As outdoor enthusiasts go on adventures, the need for search and rescue grows

Rocky Flats National Wildlife Refuge
Posted at 5:14 PM, Jun 16, 2022

BOULDER COUNTY, Colo. — This is the side of outdoor recreation many folks may not think about — the gear, the skill, the strength needed to rescue people adventuring in the back country of national and state parks.

Teams like Drew Hildner's love to hike on trails across the country. "We always joke about giving each other raises or bonuses," he laughed. He is with Rocky Mountain Rescue, located in Boulder, Colorado.

Almost all of the teams across the country, like Rocky Mountain Rescue, are staffed by volunteers.

"You can be at work, you can be out buying groceries, then suddenly the pager goes off and 30 minutes later, you can be in pretty stressful, serious situations," he said.

The number of those stressful, serious situations has been increasing steadily over recent years.

"Something that we've been very mindful of, and that we've had to manage, is higher rates of burnout," he said.

Hildner said his team is going out on about two rescues every three days. Each rescue, even if it's just a sprained ankle, takes at least 15 people to respond.

The National Park Service reported nearly 300 million visits last year, a 25% jump from 2020. The pandemic also spurred a migration. Those living in urban areas were searching for a more serene life in the mountains and moved away from the city. Drew says all this is putting stress on crews, both physically and financially.

"Even though we're all volunteers, even though we don't charge for rescue, there are still costs associated with that," said Anna DeBattiste with the Colorado Search and Rescue Association.

She says the increase in rescues adds up, and many volunteers are spending their own money on expensive outdoor gear. There's also a shortage of volunteers as many older rescuers retired during the pandemic.

"We need to recruit younger," she said, "and it's very hard for those younger folks who have the endurance and the strong backs that we need to afford the cost of living here."

Although the nonprofit model has been put to the test, Drew and Anna say it still doesn't quite make sense financially for search and rescue to be funded 100% with tax dollars, but they say something needs to give.

In their state of Colorado, lawmakers passed a bill allocating more money and resources to teams, something they hope will also help with recruiting. The law makes it easier to fundraise and allocates $1 million to teams across the state.

Each of the states seeing an increase in outdoor recreation, like Washington, Oregon, New Hampshire and the Dakotas, are figuring out their own way of dealing with this issue. Anna and Drew hope Colorado's legislation becomes a model for other states.

"If we can offset some of the costs and hours to the volunteers then that I think is probably where we're headed and that seems like the best middle path and best value," he said.