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You Can't Always, or Fairly, Blame Technology For Visitor Woes in National Parks


Carrying Spot with you on a backcountry trek is a good start, but you better also have a good medical kit to be better prepared for your jaunt.

The New York Times got a lot of mileage with its story this week about technology leading visitors into harm's way in national parks. But that's really not the case, is it? Wouldn't it be more correct to say people lead themselves into harm's way more often than not?

Blaming accidents on the latest smart phone or video camera is as ridiculous as blaming them on the granite spire known as El Capitan in Yosemite National Park, the Kaweah River in Sequoia National Park, or the small rock wall that winds along the South Rim of Grand Canyon National Park for injuries and fatalities.

Folks venture into national parks, like it or not, at their own peril. We certainly don't pass through the entrance gates expecting to risk, or even lose, our lives. But we have to remember that places such as Yellowstone and North Cascades and Death Valley are not city parks but, in many areas, are wonderfully raw and wild ... and dangerous... places.

Regular Traveler readers might recall that in April 2009 we took a look at search-and-rescue statistics in the parks compiled by Dr. Travis W. Heggie and Michael E. Amundson at the University of North Dakota. In their paper, Dead Men Walking: Search and Rescue in U.S. National Parks, the two pointed that if you subconsciously want to become a search-and-rescue statistic in the National Park System, your best chance would be in either Grand Canyon National Park, Gateway National Recreation Area, or Yosemite.

Yosemite accounted for one-quarter of all SAR dollars spent in 2005 by the Park Service, $1.2 million out of the $4.99 million spent that year. Of course, Yosemite has high SAR costs in general due to its reputation as a climbing mecca, it has swift, dangerous waters during spring runoff, and it has an incredibly rugged backcountry. In 2005, as well, it had one search for a missing hiker, 51-year-old Mike Ficery, that ran a $452,000 tab with no resolution.

And then, of course, this is what Butch Farabee, a long-time ranger with countless search-and-rescue missions under his belt, had to say in 2008 when we talked about the comfort zone some park visitors find in the latest gizmos.

"Most SAR people will tell you that this kind of technology is great from their perspective and when it is used appropriately and there is a connection, i.e. the cell phone gets the distress call into 911 or that the cell phone can be traced through the various cell phone towers and related sites, etc. That is the good news," said Mr. Farabee. "The bad news is that all too many people are now believing that all they need to take into 'the field' is their cell phone. Forget the rain gear or matches or whistle or tarp or mirror or checking the local weather forecast or letting someone know when to expect them back and where they were going, etc.

"All of this technology is doing a couple of things: Lots of people are leaving their car without anything else in their 'SAR prevention pack' AND it is also luring people into 'pushing the envelope,'" he adds. "Many people, laboring under the assumption that they are more invincible and more safeguarded with this cell phone technology, are now going to places and doing peaks and mountain biking and exploring where they would never consider doing this pre-cell phone. I do think there is a greater sense of no personal responsibility."

In Washington at the headquarters of the National Park Service, Sara Newman, the agency's public risk management program director, can see how some might want to make the connection between technology and accidents. But the problem often is an individual's over-reliance on the technology, she noted this week.

"Of course, technology has been a part of our lives for a long time and even in the 1940s and 1950s it has been a source of enjoyment and distraction for visitors. We've had visitors fall off ledges, cliffs, trip down trails taking pictures. So this is not new," she said. "But what is new is the increased availability of communications technology -- and often visitors use this technology as a source of protection in lieu of proper planning (bringing sufficient water, food, clothing or other items, mapping the hike out ahead of time and sticking to a plan, etc).

"We have many of these kinds of incidents in which park visitors get stranded or lost -- they have no water, no food, no map, but brought their trusty cell phone," continued Ms. Newman. "In some cases we have visitors who bring a cell phone, but learn that they can't get a connection out in the backcountry and then, because they didn't prepare properly AND they don't have a way to get help, they are in real danger."

The problem, she agreed, is not technology actually causing the problem, but "the people misusing or inappropriately using the technology or deciding to use the technology at a bad time (while walking, driving, etc)."

