Mountain Passages—Should Volunteers Patrol the Backcountry or Not

Do we really need backcountry patrols? And if so, who should be patrolling?


I ask for a couple of reasons: first, because I’d like to know what you think, and, second, because M. John Fayhee, editor emeritus of Mountain Gazette, was here in Boulder last week. And he had an opinion on the subject.

Big surprise.

Breakfast was a sausage, bean and egg burrito with chipotle in adobo sauce served here at The Creak House. It met with Fayhee’s approval. He had had three cups of coffee and was fired up. He wanted to know what I was doing with Bryan Mountain Nordic Ski Patrol (BMNSP). I said we were working on a proposal for the Forest Service to patrol out of the Brainard Lake and Moffat Tunnel trailheads next winter.

It was as if I had told him I was developing several acres of mountain property in a wilderness area inholding. He sort of sputtered and said, “Hell, I helped found a coalition up in Summit County to protect the Eagle’s Nest Wilderness Area. Now there are volunteers in uniform shirts up there patrolling like fucking Boy Scouts or something. I never envisioned that.”

He was trying to be nice, which is often a real effort for him, but the thought of any sort of “official person” patrolling in the backcountry just flat out offended him. “Some people think it’s fine to have patrols in the backcountry, they sort of need that official presence, but the rest of us just want to be left alone in the back country. If you get hurt, ask for help or drag your ass out of there.”

I explained that BMNSP would simply be a “presence” on these trails, a source of information to anyone who had questions, and first aid if anyone needed help. Period. We plan to be up there doing what we have been trained to do. We’re not rangers, or cops. We’re volunteer backcountry ski patrollers. BMNSP has been in business for 40 years.

The conversation moved on to other cosmic issues but the question still stands: should anyone be patrolling the backcountry?
In my view, the answer is yes. There need to be skilled people in the backcountry who can answer people’s questions, who can explain to people such basics as letting Spot chase wildlife is a bad idea, and who can initiate first responses if someone needs help.

It seems like this should be a high priority of the National Park Service, National Forest Service, and Bureau of Land Management. But it is not. Fifty percent of them are bureaucrats who think moving paper back and forth between their desks and driving around in trucks is real work.


And the fifty percent who really care… well, there aren’t enough of the good ones to patrol much of the territory they manage. So in many locations, it is left to volunteers to patrol.

But does the presence of volunteers in the backcountry impact your enjoyment?

I have to beg the question.

When I was into bagging 14ers, the first thing we would do on top was to look 360 degrees for approaching thunderboomers. If a cell was vaguely close, we would sign the register and beat feet downhill to treeline.

On our way down, we almost always came across folks making the approach in shorts and T-shirts and mostly empty water bottles from the Jiffy Mart, often with kids—all of them totally unprepared to weather a mountain thunderstorm. We’d tell them that the sky was about to explode and that the temperature was about to drop 30 degrees. We’d tell them they should turn around. And they almost always ignored us and pushed on for the summit. At the very least, I know they had a miserable experience. I’m wondering if they would have listened to me if I’d had on an official looking shirt or instead of ratty, layered polypro?

Should we patrol Moffat and Brainard, we’ll have our radios, and our red vests (filled with medical stuff) with the white crosses on our backs. So we will look official. If we see someone struggling on an easy route and suggest that it’s only going to get more difficult, the question becomes, will they listen to us and turn around because we sort of look official, or will they ignore us?

I suspect that they will ignore us in spite of the official gear and push on. But I also suspect that we will continue our patrol but make sure that we return to their route to check on them.

Big Brother ruining people’s wilderness experience?

Nope. Volunteers watching our for people who might get in trouble.

But I also admit that the presence of an official person does impact your enjoyment of the backcountry. In point of fact that person is there to watch you and that fact alone is annoying to folks like Fayhee, maybe you, too.

A partial answer might be to do away with any uniforms or insignia, hide the radios and just patrol. And I think that those of us who love the backcountry do just that routinely. We are always watching other people on the trail and offering information or aid if needed. But I need to be honest here about my motivations. I joined ski patrol because I wanted to be part of an organization that can actually be of service—so there is an ego thing to carrying the gear and wearing the cross.


Without some sort of an organization and insignia, I think it would be hard to recruit, train, and keep volunteers. Generally people who volunteer want to be part of something bigger than themselves, and expect some level of management.

Finally, I have to go back to my 14er’s experience. I think people might pay more attention to our warning of danger if we appear to be more official.

That’s my opinion.

