Lost Hikers and Search and Rescue

Santa Ynez Mountains Los Padres National Forest creek poolA winter scene in the Santa Ynez Mountains, Los Padres National Forest.

“No, I can’t say I was ever lost, but I was bewildered once for three days.”

“I wouldn’t give a tinker’s damn for a man who isn’t sometimes afraid. Fear’s the spice that makes it interesting to go ahead.”

Daniel Boone (1734-1820)

cowboy up
[kou-boi uhp]


1. ( US, informal) to adopt a tough approach or course of action
2. to tuff up; to get back on your horse; to never back down or give up; to face the hand you’re dealt without complaint

I’m going to opine here and perhaps ruffle a few feathers if not anger some people, but I’m not one to remain silent out of concern about such trivial and fickle matters as human emotions. I’m sick of hearing about so-called “lost” hikers calling in Search and Rescue (SAR) to save them from having to face the inconvenience and discomfort of the consequences of their own poor decisions.

In the neighborhood where I grew up, and within the school from which I come, a man was measured by his willingness to accept without complaint the consequences of his actions. That whatever situation a fella got himself into he was first and foremost responsible for getting himself out of before calling on others to risk their health and lives to help him. He looked not to others to relieve him of unwanted, though entirely bearable circumstances. And I do not mean a fleeting or cursory attempt, but a damn good, all in, everything tried sustained effort.

I do not intend to say that a person should never call on SAR or rely on their selfless and noble service, but that I believe such services should be reserved for rescuing people who have sustained serious injuries or are facing imminent great bodily harm or death. I routinely read about so-called “lost” hikers who when the sun goes down have rescue personnel deployed, at great expense, to save them from a few hours of uncomfortable cold and darkness, circumstances brought on by their own thoughtless actions or misguided behavior, situations entirely survivable without injury let alone death. SAR does not exist, in my opinion, to save people from fear or a few shivers and goosebumps or a sleepless night.

I have noted on this blog before, and I am sincere in saying it, that “I’d rather spend a cold miserable night lost in the woods and have another try at finding my way out next morning, rather than call for help. I’d die sooner from embarrassment than exposure.”

When discussing this matter with my wife recently, after reading a post one night from a lady requesting help on the Santa Barbara Swap Facebook page to locate her boyfriend who had misplaced himself in the Santa Ynez Mountains above Santa Barbara, my wife said she wouldn’t hesitate much in calling SAR if I failed to show up after dark. (We do, however, have an understanding that I should be granted a solid chunk of time well after the sun goes down before she even considers calling in the troops.)

I replied in jest as if acting like a rescuer, “We located the lost hiker, but it was the strangest thing. Upon seeing us he fled further into the bush and we were unable to catch up to him. After several hours of fruitless attempts at relocating him we called off the effort.”

I would dread seeing SAR arriving to “rescue” me if I was not incapacitated or not facing serious harm. We later read that rescuers were purportedly dispatched to find the lady’s confused boyfriend and his friend and found them in the vicinity of Seven Falls. Numerous news reports over the years recount similar events. Were they rescued from serious harm or from mere fear and discomfort?

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17 Responses to Lost Hikers and Search and Rescue

  1. bubbasuess says:

    I wholeheartedly agree. Folks need to own their actions and be more independent.

  2. John McKnight says:

    Well put.
    Disregard previous typo please.

  3. Anonymous says:

    Well I suppose it keeps SAR in practice.

  4. richard woolsey says:

    . . . . I’m onboard

  5. Anonymous says:

    Well, I hate to give a knee-jerk “aye!” response, but aye! Respect your surroundings, respect the power (and danger) of nature, and take some responsibility yourself in all things. And as one introvert to possibly another, I too agree wholeheartedly with you, Jack, about the unsavory prospect of having a group of others having to “rescue” me from my time with myself and the natural world.

    Besides, with human overpopulation, the species needs some downsizing anyhow. And if any dear reader has a problem with black humor, I welcome you to get seriously lost in the woods.

  6. Stephen says:

    Agree wholeheartedly. There is something called “self-rescue,” which basically says that if you can walk out on your own, then you don’t need SAR.

  7. Ha, ha – we say ‘man up’ – I suppose that’s the same as ‘cowboy up’ over your way 😉

    I totally agree. I’d be very embarrassed if I had to call out the mountain rescue here and would try everything else before I ever did such a thing. But we also have a lot of folk over here who go off rambling without a map and compass or any real idea as they have their mobile phone with them and think that’s all they need. After all, if they get a bit confused, they can just call out right? wrong! Well, they can, and do – but shouldn’t.

    I think probably the only way it will ever change is if we have to pay for them to come out. And still the rich around here would take advantage and just pay their way out of trouble 😦

    • Jack Elliott says:

      Hey Carol. “Man up” is a common saying over here, too. The cowboy one being an iteration of that.

