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Yesterday I was supposed to pick up some friends from a very long (12 hour day trip) through hike. The original plan was for them to come at 5:30pm but in the end they only reached the destination at 10:45pm. I was very much worried by the end but wasn’t sure what to do - call 9-1-1, call the park ranger, do nothing, etc? Is there a general protocol to follow when someone didn’t make it from their hiking trip?

They didn’t have flashlights available and would’ve been forced to use weak flash from their phones if they stayed even later, or forced to sleep without a tent until the morning. But the biggest worry for me is whether or not I’m supposed to do something or just say “meh they’ll make it” and go home to sleep. They did not have a PLB/Spot device and mobile network was unavailable up until the parking lot. Not the best planning on their behalf but as the designated driver it was hard for me to just leave and blame it on bad scheduling.

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    Could you put a value on your "very long"? Hours? Days? Weeks? Would they have been likely to have been able to send an update if going a bit slower than expected, or would they have had no chance to communicate at all (and would they have been likely to let you know if running a bit behind, or just think they could make up the difference)
    – Chris H
    Jul 6 at 20:55
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    Voting to reopen - the comments process seems to have worked in pinning down the question to one that can be sensibly answered
    – Chris H
    Jul 7 at 19:12
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    Frankly your friends should have told you the conditions in which to call someone, who to call, and just generally what to do. If I were planning on hiking 12 hours I would definitely plan for the potential that I'm going to possibly be far behind schedule. I would absolutely always every single time I hike ever in my life till the end of time with no exceptions, bring a headlamp, and for a long hike maybe even bring an emergency bivy or similar.
    – tsturzl
    Jul 7 at 19:59
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    IMO it's worth generating two time estimates when arranging a pickup - a likely/optimistic one and a safety cutoff. In this case they probably exceeded both, but the process of estimating is itself useful, and would have helped you know what to do
    – Chris H
    Jul 8 at 11:33
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    Reiterate the comment of @tsturzl about always carrying a light and always being prepared to spend a night out. Some snacks, extra water, a layer of warm clothing and a layer of rain protection don't weigh much.
    – ab2
    Jul 8 at 16:20
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I don't think the specifics of this question can be meaningfully answered without knowing more. However, the general reasoning behind whom/when to call if people overshoot their expected arrival time can be analyzed and is valuable because it can be a matter of life and death.

(Note: my answer isn't about the plan you should have had, it's about what to do with what you do know at the trailhead)

  • what was the nature of the hike and dangers along the way, what was their experience level and how much variability could you expect from them? All very fit or all/some beginning hikers? People with known medical challenges?

  • how long was the hike expected to be and what did the trail reviews quote as expected times?

  • How many hikers were there? 2 could be killed/injured by a bear, out of 5 someone would have made it out to raise the alarm.

  • Was 10:45 really unreasonable/how long would the hike be? i.e. being 5 hour late on a 12-hour-best-expectations on easy terrain is not good. But it should be a call to emergency services much earlier on a 2 hr hike on known-dangerous mountain terrain. Or in the case of someone on the sea, say kayaking. Hours can very much matter, but that depends on the circumstances.

  • Weather. We're in summer right now. But in mid-winter or during a heat wave, I'd err on the side of caution.

  • Was any/none of the route likely to have cell reception? Did anyone carry a PLB?

  • Light conditions vs lateness. 10:45 is about 90 minutes past sunset now, with deep dark happening earlier in forests and valleys. Little moon. In winter, it means they've been putzing around for 6 hours without light. Did they have flashlights? Is the trail forgiving for hiking in low light conditions? A casual beachside with a full moon is very different from hiking down technical mountain terrain without moon under forest cover.

  • Last, but quite important. How frequented is this trail, how easy is it to get lost from it? If lots of people go up and down the trail - you've seen them coming out - and if there is no easy way to stray, chances are that if your friends had been injured someone would already have raised the alarm.

My sense? If you can't find any good explanations for them being late and 5 hours seems dangerous, call 911 (emergency service number for US and Canada, others will vary) and work from there. If in doubt, you can still call 9 11, they'll put you in touch with your local Search and Rescue team, who will then walk you through the decisions. For example, I've called 911 to report large debris on TransCanada Highway #1. I didn't expect they would solve the problem, only that they would route me to the appropriate highway maintenance service to report something that could have caused an accident.

