NH Hike Safe cards protect hikers from costly rescues. Who’s buying them?

Local News

“New Hampshire people think it’s all tourists, people from out of state that we’re rescuing. That’s not the case. … New Hampshire folks get in trouble too, for sure.”

Hikers make their way up a steep section of trail leading to Artist’s Bluff in New Hampshire’s White Mountains. Jessica Rinaldi/Boston Globe Staff

In New Hampshire’s mountain-filled wilderness, a search and rescue mission can sometimes mean assisting a hiker who — through happenstance or plain bad luck — can’t make it out on their own.

More often, though, it means rushing to help someone who wandered in unprepared. 

In fact, the majority of rescue calls the New Hampshire Fish and Game Department receives are from folks who go up into the mountains without taking the necessary precautions, according to Colonel Kevin Jordan, the department’s chief of law enforcement.

“They’re going above the treeline; they don’t understand the weather is very different. They hike in summer clothing when there’s still snow and ice on these peaks,” Jordan said, rattling off some examples. “They go up in the morning expecting that they’ll never need a light. They don’t bring enough water.”

Colonel Kevin Jordan is chief of law enforcement for the State of New Hampshire Fish and Game Department. – Jonathan Wiggs/Boston Globe Staff, File

New Hampshire has seen a rising interest in outdoor recreation over the past several years, especially during the early days of the pandemic, when people were itching to get out of the house and hit the trails.

“Our rescues went through the roof for that year, because a lot of people came out and took on some pretty epic hikes without experience,” Jordan said. 

In other words, the sort of situation where a NH Fish and Game Hike Safe card might have come in handy. At $25 a year for individuals and $35 for families, the voluntary cards generally protect hikers and outdoor recreationalists from paying for a rescue, even if they acted negligently.

And Hike Safe card sales are booming. 

Who’s buying Hike Safe cards?

According to Jordan, sales have grown consistently since Hike Safe cards launched in 2015, jumping from less than 3,000 cards sold in that first year to more than 12,000 sold in 2022. 

All revenue from the Hike Safe cards goes into the Search and Rescue Fund, in addition to $1 from each boat, snowmobile, and ATV registered in New Hampshire. 

There’s an almost even divide between cardholders in New Hampshire and from out of state, Jordan said. He said NH Fish and Game tends to see folks from around New England and Canada, though there are some midwesterners, too.

“One year you’ll have a few more residents, the next year you’ll have a few more non-residents. I think it’s equal participation, and our rescue missions are split that way, in spite of what most people think,” he said. “New Hampshire people think it’s all tourists, people from out of state that we’re rescuing. That’s not the case — it’s split about 50-50 between residents and non-residents. New Hampshire folks get in trouble too, for sure.”

Only a fraction of people get billed for rescues

NH Fish and Game averages nearly 200 missions a year, but that figure almost doubles when you factor in the calls for help that can be resolved over the phone with some mapping instructions or support, according to Jordan.

And when it comes to rescue costs, a Hike Safe card isn’t the only form of protection; hikers can receive the same benefit if they have a current New Hampshire hunting or fishing license, or if they’ve registered a boat, snowmobile, or ATV. 

“If we do 180 responding missions … out of that, each year, we’re only billing 10 to 12 of those people,” Jordan said. “So the vast majority of these people either have contributed in one way or another, or their actions were not deemed to be reckless.”

He said the department also doesn’t bill for search and rescue missions where a hiker has died, even if reckless behavior was a factor.

A rescue mission in the White Mountains. – New Hampshire Fish and Game Department, File

While only a fraction of people will actually end up paying for their rescue, Jordan said he believes that knowing New Hampshire can charge reckless hikers has cut back on some risky behavior. 

“I can tell you from being here before we billed and after we started billing, it has made a difference,” he said. “I think people think a little more. I think they worry about that a little more and they prepare a little better.”

Combatting unpreparedness on the trails 

His department also made headlines last year when it sought criminal charges against two reckless hikers who strayed from marked trails, climbed a series of steep ledges without proper gear, and got themselves stuck. The two men ended up pleading guilty to reckless conduct and were fined $200 and a $48 penalty assessment. 

The criminal charges marked a first for NH Fish and Game, and Jordan said there hasn’t been another case since those hikers were rescued in June 2022. However, he said he’s open to using criminal charges again if it means curbing irresponsible hiking behaviors. 

“I think it’s appropriate when you put people at risk and they have to risk their lives to come get you because of your foolishness, or your — in this case — complete recklessness,” he said. “You should pay for that, be held accountable for that. And we do hold people accountable for it, but thankfully we don’t have to do that very often.”

There’s also a learning component through “hikeSafe,” the mountain safety education program developed through a partnership between NH Fish and Game and the White Mountain National Forest. The program includes both a Hiker Responsibility Code, as well as a list of essential and recommended clothing and equipment. 

The Hike Safe cards fit into that educational mission, Jordan said, adding that they’ve helped reduce the number of reckless acts and “really outlandish unpreparedness.”

“You’ll still get some of that — you’ll still get a family that will go up without a headlamp, but the days of them going up without packs or without any gear has become a little more rare, which is good,” he added. “And I think Hike Safe has helped us with that.”