Chad Agy Presents: Is Rescue Insurance Worth It? 

Rescue insurance is a unique, modern day invention.  While previous generations of explorers set off in to the wilderness with the knowledge that a medical emergency or injury may be life ending, today we have the ability to seek rescue with the push of a button on a satellite communication device. Enjoy this article in the series, Chad Agy Presents: Is Rescue Insurance Worth It? 

Some adventurous anglers see this as a crutch that allows for invincibility.  Rescue and evacuation insurance is truly a modern luxury that should be purchased for certain trips, especially for individuals with medical co-morbidities.  However, there are definitely some pitfalls and questions that should be considered before traipsing off in to the wilderness with the belief that rescuers will manifest out of thin air and save the day in the event of an injury or medical emergency.  

  1. Is there infrastructure in place to rescue me should I need it? – This is the first question to ask when considering the purchase of rescue insurance.  While the question is applicable to many parts of the world, personally, this question is most pertinent during my travels to the Colombian Amazon.  During my last trip to Colombia, we boated hundreds of miles down the Guaviare River, in a journey that took ten hours by jet boat.  This is probably the most remote environment I have ever experienced.  I strongly considered the utility of rescue insurance for this trip.  But then I thought about the logistics of a rescue.  The nearest town with a hospital was approximately 300 miles away from our lodge.  Whether or not that hospital had an air ambulance service (ie helicopter) was unclear, but seemed unlikely.  Even if it did, we were outside the range of most helicopters, with no obvious place for one to land in the dense jungle.  In this situation, I reasoned that I could call for a rescue all I wanted, but the logistics of such operation would be nearly impossible to arrange in a timely manner.  Almost certainly, the ten hour boat ride out of the area could be completed faster than any useful rescue service would be arranged. Now that’s not to say that every austere environment is not amenable to medical evacuation.  For example, Nepal has a robust air ambulance infrastructure given the amount of trekking and mountaineering that goes on in that country.  Shorter flight distances make these rescues logistically possible.  One quick call on a satellite phone, and an expert pilot may be on his/her way within minutes, weather permitting.  In an area like this, rescue insurance makes a lot of sense. 
  2. How long will the evacuation take? – This is another fair question when considering rescue insurance.  In many austere environments, especially in developing countries, there’s not a button the rescue insurance agent can press to guarantee a quick, professional rescue.  Organization of such an operation could take time to arrange.  When you press the SOS button on your satellite communication device, don’t expect helicopters to descend from the sky within minutes.  Some degree of self-sufficiency and preparation is paramount in importance, whether or not rescue insurance is purchased. 
  3. Read the fine print. – Did you find a screaming deal on rescue insurance?  Is it so cheap that it was a “no brainer” to purchase?  Well, you better read the fine print.  It may not cover injuries incurred during certain activities.  It may not extend to the part of the world where you’re traveling.  The cap on payments may be too low to make any great difference in covering the cost of a difficult extraction.  The insurance may only cover transportation to the nearest hospital, which in many countries may not be all that useful.  Many other potential restrictions exist.  Read the fine print before purchasing any sort of rescue insurance.  Truly useful insurance from legitimate companies will likely cost hundreds of dollars for most trips.
  4. Is rescue already free? – On the other hand, in some places, the expense of rescue insurance may be unnecessary due to the availability of free search and rescue.  Many places, especially in the United States, provide this service as a government-funded luxury.  One can debate whether or not tax payers should be responsible for foolish decisions and bad luck of people who stray in to the back country.  But the reality is this service is provided for free in many remote locations, such as the backcountry of New Zealand and Alaska.  Anglers with common injuries or medical events may not require the purchase of rescue insurance in these types of environs. 

Undoubtedly, the best way to handle medical emergencies and injuries in austere locations is to avoid them in the first place.  This was a lesson taught to me on one of my very first remote fly fishing trips.  My float plane had just landed on a gravel bar next to a pristine river in the high Arctic.  I stepped out of the plane, immediately assembled a rod, and bounded up through the tussocks of the tundra to a cliff overlooking the river to see if I could spot any anadromous dolly varden.  Upon returning to the group, I was scolded by one of the experienced members of the party.  He said that my actions could have easily ended my trip, and maybe the trip of the group as a whole.  After my initial befuddlement cleared, I realized what he was saying.  Running through the tussocks could result in an injury such as a badly sprained ankle, a trivial issue back home but perhaps a trip ender in this setting.  A fall from the cliff could result in a broken limb or worse.  Again, this would be unfortunate but not catastrophic near civilization, but a dangerous situation at minimum in Alaska’s Brooks Range.  Since then, I’ve taken an overly cautious approach when fishing in an austere setting.  I walk slower, I reconsider any sort of action that could put myself in danger, and I look out for others to help them avoid similar mistakes.  

Whether or not rescue insurance is purchased, I think it is foolish to go in to the back country without some sort of satellite communication device.  I own a Garmin InReach Mini, which is an affordable device that allows me to text via my cellphone from essentially anywhere on Earth.  At minimum, these devices are helpful to communicate with family and friends back home, allowing me to provide updates and let them know that everything is going well.  They can also be useful to communicate with pilots and rearrange plans if necessary.  My last trip without the Garmin was a backcountry New Zealand adventure.  After being dropped off by helicopter, the plan was to ascend a remote river approximately 15 miles to the pick up spot.  We knew this itinerary may require us to swim in a few deep canyons, and that the traverse had not been done in about a decade.  Long story short, several swims in to the adventure my friend almost drowned in colder than expected water and weather.  We decided to turn back to the drop off point.  I had a premonition that the upstream traverse may be impassible, and had made alternate plans with the pilot to return to the drop off point if he did not see us at the end of the route.  But this situation would have been much less stressful if we had a way to communicate directly with the pilot and the outside world when things were going wrong. 

In summary, rescue and medical evacuation insurance may be a safe and smart plan for many remote fly fishing trips.  But logistical issues in some destinations may render such insurance minimally useful or perhaps completely useless.  The best way to mitigate the dangers of austere environments involves a cautious approach, meticulous preparation, and self-reliance.