Fayhee is still sputtering.

What do you think?

Alan Stark is a freelance writer and recovering book publisher who splits his time between Boulder and Breckenridge.

Photos are of BMNSP member and world-famous guidebook author Alan Apt. 

40 thoughts on “Mountain Passages—Should Volunteers Patrol the Backcountry or Not”

  1. Hiking is my own last outdoor activity I can enjoy physically. I go to the trails as an escape and last thing I want is an orange vest. Freedom in nature is why many of us go. I appreciate your efforts and can see where you are going but I seriously use my hikes as my time of escape.

    1. Thanks Laura, I was out for a ride with my cycling partner Dr. Doom this morning and he pointed out that having, “patrollers in the backcountry with first aid capabilities” might actually encourage people to take more risks because there was someone there to help them out of a jam…another angle on the argument I hadn’t thought about. Of course, Dr. Doom is always looking at things from a positive point of view.

  2. I must say, I spit out my coffee when I imagined John’s reaction to your “patrol”. No one wants police (or worse, pretend police) on back country trails. Mall cops on trails – please.

  3. Some people feel the need to make rules, and enforce them upon others. These are not my people.

  4. Mike, I think you missed the point. What the Forest Service has asked BMNSP to do is be available to answer questions about the trails and conditions and capable of helping someone who is hurt if they request the help. Period. Nothing was said about enforcing rules on anyone. We ain’t rangers or cops.

  5. Alan, every person who I have encountered in our local forests who has any kind of authority, perceived or given to them by an organization has come off as a zealot. If I want to climb a fourteener in the nude on a cloudy July afternoon, then I don’t want your volly buddies harshing my mellow. Seriously, stay in Boulder, and focus on your community, leave your advice in the city, and enjoy the Wilderness however you see fit. But don’t go walking the trails like some know it all trail preacher serving your gospel to all who cross your path.

  6. I applaud the work that this kind of a project takes, but I fear it is encouraging bad behavior. All rock climbers know all to well the stories of those climbers who over extended because they could get rescued.It happened over and over. The cost was more than monetary because it ruined the experience of other climbers, and created quite a bit of bureaucratic backlash.

    Everyone knows the rules about over commitment, dogs, getting lost, and wilderness etiquette. They do. They just do not always practice it. Patrolling may monitor the minority at the cost of the experience of the majority.

  7. I am guessing the people who replied are experienced mountain people. There are many new comers in the hills who might benefit from help.

    1. Yeah Alan, the folks like Mike who can put-up a 14er naked aren’t the people we are concerned about. It’s the folks who don’t have much mountain time and training who buy a new set of XC skis at REI and then set-out to do Little Raven (rated expert) at Brainard. We can help those folks if they need it.

  8. I’ll preface this by mentioning that I’m a SAR member and routinely yard people out of the woods and off the mountain who probably should have stayed home. That being said, when I’m not on a mission and wearing a uniform of some sort, I seem to be a magnet for well-meaning folks to give me ‘advice’. Could be my somewhat disheveled secondhand attire, I don’t know. But I usually am irritated by it because I actually do know what I’m doing in spite of my appearance. I wonder how much of this behaviour might happen from uniformed patrollers. I know I’ve been tempted many times to offer help and/or advice, but I’ve always bitten my tongue because people are out in the wilderness to get away from rules and structure.

    1. John, because of my appearance, I’ve gotten unwanted backcountry advice too. And I’ve found it annoying, but pretty much said ‘thanks’ and moved on. What we are proposing is just to be there and patrol, maybe not even in our vests (although that’s where we carry first aid gear). It should be noted there is disagreement on the patrol about wearing our vests, and those opposing wearing our vests make the point that the medical stuff packs anywhere. As to backcountry advice, our plan is not say anything to anyone except “hello.” If they have questions we’ll answer them.

  9. I’ll preface this by mentioning that I’m a SAR member and routinely yard people out of the woods and off the mountain who probably should have stayed home. That being said, when I’m not on a mission and wearing a uniform of some sort, I seem to be a magnet for well-meaning folks to give me ‘advice’. Could be my somewhat disheveled secondhand attire, I don’t know. But I usually am irritated by it because I actually do know what I’m doing in spite of my appearance. I wonder how much of this behaviour might happen from uniformed patrollers.