Before you call, figure out the 30 second explanation for why you are calling them, where you are, where your friends are and who might be able to help. That minimizes the load on the hotline's availability for other emergencies. If in reasonable doubt, calling early - but with clear information - also allows you to shunt off the decision making to more qualified people if you are just providing pickup services to friends without being all that knowledgeable about the back country. In that case, it's really your friends who need to explain themselves to emergency services, not you.

If you are over-worrying, but are acting in good faith, you will not be penalized (I know our local SAR team has been extremely resistant to calls to bill rescuees because they figure it will make people call too late).

I can't help but think you all didn't seem to have a very good plan though it I also confess I might not either - you've made me think with your question.

I would also ask some hard questions of your friends on why they were so late - they really put you on the spot to make an emergency call or not and if that was just to enjoy the smell of flowers, not acceptable.

p.s. also, specific to your circumstances, I note that you are also asking questions about SPOT beacons. Keep in mind that you can always loan a PLB to friends if they go on a hike and lack one. Especially if you are the pickup. As long as you get it back by your next hike that has little downside.

p.p.s Specifically to answer this question's situation from additional info/comments:

hike was way harder : if you had gotten patched through to rangers/park services they'd quickly do the math from your expected time, the particular trail at hand, season/conditions and your buddies' experience/fitness level. Conversely, if there had been real risk they'd have known it.

If you had cell reception, you could have checked expected trail completion time. Or you could have called someone with better internet to check that out.

I'd have called round 10:30-11. I don't think emergency services would get upset- too many people die outdoors in BC/WA for that. Why call? More than overdue time, the night has now fallen, your friends are not experienced and they have no lights. Safest, in this season, would be to stop somewhere and wait out sunrise - 6 hrs away. But people may very well try to walk out and get lost or injured. Unprepared hikers being stuck overnight in good weather should be considered a small-e emergency: CALL RESCUE - they'll talk you down if you're overreacting. Bad weather? Big-E Emergency.

p.p.p.s. 911 vs park ranger?

Quoting my Pacific Crest Trail link above, it has this to say:

Search and rescue (SAR) is generally organized through the county sheriff. Figure out what county your loved one is in or was last known to be in and call that sheriff. National Parks are the exception. They often have their own SAR teams. Again, if it’s an emergency, calling 911 is often the right course of action. 911 Dispatchers can pass you to the right people.

Thing to keep in mind is that PCT is a 4000 km long trail. Calling your local 9-1-1 because someone is overdue on somewhere far away on PCT isn't optimal, since local 9-1-1 will not immediately know whom to contact at PCT for that segment. That's why they suggest contacting rangers if possible. Local area and you don't know the contact info? That's what 9-1-1 is for. Can't figure it out? 9-1-1 again.

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  • Yes they were supposed to carry the Spot but it stayed in my backpack over the confusion. And yes - the plan was I’ll thought out, the hike was way harder than naively expected. Jul 7 at 17:00
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    @JonathanReez -- The best place to add any extra info is by working it into the question -- and not merely as a sequence of addenda.
    – Martin F
    Jul 7 at 17:44
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    @JonathanReez hike was way harder : I think if you had gotten patched through to rangers/park services they'd quickly do the math from your expected time, the particular trail at hand, season and your buddies' experience/fitness level. Conversely, if there had been real risk they'd have known it. If you had cell reception, you could have checked expected completion time. Or you could have called someone with better internet to check that out. After thinking thru answering this, I'd have called round 10:30-11. I don't think theyd get that upset- too many ppl die out in BC/WA for that. Jul 7 at 18:28
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    That last comment is really important - a full plan allows the experts to make decisions knowing terrain, conditions, risk to rescuers etc. Example: the route is 5 hours by Naismith's rule, but recent rains mean parts of the descent are impassable and the detour is significant - but the information isn't widely known
    – Chris H
    Jul 8 at 10:02
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This is something that should be discussed before a trip, together with the people who go on the trip. Ultimately they are the most affected, and they need to make a decision under which conditions they want a rescue to be initiated.

As crasic said in his answer, by the time a group is late, it is already too late to make a proper decision, because one is lacking the proper information.

Some people are 100% reliable and even a short delay would be a cause for concern, and others don't mind changing their itinerary and staying for a day longer.

There is a lot of potential for misunderstandings (Some hikers might not be happy if SAR is called on them, and SAR might not like being called for a misunderstanding).

For this reason, I always ask people to create a written and signed trip plan.

The important part is at the very top "if you have not heard from me by (time) on (day), call 911". This removes all uncertainty for everyone involved.

