Helping hikers before they get hurt


"Search and rescue" conjures up adrenaline-pumping images: rescuers rappelling down cliffs, stretchers dangling from helicopters. But it rarely evokes rangers simply offering advice, e.g., "That 12-ounce water bottle may not get you through an 18-mile hike in 110-degree heat. But there's another great trail.  …"

About 20 national parks however, have added such preventative search and rescue programs. PSAR relies on tactful, face-to-face interaction as well as websites, posters, podcasts and more to educate visitors and prevent injuries -- ideally saving lives and reducing expensive rescues. Yosemite National Park, for example, began targeting swiftwater drownings and hiking falls in 2008.

Grand Canyon National Park's PSAR, formed in 1997, is the oldest, most comprehensive such program, and now has eight rangers and 60 volunteers patrolling the most popular trails from May through September. Evaluating its impact is difficult, since the park continues to refine how it gathers statistics. Still, heat-related deaths have dropped, and as "assists" -- where rangers actively help faltering hikers -- have increased over the last five years, heat-related injuries seem to have decreased, even as visitation stays relatively steady. PSAR's annual budget? $210,000. Compare that to helicopter medivacs, searches and rescues, which last year cost the park $400,000.

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