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.

The intense 2017 wildfire and hurricane seasons in the United States and a series of deadly earthquakes in Mexico have many people wondering about their level of preparedness. They’re  also wondering how to help their community prepare for and respond to a major disaster. Police officers, EMS staff and firefighters are often equipped and ready to go at a moment’s notice to get to work when these things happen. But what about people outside those fields who want to get involved? There are many volunteer opportunities that can give you the skills, knowledge and regular operating experience to help you be ready and help those around you be ready for major events. Here are just a few.

The Red Cross – The Red Cross is an invaluable group during severe weather season. They provide anything from basic toiletries to evacuation shelters to people experiencing any sort of disaster, whether it’s a house fire or a hurricane. Volunteers are often dealing with distressed families who have been forced out of their homes and in need of comfort or shelter. Volunteers can also travel across the country and even overseas to help respond to disasters.

Volunteer Firefighting – An especially valuable service in rural areas, volunteer firefighters are responsible for firefighting and fire safety education in their community. They can also become involved in wildland firefighting activities. Training as a volunteer firefighter can involve medical services, hazardous materials and urban search and rescue. The skills and knowledge you gain can assist you in preparing your own home and family for an emergency.

Volunteer Search and Rescue – My favorite commitment (can you guess why?) is SAR. Search and Rescue not only prepares you to save the lives of others, but also your own when things go wrong in the wilderness. A SAR person on a hike is rarely ever unprepared. Your rescue training will include land navigation, first aid, communications and planning. More advanced teams will operate in rope rescue, equestrian-based searching and K9 searching. Search and Rescue can also be called upon to assist in evacuations during major disasters.

Community Emergency Response Team (CERT) – CERT volunteers serve as a city’s volunteer support team during a disaster. Training can include first aid, light search and rescue and fire safety. Volunteers also take part in community events to help prepare their neighborhoods for emergencies.

So what’s right for you? Take a look at your lifestyle and see what kind of time you can commit and what fits your interests and current skillsets. SAR and firefighting will take a significant level of physical fitness so don’t sign right up if you’re a couch potato. Check out the Red Cross website for a chapter near you. Your local city and county website will also have resources for volunteer groups.

We recently posted an article asking if your child would be found alive if they were stranded outside. That led to a question of what situations would be best to stay where you are and what situations would you be best served by leaving the area. In most cases, you’re better off staying where you are rather than going off somewhere else. For those of you who don’t know my other posts on this site, I’m an active member of a Search and Rescue team in the Pacific Northwest, and I have a lot of experience in what’s effective at outdoor survival and being found.

Sometimes not doing anything is your best chance at getting out of a hairy situation alive. Several factors may influence the decision to stay put. You may be lost in an area you are not familiar with. You may not have reliable navigation. It may look like bad weather is coming in. If any of these are true, sheltering in place may be your best option for making it through the night and being rescued.

A lost person may panic and try to search for a way out of the wilderness in some way that makes sense to them. They may try to go uphill, downhill, upstream or downstream. In a panicky situation they may travel in any direction they believe carries even the slightest chance of getting back to civilization. But if you’re up a creek without a paddle, or up a trail without a compass, roaming around could only worsen your situation, and decrease your chances of being found and rescued. Your rescuers may have no idea which direction you went in, and therefore no direction on where to start looking.

Search teams work with your point last seen (where someone last had contact with you) and your last known point (determined by specific clues collected during the search). Deviating from where you currently stand without knowing where you are going will only increase the time it takes for teams to locate you. If you have a map, compass, are uninjured and have the means to endure the elements, then you will likely be able to make your way back without issue. But if you are lacking proper navigation and survival gear or are injured, your best option for survival and rescue is to hunker down. Wandering further will only increase your chances of being exposed to harsh elements. That exposure will lead to hypothermia, which will take a toll on your mobility and judgement.

You will need to establish some kind of shelter to protect yourself from the elements in your current position. An A-frame type shelter with branches, leaves and pine bows stacked over the sides can shield you from moderate wind and rain. And that’s just if you don’t have any equipment with you whatsoever. Having something as simple as a mylar blanket will drastically increase your odds of staying warm and dry. Add a knife and paracord and you have many ways to make a simple but durable shelter that will help you ward off hypothermia. The ability to build and sustain a fire further increases your odds and also serves as a signaling tool.

If you are in a position that is too dangerous to shelter in, move as short a distance as possible to take cover, and leave some kind of sign for rescuers indicating your direction. For example, make an arrow with sticks or rocks. Use whatever is available to tell people you are still alive and not far away.

The best way to avoid this situation altogether is to be both mentally and physically prepared. Know the area you are going to and know the weather forecast for the next 24 hours. Be sure to pack the essential items for outdoor activities, and enough food and water to last longer than you intend to be outdoors.

When it comes to dedicated survival kits, there are a number of options that are compact and lightweight for people who want simple shelter, fire and signaling solutions. You can also assemble your own from preferred components. As long as you don’t go without the essentials you’ll be able to go out and back safely. But remember, when things turn bad, there is no shame in making the choice to hunker down, stay warm and ensure your safety.

Sometimes there are people who aren’t prepared for things to go wrong. And sometimes there are people who are ready for just about anything. This is a story of the latter.

One recent July morning, I answered a callout to help search for a missing hiker who had been separated from his camping group on Oregon’s Obsidian Trail in the Willamette National Forest. He and his group had taken different turns on the trail, and they called him in as missing. He would spend two nights alone in the wilderness after taking the correct path on his original journey, and was later wondering if it was his group who had gotten lost.

I was part of a three-person team that went in to find him. I had just finished my usual overnight shift at my regular job, so I slept in the truck on the way in. I carried a regular ground search loadout, leaving my climbing gear and other unnecessary items. We booked it along the Obsidian trail, traveling over hard dirt and also large packs of snow that were still melting down after a big snow season. I didn’t need snowshoes for travel, but trekking poles were definitely a must to maintain speed and stability on the hard snowpack.

After more than three miles, we came upon a lava field that gave us an awe-inspiring view of the North and Middle Sisters and a clear area to do a vocal hail. To my surprise, we got a response. We radioed in our results and pushed on, crossing the lava field and a large glacial stream. We could hear our subject calling out and whooping as we approached.

We spotted several people at the end of the stream. It just so happened our subject had linked up with an outdoor adventure group that was also camping in the area. He was in pretty good shape and pretty happy to see us. I sized up his gear and it looked like he had a full pack of equipment as well as a large survival knife strapped to the outside. He was on his way back to the trail head, concerned about the whereabouts of his camping group who had called him in missing.

I was pleasantly surprised to see how prepared our subject was. He didn’t seem too worn out when we made contact with him and didn’t need any food or water.

There are two big takeaways from this mission. The first is that being prepared pays off. Our subject was prepared for several days of camping and even had equipment to endure extra time in the wilderness if needed. The second was that when camping in groups, make sure your party knows the exact way to get to your destination and has more than one way to navigate (not a cell phone!). This will help all of you get to your site even if members are starting their trip at different times.


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.