Dead Men Walking: Search and Rescue in National Parks

On average, 11 search and rescue (SAR) efforts are conducted in National Park Service (NPS) units every day, and young male hikers, age 20-29 years, are most likely to require those SAR efforts. Errors in judgment, fatigue and physical conditions, and insufficient equipment, clothing, and experience are the most common contributing factors.

In 2005, half of those NPS incidents occurred in just five NPS units, according to “Dead Men Walking: Search and Rescue in U.S. National Parks,” a study of search and rescue efforts in all National Park Service units from 1992 to 2007, and published in the September 2009 issue of Wilderness & Environmental Medicine (Volume 20, Number 3).

Yosemite accounts for 25 percent of all National Park Service SAR costs. (NPS image)

The objective of the authors, Travis W. Heggie, PhD, and Michael E. Amundson, BS, was to identify search and rescue trends in U.S. National Park Service units. The authors retrospectively reviewed the U.S. National Park Service Annual Search and Rescue Reports from 1992 to 2007 and the SAR statistics for all NPS units in 2005.

Some of the findings and results, from the study's Abstract:

  • From 1992 to 2007 there were 78,488 individuals involved in 65,439 SAR incidents. These incidents ended with 2,659 fatalities, 24,288 ill or injured individuals, and 13,212 saves.
  • On average there were 11.2 SAR incidents each day at an average cost of $895 per operation. Total SAR costs from 1992 to 2007 were $58,572,164.
  • In 2005, 50 percent of the 2,430 SAR operations occurred in just five NPS units. Grand Canyon National Park (307) and Gateway National Recreation Area (293) reported the most SAR operations, followed by Yosemite National Park, Rocky Mountain National Park, and and Lake Mead National Recreation Area.
  • Yosemite National Park accounted for 25 percent of the total NPS SAR costs ($1.2 million).
  • Wrangell-St. Elias National Park and Preserve ($29,310) and Denali National Park and Preserve ($18,345) had the highest average SAR costs.
  • Hiking (48%) and boating (21%) were the most common activities requiring SAR assistance.
  • Hiking (22.8%), suicides (12.1%), swimming (10.1%), and boating (10.1%) activities were the most common activities resulting in fatalities.

Study Conclusions: Without the presence of NPS personnel responding to SAR incidents, 1 in 5 (20%) of those requesting SAR assistance would be a fatality. Future research and the development of any prevention efforts should focus on the 5 NPS units where 50 percent of all SAR incidents are occurring.

In a related study by Heggie, “Search and rescue trends associated with recreational travel in US national parks,” NPS SAR reports for the years 2003 to 2006 were reviewed. Findings include:

  • Almost half (40%) of the operations occurred on Saturday and Sunday, and visitors aged 20 to 29 years were involved in 23 percent of the incidents.
  • Males accounted for 66.3 percent of the visitors requiring SAR assistance.
  • Day hiking, motorized boating, swimming, overnight hiking, and non-motorized boating were the participant activities resulting in the most SAR operations.
  • The vast majority of visitors requiring SAR assistance were located within a 24-hour period, and the most common rescue environments were mountain areas between 1,524 and 4,572 m, lakes, rivers, oceans, and coastal areas.
  • An error in judgment, fatigue and physical conditions, and insufficient equipment, clothing, and experience were the most common contributing factors.

Study Conclusions: SAR incidents can be expensive and end with severe health consequences. NPS management should develop education and preventive efforts focused on hikers, boaters, and swimmers who are males and aged 20 to 29 years, addressing issues of adequate judgment, preparation, and experience.

(The full text of “Dead Men Walking” is available online to Wilderness & Environmental Medicine journal subscribers.)

