*Information updated for 2019*
So, you’re looking forward to your next big international climbing trip… imagining what gear you will take, what crags you’re gonna hit up, the other dirtbags you’re gonna hang out with, and perhaps most importantly, what delicious beverage you will imbibe after sending your project… Man, it all sounds so rad!
Well, not so fast, climbing friends! I’ve got a couple of things to bring you back to Planet Earth, and those things are called “Insurance” and “Product Disclosure Statements”.
Back in the day, when I was a young thing with a broken heart, I took off on a trip around the world. I partook in many worldly rites of passage, protected by some sort of “normal” travellers insurance which my Mum insisted I take out. I left with her fantastic life advice of “keep yourself nice” (thanks, Mum!) and somehow returned many months later with all of my limbs intact. Thankfully, I never had cause to make an insurance claim, but who knows if I would have been covered anyway.
Fast forward 15 years and things are much different. I now know every single word of my insurance agreement and every exact scenario in which they will cover me for before I head overseas. Dude, let me tell you, product disclosures are a minefield.
Long story short, nobody trusts Australians enough in the mountains to insure them comprehensively. Given our lack of alpine terrain, this is not entirely unfair. So how do we trustworthy, highly-skilled individuals become insured? Right now, I bet you’re clamming up and thinking “I’m a climber, not an insurance broker! I don’t understand this F*#KING SH!T!”
Never fear. I have done all the hard yakka so you don’t have to. Whether your climbing trip will last 2 weeks or 2 months, this document will bring you up to speed on everything you need to know**. Read on, little ones.
Alpine Club Insurance
Up until as recently as March 2017, we climbers could simply join the Austrian Alpine Club (AAC) for about $130 AUD under some strange, clandestine arrangement through their UK Branch. It was the easiest way for Aussies to climb and ski wherever we jolly well wanted and be covered for Search and Rescue costs and medical fees. But the underwriters must have cottoned on to the fact everyone was joining AAC for the sole purpose of cheap insurance and sadly these good ol’ days have come to an end, at least as far as long trips are concerned.
For trips of up to 8 weeks, AAC will cover Search and Rescue up to $25k Euro, unlimited repatriation costs and medical costs up to $10K Euro. However, this medical cover will not cover you for car crashes, which is important to note in case you come unstuck on the way to the crag. For those intending to climb longer than the specified 8 weeks, or at heights of greater than 6000m in altitude, the AAC cannot cover us. It’s also important to know that this 8 week period is inclusive of your entire time spent outside your home country, meaning that even if you plan on climbing for 7 weeks and spending 2 weeks sipping pina coladas on a tropical beach, you will not be covered for ANY of your trip.
The New Zealand Alpine Club (NZAC) can offer you rescue and medical insurance as an Australian climbing in NZ… but this will not cover you anywhere overseas unless you have a NZ passport. However, it’s worth remembering as it’s a great option if you’re just heading over the ditch for a TMC or a cheeky ski.
Even with one of these memberships, you will still need to take out “normal” travel insurance in all likelihood.
“Normal” Travel Insurance
When I talk about “Normal” Travel Insurance, I’m talking about your basic everyday travel insurance packages that are sold by every man and his dog. I’m here to tell you that they are not as simple and everyday as they state in their advertisements. Sure, if you are heading off on a sojourn to, let’s say Japan, and you are going to eat sushi and stay in posh traditional Japanese house and sit in some onsens, you’re sorted. But most of us climbers actually want to climb and about 100% or more of the time you will not be covered under these normal types of insurance.
Climbing Insurance add-ons with “Normal” travel insurance
A selection of these normal types of insurance will cover you for trekking, though it will stipulate that this must be without the use of ropes and only up to a certain elevation. With some, rock climbing will be included but only if you climb with a guide, up to a certain elevation, and only in certain countries.
Essentially, these normal-type insurance options are only useful for shorter holidays in which you’ll do nothing more adventurous than single-pitch cragging. They often won’t cover anything that could be thought of as “alpine”, so they might rule locations like Tuolumne or the Bugaboos out. But they do they include things like rental car excess and trip cancellations, so might be a good option for your month-long sojourn in Kalymnos or Krabi. However, it is not an easy process to figure out, so here is a breakdown of what is currently available for the average Australian rock-climber:
Their website gives a comprehensive breakdown on what is in and out, currently no cover for mountaineering, trekking or trad climbing in the USA or Canada. You must submit details such as your experience and any qualifications you have, and what your plans are to be approved for cover. Underwrittten by Berkshire Hathaway Specialty Insurance Company.
