The SAR Pack: Search & Rescue Gear
A 24-Hour Pack for SAR Personnel
When I began training to be a Search and Rescue volunteer, one of the required classes focused on personal safety and outdoor gear. Being a well-seasoned hiker and long-distance backpacker, I already had a closet overflowing with packs, sleeping bags, water bottles, headlamps and so forth. In fact, I was just about to take over another closet. But, still, I didn't have everything the SAR instructor said we'd need for our mission-ready packs. And some of my new teammates had little in the way of gear at all.
During a short break in the class, the woman seated next to me turned to me and said, "I sure wish I could buy the whole kit and kaboodle at once, because I need almost everything for a 24-hour pack."
Well, that got me thinking. And that thinking eventually led me to start up my own business, selling pre-equipped backpacks intended both for Search & Rescue participants as well as a somewhat different version for recreational hikers.
(Note: I filled many orders since that time, but due to cost issues with ordering the individual items from various distributors, assembling the packs and then shipping the kits to customers, I discontinued selling pre-equipped packs as of 2012.)
Here I'll explain not only what I included in the SAR pack but what was not included as well. Keep in mind that this pack is intended as a base for general, ground-unit Search & Rescue personnel. It does not include additional gear needed by those who take part in technical rescue or other types of SAR.
First, The Ten Essentials for Hikers
These ten things are what every backcountry traveler should carry in their backpacks.
Most everyone involved in Search & Rescue has probably heard the phrase "the ten essentials" umpteen times. The term refers to a list of items experienced hikers and other outdoor "experts" consider to be .... well, essential for safe travel in the backcountry. More often than not, the list looks like this:
- Sunglasses and sunscreen (that's two, I guess)
- Extra food and water
- Extra clothes
- First aid kit
- Fire starter (ie. chemical heat tabs, canned heat, magnesium stick)
- Matches or a lighter
But I prefer to think of the "ten essentials" as ten categories rather than ten items, as follows:
- Sun Protection
- First Aid
- Emergency Shelter
- Tools and Repair
Of course, when you really get down to it, the "ten essentials" is many more than ten items, particularly when you're talking about a true 24-hour pack. And winter conditions, for one, certainly adds to the list.
The 24-Hour Search and Rescue Pack
According to the National Association for Search And Rescue, or NASAR, all SAR personnel should carry a particular list of contents in their packs. These are "items that will assist the holder in functioning safely, effectively, and efficiently during a SAR incident. Some items may be carried on a belt, in pockets, or strapped to the person. This is the minimum equipment recommended to be carried on all missions in non-urban or wilderness areas." (Source: nasar.org)
In fact, during the SARTECH II Skills Examination, every item on NASAR's list must be present in order for the candidate to pass. That list includes specific items for the first aid kit as well as 50 additional pieces of required gear. Then there is an another list of 14 "optional personal support equipment recommended but not required." Interestingly enough, that list includes a pair of UV sunglasses as well as food, both of which are usually found in the "ten essentials."
See the NASAR SARTECH II Minimum Personal Equipment List to see the list in its entirety.
24-Hour Pack Gear for "Ground-Pounder" Search & Rescue
The Backpack: Kestrel Series by Osprey
For Search & Rescue, we need a pack that not only fits all of our own gear but sometimes extra supplies for those we set out to help. So I've chosen a pack that's a bit roomier than what I'd otherwise carry for "just a dayhike" on my own.
I prefer Osprey packs for their superior quality and comfort, not to mention great gear accessibility. And, as anyone in SAR knows, managing (and not dropping or losing) our gear is an ongoing task.
At 2200 - 2300 cubic inches (S/M - M/L), the Kestrel 38 is the perfect-sized pack for 24-hour preparedness for Search & Rescue personnel, also suitable for light overnighters. (I don't know about you, but a large percentage of the missions I've been on have lasted through the night.) Two torso sizes and an adjustable harness provide a custom fit, while the Airscape back-panel and a peripheral steel spring rod frame give excellent comfort.
- Unique "Stow-On-The-Go" trekking pole attachment
- Stretch lycra mesh front and side pockets
- Hip belt pockets
- Integrated raincover (stowed in outside lower pocket)
- Hydration compatible
- Front daisies with bungee tie offs
For instructions on how to properly size a pack, visit Osprey's Sizing & Fitting page.
The GPS: Garmin
The e-Trex series is what I originally chose for the SARpack, because its models (the e-Trex 10, 20, and 30) are solid, easy to use units that perform all the functions needed for Search & Rescue work, without unnecessary bells and whistles that would, of course, drive up the price. eTrex GPSes come loaded with a full basemap of North and South America, with position accuracy to less than three meters. The basemap contains features such as lakes, rivers, cities, national and state highways, railroads and coastlines.
I'd go for the e-Trex 20 model for SAR.
Additional features include:
- Compatible with topographic, road, and marine maps
- Includes PC cable for downloading or uploading Mapsource maps
- Port for MicroSD card instead of built-in memory
- Runs for 25 hours on 2 AA batteries
- 2.2-inch color display
- Weight: 5 oz. with batteries
The Compass: Suunto
I most definitely prefer a compass with adjustable declination and a sighting mirror that can double as a signal mirror. That's why I chose the Suunto MC-2DLIN Navigator for the SARpack.
