My previous SAR-related post involved a subject who was very prepared for an unintended night alone in the wilderness. This one involves a subject that could have prepared a lot better.

I answered a call to search for a missing mushroom picker in mid-October. She had gone missing the day before and had spent a cold and rainy night alone in deep woods. The temperatures overnight were in the 30s and the ridgeline a few hundred feet above our area of operations was covered in snow.

Our subject WAS NOT prepared for an unexpected night in the woods. She had become separated from a larger group, who had tried unsuccessfully to find her before calling SAR. My team was able to find her, but not before she spent more than 24 hours alone in the woods in wet clothing, no real shelter, and low nutrition. She was also succumbing to hypothermia. She had some insulating clothing, but no waterproof layers or survival equipment.

There were a couple of takeaways from this mission that are easy for people to follow and could drastically improve survivability without making major additions to your current kit.

  1. Dress for the activity: Our subject was wearing Ugg-style slipper boots that had blown-out, completely exposing her feet to low temperatures and water. This choice of footwear also significantly increases the risk of injury in the wilderness because they have very little rigidity and close to zero traction.
  2. Dress for the contingency: Some people by habit do not carry a lot of gear on their excursions. There are survival kits on the market that are not only compact but also contain easy-to-use equipment that will allow you to signal for help, build a fire, and give you shelter materials. These kits are usable for people who are survival experts or a novice hiker suddenly caught in a bad situation. I’ve said this many times before, but a knife in your kit goes a long way in giving you a way to cut firewood and build shelter. At the very (and I mean very) least, carry a whistle. It will travel farther than your voice and will not tire out like your vocal cords when trying to bring searchers closer to you.
  3. Keep track of your people: If you’re adventuring with a group, take note of what they’re wearing and equipment they’re using on the trip. Better yet, write it all down. Having a good physical description of a lost person makes life ten times easier for search and rescue staff. Keep track of important items like medical conditions and identifying features. Knowing the experience level and tendencies of your party can also help.

Even the simplest levels of preparation significantly increase survivability in the outdoors. Be smart and don’t go out without checking your gear and people first.

I was recently involved in the search for a missing hunter in Curry, County, Oregon. The man had gone missing on October 14, and at the time of this post is still missing. The man’s son tried to find him and also became lost, but was rescued several days later. Agencies from across the state were involved in trying to find him along with many community volunteers who were given easier search tasks and provided meals and supplies to searchers. Below are my thoughts on the search and what everyone can take away from this experience.

The Assignment

The Lane County Sheriff’s Office sent a contingent of ground searchers, Eugene Mountain Rescue Members, and K9 handlers on the weekend of October 22. The ground searchers and mountain rescuers divided into two teams. We were assigned to search on top of and below a ridgeline that search dogs had expressed interest in the day before. A small group of PJs (Pararescue) from the Oregon National Guard would be searching to our northeast. Several dozen other teams of SAR volunteers as well as community volunteers would perform other tasks around the area.

The hunter, Shawn Higgins, had been missing for more than a week at this point. We knew that he had gone hiking alone, had a rifle with three rounds of ammunition, and had camouflage pants, top, and balaclava. We didn’t know much about what he was packing in terms of survival or signaling equipment. Because of the harsh weather over the past week, duration of absence and the hypothermic condition of his son when he was rescued, we assumed that Higgins would be hypothermic, and unresponsive.

The Search

The area was extremely steep, rugged, and difficult to move about. The soil, which had been loosened by days of rain, moved easily under our feet. We encountered a thick section of brush, which we ultimately had to move around since we couldn’t move through it without becoming completely stalled or increasing our risk of injury. There were several points in which I had to remove my pack and crawl while pushing my gear through the branches, much like a cave diver. Other times, I had to climb over the shrubbery, sometimes standing as high as four feet off the ground. After getting past the thicket, we continued our route downhill, checking game trails and rock formations where someone may try to move or take shelter. One of the GSAR members in our team also checked out places where a hunter may try to make a hide.

The only signs of activity came from the occasional tracks from deer or elk as well as scat from deer and bear. The bear stuff was everywhere. Black bears are common in Western Oregon especially in the south. I had no idea how active they were until now. I knew this was the time of year for them to build up their reserves for hibernation.

We covered a lot of ground in our search area, but ultimately didn’t find any clues as to where Shawn Higgins could be.

The Takeaway

Because I had been involved in the search fairly late in the timeline of developments, there’s not much I can give as far as how the search for Shawn Higgins had been planned from the beginning. Our assignment had been reasonably thought out in why it was given and planned.

The lesson for everyone is to be prepared when out and about and to have a reliable way to signal for help. (This is not to say our subject in this case was not prepared). A subject wearing camouflage is much harder to find than someone who is not. If you’re wearing camouflage, please keep some kind of brightly colored clothing or signal panel as part of your kit.

Also, keep in mind that gunshots are NOT an effective way to signal in the back country. Sound from a rifle shot may not even travel 100 yards in thick timber, which is what we were searching in. Keep a whistle on your person since it will not run out of power. Your pack should also contain gear to make a shelter and fire should you be unable to return to camp or your car.

While the main search operations for Shawn Higgins have been suspended, I still hope that he is found and there is closure for his family. I also want to sincerely thank the community volunteers that assisted in the search and prepared food for the searchers.