Search & Rescue (SAR) teams are on call 24 hours a day to help get hunters, hikers, and other outdoors explorers out of tight spots. Many SAR missions could be avoided or made easier with a little preparation by those who might need rescuing. In that spirit, Sydney Lear, a SAR instructor with the Blue Ridge Mountain Search & Rescue Group (BRMRG), talked to us about some things we can all do to help avoid a rescue—or at least make it easier should we need one.
Get Trained Up on Basic Land Navigation and First Aid Give yourself the tools to be self-reliant and an asset to others. The "MeatEater Guide to Wilderness Skills and Survival" is a great place to start for many of these topics, but most take practice to master.
Any serious outdoors person should understand how to navigate with a paper map and compass. Navigation courses are available from the REI Co-op and other organizations, with both online and in-person offerings. You can get first aid courses online through the American Red Cross and wilderness first aid training with NOLS and a number of other groups. Such training is also part of becoming a SAR team member.
Get the Right Gear and Learn to Use It You don’t need to spend all your pennies on fancy gear, but you do want gear that performs. Most importantly, you need to know how to use the gear you have. Practice with it, then practice some more. If and when you need it, your gear, knowledge, and muscle memory will have to overcome a cocktail of adrenaline, fatigue, fear, and a foggy mind.
“You can have a good topo map and the best compass,” Lear said. “But if you don’t know how to use them, they’re just fire starters.”
Make and Share an Outing Plan “Make sure someone knows where you are,” Lear said. “Send them a map and show them where you’ll be, what your plan is, and definitely agree on a time out. Then stick to your plan.”
Float plans are commonplace among paddlers and such documents have value for any type of outing. Include your vehicle information; when and where you’re going and with whom; where you’ll park and what your route is; when you’ll be back; who to contact if folks don’t hear from you; and other relevant details. Here’s a sample float plan the U.S. Coast Guard to get you started.
Cover the 10 Essentials In almost any outing gone wrong, you’ll need to be able address these 10 essentials: emergency shelter, fire, first aid, food, hydration, insulation (appropriate clothing), flashlight/headlamp and backup batteries, navigation (hard copy map and compass), a knife and repair kit, and sun protection. Put a signaling device such as a whistle in that pack, and consider the very strong argument for including a GPS and a personal locator beacon or satellite phone.
“They’re expensive,” Lear said, “but they’re cheaper than the cost of a long SAR mission.”
Check out this list of basic gear that BRMRG SAR team members carry in their packs. Make sure to bring a day pack even if you're just heading out for a few hours. You never want to get caught unprepared for an unseen situation, and those can occur from even the simplest of excursions. Always have a general idea of what the weather is supposed to do in your area, too.
Sort Any Apps & Phone Hacks Even for a first-rate navigator with a printed map and compass, it’d be silly to ignore any available resources. So, if you have electronics, be ready to use them. Pick the apps you want and download them with WiFi before you need them.
“Navigation apps don’t take much signal or battery to use, but they take a lot to download, so put them on the phone before you need them,” Lear said. “You can use apps to get your coordinates, find yourself on the map, and navigate your way out. Or you can text those coordinates to your point of contact to help the SAR team get to you.”
OnX is always a great option for backcountry use. Just make sure to download maps of your intended location to your phone before leaving cell service.
Start Out on the Right Foot Orient yourself before you step into the woods. Note the waterways, roads, ridges, railroad tracks, or other features around you. Then find yourself and those features on your map. Now you know where you are. For backup, mark your parking spot on your GPS. And remember, a phone on airplane mode lasts hours longer and a back-up battery pack extends the resource even further. Pay attention and know where you are at all times. This is where your land navigation course will come in handy.
Know Yourself and Be Honest “There’s quite the denial when you first get lost,” Lear said. “So many people just keep wandering and by the time they admit they’re lost, they’ve dug themselves into a deeper hole. And people with a lot of experience in the woods can sometimes be more susceptible to this.”
Ego is the enemy, especially in the woods. The second you realize you don’t know where you are, run the OODA Loop: Observe, Orient, Decide, Act. Make sure you’re in a safe spot. If not, get to one. There, consult your map. Note the topography around you—can you find that on the map? Can you use any apps to find your coordinates and plot those on your map? Can you follow the GPS back to your vehicle? Can you make a call? Consider your resources and assess your situation.
If you determine your best course of action is to self-rescue, you’ll be relying on the skills you earned in your land navigation course and in your practice as a woodsman. Following a waterway downstream can work. Listening for road noise and paying attention to other clues helps. Attitude is extremely important. But many people dig themselves deeper and complicate both their experience and any SAR mission.
“None of us want to be the one who has to get rescued,” Lear said. “But a lot can happen when you’re too proud to ask for help. Calling for help is the safest bet.”
If you trust your plan and your point of contact, maybe you decide sitting tight is your best bet.
“But staying put doesn’t mean doing nothing,” Lear said. “You have to be an advocate for your rescue.”
Be an Advocate for Your Rescue Put your 10 Essentials to work for you. Settle in. Stay calm. Get comfortable. Treat injuries if you have them. It’s likely going to be a long wait. If you have cell service, call for help or send a text. Activate your SPOT beacon or make a satellite phone call if you have it. If you don’t have these things, you’ll have to trust that your point of contact will sound the alarm at the agreed-upon time. Stay positive. Stay active. Make a shelter. Stay hydrated. Build a fire and gather green materials to create signal smoke. Keep blowing three short blasts on your whistle, it carries further than the human voice. Hang hunter’s orange high. Do everything you can to help rescuers find you.
“If you’re injured, assess the injury and treat it if you can,” Lear said. “Determine if you can walk out or if you need to stay put and signal for help. Just don’t overestimate your abilities.”
Either way, if you have cell service, let your point of contact know your location, situation, and revised plan.
If you’re curious about what happens during emergency situations, what decisions people tend to make, and how those turn out for them, Lear recommends “Deep Survival: Who Lives, Who Dies, and Why”. It’s a risk-free way to learn the hard-won lessons of others.
Help Get Yourself Out of the Woods “Once the team finds you, be a proactive subject. Tell them about all circumstances that led to the situation—for their safety and for yours. Be honest about how you’re feeling,” Lear said. “If you’re injured, it will be a long process to get you out. The injury will determine the treatment and you may be carried out on a litter by a rotating team of volunteers. Just listen to the rescuers and advocate for yourself so that you’re helping things along.”
In the end, even the most skilled woodsman can find herself in a situation she’s not prepared to handle alone. So, we have to be honest about when it’s time to ask for help. There’s no shame in it. But let’s avoid it if possible. Train up as best you can, plan ahead, and be honest about your skills and your situation. Do what you need to do to get home to your loved ones.
Finally, please look at joining your local team of professionally trained SAR volunteers. SAR teams and hunters need each other.