Background: National parks are popular travel destinations worldwide. Unfortunately, negative health experiences can and do occur during travel in national parks. This study investigated search and rescue (SAR) trends associated with recreational travel in US National Park Service (NPS) units.
Methods: A retrospective study was conducted of the Annual US National Park Service Search and Rescue Report for the years 2003 to 2006.
Results: From 2003 to 2006, there were 12,337 SAR operations involving 15,537 visitors. The total operational costs were US$16,552,053. The operations ended with 522 fatalities, 4,860 ill or injured visitors, and 2,855 saves. Almost half (40%) of the operations occurred on Saturday and Sunday, and visitors aged 20 to 29 years were involved in 23% of the incidents. Males accounted for 66.3% of the visitors requiring SAR assistance. Day hiking, motorized boating, swimming, overnight hiking, and nonmotorized boating were the participant activities resulting in the most SAR operations. The vast majority of visitors requiring SAR assistance were located within a 24-hour period, and the most common rescue environments were mountain areas between 1,524 and 4,572 m, lakes, rivers, oceans, and coastal areas. An error in judgment, fatigue and physical conditions, and insufficient equipment, clothing, and experience were the most common contributing factors.
Conclusions: SAR incidents can be expensive and end with severe health consequences. NPS management should develop education and preventive efforts focused on hikers, boaters, and swimmers who are males and aged 20 to 29 years, addressing issues of adequate judgment, preparation, and experience.