Perhaps a better story than one built around the short-sighted concept of technology being at fault would be how technology and search-and-rescue teams save lives of park visitors. For instance, between 1992 and 2007 the National Park Service launched 65,439 SAR missions to look for 78,488 individuals. From those missions there were 2,659 fatalities and 24,288 ill or injured park visitors. Another 13,212 lives most likely would have been lost had it not been for the men and women who go in search of people who've gone missing, according to figures pulled together by Messieurs Hegge and Amundson.

And those who go in search of the injured or missing in the parks are incredibly highly trained, as Jim Burnett, one of Traveler's contributing writers, pointed out in a July 2009 story.

And, as Mr. Burnett pointed out in this story from last September, (W)hether devices like SPOT prove to be a boon or a bane for rescue personnel remains to be seen. The verdict is largely in the hands of the users.

For decades the Boy Scouts have clung to an appropriate motto: "Be prepared!"

It's one more park visitors need to latch onto.

"Our park visitors need to be prepared for the visit and bringing a cell phone is not preparation," Ms. Newman said. "Just like cars alone are not the problem with motor vehicle crashes, but when we speed, drink while driving, don't follow road instructions, and talk on the cell phone or text while driving, it is our behavior that makes the technology a higher risk to us."

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I have been hiking for several years. Mostly in our national parks. Last year, myself and a friend, hiked over 80 miles on the trails in Yosemite National Park, which included all the trails from the valley floor, as well as several in the Tuolumne Meadows area. Not once did I bring my cell phone on any hike! What we did bring was plenty of water, food and a layering of clothes. In most places like Yellowstone, Yosemite, Glacier and Crater Lake National Parks, cell service is a surprise if you can get connected.

When I make a list of what to bring, a cell phone has never been on that list. GPS, yes! I have always depended on my knowledge of hiking, the area that I would be hiking in and just plain old common sense! I prepare at least a year in advance for any hiking trips I make. I become familiar with the terrain and read as much as possible about the area.

My personal opinion is that if most folks would do this type of preparation before taking their vacation, then hiking trails that they have never hiked before, we would have less SAR's.

Be prepared is the key to any adventure! leading visitors into harm's way in national parks. But that's really not the case, is it?

LMAO! You really have to ask?

"A venturesome minority will always be eager to set off on their own, and no obstacles should be placed in their path; let them take risks, for godsake, let them get lost, sunburnt, stranded, drowned, eaten by bears, buried alive under avalanches - that is the right and privilege of any free American."
~Edward Abbey~

The comment about cameras being dangerous is one few of us think about. I've been photographing National Parks for many years and have had some success with obtaining great and unique photos. But those photos have come at times at a risk, possibly very close to an unacceptable risk a few times. I've had a number of close calls in trying to get that "special shot". I've come close to taking that fatal unthinking step that leads to falling off a ledge and, I'm a bit embarrassed to say, that I have on a couple of occasions gotten myself into a position/location I later regretted. Fortunately technology can also help, for example, a zoom lens will keep you a safer distance from large wildlife. Fortunately, and thankfully, the Park Service has constructed many trails and overlooks that are specifically designed to allow us to get that great photo relatively safely. A sincere thanks from me to the Park Service for that!

Michael Ficery, the hiker mentioned above who disappeared in Yosemite in 2005, was my brother.  While Michael was never reliant upon technology (he never owned a cell phone or computer), I firmly believe he was not adequately prepared for his hike in terms of the equipment he did carry. I'm sure he did not carry a simple signal mirror or whistle, for example. He also apparently deviated from his planned route, which made the search much more difficult.  I strongly recommend to all hikers to consult any variety of "pack lists" found on the internet, focusing on the "ten essentials."  And please make sure to leave a planned itinerary with at least one responsible adult (and stick to it).  More excellent tips can be found on websites like REI, Scouts, Backpacker Magazine, and the "Science Drop" page of my own site at, among others. Please, if only for the sake of those who are waiting for you at home, do not attempt even a day hike without being adequately prepared. 

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