Decades ago, there was a proposal that there should be no-rescue zones for backpackers, in which backpackers would be entirely on their own, and rescue by government agencies would not be permitted. (Private rescue operations would be permitted.)

See, for example, this 1984 article in Backpacker You're Losing Your Right to be Alone.

As I recall, the principal objection was, to put it crudely and sexistly, no agency could resist the pleas of a tearful mother whose son was lost and possibly seriously injured. Public outcry would force government SAR.

Did this proposal just fade away? Or was it never really taken seriously?

  • 1
    I don’t recall it being taken seriously at the time, but have no citations at hand, just memory. Further, one would still need S&R folks for everywhere else, and learning S&R takes doing S&R, so they would be happy to do it anyways. For example, my local Air Force pararescue team is active in mountain S&R in the area, since they are then doing something real under real conditions rather than their normal training.
    – Jon Custer
    Feb 27, 2018 at 0:54

2 Answers 2


It looks like it was most commonly proposed in the 1980s to around 1994 and has since been brought up at different times by different people but was never implemented.

Here are the results I found and the dates, and I only quoted the ones that don't require typing out the passages by hand.

  • 1983
  • 1984
  • 1984
  • 1985

    Nash argues for the designation of "norescue wilderness" areas in some parks, places where visitors understand that they're on their own. "National park zones of self-reliance could be rated for visitor competency and should be accompanied by a program of wilderness licensing," he says, enlarging on the idea. "Let those who wish to enter no-rescue wilderness prepare themselves for that privilege."

  • 1985

    A discussion of the moral implications of a "no-rescue" wilderness area (rugged, remote, possibly dangerous areas featuring no trails, signs, patrols, or search-and-rescue) considers such aspects as lack of liability, right of choice by visitors, and conflicting perspectives on the subject. (CB)

  • 1987
  • 1987

    A radical few are pushing for creation of "no-rescue zones," where people would be on their own in the natural world--come hell or high water. "We live in a society where people want to experience the benefits of high adventure but then force somebody else to pay the costs when things go wrong," said Leo McAvoy, a University of Minnesota professor who favors no-rescue zones. "It's time for some self-responsibility."

  • 1993
  • 1994
  • 1994
  • 1994

    The lack of judgment and personal responsibility of wilderness travelers with the resultant cost of rescue has led to the proposal of no-rescue zones. Certain wilderness areas would be posted with advisories that travelers enter at their own risk; helicopters (and possibly search teams) would not enter. Given the current legal climate in the United States, this concept is unlikely to win support.

  • 1995

    Second, because of the high fee, the climbing community felt they were being singled out and attacked. They argued strongly for ideas like "no rescue zones" and personal bonding, and they attacked several aspects of the Service's mountaineering program. Some of the arguments were simply unrealistic. History has repeatedly shown that climbers in trouble will call for help, and if they don't families will call politicians who will demand that the Service respond.

  • 1995
  • 2005

    No-rescue wilderness is an idea based on the preservation of the wilderness experiance Users are solely responsible for their own personal welfare. agencies that manage that area of land would be absolved of all legal risks involved agencies would infact be prohibited from intervening in no rescue areas for any reason!

  • 2012

    Attempting to rouse more pointed debate, Kennedy suggested, “I wonder if we shouldn’t have no-rescue zones.” That would be the extreme, libertarian response to Simonson’s “buyer beware” in a market that should only properly be selling, in Viesturs’ phrase, “a chance to try,” not the right to reach the summit.

  • 2007

    This Mount Hood story has a lot of folks demanding that reckless hikers and climbers who need rescuing be billed for the rescue, or even that certain zones be declared no-rescue zones; if you enter them, and something goes wrong, well, been nice knowing you.

  • 2009

    In addition to defraying the cost, the frequent rescues have spurred some interesting ideas from no-rescue zones to backcountry rescue insurance. While some ideas are intriguing, others border on the bizarre. A few of these ideas might even create new industries, such as body retrieval for the many cadavers littering the new no-rescue zones.

  • 2012

    Establishment of a "No-Rescue" Policy or “No Rescue Zones” in Wilderness. Recreationist would retain total responsibility for their own safety—that is, would assume the full risk of participation. The agency would be responsible for providing basic information describing the area, informing users of the principal risks in the proposed outing, and informing them further that under no circumstances would outside assistance be available to anyone while in the area.

  • 2013

I can find no evidence that that any of these proposals were ever implemented, but it does look like some people did take them seriously.

As for would this work, consider the tragic story of Jasmine Bitts. She and her parents were evacuated from a cabin due to the danger or treefall. Her parents however snuck past the guard and past the caution tape to return the cabin where a tree fell ontop of her and killed her. Her mother won a lawsuit against the Park Service. (Off the Wall: Death in Yosemite pg 441)

  • Hi Charlie! I can see that you're still hard at work on this awesome answer, but I have a question about the first one. At least in my browser, it leads to a Welcome to CAB Direct page, rather than an article. Since it has over 12 million articles, and is to some degree subscriber based, I wondered if you could link to a more specific section! Thanks! Feb 27, 2018 at 4:07
  • @Sue I think I got it, something fishy is going on with that link because you can Google search it, but not link to it. Feb 27, 2018 at 4:11
  • It works for me now, thanks! Also, the bottom one is from August of 2013. The date is on page 7. Feb 27, 2018 at 4:45

There are lots of good reasons to reject such proposals, and these would have stopped them being implemented. Some examples:

  • Deliberate injury - would the emergency services attend if someone was assaulted? If so, claim assault and you're rescued; if not, all sorts of things could go wrong, from illegal prize fights to murder. Even hunting negligence causing injury would go undetected.

  • Does the lack of liability extend to employees of the forest/parks service? Contractors? All contractors by law? Or is there freedom to implement dangerous working practices in an already risky job. Firefighters need to fight forest fires according to the conditions and their resources, not stop at some arbitrary line. If the forest service attempt to enforce hunting laws they have to be backed up or they're at risk of conflict. And hunting laws would have to be enforced or stable populations are to be maintained.

  • Unless actually fenced, people will get in without seeing signs. Perhaps they're lost just outside the boundary and looking for a trail, any trail, and go the wrong way. Lots of expensive lawyers' bills.

  • In many countries there just isn't the space for this and the sort of areas we've already got - as wild as possible in a human-dominated world, and with rescue not easy or guaranteed. So to create these areas for a few individualists, you'd be denying access to many more people.

Many of these depend on the fact that government services have powers that private services don't. The national parks service in the US is a striking example as their role overlaps with all the emergency services.

Arguments in favour of them also lack weight in the places where they're most plausible. In plenty of areas if you leave the trail you won't see a other person for days. If you don't tell anyone where you're going, you can essentially disappear. You'd eventually be spotted if you set up a big camp or lit a big fire, but may of those arguing for such areas want to keep moving.

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