  10. Sorry for the double post. Funny that the end was cut off the second time. Ah computers.

  11. The question is not whether or not there should be citizen patrols of wilderness, but what the term “wilderness” even means. If wilderness merely means a roadless playground for folks to take photos in en route to the next summit post, then by all means knock yourself out with your patrols. But if “wilderness” means a wild place where mother nature rules and you put your life in her hands when you visit, then perhaps you should reconsider your patrol plans…or put those helpful energies into meaningful trailhead kiosks or teaching free wilderness first aid classes. Whatever happens, please don’t wear an official uniform…anyone in need of real help will welcome it from anyone, uniform or not.

    1. Good thoughts Charles. Our plan is to patrol trails with a significant volume of skiers and snowshoers. Doubtful that we’ll get much more than five miles out from the trailheads. “Wilderness” patrols are most likely pointless. Anyone who can get out there can probably take care of themselves…or enter the food chain. The uniform question is tough. Best bet is that we’ll try it with and without our vests and see what works best.

  12. Am a former pro ski patroller, lifetime stupid adventurer, current SAR K9 handler. M.G. senior correspondent in hiatus. If Fayhee puts out a contract on you, I’m interested. Go wear your uniform and save people at the senior prom or something.

    1. Dave, thanks for the ad hominem. You’ve written some good stuff for Mountain Gazette, this post…not so much.

  13. There are those whose idea of equipment in the wilderness begins with cell phone and ends with gps. IMO, the terminally stupid should remain within 1 km of the trailhead or expect to enter the food chain. If they have a bad wilderness experience, perhaps they’ll stay at home next time and decrease crowding on the trails.

    Decreasing EMT response time in the wilderness will do exactly what? Heart attacks will still be fatal: defibrillation needs to be immediate or not at all – CPR on a corpse fatigues would-be rescuers but helps nobody. Arterial bleeding is either minor, stopped by fellow-travelers or self-rescue, or hypovolumic shock will be fatal. Fractures aren’t usually time-critical, either (except for femur fractures – see arterial bleeding above).

  14. I am one of the ones who worked with John creating the Friends of the Eagles Nest, and did a bit of SAR in my day. I have to agree with John that I don’t see the need for the patrols in the wilderness. Part of the fun and adventure is studying the maps ahead of time so you know where you are going. That said, I can see the use ( not the need) of some helpful souls in areas that have not been wilderness for some time. Brainard Lake is certainly not wilderness and definitely has lots of new-to-outdoor recreators. So, for me I would say, help those guys out and I will be just one short ridge away all by myself.

    1. I’m with you Ed. I’ll be over the next hill too. A good reasonable post. Thank you.

  15. Good questions, interesting responses.

    I believe wilderness is diminished by almost every official action that is taken within its artificial boundaries. (I say this after 14 years of employment by federal land agencies, most of it spent in de facto or designated wilderness areas.) I believe people deserve the opportunity to fuck up and get themselves hurt or killed by fleeing the confines of 21st century life. Every aspect of our lives is increasingly monitored and administered, and it is taking the fun out of being human. I worked as a Forest Service wilderness ranger in Wyoming and Idaho not because I wanted to be part of something bigger than myself, but because it allowed me to make a living atop the healthiest watersheds in the lower 48. With a few exceptions–writing tickets for illegal chainsaw use or food storage violations in grizzly country or shitting in creeks–I disliked telling people what to do. And I hated wearing a uniform. The more uniforms you see, the less wild a place is.

    1. Yup, interesting responses. But mosts of the responses are highly negative about wilderness area patrols; that’s not what we are proposing. We’re proposing patrols in high traffic areas. If there are any wilderness area patrols at all, those patrols should be the responsibility of the Feds. Thanks Michael.

  16. Hi Alan,
    I can appreciate your sincerity to help out the ignorant and inept which may even include me, but agree with what Michael had said about people having the freedom to do stupid things and not always survive the experience. I personally would be “highly annoyed” to run into one of these “helpful folks” when I’m out in the bush trying to get away for awhile. I suggest listening to the advice of MJF.

  17. I think that this could be a great tool to help out the less experienced, try and serve as people to prevent the need for SAR teams to be called as often. However, I am a backcountry nut that needs the solitude of the wild, and most of the time no more than a polite nod from fellow adventurers if i see them. that being said I think that this could be a great thing to have in already high usage areas, the more popular 14ers ect. the more experienced outdoors people like us looking for the solitude and freedom of full on self-reliant backcountry experience may be annoyed by this, but it gives us more of a reason to go exploring and get even more remote.

  18. Way back when I volunteered in a variety of SAR groups and at the time I thought it was both needful and part of doing my part.

