Peak & Prairie

Rocky Mountain Chapter's
Online Newsletter
December 1997


A Welcome Rescue Alternative--The Colorado Hiker's Certificate
by Charlie Oriez, South Platte Group

Debate is stirring over who should pay for search and rescue. The costs to small, rural counties can be staggering. One small county sheriff's department estimated that its search and rescue costs exceeded $400,000 a year. A single rescue involving search planes or helicopter evacuation can easily cost more than $40,000.

A county like Hinsdale, which may have fewer than 1,000 property owners, offers many recreational opportunities for out-of-county residents. Should Hinsdale taxpayers bear the costs when a non-resident needs rescuing? Should taxpayers of the whole state share the cost? Or should the person needing rescue pay for it? If so, will that make a person needing rescue or their friends or relatives avoid calling for help when needed for fear that the rescued will be billed for it?

For many years, Colorado hunting and fishing license holders paid 25 cents into a state search and rescue fund. Any time a license-carrier had to be rescued, the county could recover its costs from the Division of Wildlife. For that reason, outdoor enthusiasts who fished only infrequently often bought a season's fishing license.

Now there is an alternative. A few years ago the Colorado hiker's certificate was created through a bill sponsored by Representative Lewis Entz (R-San Luis Valley). The certificate fee of $1 a year is deposited into the Search and Rescue Fund. A 5-year certificate is available for $5. The benefits are obvious. Recently a Sierra Club member trapped on a sandbar in the Yampa River required assistance by the Moffat County Search and Rescue Team. Because he had a hiker's certificate, he was not billed for the costs of his rescue. All for only $1 a year!

Where do you buy the certificate? The hiker's certificate should be available wherever hunting and fishing licenses are sold. However, I have been told on more than one occasion in small stores on the Western Slope that they do not carry certificates. Each time I was the first person to ask for one.

We have confirmed, however, that REI, Gart Brother and Grand West Outfitters carry the certificate. Although it doesn't hurt to inquire at the smaller outfitters (and inquiries might spur stores to start carrying the certificate), be prepared to go to one of the larger stores before your next backcountry trip. But do get the insurance. It would be the height of folly to backpack without a raincoat, even if there is little chance of rain. It is equally foolish to go into the wilderness without search and rescue insurance, even if you don't expect to need rescuing.