Filed under: People & Organizations, Places


Bill S
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October 28, 2009 at 6:58 p.m. (EDT)

No surprises in the stats. The 5 units accounting for half the operations, with Grand Canyon at the top and Yosemite 3rd is what I would have guessed, given that they are at the top of the visitor number list. Add to that the attitude that "this is just a park, so it must be safe". Males 20-29 accounting for the highest number of any age group is also to be expected - they are still in the macho "invulnerable, omnipotent, and omniscient" category with lots of peer pressure going on (can't appear to be chicken to my friends and the girls I am going to impress with my grand adventures). Males generally accounting for 2/3 of the incidents is also no surprise - macho declines slowly with age (recent studies show males are greater risk-takers than females), plus there are more males heading off for "grand adventures". The most common environments are those in which most people, and especially urban dwellers, are the most ignorant about the conditions - changeable weather conditions, wild animals ("look at the cute bears"), trails (not paved like sidewalks and no guard rails), "no need for pfd's, it's just a lake" and "let's play in the waves" enticing inexperienced poor swimmers farther out than their skill warrants.

Will education help? How do you get the point across to the casual visitor who gets into the outdoors maybe 3 or 4 days a year?

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October 28, 2009 at 8:06 p.m. (EDT)

Interesting article Alicia, I was not aware of the actual numbers.

One thing in particular sticks out, and as Bill also mentioned, the high percentage of young males who get themselves into trouble for various reasons. With age, I have learned to temper my adventurous impulse to "Just go do it", with more calm and reasoning. Now I plan things, consider the risks, and listen to advise from peers and those with more knowledge than me.

I have always been fairly open to advise I think, but did not always seek it out.

The picture below is a section of the Hiawassee River just below the Appalachia powerhouse in Polk Co. TN. where water is released to power hydroelectric turbines. The area is a popular place for trout fishermen / women. It is a great place to wade fish.

This picture shows the water level at minimum flow, no turbines running. In most places the water is no more than waist high except in some of the deeper holes, at the minimum flow level.

However, when the dam releases water, the water level can rise rapidly, trapping anyone out in the middle who was not paying attention. This can be a deadly situation for wade fishermen! All the rocks you see in the picture can be up to three feet under water at full flow!!

The Cherokee NF has signs posted warning of the dangers, and telling fishermen to wear PFD's. If you pay attention to the water level you can easily wade out as the water rises, not everyone pays attention for some reason, mostly younger males in my experience.

I always try to encourage these guys to be more careful, it only takes once, to get killed I tell them.

I've been asked to mind my own business before, told I worry too much. One young guy who I offered my extra PFD to, actually said to me: "&%#$ that, I've got waders on! Why wear a vest?"

Each year some of them drown, in one river or another. Sometimes it's the older ones who have grown complacent, some also love to mix fast water with alcohol. In any event, S&R usually ends up being just a recovery.

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October 28, 2009 at 8:32 p.m. (EDT)

I'm tempted to subscribe to the journal, just so I can get the full stats and write-ups about this article, and others it publishes.

Trouthunter's comments above remind me of Deep Survival: Who Lives, Who Dies, and Why by Laurence Gonzales. I recall the author explaining that people go and do things, regardless of the risk, because we've done it before and had fun and been fine. So we get to this point where we assume we'll be fine the next time and disregard the risk involved.

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October 29, 2009 at 12:23 a.m. (EDT)

Well written Alicia.

Why don't you just email Travis (the author). He will give you a copy of the article. I got him at:

What the Associated Press and others are reporting about the study is the least important part of the paper. ie. the stats are interesting since this is the first time we've ever seen them BUT the study goes into good detail on the legal issues surrounding search and rescue in national parks and why the people who rack up these $30,000 operations will never be charged. Very, very interesting.

Incidentally, the study notes on one its first tables that the $$$ numbers for each year are the raw numbers only. ie. they are not adjusted for inflation. If they were we would be seeing much higher figures.

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October 29, 2009 at 7:51 a.m. (EDT)

Great suggestion, vman (and welcome to Trailspace, by the way)!

Travis has sent me a copy of the published article, so I'll be looking into it further very soon.