      There are a lot of people over here who venture into the forest knowing very little to nothing about hiking in the mountains and underestimate the risks. News reports chronicle numerous search and rescue efforts to save “lost” hikers in the mountains right above Santa Barbara, like only a couple of miles from paved roads and residential neighborhoods and within view of downtown.

      Some people are way too quick to call for help. I definitely think people who are rescued should be held financially accountable in certain circumstances. That officials should have discretion to as whether or not a person should be billed. That having to pay the bill should at least be a possibility. I don’t think many of these people would be so quick to call for help if they knew they’d be handed a $20,000 or $50,000 or $100,000 bill. They may be just a little more prepared and cautious when out hiking.

      A handful of states here do sometimes bill lost hikers for their own rescue. But the counter argument is that some people who need help may not call for help soon enough, because they don’t want to have to pay tens of thousands of dollars.

      As far as I am concerned, that’s their choice and, while I see the reasoning behind the argument, it is not reason enough. Let them weigh the set of circumstances they put themselves in and judge weather or not their safety or life is worth money or not. Let them take some responsibility for their own actions!

      If they don’t want to pay or take on the burden of debt while they work their life away to pay it off, that’s on them, not society for its laws or policy.

      If a person doesn’t like the rules of the game then they shouldn’t get in the arena.

      I think such “never bill” policy reflects the very sort of personal irresponsibility that I think currently plagues our society over here, and which leads to some foolish people getting themselves lost in the first place.

  8. edsafaris says:

    agree, big time!



  9. Roy Harthorn says:

    Hi Jack, I am with you on your perspective. Your post reminds me of some observations and analysis of Laurence Gonzales in his book “Deep Survival.” I recommend it to any that venture into the wilderness whether a day hike or a more intrepid adventure. Daniel Boone would have probably given it good marks as well.

    Best, Roy Harthorn

    • Jack Elliott says:

      Hey Roy. I liked that book. It inspired me to write a post awhile back about nearly stepping on a rattlesnake.

    • roy says:

      Hi again Jack, one of the most useful things I learned from the Gonzales book is on a new walk/hike or unfamiliar route is to frequently turn around and study the trail and topography from where you have just come, taking note of what your return trail should look like and where it sits, the lighting, rocks, trees water courses, ridges, buildings, ground, etc. I am often surprised that the view “in the rear view mirror” is so remarkably different from the one forward.. No small wonder we all might get lost (or “confused”) as most all of us are not making memories in three dimensions. The only time I have really felt “lost” was a dark rainy night in Venice Italy over by a favorite restaurant near the Arsenale. Too dark to see the street signs, no one out, canals and bridges going every which way and my GPS w/o a signal. We circled and circled and finally the little sign at a lit window appeared and we had arrived, with glasses of prosecco waiting for a pair of what we felt like; drowned rats. That is about the only SAR I am cool with. Bottom line, even w/o a map or gps, you have to make your own cerebral map or otherwise, I guess you are lost.

  10. beki says:

    I don’t know, unprepared idiots might really end up getting hurt, not just enduring discomfort.

    My annoyance is sourced earlier in the chain of events, when people don’t take the wilderness seriously and go out in flip flops without any water, etc. I’m an intermediate hiker and I don’t start unfamiliar hikes close to sunset. I’m not experienced navigating cross country so I pretty much stay on trail. My husband and I hike together and we try to carry the ten essentials.

  11. My wife says I’m the guy who’ll come home regardless of the circumstances. She says I’d rather crawl out than ask for help, and indeed I have butt-dragged myself three miles through the Sedona desert with a shattered ankle rather than send for help. I agree, it would be mighty embarrassing to need a rescue. -DS

  12. brian munn says:

    Is this what you meant?

    Lost Hiker Prompts Major Search Effort Above Ventura KVTA News Sunday March 15, 2015 (Photo courtesy Ventura City Fire) Ventura city firefighters and the sheriff’s helicopter were involved in locating and rescuing a lost hiker in the hills above Ventura late Sunday morning. They say that around 11:17 AM the fire communications center received a 911 cell phone call from an Oxnard man in his late 40’s who said he was on a hike in the Ventura hillsides, became disoriented, and was trapped in a ravine. He gave his last location as adjacent to two trees. The fire communications center was having trouble pinpointing the man’s location through his cell phone and then they lost contact with him for awhile. They were able to reestablish contact as two search teams of firefighters began to hike in to look for him. Finally, the sheriff’s helicopter spotted him in the hills between Hall Canyon and Sanjon Barranca, about two miles west of his last known location. The helicopter rescued him and airlifted the man to the command post where he was checked out by paramedics and found to be OK. They told him not to hike in that area again because it’s private property.

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