Pandemic Wilderness Explorers Are Straining Search and Rescue

The evidence of inexperience is there, in ways big and small: Discarded trash that out-of-town hikers do not pack out; emergency beacons pressed accidentally; piles of human excrement along trails, improperly buried.

Kari Hull, a resident of the area and an avid hiker, said she had to constantly watch her young children on the trails to ensure they do not stumble on used toilet paper or other waste.

“It’s a double-edged sword,” she said, acknowledging that the crowds have made it safer to hike alone. But, she added, “I don’t want to feel like I’m in a Target toy aisle in December.”

For years, outdoors enthusiasts have warned that America’s search-and-rescue system was in trouble. Where places like Canada or Switzerland have professional, full-time teams that manage everything from lost tourists to fatal mountaineering accidents, most operations in the United States are handled by a loose network of volunteer organizations like Tip Top, which are overseen by local sheriffs.

For much of the country’s history, this patchwork system met demand. But that trend has shifted in the last decade — rapidly, over the last year — as less experienced recreationalists push further into treacherous places. And, unlike ambulance rides or hospital visits, search-and-rescue operations are mostly free to those who need them.

“We just get worn out,” said Cody Lockhart, a chief adviser for Teton County Search and Rescue, a volunteer group that polices the area around Jackson. This January and February were the group’s busiest months since it was founded in the 1990s, he said.

Some search-and-rescue groups are subsidized by federal and state funds, while others have a robust network of philanthropic donors. In Wyoming, the groups are funded by their respective counties, and are financially buoyed in part by donations attached to hunting, fishing and recreational vehicle licenses. It helps, but Ms. Tanner, from Tip Top, points out that there is no such licensure requirement for hikers and backpackers; instead, she credits the local sheriff’s office and community support with keeping the group well-equipped.

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