers that it lessens the personal joy from getting on the trail and trying to enjoy the wilderness – ADKs a victim of success! Go natural selection, go rescue-less, go wilderness!

  2. jim boyce says

    we should be required to buy a hiking permit/fishing license or hunting license if you go more than 100 ft off the road

  3. Scott E Niles says

    What if your son or daughter was the one lost? If we have money for free Ipads and college classes for inmates, then we have enough money to hire more forest rangers.

  4. Charles & Diane Stearns says

    Leaving these people will improve the future hikers and hunters. It did in the past. We are over protecting the mentally unfit.

    • Gebby says

      It takes eons to evolve, so I doubt we would see changes in hiker behavior if rescues ceased and the trails would be littered with bodies, rather than their plastic wrap and poop!

  5. ssmeby says

    We could place a minimum time limit on searches for adults. Say you have to be missing/overdue for 2 days before the state starts looking for you. It might discourage the people who think that a cell phone is the only piece of equipment they need.

  6. Bret says

    Huh. I initially chose not to comment because I thought my views would be far too harsh for this site. I see I was wrong. I’ve thought about this quite a bit and IMO those requiring rescue should certainly be helped. We’re not animals after all. OTOH, perhaps requiring these people to post some sort of insurance bond prior to entering the State Lands should be looked at. The taxpayer shouldn’t have to foot the bill for peoples foolishness. It is also my opinion that anyone using State Lands should have to have a land use permit, just as fisherman, hunters, trappers, power boaters, snowmobilers, ATVers, etc. do. A $25.00 fee (equal to the least expensive regular fishing license) would help offset the costs of trail system upkeep, search and rescue, Forest Rangers, etc. Seems only fair since I have to buy a license to hunt and fish my own land I already pay taxes on! Why does the “outdoor adventure” clan get a free ride?

  7. Gebby says

    And stop putting out house fires, because they probably left the stove on and it’s their fault. Oh, and stop going out to car wrecks after 2 AM, because they’re probably drunk and it’s their fault. And why not stop treating people for fatal illnesses, they’re just going to die anyway? We live in a civilization and we care about our fellow man and woman. Rescuing is part of it. I am however all for the “Hike Safe” card concept that NH has and billing hikers if they are being rescued due to negligence.

  8. scott van Laer says

    I think the premise is absurd. This isn’t Everest, we don’t need to leave bodies on the mountain. S@R missions are not that expensive. In looking at S@R incidents from 2017 the most expensive incident seems to be the Wallface search which was about 250,000-300,000, which includes salaries and OT of permanent employees, mostly rangers. Of course, that one would likely have never occurred if there had been a ranger on the trail that day. #AddNYSRangers

  9. Dale Nethaway says

    Lets get down to the basics of this debate. So many things wrong with this view. Public Lands vs Inadequate knowledge, ability, or responsibility vs experianced yet shallow entitlement views. The Adirondack Park is public owned and open to all. By charter (I believe) restrictions are imposed on how it is to be used but not by whom. This is to protect it. Rangers are required to enforce this. Rescue is a great part of protection. Failure to attempt a rescue on public lands leads to lawsuits and an unwanted spotlight on our actions. The suit from a single death could be far more costly than many rescues. Too much money spent defending response decisions means less money to hire responders. The inability of individuals to use common sense, to educate themselves, or to prepare is a failure of our entire society. I learned a great deal from my association with The Boy Scouts Of America and some true woodsman who took the time to encourage and teach. These have become watered down versions of what they once were thanks in part to shallow minded individuals with deep pockets and lofty entitlement fantasies. I never pass up the opportunity to pass on knowledge or advice on the trail. And I still welcome learning more. You can not walk into the woods your first or tenth time knowing all you need to. But you need to go and find out. Sometimes this turns out badly. I have been lost, wet, and cold. I,luckily,walked out on my own. Some are not going to take that step in the right direction and will need our help. The author of this idea is an ass. If you think your abilities are so profoundly above everyone else and you think looking down on those who do not possess such abilities make you better then by all means take that big adventure into oblivion. We will honor you desicion and help someone else. What is the point of amassing knowledge and ability if not to pass it on. Selfishness. We all had teachers. The idea of a permit for use does however have some merit. An opportunity to educate being foremost. Better information on how many are where and when. Imagine if with today’s phone technology an alert to everyone known in an area to be on the lookout. How much time and money saved? There will always be stupid individuals that get in trouble. As the saying goes you can’t fix stupid. Helping them protects the rest of us and the woods. I personally spend a lot of time on my own in the woods and would like to continue and pass on to my children and grandchildren so yes, rescue my ass. Educate not isolate.

  10. John Filangeri says

    The cost of providing unnecessary ambulance responses in New York City for one day probably exceeds the cost of wilderness rescues for a year. Sure people get a bill. But, it doesn’t cover the cost and those who abuse the system usually don’t pay them. I am not sure I want to live in a society that provides urban residents with a very expensive taxi on demand for problems which are trivial or often the result of bad choices such as substance abuse without question. Yet, they vilify and threaten to leave people who get in real trouble in rural areas. I don’t think they should implement this until they stop urban residents from calling 911 for a stubbed toe or other nonsense.

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