Imagine you are backpacking in the Southern Utah wilderness in the middle of the summer. It’s hot, very hot and very dry. You knew that you had to pack in your own water but thought that the recommended 1 gallon per person per day was an overestimate. You still have one more day of your backpack left and you just ran out of water. You have no idea where the closet potable water source is located and your navigation skills are poor so you are afraid to hike off trail in search of water. You start to panic about what it would feel like to die of dehydration in the hot, desert sun. But lucky for you, you brought a personal locator beacon which you activate – surely the search and rescue crew can bring you water and you can finish your hike.
Although this scenario seems absurd between 1992 and 2007, 66% of search and rescue operations that were organized by the National Park Service “rescued” people who were not ill or injured. As technological devices such as cell phones, satellite phones, and personal locator beacons become more widely used in wilderness areas visitors may be developing unrealistic perceptions of rescue. There may be a decrease in the experience and skill of individuals entering wilderness areas and unskilled people may be accessing areas that require high-level skills to recreate safely.
In order to explore this concept, Kristen Pope and Steven R. Martin examined wilderness visitor perceptions and beliefs about risk and the influence on technology on risk perceptions. The study took place on the Lost Coast Trail (Kings Range Wilderness) in Northern California; a trail with dangerous tides, rough waves, wind, cliffs, and sketchy river crossings). Pope and Martin surveyed 235 overnight visitors to the Lost Coast Trail and asked them about their skills, experience, beliefs related to risk and rescue, and their technology.
On average, the survey respondents had 10 years of experience in wilderness backpacking. Almost 60% of people had a cell phone on them, 3% had satellite phones, 2% has personal locator beacons, 24% had GPS units, and 18% had more than one piece of technology. Over half (55%) of respondents were labeled at “pro-technology”; meaning that they felt that technology increased safety and were more likely to use technology to request a rescue. The pro-technology group also were more likely than the “anti-technology” group to self-identify as risk takers. The “anti-technology” visitors were less likely to admit that they did something in the wilderness that they thought was unsafe at the time. As with many other risk-related studies, men were more likely to admit to be risk takers and to do risky things in the wilderness. One particularly interesting finding was that individuals who had experienced a personal wilderness accident were more likely to report that technology provides a false sense of security in wilderness settings.
The rise of technology in the wilderness and visitor perceptions about the role of technology and risk can be problematic for managers and search and rescue teams. Results from the study show that visitors who believe that technology can save them may be entering areas when they do not have the skills to safely recreate in the setting. These individuals will then take more risks and will rely on technology, instead of self-reliance, to bail them out when they get into trouble. Additionally, cellphone and satellite phone coverage cannot be found everywhere; unrealistic expectations about technology and the availability of rescue can lead to dangerous situations. Even when using personal locator beacons, rescue can still take hours to days. Technology cannot be a substitute for skills and experience in wilderness areas where help is often far away. The authors were quick to point out that search and rescue operations are pricey and dangers for the rescuers themselves; rescues should be a matter of emergency, not a matter of convenience. As the presence of technology increases in wilderness areas, managers will need to be aware of how risk perceptions may change over time and the resulting consequences for search and rescue in their wilderness areas.
Kristen Pope, & Steven R. Martin (2011). Visitor Perceptions of Technology, Risk, and Rescue in Wilderness International Journal of Wilderness, 17 (2)