Reasonable Doubt: Charging backcountry users for rescues would put lives at risk

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      Last November, I flew to Nepal for a trip of a lifetime. For two weeks, I trekked through the Himalayas and marveled at the landscapes. Eleven months later, I see those same landscapes in news footage as the backdrop to Nepal’s deadliest trekking disaster. Last week, an avalanche and blizzard struck near the high mountain pass of one of the country's most popular treks. It hit during peak trekking season when the weather is generally at its best and the trek at its most populous. By one account, 1.8 metres of snow fell in 12 hours. It left villagers, guides, porters, and trekkers stranded, frozen, and buried. At the time of writing, the death toll reached 39 and 500 were evacuated by military helicopters. Disaster truly struck at the worst place and at the worst time.

      The news reporting has mostly been of the sheer magnitude of the disaster and how much of a freak occurrence the storm was. There has been relatively little finger pointing.

      In contrast, when we hear news of search and rescue operations in our own backyards, there is usually a chorus of blaming that follows. That lost hiker was totally unprepared! That backcountry skier shouldn’t have gone alone! And during this public outcry, the usual debate returns: should thrill seekers be required to pay for their own rescue operations?

      For those in favour, the argument is usually summed up as this: the thrill seeker takes the risks and so should bear the burden of having their lives saved. If they aren’t paying the thousands of dollars to rescue their lives, then who will? Me, the taxpayer?!

      The B.C. Search and Rescue Association adamantly opposes this. They say charging for their rescues will deter people from calling for help and from cooperating with rescue operations. This puts lives—their own and those of rescue volunteers—at further risk. For the search and rescue teams, their goal is to save lives.

      Legally speaking, can someone be compelled to pay for their rescue? Is there a legal obligation to foot the bill? Probably not. The rescue organization or government body seeking payment would need to argue that the debt comes from a breach of contract. In other words, they are out of pocket for services rendered to a party who contracted with them for those services. The grateful adventurer needs to fulfil his or her end of the bargain.

      The difficulty from a legal standpoint is to show a contract even existed. I’d be hard pressed to find one. After all, when was the contract made? During the frantic 911 call? When the first responder shows up and administers first aid? There isn’t exactly a back and forth negotiation. “I need help!” and “We’re on our way” is probably insufficient to establish a contract and the legally binding obligation to pay. It’s not as though the voice on the other end of the satellite phone is quoting rates and prices. You’d have to argue that the caller agreed, in those frantic moments, to pay for whatever price it took for their life to get saved.

      Whether or not a court is satisfied a contract was entered, it would have to decide whether the contract should be enforced. In other words, even if there was a contract, should it order the rescuee pay the bill? The court would have to consider the obvious inequality in bargaining power. A hypothermic snowshoer isn’t exactly in a position to negotiate for life saving services. The court might be reluctant to enforce any contract when one party was in a life or death situation at the time the contract was made. They would take serious consideration of the duress of the rescue. Instead, it might find the contract invalid.

      For now, this debate is predominantly a political one. Collecting money from a rescuee would likely require legislation (and the necessary political will). It could take the form of administrative fines but how is that feasible? You could institute a fine for leaving the perimeter of ski resorts but what about the backcountry where there are no clear boundaries? Make administrative fines for “unpreparedness” or “recklessness”? It sounds pretty difficult to enforce.

      Conversely, there could legislated fees. For examples, hourly rates for helicopter fly bys or flat rates for searches by the day. There is, after all, legislation listing fees for ambulance services. Even with this in place, you would have to contend with the overhead of administering fees, collecting fees, and hiring lawyers to enforce them.

      Whether or not we create this type of legislation, it seems to me that the threat of having to pay for your own rescue won’t stop anyone from enjoying the outdoors. It won’t even result in better preparedness. The only impact that I can see is what the search and rescue teams are afraid of—charging for rescues will put lives at risk. As tempting as it may be to blame someone who finds (or to some, “puts”) him or herself in a scenario requiring rescue, would recovering any of the rescue fees be worth that? If so, then charging for rescues would be an awfully brutal way of clawing back some of the taxpayer dollars spent.