    Most of those SAR groups today are more akin to paramilitary outfits than mountain folk helping mountain folk out. Sadly things evolve and, more often than not, not in a good way.

    I’m with Fayhee on this one…

  19. There’s definitely some interesting comments and strong opinions here,and I will have to side with Fayhee on this one. I do agree that there is some merit to the notion that volunteer patrollers could be helpful to those who are not prepared for a backcountry experience,but I also strongly feel that even volunteers in uniform would detract seriously from the feelings of freedom that many of us seek in backountry. Yes,we should be allowed to make those mistakes that could potentially kill us,without the feeling that someone is watching us. I am always willing to help any person in some sort of difficulty or distress that I might encounter in the backcountry (I suspect that almost any user would do the same),and that is as official as I would like it to be.

  20. Don’t piss on my shoe and tell me it’s raining I agree with Fayhee.

    There are a lot of Sierra Club/Bambi arse Wyatt Earp wanna bees who would like nothing better than run around with quasi-official standing telling people what to do. Some USFS folks in Kalifornia are running around giving people the 3rd degree about who they are what they are doing there and whether they are carrying a gun or not.

    Part of wildland experience is being left alone.

    RVB Swift Trail Junction AZ

    1. I too once held your sentiment.

      That is until 1995 when I met a rather confused looking chap trailing behind a large group of Biblecamp gapers on the way to the summit of El Diente.

      I stopped to chat after seeing him grovel his way back onto the vague trail. I explicitly asked him if he was allright, and if he could catch his “group”.

      He gave me an uneasy answer, but his eyes were clear and he stood steady, so off you go I said, and continued my descent. It turned out that he was solo, and he wasn’t, allright.

      Next day, my buddy got a call from the Sheriff asking for help on a body recovery on El Diente. He took some awful pix that showed the victim to be my acquaintance after a good 1500 fall. The extent of his injuries was obscene, I mean I recognized his hair and beard, but there wasn’t much left of his head. My buddy had trouble sleeping for weeks after hastily scooping as much brains as he could into the body bag before the helicopter hoisted it away. I think he is still immune to speeding tickets.

      Ever since, I take myself as a personal ranger, and if I see a gaper who is above a major drop, I always grill them making sure that they will not take the plunge.

      This should extend to everyone. If a group of T-shirt/sandal clad flatlanders are on the Bross trail like Alan described, a miserable descent might be the worst case scenario, but when the same faces a possible catastrophe, by all means go wilderness not-see on them. The life you save might be THEIRS.

  21. No patrols. No red vests and crosses, they have enough presence in the wintertime. No uniforms. No insignia. No do-gooder egos. Nada.

    Stay away. Stay in the frontcountry. Do presentations at REI.

    The backcountry is one place that should be left alone and free, like Alaska, where experiential learning for budding enthusiasts should flourish.

    Can’t there be ONE PLACE IN AMERICA where freedom is NOT free?

    What if a volunteer gives bad advice? Who will be liable?

    Please. If I see you back there, I will weep, gnash my teeth and not be very nice.

  22. in the 1990’s I was a volunteer backcountry and trailhead volunteer for the tonto n.f. here in Arizona. the fed gov had just initiated a fee to park and utilize some of the well travelled trails in the superstitions, east of the phoenix valley. needless to say this was/is a very unpopular imposition. the only thing I had going for me to “soften the blow” from the public’s tirades was I was a volunteer. generally we don’t get as mad and belligerent (spell check?!) if we’re faced with a volunteer!

  23. I definitely side with Fahyee.

    I think Stark’s premise comes from a good place but it’s too Big Brother-ish, too much “here I am, a smarter, better person out here to help all you lower-life-form idiots”. It encourages too much of the dependent mentality that says: ‘someone’ will come help me if I get in over my head, so I’ll go ahead a do this ill-advised trip for which I’ve done minimal research and training and I’ll be rescued immediately if anything goes wrong. No. No. No.

    If you choose to go ‘out there’ you need to be ready to take care of yourself. That’s not to say no one should offer help to someone who’s having trouble – I’m not saying that at all. It’s a fine line, but I think an organized patrol for wilderness pretty much misses the ENTIRE point of being there.

