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Getting Found by Search and Rescue

If you or someone in your group gets lost or injured in the wilderness there are some things you can do to help get found faster by Search and Rescue (SAR).  Its important to note that after SAR has been contacted, it can take a few hours for them to get coordinated (generally 4-8 hours) before they can begin looking for you.

I generally recommend planning for the worst because the wilderness is an unpredictable place.  So before you leave home tell someone your itinerary (e.g. where you're going and when you should be back), that way if you're not back in a reasonable amount of time someone can report you as missing.

Tip: I have been told by SAR in my area, that you can leave your hiking or backpacking trip plans in the glove compartment of your car, and they will generally search the vehicle for clues before starting to look for people.  I am not sure if this is practiced by all SAR departments, so this procedure may vary between areas.

Below is a list of actions that can be taken so that SAR can find you faster.
  • Stay calm!
    • Over reacting will not help your situation, its important to have a cool head.
  • Stop where you are
    • its harder for SAR to find someone that is moving.
  • Assess the situation; orient yourself.
    • Look at the direction sun is setting to guesstimate how much light you have and the general direction of west.
  • Render first aid, if needed.
    • If you or someone in your party is hurt.  Attend to these needs first and stabilize the situation the best you can.
  • Stay warm, fed and dry.
    • Depending on weather, the first thing you want to do prepare a shelter to help you last the night if necessary.
  • You may need to self-evacuate, if:
    • There is almost no chance of a timely rescue, or the area you're poses some kind of danger (e.g. weather, animals, environment, etc.)
    • You are sure you can make it to civilization in a reasonable time

Depending on how deep you are in the wilderness. you may or may not have cellular access to call 911.  Its always worth trying.  If there is no cell signal, still try SMSing someone for help.

If you can reach 911 for help be ready to provide them with the following information to assist them in finding you:

  • Number of members in your party
  • Nature of any injuries
  • Gear that you have available (including cell phone battery life)
  • GPS coordinates and map data (if you have it)
  • What you can see and hear around you
  • Where you started from and where you were going
  • Vehicle description, plate number and what (trail head it the car is parked at)

To help make it easy for SAR to find you, its important to make yourself as "visible" as possible.  

Below is a list of some things you can do to help signal SAR where you're located:

  • Call out for help, or use a whistle to indicate you might be in distress.
  • Wear the brightest thing you have.
  • Move into a clearing, if possible.
  • Type of signals you can use:
    • Daytime: mirror, smoke, flares
    • Night: cell phone or IPod screen, glow sticks

When SAR finds you, they will check you and your party for injuries and/or illnesses, give you food, water, clothing, and shelter if needed. If you're immobile, SAR will do what they can to evacuate you.