Home Travel Tips Hikers in extreme heat at national parks can’t count on a rescue

Hikers in extreme heat at national parks can’t count on a rescue


A few days after a teenage boy and his stepfather died in extreme heat at Big Bend National Park in Texas, Mike Naccarato received a call from a distressed hiker in the same area. The man told Naccarato that he had trekked 16 miles in triple-digit temperatures and could not make it back to his campground. He asked the local river and hiking guide for a lift.

“I got that phone call at around 3 in the afternoon. It must have been hot,” said Nacarrato, owner of Far West Texas Outfitters, which leads tours in Big Bend. “I didn’t berate him, but I was very inquisitive as to how the [heck] he did that.”

A teen died while hiking Big Bend. His stepdad died trying to get help.

Naccarato often assists park staff with rescue missions. On this occasion in late June, he informed the man that he could drive him to his backcountry campsite, a three-hour journey on rugged roads, for $400. He said the man balked at the price and hung up.

They think because it’s a dry heat, it’s more pleasant. But it dehydrates you twice as fast,” Naccarato said. “It’s an overconfidence in their abilities that often gets them into these situations.”

With record temperatures roasting a large swath of the country, this is not the summer to overestimate your outdoor skills or downplay the warnings issued by park officials. Since June 1, five people have died in national parks for causes suspected to be heat-related. According to National Park Service mortality data, 51 people died of “environmental” reasons between 2014 and 2016, including 16 incidents associated with heat.

At the Grand Canyon, where a woman died earlier this month while hiking in temperatures that exceeded 100 degrees, signs display the image of a man retching, a symptom of heat-related illness. Death Valley National Park, the site of two similar fatalities in July, raises awareness through red stop signs that read, “STOP. Extreme Heat Danger” and sandwich boards that say, “HEAT KILLS!

“We are always thinking about how to better warn visitors about heat safety, what psychological tricks we can employ to get people to take it seriously,” Abigail Wines, a management analyst at Death Valley National Park, said by email.

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A few years ago, Death Valley introduced the octagonal signs with safety tips explained in nine languages. It also relays this information on temporary sandwich boards, because Wines said people seemingly take provisional alerts more seriously than permanent ones. She said recent warnings about how medevac helicopters cannot operate in extreme heat — which was the case when a 71-year-old Los Angeles man died in the park on July 18 — became an unexpected PSA.

“That information was surprising enough that it seems to make people reconsider,” she said.

National parks don’t close for heat

National parks will partially or fully close because of flooding, heavy snowfalls and wildfires, but not for extreme heat.

“Parks aren’t closing for extreme heat,” said Cynthia Hernandez, a NPS spokesperson, “but ranger programs and events may be cancelled or changed to a cooler time of day.”

Andrea Lankford, a former Grand Canyon park ranger who has participated in heat-related rescue missions, said she and her colleagues have debated the idea of closing areas for public safety. But ultimately, banning visitors violates one of the national park system’s main tenets. By comparison, Valley of Fire State Park in Nevada expanded its number of seasonally closed trails after two hikers were found dead on Saturday.

The National Park Service has a policy and culture of not closing trails due to extreme temperatures,” Lankford said. “But we may see that policy change because of this extreme heat. One, because they won’t have the staffing that can respond to incidents. The other will be fear of liability to civil litigation.”

For now, rangers are relying on visitors to behave responsibly and remember that their actions have serious consequences.

“You may enjoy hiking, but given the heat dome we’re under right now, maybe it’s time to reconsider your plans,” said Graham Prather, education manager for the National Outdoor Leadership School’s wilderness medicine. “Think about what you’re asking of other people if something goes wrong.”

Rescuers may not be able to reach you

Most of the major national parks, including Yosemite, Grand Canyon and Death Valley, have their own search-and-rescue (SAR) teams. The special corps typically consists of staff members with responsibilities elsewhere in the park who will turn their attention to rescue efforts when necessary. For certain cases, the parks may request supplemental support from outside forces, such as for extended searches or medical evacuations.

“If the initial call sounds particularly severe, the initial responding ranger might radio to the park dispatcher to request that the air ambulance service be put on standby,” Wines explained of Death Valley’s procedures. “At that point, the air ambulance service will advise us if they are available or if extreme heat or strong winds make it unsafe for them to fly.”

