Wilderness Medicine

4 Myths About Wilderness Rescues: Expectations vs. Reality

Many people head into the mountains thinking that someone will immediately rescue them if they get hurt. This couldn't be further from the truth. Here's what to expect during a wilderness rescue.

Wilderness rescues can be a scary and stressful situation, but the reality is that hikers, climbers, and other outdoor enthusiasts often go into the wilderness with a feeling of false security.

They have the idea in their head that if something goes wrong they’ll simply call for help from search and rescue teams who will come to their rescue. The truth is very different from what people expect.

In this article, we’ll discuss 5 common myths about wilderness rescues. We’ll do a deep dive into what people often envision when it comes to rescues in the great outdoors and we’ll give you insight into what you can expect should you ever find yourself in a rescue.

Related: 10 Mistakes That Can Kill You in the Outdoors

1. Myth: You’ll Be Able to Call for Help

Reality: If you’re in a remote area with no cell phone coverage, then your chances of calling for help are slim.

Even if there is some sort of reception available, it might be spotty and your calls may get dropped multiple times before you can successfully ask for help.

This is a risk many hikers and climbers take—sometimes unknowingly—when they’re in the wilderness. They believe that if something goes wrong, then there will be help available for them to call on should they need it. The reality of rescue situations in remote areas without phone reception is very different from what people may expect.

As a result, satellite-based messaging services, like the Garmin InReach, or even a classic satellite phone, are often good alternatives to cell phones in the wilderness. However, even these aren’t foolproof as these devices can break, or they can simply fail to get reception in areas with dense forest cover.

2. Myth: Wilderness Rescues are Quick and Efficient

Reality: Search and rescue teams generally won’t be able to find you for at least a few hours, if not a day or two.

There’s a lot of misinformation about how quickly search and rescue teams can come to your rescue in the wilderness. Oftentimes, hikers assume that they’ll only spend a few hours before they’re found—but this isn’t always the case.

There are all sorts of challenges, such as bad weather or long traverses that can hold up the search for days at a time. It’s important to be prepared in every way imaginable to ensure that you have plenty of supplies (including the hiking 10 essentials) on hand before you set off into the wilderness. If it becomes clear that you’ll need rescue, then it’s best to stay put.

It may take a day or two before search and rescue teams can find you—but they will come for you if they know where you’re at.

Don’t try to be a hero: just wait for the professionals to arrive on scene so they can make the rescue.

3. Myth: A Helicopter Will Come Save Me

Reality: Helicopter rescues are a lot less common than you might think.

People often assume that, should they ever need rescue in the wilderness, then there will be a quick and easy method of getting them to safety—a helicopter.

In reality, helicopters aren’t always available when needed. Foul weather can also prevent a helicopter from flying toward your location. Or, a helicopter might be dispatched to find you, but it might not have the right equipment for a more complex and technical rescue.

Plus, the average time it takes for helicopters to arrive on the scene of a rescue is more than two hours. So, it’s important for hikers and other outdoor enthusiasts to always have a backup plan. Hikers should always have essential gear on hand, such as food, water, warm clothing, and an emergency shelter, so they can stay comfortable while they wait for rescuers to arrive.

4. Myth: Wilderness Rescues are a Free Service

Reality: There’s a chance that hikers will need to foot the bill for their own rescue.

A lot of people assume that rescues in remote areas are free, but this isn’t always the case. At times, it can be difficult and costly for search and rescue teams to get themselves into these regions—especially if they’re far out from civilization.

Search and rescue teams may have to take a helicopter, which is expensive in its own right. In some parts of the world, wilderness rescues are always a government-funded service. However, if private rescuers (such as private helicopter companies) get involved, your bill could be sky-high.

Furthermore, some states and countries will only cover the cost of a rescue if hikers purchase some sort of rescue insurance. For example, in New Hampshire, hikers can purchase a “Hike Safe card,” which entitles them to liability-free rescues in New Hampshire for one year. The costs of these cards go to fund the search and rescue teams in the states.

It’s also important to note that some places will only charge you if your own personal negligence leads to your need for a rescue. Again, many places do not charge for wilderness rescues, though there is always a possibility of a massive bill, particularly from helicopter companies.

Wilderness Rescues: Not as Simple as You Might Think

Wilderness rescues are often more complicated than we might expect. Hikers should always be prepared in every way imaginable to ensure an easy rescue and a speedy recovery if needed because there’s no telling how long it will take for search and rescue teams to find you.

It is important that hikers know what they’re getting into before going off on their own—or else risk running up thousands of dollars in bills due to mishaps or negligence. Preparedness is key whenever you head outside, so be sure to have the gear, skills, and experience necessary for your chosen adventure. Happy trails!

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