Hike Safe Card now available in New Hampshire

New Hampshire hikers can now buy a sort of Get Out of Trouble Free card if they need to be rescued on the state’s mountains, trails or rivers, although it has limits, and even supporters admit it won’t do the entire job it was designed to do.

“No one is under the impression this is going to solve the funding problem,” said Maj. Kevin Jordan, assistant chief of law enforcement for New Hampshire Fish & Game, concerning the new Hike Safe Card. “But it’s a step.”

The Hike Safe Card is available as of Monday, Dec. 22. It can only be bought online, for $25 per person or $35 per family.

Families – defined as a person, their spouse and all children or step-children under age 18 – who carry the card won’t need to reimburse the costs of being rescued from the woods or hills of New Hampshire, in some cases.

All the money except a $3 processing fee will go toward the Search and Rescue Fund, which in recent years has run an annual deficit of more than $150,000.

The card, the purchase of which is entirely voluntary, was approved by the state Legislature as a way to help cover that deficit. Based on the experience of Colorado, which has a similar card, it will fall well short, said Jordan.

“In Colorado they use it to replace equipment, that’s about it,” he said.

Search and Rescue is funded by a $1 fee on all motorized boat, snowmobile and off-road vehicle registered in New Hampshire, which brings in about $180,000 a year.

Annual Search and Rescue expenditures can top $350,000, and the deficit has to be taken from the Fish & Game general fund, which comes largely from licenses paid by hunters and fishermen.

Part of the argument for a Hike Safe Card is that hikers don’t currently pay any money into the system, although many of them volunteer for the program, and there has been no easy way for them to do so.

Establishing something like the Hike Safe Card has long been urged.

Jordan said it needs to be tried but that since it would take more than 4,500 families buying Hike Safe Cards every year to cover the rescue deficit, it is unlikely to be a full solution. If the card falls short, he said, then further funding actions can be considered.

Billing people for rescues has also fallen well short of paying for the service.

In seven years through Jan. 30 of 2014, Jordan said, 63 rescue missions have produced bills, totalling $112,785, or almost $2,000 apiece. Many of those cases have gone to court hearings to determine if the charge is fair, which adds to the state’s cost, and so far Search and Rescue has collected a total of $69,603 – about half of one year’s deficit.

“Inability to pay, that’s the problem. … It feels good that you can bill someone who’s irresponsible, but if they can’t pay, at the end of the day it doesn’t pay the bills,” he said.

Many in Fish & Game have long urged that the state’s general fund pay for Search and Rescue, perhaps out of the rooms and meals tax charged to tourists, many of whom are lured here by the appeal of being in the outdoors. The Legislature has never approved that idea, however. Otherwise, he said, perhaps charging people for back-country rescues should be routine.

To a certain extent, buying the Hike Safe Card can be seen as a donation since the benefits are relatively small.

Most back-country rescues don’t lead to any charge in the first place because Search and Rescue doesn’t bill people if the situation wasn’t their fault, which it usually isn’t.

On average, the state conduct about 180 rescues a year, said Jordan.

In seven years through Jan. 30, 2014, they’ve billed just 63 people out of more than 1,200 rescues.

Search and Rescue will only bill for a rescue if they judge the accident to have been the result of negligence or recklessness.

This is where the Hike Safe Card comes in: The person carrying it won’t be billed if the rescue is due to negligence. The card carrier will, however, be billed if the situation is due to their recklessness.

The distinction between negligence and recklessness can be subtle, and the lack of clear guidelines between the two is one reason for criticism of the whole Hike Safe Card.

The FAQ file for Hike Safe describes the difference like this:

“A person acts negligently when he or she acts in such a way that deviates from the way a reasonable person would act under similar circumstances.

“A person acts recklessly when he or she engages in highly unreasonable conduct, involving an extreme departure from ordinary care, in a situation where a high degree of danger is apparent.”

As an example, hiking alone without enough supplies above treeline in summer might be considered negligent, and thus covered by the Hike Safe Card, but hiking alone above treeline without enough supplies in winter might be considered reckless, and not covered.

David Brooks can be reached at 594-6531 or dbrooks@nashuatelegraph.com. Also, follow Brooks on Twitter (@GraniteGeek).