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Parks without an SAR unit depend on a patchwork of local law enforcement, emergency medical technicians, health-care providers, volunteers and tour operators.

Naccarato has helped search for missing people in Big Bend Ranch State Park and has tour guide colleagues who have participated in rescues in the nearby national park. Texas’s largest national park also relies on emergency medical services in Terlingua, a former quicksilver mining town about eight miles from the entrance.

Visitors don’t pay for public rescue services, but they will be charged for transport, such as by ambulance or helicopter, and a hospital visit. (Consider buying travel insurance or checking your health insurance’s policy about coverage.)

Without a dedicated team — and sometimes even with one — help may not be immediately on the way. Many factors are at play, such as the availability of the first responders, the accessibility of the impaired visitor and the air temperature.

Wines said Death Valley’s heat safety policy restricts the amount of time employees can be exposed to heat above 120 degrees: They can work in these temperatures for 10 minutes and must spend the remainder of the hour recovering in air conditioning.

“Never rely on the possibility of somebody being able to rescue you, because rescuers are also human,” said Kasia Kimmel, an assistant professor of emergency medicine at Baylor College of Medicine in Houston. “It’s not okay to think that you’re going to be rescued, because it is more complicated than just somebody going out and finding you.”

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Though emergency responders are trained to handle challenging conditions, they are not immune to the heat. Swaddled in protective clothing, they may have to lug 20 to 40 pounds of gear, including enough water for themselves and the ailing visitor. They may also face equipment failures caused by the heat, such as cellphone or tablet meltdowns, overheated vehicles and grounded medical-evacuation helicopters.

Sometimes the emergency workers have to pause the operation to assist each other. During a technical rope rescue on a 116-degree day in the Grand Canyon, Lankford said several rangers had to stop and receive IV fluids.

“These incredibly strong, fit, heat-acclimated park rangers were experiencing extreme dehydration from their exertion during a rescue of a park visitor,” she said.

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A particularly taxing rescue can put responders out of commission while they recuperate. Some parks are already understaffed, and thinning the SAR ranks is a dangerous prospect during a summer with soaring visitation numbers.

You send your staff out there, they do a rescue, they come back all flustered and heat exhausted and need to rest and cool off,” Lankford said. “So boom, you get another rescue. You can’t send them. You have to find other resources or delay the rescue.”

Tour guides can keep you safe

Most visitors do not view parks as a foreign land, but they can be disorienting. You can get as miserably lost and confused on a hiking trail as you can in Tokyo or Sao Paolo. You can also unknowingly venture into a danger zone.

I wouldn’t go hike for fun in 105-degree temperatures anymore than I would step outside of a space capsule on Mars without a spacesuit,” Lankford said. “This is a hostile environment.”

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Rangers, of course, can recommend trails with shade, natural water sources and lower temperatures, such as treks in higher elevations. Tour operators who specialize in outdoor excursions can provide a deeper safety net. Based on their expertise, they will choose the best departure times, routes and distances for hiking, biking or paddling excursions in the heat. They even take precautions on driving tours.

Melissa Chiella, director of operations at Bindlestiff Tours, said the company’s Death Valley day trip from Las Vegas sticks to flat sections in the park.

“We don’t want the van climbing hills. We don’t want our guides or our guests hiking up anything with elevation,” she said. “We have a short leash on everybody in Death Valley.”

If necessary, tour operators will reschedule excursions for a relatively cooler day. Last week, Bindlestiff Tours canceled a Death Valley trip because of a heat advisory. It offered guests a makeup date for the following week, when temperatures were expected to drop by 10 degrees.

“We do not go to Death Valley if the heat index is calling for 125 degrees,” Chiella said. “At that point, it’s way too dangerous, and the risk is not worth the reward.”

In West Texas, Naccarato recently received a request from a family of six from Mississippi who wanted to float down the Rio Grande and camp in Big Bend. He countered with half-day canoe trip and an overnight in an air-conditioned Airbnb. On Tuesday, they pushed off before 9 a.m. and were off the river before the canyon turned into a cauldron.

We hit the beach right at 1 and then quick and speedy — take out,” he said. “But you could feel the heat.”