Trip plan

Edit:

Chris H. pointed out that the template above is missing the contact information for all of the participants. Phone numbers and carriers can be useful to triangulate a missing person, even if they can't make a call. Emergency contact information for everyone would be useful as well. If the group is carrying a PLB, 2-way radio etc. it should also be on the list.

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    Interesting that it doesn't appear to ask for contact details (mobile phone numbers) for the participants. While they may have no signal on the trail, if they cut the trip short or get lost they could end up in a town with signal, the other side of the mountain; on a peak or ridge there often is signal, so trying the contact numbers periodically is a good idea. Certainly when my outdoor activities club records participants, mobile numbers are on the list
    – Chris H
    Jul 8 at 9:56
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    yes, though that requires a decent signal/multiple towers. It doesn't require a signal from the right network unlike trying to call them. Of course if they had both a signal and an emergency they could call for help, and everywhere I know about emergency (911-equivalent) calls will be routed regardless of network.
    – Chris H
    Jul 8 at 14:22
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    As for the 2-way radio, when I've used them between groups (20+years ago) they were turned on to a schedule: something like 5 minutes at xx:00 and xx:30, to save battery , so that's needed as well as frequency
    – Chris H
    Jul 8 at 14:23
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    To emphasise something on that form - you should always fill in vehicle details. One of the early steps that SAR do (in my country at least) is swing a road unit past the carpark, to check if the vehicles are still parked there. Jul 9 at 2:44
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    @GreenstoneWalker and presumably equivalent if you don't use a vehicle, e.g. "bus from town at xx:yy to trailhead ", "n mountainbikes (descriptions) locked at trailhead", "staying at lodge" etc. The bike and lodge examples can similarly be checked for returns; bus info can expose delays starting and may have CCTV to improve descriptions.
    – Chris H
    Jul 9 at 10:39
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These plans are ideally discussed ahead of time and shared with all the supporting friends.

The team leader is responsible for putting the plans in place and has the responsibility for the safety of the team. Barring explicit instructions, you should not hesitate to call emergency services if you think there is an emergency.


It can be hard to predict the precise exit time. Teams can be delayed for many reasons and being late, by itself, is not an emergency.

Of course, the potential that there is a real problem makes it inadvisable to wait too long. (This is where technology may help provide flexibility, see below the fold)

Lets suppose that you discussed a plan ahead of time, you set conditions or time necessary to call for help, and that time has passed.

The general protocol is

  1. Call the emergency services. In the US this is typically the park ranger or county sheriff.

  2. Report the details of the team, when they were expected back, and that they are late for their rendezvous. Answer any questions.

  3. Stay at the trailhead or campsite and wait for rescuers or in case your friends hike out on their own.

  4. If they are not located from a quick search and there is a suspicion that they have gotten in trouble you may be asked to provided further details like family contacts.

  5. You might be asked to help rescuers pinpoint alternate locations where they may have gone or gotten stuck and how they may behave or react to their current predicament. By provide feedback on alternate routes or variations and their experience individually and as a team.

  6. It might be a few days. Take care of yourself and any other friends/family.

  7. It is understandable to want to try to help friends and family, but please do not go out on your own once SAR is involved unless this is cleared with the rescuers.

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    Personally, and this is as a comment not in the answer. Absent a plan, an average backpacking team, and a typical 3 days through hike, I would involve authorities the next day if they had not arrived by the early afternoon (24 hrs) or so. If it was a longer trip I might wait until the evening of that next day or even the following morning (36-48 hrs).
    – crasic
    Jul 6 at 19:14
  • 8. If they show up on their own after you have called the SAR, notice the SAR as soon as possible
    – J.R
    Jul 10 at 9:01
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When I ran trips like this I planned as follows:

A: There is a go/nogo point. If we haven't made it to X, turn around and go back to the origin. Depending on the nature of the trip there may be several go/nogo points. You do NOT change these enroute.

B: You have a means to communicate with your outside people. SPOT, Inreach. Carrier pigeon.

C: For a 1 day trip you have a plan for the trip taking 1/3 longer than expected. E.g. for a 12 hour trip, you have contingencies (food, water, flashlights) for 16 hours.

D: Recognize that calling 911 is not going to produce results that day. It takes hours to organize. At best you will get aid the next day. For this reason I will bring a tarp, fire making materials, and a sleeping bag, as the minimum gear to keep an injured person in reasonable comfort, and about 1000 calories per person in some form of iron ration. This is in addition to trail snacks. Depending on route and season you may pack extra water too.

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