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Did hiker rescues increase during the pandemic or does it just feel that way? The answer is complicated

A hiker made his way along the rocks at Artist's Bluff in New Hampshire's White Mountains.
A hiker made his way along the rocks at Artist's Bluff in New Hampshire's White Mountains.Jessica Rinaldi/Globe Staff

Since the coronavirus pandemic began, we’ve heard a lot of stories about hikers getting rescued from the woods. In some ways, that’s no surprise. Until recently, with not much to do in the way of safe activities during a pandemic, hiking offered a relatively safe alternative to sitting around the house and watching TV. And if our social media feeds are any indication, lots of us got out there and explored the outdoors.

But were there actually more hikers rescued during the pandemic, compared to previous years or did it just feel that way? We took a closer look at the data to find out where those rescues happened and what they can tell us.

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In the spring of 2020, as people were in the early throes of quarantine and desperate for an escape, officials in Maine and New Hampshire say they saw an influx of people venturing off into the great outdoors, many of them first-timers.

And with that came a surge of 911 calls for help from novice hikers who found themselves lost, injured, fatigued, or otherwise unprepared for the conditions at hand.

The Maine Warden Service, for example, conducted a higher than normal number of rescue operations in April and May 2020. Sergeant Josh Bubier, the search and rescue coordinator for the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife, said the average number of operations during those months had been about 56. But in April and May of 2020, there were 89.

The Warden Service found that people living in warmer areas of southern Maine were flocking to mountains in central and western Maine, where it was colder and trails were still covered in snow and ice. Many hikers weren’t prepared for that, which led to more rescue calls.

“We were feeling like people were hiking beyond their experience level, and weren’t prepared for either the type of terrain or the conditions,” said Mark Latti, a spokesman for Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife.

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Latti recalled one instance in March 2020 when some people drove over frozen snow in the morning to go hiking at Tumbledown Mountain in western Maine. But by the end of the day, everything had melted, the roads were impassable, and their vehicles became stuck in the mud.

“Things were frozen in the morning, then by the afternoon, conditions thawed, stranding vehicles that couldn’t get through the soft snow and mud,” he said.

A family made its way up the Franconia Notch State Park Recreational Trail in Lincoln, N.H. in April.
A family made its way up the Franconia Notch State Park Recreational Trail in Lincoln, N.H. in April. Jessica Rinaldi/Globe Staff

Similar scenes unfolded in New Hampshire last year. The New Hampshire Fish and Game Department typically receives an average of 236 calls for help per year. In 2018 there were 230, and that number climbed to 282 in 2019 and then jumped to 359 in 2020.

As in Maine, the spring of 2020 was an especially busy time in that state, according to New Hampshire Fish and Game Law Enforcement Chief Colonel Kevin Jordan.

“We started in the spring at a record pace,” Jordan said. “In early May and June 2020 people looked at the outdoors as being their savior. Our calls initially spiked; we received almost double the number of calls.”

That included some first-time hikers who overestimated their abilities. Such was the case on June 11, 2020, when three teenagers got stranded on Webster Cliff Trail, which is part of the Appalachian Trail. Two of them had never hiked before, and they had no hiking gear, except for the clothes on their backs, their phones, and a half-full bottle of a sports drink. At 7:22 p.m. they called 911 after they realized they could no longer continue hiking. They were just below the summit of Mt. Jackson and conservation officers came out to help them.

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New Hampshire also saw an increase in calls for help that did not require a rescue team response. In those cases, authorities spoke to the person over the phone to guide them out of the woods, gave them advice on what to do, or just tried to calm them down.

A trail maker leads the way in the White Mountains.
A trail maker leads the way in the White Mountains. Jessica Rinaldi/Globe Staff

Lieutenant Bradley Morse of the New Hampshire Fish and Game Department said his district has been receiving increasing numbers of those types of calls.

In many of those cases, it’s “people who are not really experienced are calling 911 for assistance,” he said. “There seems to be a lot more people hiking... people who aren’t normally hikers, and they’re inexperienced.”

Morse said Region 2, which covers the Lakes region and central New Hampshire, received 16 of those calls in 2018. That number jumped to 28 in 2019, and then went up to 41 in 2020.

But while more people were rescued from the outdoors in New Hampshire and Maine last year, that wasn’t necessarily the case elsewhere.

In Massachusetts, search and rescue missions in the Berkshires actually dropped in 2020.

The Berkshire Mountain Search and Rescue Team typically participates in 10 to 14 rescues a year. But throughout all of last year, they had only three.

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

Michael Comeau, the president and operations officer for the Berkshire Mountain Search and Rescue Team said they expected to see more people out hiking in Western Massachusetts during the height of the pandemic, but that just wasn’t the case.

“I believe, during the height of the pandemic, that some people wanted to go hiking but were afraid to run into others that were not masked,” he said.

In Vermont, the number of people getting lost in the woods didn’t change too much.

Neil Van Dyke, statewide search and rescue coordinator with Vermont’s Department of Public Safety, said Vermont State Police logged 110 search operations in 2018. That number dropped to 97 in 2019 and declined further to 88 in 2020.

“Looking at the big picture, our numbers [for people who are lost or missing] are really not up from historic norms,” he said.

Van Dyke said he didn’t have a compelling theory to explain why that was the case.

”It could be that usage actually wasn’t up, as normal vacations weren’t taking place and many people may have been respecting the travel restrictions, though it didn’t feel that way,” he said. “It could also be dumb luck.”

BY THE NUMBERS

MAINE

National Park Service Stats - Rescues at Acadia National Park

2018 - 36 rescues

2019 - 40

2020 - 38

Statewide search and rescues in Maine

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2016 – 397

2017 – 407

2018 – 423

2019 – 396

2020 – 432

MASSACHUSETTS

Berkshire Mountain Search & Rescue Team

2019 – 8

2020 – 3

VERMONT

Vermont State Police Search Missions

2018 - 110

2019 - 97

2020 - 88

Reasons for VT State Police Search Missions in 2020

Hiking - 36

Wandering - 12

Other - 10

Despondent - 1

Runaway - 3

Hunting/fishing - 6

Skiing - 15

Water - 3

Car/Snowmobile/ATV - 2

VT Local Rescue Team Activity (combined number of rescues by Stowe Mountain Rescue, Waterbury Backcountry Rescue, Colchester Technical Rescue)

2018 - 58

2019 - 60

2020 - 75

Combined Totals (Vermont State Police Search Missions plus Local Rescue Team Activity)

2018 - 168

2019 - 157

2020 - 163

A University of Vermont study surveyed 3,204 Vermont residents and found that...

41% - Hiked more during May ’20 than in May ’19

23% - Hiked the same amount during May ’20 than in May ’19

22% - Hiked less during May ’20 than in May ’19

14% - Don’t participate in hiking

NEW HAMPSHIRE

(includes all missions, searching, rescues, drownings as well as calls resolved through phone communication)

2017 - 211

2018 - 230

2019 - 282

2020 - 359




Emily Sweeney can be reached at emily.sweeney@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @emilysweeney.