      Kevin Yee is a lawyer at Stevens Virgin who practices general civil litigation and personal injury law. Reasonable Doubt appears on on Fridays. You can send your questions for the column to its writers at

      A word of caution: You should not act or rely on the information provided in this column. It is not legal advice. To ensure your interests are protected, retain or formally seek advice from a lawyer.




      Oct 24, 2014 at 11:31am

      You don't charge for Rescues.

      You issue FINES for irresponsible people who are not prepared properly for the outdoors putting mostly volunteers lives at risk due to their gross stupidity.

      If we can issue speeding Fines and Parking Tickets we can issue Fines for stupid people who don't take the responsibility to be properly prepared and/or trained for going deep into the Countryside and/or Ocean.


      Oct 24, 2014 at 11:47am

      What about those signs posted on a number of local mountains that notify people of back country boundaries and warn them that they "assume their own risk" to cross into that territory. If you presumably of sound mind at that time, I would then think part of the "risk" you are taking in being out of bounds might include making a payment should rescue be required.

      mtn biker

      Oct 24, 2014 at 3:56pm

      Ignoring the fact that not charging people when they get into trouble is one sign of a compassionate and caring society, if backcountry skiers/hikers are "fined" or charged for rescue costs, then so should private aircraft and boating operators, hunters, ATV'ers, etc. pay for their SAR costs. None of these groups HAVE to be doing what they're doing, most of it being purely recreation. Society has, up to now, chosen to care more about people's well-being than a small but vocal sector's anti-tax obsession.


      Oct 25, 2014 at 9:52am

      How about a backcountry user fee? Weekend, monthly, seasonal and yearly passes that help recoup SAR costs.


      Oct 25, 2014 at 1:31pm

      No one wants to charge anyone for a rescue. However, those idiots who willingly go out of bounds are already putting lives at risk, so why not charge them.

      Rick in PoMo

      Oct 26, 2014 at 6:46am

      How about skiers or hikers being able to rent a satellite phone for the duration of their ski or hike, particularly if they are going into the back country? It could well be impossible to get a cell phone signal in some areas. The rental fee for the satellite phone would go towards subsidising the rescue organisation. Look on it as a form of insurance.

      If the skier or hiker could contact 911 and give GPS co-ordinates to allow for a quick rescue so long as they stayed close to that location, then no charge for rescue. For the hapless venturer into the wilderness who is not able to call for immediate help and requires extensive time to find them, then charge them.

      Scott MacLeod

      Oct 27, 2014 at 9:40pm

      Just got home from Search and Rescue practice. Group of volunteers giving one night a week to prepare to help our neighbors, community and guests (don't we encourage people to visit BC?). My wife and one daughter were there, both on the team, both trained, all of us preparing for who knows what or when. Good group - good people all.

      We don't get paid, don't need to. We offer our services, our time and, as most of us are out of pocket for gear, our money.

      Who's gonna charge for us, who's speaking for us in this? In this instance one voice is BCSARA and I argree with them toatally. NO CHARGE for rescue. We don't need to get paid. I personally, my family and anyone I've talked to who is involved in SAR is TOTALLY and VEHEMENTLY opposed to pay for rescue. We, the folks who do it, seem united in this belief.

      The folks who keep this discussion going aren't the practitioners, the volunteers or the back country enthusiasts. We play in the mountains, we volunteer in the mountains and if someone is in trouble we go rushing to help in the mountains. For free, cause that's the way it's done.

      And I want to get the call early, not later because the person who needs help is afraid it's going to cost them money. That's gonna put them, and me and mine, in more danger and at more risk. And that's unacceptable!

      I can rant about this a long time. No one, I repeat no one, I know who is involved in SAR believes in a pay for rescue system.

      The system isn't perfect at present but it certainly isn't broke to the point it needs to be fixed. Improved certainly, things can always be improved.

      If everybody with an opinion want to actually make a contribution find your local SAR group, join, donate, contribute or just send a note saying thanks for being there.

      Scott MacLeod
      Kimberley, BC
      Kimberley Search and Rescue
      Rope, Water and Avalanche Rescue Team Member


      Nov 29, 2014 at 6:22am

      "people who are not prepared PROPERLY for the outdoors" How do you define properly and who is to decide if it was properly ?