- Virgin Money
Does not appear to have any restrictions relating to outdoor rock climbing, apart from needing the necessary equipment including helmets. However, they will not cover anything in a “mountain” environment that requires a rope or technical equipment, and don’t appear to have any Search and Rescue component to the premium. Requires a mandatory $500 excess in the event of a claim. Does not cover you for any permanent disability. Underwritten by Allianz.
- Zoom Travel Insurance
Coverage includes sport and trad climbing up to an altitude of 6000m, but nothing that would be classified as alpine climbing (e.g. no ice and snow). Necessary equipment including helmets required. Requires a mandatory $500 excess. Does not cover you for any permanent disability. Does not cover Search and Rescue, so additional insurance needed for this. Underwritten by Lloyd’s.
- World Nomads
For outdoor rock climbing, you must be a qualified guide or go with a guide, and have necessary equipment including helmets. Underwritten by Lloyd’s.
I’m no lawyer, but I would think that following would be essential to check with the provider before you purchase the insurance (in fact, Insure4less have stated that you need to do this):
- Confirm that a specific area (if you have one) is approved by the insurance company
- Confirm what Search and Rescue strategy they include/cover and what you need to do in a catastrophic event (e.g. what emergency number to call)
Additionally, insurance companies will always try to look for a way out of paying a claim, so I cannot stress how important it is to have adequate skills, including vertical rescue training and detailed climbing log books (thank you to our friends at www.thecrag.com ).
If you are going for longer than a month or two, the above options will be expensive. Therefore, the alternative for those of us on longer sojourns, without prior knowledge of the exact days we are climbing on, is to take out several separate policies – you’ll need cover for search and rescue (which you will need even if you have ‘normal’ travel insurance), cover for medical insurance, and also cover for personal items including your beloved trad rack.
Search and Rescue Insurance
Thankfully for us, there are fantastic Search and Rescue teams who will come into the mountains and far-flung places to help us out when we are in serious trouble. I’m not talking about when you have rolled your ankle or run out of coffee, I’m talking serious accidents from which you need to be airlifted out, ASAP.
That said, purchasing Search and Rescue insurance does not mean that such services are available in the area you wish to climb! Before you go to a different climbing area or country, it really pays to check what rescue services these areas actually have.
For example, in New Zealand, the SAR teams are outstanding. Most are volunteers and it’s free to be rescued… just ask Ryan about his free sunset flight along the West Coast of New Zealand! Having said that, if you’re going to spend a lot of time there, perhaps you could throw a few bucks at these volunteer organisations to help them out with equipment and training. Just sayin’.
On the other hand, there were a number of free rescue services in many of the countries we visited South America, but not every area was covered. We both felt it prudent not to rely entirely the idea of a Search and Rescue service, particularly seeing as we were not local climbers in those areas.
Basically, you have two Search and Rescue Insurance options as Australians: one is Ripcord (an arm of Redpoint Resolutions) and the other is Global Rescue. Both of these organisations offer an annual membership, as well as short-term cover options. Both companies are based in the USA and, as such, offer additional medical, cancellation and personal items insurance to citizens of the USA. But for everyone else, you will need to seek elsewhere for that cover.
Both organisations offer a large medical rescue budget ($500K – 750K USD). This means they will transport you or reimburse the rescue transport costs if you require extraction from remote areas. However, only Ripcord offers reimbursement of a field ‘search’ scenario – and this is only up to a value of $25K USD (though, as most of us are aware, the option for ‘search’ in many places is limited).
Another important point to keep in mind, is that these insurance companies require you to have 2-way communication through satellite phone or a fancy GPS-style PLB (i.e. InReach Explorer). Your device has to be linked to them but it’s easy to call them to set up this step. Luckily, I personally have never had to use these Search and Rescue services, however, I do have experience using satellite communication devices and know they can be tricky. I highly recommend testing your device before heading off on expedition… not when you have frostbite and a broken leg.
A good comparison of these services including testimonials can be found here.
I’ll tell you one place you don’t want to go without comprehensive Medical Insurance cover – Trump-Land aka Obamacare-no-more. If you need some IV fluids or stitches while you’re Stateside, just get them to take your kidney out to help pay for it.
Even though medical care may be much cheaper everywhere else in the world, it’s still worth thinking about. If something serious happens like appendicitis, or kidney stones (in Antarctica if you’re Ranulph Fiennes!), or broken bones, you’re going to have to get help quickly and it might not be cheap. In many countries, particularly in South America, you will have to pay upfront in the hospital before they operate on you or fix you up, which is something to keep in mind when looking at your everyday bank account on your travels.
