hiker walking in a mystic forest Photo Credit: francescoch (iStock).

Photo Credit: francescoch (iStock).

Those who follow along with stories of rescue in the wilderness likely see the same disturbing case play out time after time – the public shaming those that end up needing to call for help. Scroll through the online comments on nearly any story recounting the heroic acts of a search and rescue team and you'll likely find a number of 'armchair quarterbacks,' eager to provide brash criticism from behind their keyboard. Statements are often quick to put blame on those rescued, pointing out what a subject did wrong as if intentional mistakes we made, or at the least, that inexcusable negligence took place.

And it's true, many times when a search and rescue mission is launched, there are things that the rescue subject could have done differently – better preparation, a closer look at the forecast, a proper assessment of their own abilities, the list goes on. But in response, there's honest analysis that can be used to help make the outdoor recreation community a safer place and then there's blatant criticism, with a very real reason to avoid the latter.

In short, widespread public criticism of those who call for help may make people less likely to call for help when help is needed out of fear of being chastised by their peers. Avoiding the call for help, or even just a hesitation, can quickly make a bad situation even worse.

Search and rescuer Michael Coyle described this dilemma with a reference to a case in which a lost snowshoer opted to call her boyfriend instead of emergency services when she found herself in dire straits. Her boyfriend ended up relaying her message to rescue teams, but by the time she was found, it was too late and she had succumbed to the elements. Perhaps a direct call could have resulted in more information being relayed to search and rescue crews, perhaps a direct call could have expedited the mission and saved the woman's life.

While the reason that the lost snowshoer opted to call her boyfriend instead of emergency services is unknown, Coyle speculated that 'fear of consequences' could have been a contributing factor. Coyle elaborated to say that public criticism can be a consequence that makes people hesitant to make a potentially life-saving call when a trip into nature goes awry. Because of this, it's crucial that the outdoor recreation community is aware of the resonating impacts comments and criticism can have.

There's no doubt that there's a place for coverage of accidents that take place in the outdoor recreation space. This coverage can provide learning opportunities for others, hopefully preventing the same situation from happening again and again, putting both fewer recreators and rescuers at risk. But it is crucial to be mindful of how these situations are approached in terms of the public response.

No one sets out on an adventure expecting it to go wrong, but nearly every long-term outdoor recreation enthusiast has been in a situation where disaster could have been a few wrong moves away. Maybe a water bottle leaks, soaking carefully packed warm layers. Maybe a headlamp or vehicle battery dies. Maybe a backpack breaks or a deceiving foothold gives out. Many times, an accident or sticky situation is a combination of a number of factors, some that can be much more difficult to control and others that can seem to boil down to dumb luck.

Instead of being quick to criticize, seek to offer real advice and support. Use kind words to make the outdoor recreation space more comfortable for beginners (and all members), creating a welcoming community of education, not a place where shaming is a commonly feared consequence. The more approachable meaningful conversation is, the more beneficial it can be, ultimately making the outdoor recreation space safer for everyone involved as a result.

As Coyle wrote as he addressed the aforementioned case of the snowshoer, "public shaming is not just toxic but harmful to good SAR outcomes. We have to avoid creating reluctance to calling for help when needed."


Here are a few examples of victim shaming that commenters have left related to our coverage of accidents in the past:

"I think a large percentage of people who are kayakers need lessons."

"Should charge the idiot the cost of responding to his SOS call."

"They knowingly put themselves and those kids in danger."

While many search and rescue cases are at least partially due to a mistake by the person that ultimately needs rescue, try to be constructive in response. Angry commenting and victim blaming doesn't tend to be beneficial to the overall conversation.

If you're interested in supporting Colorado's volunteer-powered search and rescue operation, one way to do so is through the purchase of a CORSAR card. It's cheap, at only $3 per year.

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Director of Content and Operations

Spencer McKee is OutThere Colorado's Director of Content and Operations. In his spare time, Spencer loves to hike, rock climb, and trail run. He's on a mission to summit all 58 of Colorado's fourteeners and has already climbed more than half.


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(7) comments

old dog

Somewhere it must be written that most of us have to indemnify the self-appointed "sportsmen" on bikes and skis who never consider the consequences of their arrogant, smug demonstrations on the highways and slopes.. They surrender their own responsibilities (for their actions) and assume someone will drop whatever they're doing and rush out and extract them from whatever crisis they have stirred up. For free. Lots of us have the common sense to look out a window and see what weather is extant. At least check a local forecast. SARS needs to have, and enforce, a Service Rendered Menu to present to each person or group snatched from self-induced peril. If a quick visual is needed, go park in Dillon and watch these heroes battle each other on a Sunday afternoon during ski season trying to get home to Metro Denver. That or try to get over Monarch during the bike show-off. You just sit, wait, and hope they will all go home, soon. And the rest of us pay to rescue them after they discover they are talent-free in pursuit. of their crutches and yellow t-shirts.

Gerald B

Simple case of telling it like it is, not just what people want to hear.


I have to disagree with this thought process in some cases.

Some people get into situations simply because they know that someone will be there to get them out of a bad situation they put themselves into. Yes, s**t happens to all of us at some point. It's the instances of people that had to be rescued or died because they were hilariously ill-prepared that I'm referring to.

With the plague of people doing ever more dangerous things to attract attention to themselves, this mindset could become a burden on SAR and take them away from people that were prepared but are just having a s****y day.

A similar mindset has become a real safety issue on Snoqualmie Pass in Washington State. Every year, instances of the pass being closed due to spinouts/crashes are increasing. Winter happens every year so, there's nothing new for WSDOT to manage.

What is new is the increasing number of drivers that attempt a pass crossing that are driving ill-prepared vehicles and haven't a clue of how to drive in winter conditions. Rescuers show up, get them heaed whichever direction they were originally going and send them on their way. WSP writes tickets but, it doesn't seem to be helping. Public service messages of all sorts don't seem to sink into every brain they're exposed to.

In context to this story, education about safe outdoor practices is absolutely necessary and effective for people with a sense of self-preservation and respect for the outdoor spaces they share with others. Those are the ones that when using SAR, should get some extra training and support.

The other group that simply has no clue and no apparent desire to get one should be publically shamed. Our ever-increasingly crowded outdoor spaces would be better off without their presence.

82nd Airborne

Well said Spencer, and thanks for reminding us that any one of us could easily find ourselves in similar situations. I was guilty of this early on, but after two years of constantly reading about these incidences, I've come to realize it can be far more dangerous to go roaming around Colorado than most any other state I've lived in, including the Sierra Nevada and Appalachians. I was also thinking many visitors come here and think they can do what they normally do at these altitudes and just peter out and/or consume more water then become dehydrated. I was raised a flatlander and recently had to start using oxygen to get a good nights sleep!


Couldn't agree more. When I was young I had a friend who told me to come look for him if he wasn't out of the backcountry by 9pm. At 10pm I went looking for him and rolled my car on an icy road because I had crappy tires. Lessons were learned that day. Always call the professionals. My buddy was fine... he just sucks at time management and it cost me a hard lesson.


Good article, good point. Always better to praise in public and shame in private. Lord knows, I've done many, many stupid things, but mercifully, haven't won a Darwin Award for it.

And it is good, if you're going to the backcountry, to have a Garmin In-Reach just in case. Ya just never know.


I don't buy it....fools rush in, the ignorant and unprepared do too.

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