  24. Personal responsibility, let people have that in the woods. I appreciate your aim to be of service, but no patrols.

  25. Yeeeees. Indeed, ignore the nude anarchists and their ilk, we NEED many more patrols in the “wilderness.” What if some reckless scofflaw hikes along wearing nothing but a dark hoodie and munching non-organic Skittles? Forget your empty water bottles, what if they chug those fancy store-bought Arizona sugar drinks? Why, yes, a really motivated Patrol Guy could keep an eye on things, just make sure the Right People are okay and the EVERYONE understand the damn rules – and don’t hurt themselves! Think of the kids! If we can save even one life, it will be worth it! Hey, maybe the Patrol might follow them into camp, you know, just make sure all is well. Yes, if there’s anything we need it’s more “community patrols” in places the authorities can’t yet saturate. What the hell’s a wilderness without officially sanctioned guides with vests and radios? The more like a good ski area, the better, I say! Me, I don’t go in the wilderness because I will fuck up and die; not only could I not only cut off my arm to survive but I would balk at cutting my new hiking boot bindings. This patrol idea is great, and it might help people like me more than a cellphone with a hellicopter rescue app! Good thinking on the patrols! Official patrol motto: “When in doubt, go advise.”

  26. I agree with Alan. Backcountry patrols have their place in the wilds of America.

    I used to volunteer in the winter at Mount Rainier National Park as a backcountry ski patroller. The backcountry patrol was frequently the highest asset on the mountain during the winter weekends.

    Having helped with park evacuations, packaged a number of injured skiers and hikers, handed a park service radio to Peter Whittaker during a spring climbing accident that injured a climbing guide, to skiing a vertical mile to locate missing climbers in winds so fierce it kept the choppers grounded, my experience as a volunteer is that i made a difference in other’s lives when they needed help in the mountains the most.

    Volunteer patrols, particularly winter patrols, have their place, in places, in the mountains.

    -just not all the mountains!

  27. Giving this some further thought, and to step away from personal experiences as a mountain rescue and winter patrol volunteer…

    The other posters with their want of untrammeled places espouse an elitist, almost exclusionary sense of backcountry, as if it’s theirs and theirs alone to enjoy, without another climbing party in sight.

    There is a difference, however, between preservationism, environmentalism, and recreationalism. It must be kept in mind these values are not exclusionary, and frequently overlap. Particularly at popular access points to those wilderness areas.

    Sorry, people, get over it. There’s a LOT of interest in going to the mountains. If you live in a mountain county anywhere in the american West, expect to see other people in the mountains. Duh. Its not all pristine solitude anymore. What i see in a lot of the responses are a curious sense of extreme selfishness, as if the posters would be peeved if they ran into another climbing party on some distant summit.

    Suggestions skills will keep people safe, let the lesser mortals suffer their fates close to the trailheads, is particularly foolhardy. The reality is, experienced mountaineers get injured in the mountains with the same frequency, perhaps greater frequency, than the gapers. WE are the ones pushing our sometimes over-confident abilities to the avalanche slopes and onto sketchy ice pillars.

    People need to review a copy of Accidents in North American Mountaineering if they think their skills render them immune from ever needing an assist. To paraphrase some well renown mountaineer of long ago, perhaps Gaston Rebufatt,

    ‘The mountains do not know that you are an expert’

    It sounds like Colorado backcountry is increasingly crowded, and making people feel like the wilderness is vanishing underneath them. When i was out ski camping in Summit County back in the 80’s it never felt crowded. If people want to get lost in the backcountry, far from the maddening crowds, i hope that is still possible in Colorado. In Washington state, there is SO MUCH wilderness to ski into you.

    But, on popular routes, or at popular access points, expect to invariably run into any number of parties from experienced to not so much out enjoying themselves. Sometimes, you even run into volunteers on trail crews, volunteers out doing wildlife surveys, or wilderness rangers!

    Notions volunteers are superfluous in the mountains, or that faster response teams don’t help in wilderness incidents, is foolhardy.

    I think what people are reacting to are their worst fears of the stereotypical, portly, officious volunteer.

    My experience over decades in the mountains is that 90 percent or more of mountain related volunteers AREN’T like that. They’re guys like Alan or me, people with wilderness skills and a sense of being on point and ready to, like a lifeguard, JUMP INTO SAVE SOMEONES LIFE or otherwise assist in any emergency situation, from a lost kid to a lost pet to an skier who didn’t return to their car at the end of the day.

    The posters so mad about patrols lose sight of this reality of evacuations and rescues -they take time, and people, usually volunteers, to make them happen. Colorado mountain rescue squads provide a HUGE assist in the mountains.

    When they snap a fibula in the backcountry two miles from their car, or two thirds of their ski party gets buried in a slabalanche, they’d be singing a different tune when the volunteers came along.

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