Story: Search and rescue

Page 2. Who needs search and rescue?

All images & media in this story

Most people who are rescued in New Zealand are taking part in outdoor sports and recreation, usually in summer. Boating and tramping account for a large number of search and rescue operations. Mishaps during other risky pursuits such as hunting, mountaineering, surfing, caving and rafting also result in many callouts.

Some groups of people are more likely to get into trouble. International tourists who are not used to such rugged conditions can get caught out when a seemingly easy walk turns into a demanding climb. Mentally ill people or small children can wander into unfamiliar territory and become lost.

How do people get into trouble?

Even experienced trampers and boaties can strike problems, especially if the weather quickly changes for the worse. Accidents and medical emergencies can also happen.

Many people, however, are simply ill-prepared when they head for the outdoors. Factors leading to trouble include inexperience, alcohol, equipment failure, and not enough food or clothing.

People often ignore the basic safety rules for outdoor activities:

  • Ensure your experience matches your planned activity
  • Take enough food, drink and clothing
  • Know how to use maps, navigation aids and equipment
  • Don’t travel alone
  • Respect the weather and listen to the forecast
  • Tell others of your intentions.

Learning bushcraft or boating skills can help people survive in an emergency. Carrying safety equipment and first aid supplies is also vital. A cell phone, mountain radio, personal locator beacon, or boat or aircraft emergency beacon can also be used to summon help, cutting lengthy searches short.

Number of rescues

In 2005/6, according to police statistics, there were 1,351 Class II and 59 Class III search and rescue operations. Of the total (1,410), about half were on land and half at sea. Close to 3,000 people were assisted. However, 66 of them died before rescue, or in spite of it.

Radio rescue

New Zealand’s Mountain Radio Service hires out lightweight radios for use in the outdoors. Four trampers were saved by a mountain radio in 2004 when they became stranded in a wild West Coast storm. Two were seriously ill with hypothermia, and would probably not have survived the night. They called for help on the radio, and after a dramatic helicopter rescue were taken to Hokitika for treatment.

There were slightly fewer rescues than the previous year, but this may not represent a trend. The unusually severe winter in 2005 may have stopped many people from venturing outdoors. In future however, the length and cost of search and rescue operations are predicted to decline as technological changes make searching easier.


The cost of Class II and III search and rescue operations in 2005–6 was $1,551,757. This does not take into account many unpaid hours worked by volunteers.

How to cite this page:

Nancy Swarbrick, 'Search and rescue - Who needs search and rescue?', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 3 July 2022)

Story by Nancy Swarbrick, published 24 Sep 2007