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November 11, 2009 at 3:35 p.m. (EST)

When it comes to the outdoors the most important thing I ever learned while I was in college is 2 things: "Know what you know and know what you don't know" I am pretty sure that is a quote from Paul Petzoldt, and be a pesimist and plan for every possiple situation. My professor who studied under Petzoldt pretty much beat that into our heads so I take every backcountry situation very serious.

Before I took that particular class i was one of those know it all, nothing can happen to me kind of people but not no more.

Bill S
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November 11, 2009 at 6:40 p.m. (EST)

That quote, slightly paraphrased, was used by a certain presidential appointee, who was roundly ridiculed and criticized for it. It has actually been around long before Petzoldt, though. Thoreau ascribed it to Confucius as "To know that we know what we know, and that we do not know what we do not know, that is true knowledge."

To parse it:

1. Things we know -

1a. Things we really do know

1b. Things we believe we know, but are false (urban legends, "old wives tales", and apocryphal tales, along with all sorts of crackpot pseudoscience). You see a lot of this on the internet, posts arguing strongly for some "fact" that is actually completely wrong, as well as an astounding number of best-seller books

2. Things we do not know

2a. Things we are aware of lacking the knowledge, but which we may or may not know how to get it. Hopefully, we are aware enough to ask people who might know or might know potential sources, "what do I need to know/learn/practice before undertaking this project/task/trip?"

2b. Things we are not aware of not knowing, perhaps not even of the need to know. I see this all too frequently in people setting off on a hot day for a destination 5 miles away, carrying no water, or people continuing to hike up a peak during a lightning storm.

2c. Things we actually do know, but are unaware that we have the information. You see this often in a disaster situation when people panic and go blank, not realizing that the way out is that door marked "Exit".

The political appointee said something like:

"As we know, there are known knowns; there are things we know we know; we also know there are known unknowns. That is to say we know there are some things we do not know. But there are also unknown unknowns, the ones we don't know we don't know."

Put another way, be aware of the limitations of your knowledge, including realizing that there are many things you do not know and that there are are things you believe you know that are wrong.

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November 12, 2009 at 10:33 a.m. (EST)

Thanks Bill for clarifying. I guess you know more than I know hahaha..

Bill S
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November 12, 2009 at 1:53 p.m. (EST)

One thing I learned in my career as a research scientist - the more I learn, the more I realize how little I know. And every trip in the outdoors, whether backpacking, climbing, backcountry skiing, or whatever, I get reminded of how much I have forgotten and how much more there is to learn.

Nothing like sitting out a serious storm at 17,000 ft on some peak to humble oneself.

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November 13, 2009 at 2:29 p.m. (EST)

Young males (usually younger than 25) have a distinct survival disadvantage of not having a fully matured brain. The pre-frontal lobe, which was the last evolutionary addition for 'civilizing' humans, takes almost a decade longer to complete its growth in men than in women.

This area is the part that helps us make decisions and is generally the DON'T DO THAT part of the brain - higher level emotions and common sense is also included. Risk is not a concept fully understood or appreciated by a lot of young males - they just can't. On the other hand, it allows the military to make young, malleable men do a lot of things willingly that a similarly aged female population would not without a lot of consideration of the pros and cons of it. Not sure you could depend on them taking a fortified hill with just a simple command.

This delay in 'getting there' is generally responsible for all of the statistics about younger males such as those that include physical impacts - vehicle accidents/incidents (and thus higher cost of insurance for many things attached to the young male population). If a snake bite is a hand, arm or face contact it is almost assuredly a young dude messing around or showing off. That kind of bite is very rare on a female.

Perhaps it is why so many early marriages end up with the absolutely factual statement of, "He/she is just not the same person I thought I married a few years ago." Yep, a lot of perceptions have changed by the time they are both mid to upper 20's.

There really is a significant difference between genders that age tends to equalize. But what is learned while young is very much a part of what you become.

So maybe that's why there are still a lot of older jerks.

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