Now, because you are most likely an Australian if you’re reading this, here’s where it gets complicated… Up until recently, Global Underwriters offered cover (the ‘International Diplomat’ package) to people residing in Australia, and this would have been the best type of cover for climbers heading above 4500m, as long as they had the right qualifications (i.e. vertical rescue and log books). However, in late 2017, they changed the wording so that Australians cannot be covered if living in Australia. If you have evidence and can show you have been living elsewhere before gaining insurance, you can get coverage (and this includes residing in Antarctica – gee, thanks!). This is important because they will not cover your medical costs or your transportation home in the event of an emergency evacuation, therefore, you will be wasting your money.
The only suitable alternative that I have been able to find for Australians residing in Australia is the HCC Atlas package, which covers climbers with appropriate qualifications, but only up to 4500m. Why they have chosen this elevation limit, I do not know, but seeing as La Paz sits at 3640m, climbing in Bolivia (or Peru for that matter) will be a risk. That said, you will most likely be rescuing yourself in many of these places as they are so remote… or at least getting yourself to below 4500m before hitting the SOS button on your satellite communication device!
As you can assume, the total cost of medical insurance cover varies with the budget threshold and excess choice. And while it is far from your mind now, it is important to consider that a loss of a limb or eye/ear will only give you a 50% reimbursement of the total ‘Accidental Death and Dismemberment’ budget. Charming, I know.
Contrary to the aforementioned “Normal” Insurance packages, the cost of the HCC Atlas package for a whole year is relatively cheap at around $1000 USD, depending on your budget threshold and excess choice. But, with the ever-changing market, I suggest contacting a global health insurance broker such as these guys who can contact the primary insurance companies directly to get the most current information.
Equipment/Personal Belongings Insurance
Read 99% of “Normal” Travel Insurance product disclosures and they will tell you they don’t cover items stolen from an automobile… so if you are a dirtbag climber living out of your car or perhaps a Toyota Hiace named “La Tortuga” in my case, you won’t be covered when some bandit comes to rob you while you’re out searching for empanadas.
But what about my home and contents insurance, I hear you say? First of all, I don’t have a fancy house with insurance and many of the houses I’ve rented don’t have windows that lock (or even close sometimes) so I wouldn’t be covered anyways. Secondly, 99% of contents insurance policies will only cover you for 30 days of overseas travel, so if you are going long-term, this will not do. Given how much we’ve invested in gear for various climbing disciplines (sport, trad, snow and ice), as well as our beloved van, we wanted peace of mind for our entire trip.
After contacting a million companies, I have found two companies plus a couple of potential of other options. Another US-based company named Clements Worldwide were able to offer the best deal for full comprehensive cover against vehicle and personal belongings, including electronics equipment. The personal belongings can even be covered when in transit (e.g. shipping container between Texas and Colombia), though the van cannot be covered for this. The best thing about this company, besides from being quite reasonable in cost, is that they do not expect you to have everything triple locked in compartments within the van at all times. They also understand that break-ins most likely occur at night… read any other insurance PDS and I guarantee that you will not be covered for theft from a vehicle at night. WTF.
The only downside in the Clements Worldwide insurance option, is that they cannot offer cover in the USA. This is because they have built these options for specifically for members of the military, foreign diplomats, missionaries etc. One can assume they’re probably not doing a roaring trade covering dirtbag climbers, so we’re less of a consideration.
An Australian based insurance company, Aviso Group, may offer a solution for cover in the USA or even in South America, but I’m 99.9% sure this would not include vehicle insurance. They were also hard to contact for a quote, but you might have better luck.
Lastly, if you do need vehicle and personal belongings insurance for the USA, I warn you that it doesn’t come cheap, and only two companies now offer this type of insurance. These are, Progressive and Thum Insurance. Again, this is a constantly changing market, and if your vehicle has USA number plates, you will have more options than my Czech-plated La Torgtuga!
So my final advice for Australian climbers doing a long-term worldwide climbing roadtrip extravaganza, is to:
- Confirm what Search and Rescue services exist in the areas which you’ll be climbing in
- Strongly consider Ripcord membership for Search and Rescue cover
- Consider what altitude you will climb to
- Get a Vertical Rescue certification and keep a climbing log book
- Take a look at the HCC Atlas as your medical insurance option
- Strongly consider buying a two-way satellite communication device
- Clements Worldwide seems to be the best option for vehicle and personal belongings/equipment insurance
Hopefully you won’t need to claim on your insurance, but shit happens and you want to know you’re covered! Stay safe!
Originally published in January 2018
Most recent update August 2019
**We are not affiliated in any way with any insurance company and the above is merely general advice from one climber to another. All attempts were made to provide correct information but insurance documents were crafted by Satan and are liable to change at any given second, possibly before your very eyes. Always triple-check your PDS before handing any money over!