This 2.6-ounce, top-quality mirror-lid compass features:
- Adjustable declination
- Large, easy to read bezel w/ self-cleaning bearings
- Rubber non-slip feet
- Measuring scales
- Luminous points
The Headlamp: Princeton Tec
Since Search & Rescue folks often find themselves on night missions, requiring a long-lasting, bright beam, I chose the dependable Princeton Tec Apex headlamp, which can be adapted to your lighting needs. And, following my general rule of thumb that gadgets in my pack all take the same type of battery--only one kind of replacement to carry--the Apex fits the bill in that respect also.
Other Princeton Tec Apex features include:
- Choose between a super-bright (130 lumens), optically enhanced, Maxbright Rebel LED for long distance spotting or 4 standard LED's for close range flood lighting;
- Two buttons make mode selection easy;
- Proprietary heatsink technology allows the LEDs to burn brighter and longer;
- Illuminates up to 86 m away;
- Power: 130 lumens (4 AA);
- Waterproof to 1 meter;
- Burn time: 72-150 hours (low-high)
The Flashlight: Princeton Tec
Because one light source isn't enough for Search & Rescue work, I've included a hand-held in addition to the headlamp.
With a burn time of 50+ hours, the Princeton-Tec Impact XL has a rubber molded grip that ensures you'll be able to securely hold the light under demanding circumstances. Like the GPS, the Impact XL runs on AA batteries, which means you'll need to carry just one battery type and can interchange them if necessary.
Other features include:
- 1 watt LED, 17 lumens
- Weight: 6.4 oz. with batteries
- Waterproof to 100 meters
The Multitool: Leatherman
In SAR, we're always fixing something, tightening or loosening something, cutting something and perhaps improvising something in the field. And the many facets of a good multi-tool can really come in handy for the task at hand. I've always been happy with the quality of Leatherman tools, not to mention the 25-year warranty. To me, a Leathermanis just the thing for my own 24-hour pack, so I've included it in the SARpack kit as well.
The 8.8 oz. Rebar is equipped with locking blades and Zytel contoured handle inserts for comfort.
- Needlenose pliers
- Regular pliers
- Wire cutters
- Hard-wire cutters
- Clip-point knife
- Wood/metal file
- Large and small screwdrivers
- Phillips screwdriver
- 8-inch ruler
- Bottle opener
- Can opener
The Map Case & Map Tool
Because Search & Rescue personnel should never leave base without a map, I've included a waterproof map case in the SARpack to keep it handy and dry. It's a great place to keep note-taking supplies too, and you can affix the case to the outside of your pack for quick and easy access.
Along with the map case, I recommend carrying an All-in-One Map Tool (pictured below) with all scales for topo maps in North America, UK, Japan, New Zealand and Europe.
Other All-in-One Map Tool features include:
- UTM readers for all above-referenced scales
- Slope indexes
- Compass Rose and cardinal directions plotting lines
- Compact 4"x7" pocket-size
- Accurate within 1%
- Illustrated instructions for each element included
The Emergency Bivvy: Adventure Medical Kits
Since SAR personnel are often out all night, I've included a heavy-duty bivy, which can be combined with the All-Weather Blanket (below) for added warmth and protection from cold, wet ground.
The 6.5-ounce Thermo-Lite 2 Bivvy (now known as the S.O.L. Thermal Bivvy) is an ideal survival/emergency bag with an improved material on the bottom to withstand rocky ground and hard snow pack. This bag is easily repaired in the field with duct tape. The design allows you to open the side, bottom and top for moisture and heat to escape.
The All-Weather Blanket
The 12-ounce All-Weather blanket is a multi-use piece of gear. The tough laminate and aluminized plastic reflects back up to 80% of body heat and can be used as a ground cover or a shelter, as well as to prevent hypothermia. There are grommets in all four corners, so you can use your nylon cord to rig the blanket up as a tarp, then use your emergency bivvy to keep the cold out.
Having the bivvy as well as the blanket means the rescuer can loan one or the other to a cold victim.
Colors will vary.
The Ground Pad: Therm-a-Rest
I feel a ground pad is a must for any SAR member, not only for yourself but possibly for your patient, so I've included it in the SARpack.
This accordian-like, 3/4 Z-rest, foam pad may not be as comfortable as a blow-up mattress, but its purpose really is to provide insulation between the cold and/or wet ground and you (or your patient). This pad is light-weight and easy to clean. No need to worry about getting it wet or springing an air leak. The egg-carton pattern creates dead air space for improved insulation, and, when folded, the pockets nest together, making this a much more compact piece of gear than a rolled, closed-cell foam pad.
Colors will vary.
First Aid: Adventure Medical Kits
In the SARpack, I've included a first aid kit sufficient to treat fairly minor injuries but will leave it to the medical professional to add more supplies as deemed necessary.
The contents of this 9.6-ounce, waterproof Adventure Medical Kit are:
- Water-resistant, zippered case
- Backcountry first aid book
- Emergency action card
- "Ask the Expert" free membership
- Nitrite gloves, 1 pr.
- 2 3"x5" Plastic bags
- 2 safety pins
- Tweezer in vial
- 6 antiseptic towelettes
- Iodine ointment
- Antibiotic ointment
- 12cc irrigation syringe
- 5 sterile butterfly wound closures
- Sting relief pad
- Tincture of benzoin
- Adhesive tape, 10 yards
- Pressure wrap
- 5"x9" trauma pad
- 6 Fabric bandages, 1"x3"
- 4 sterile gauze pads, 3"x3"
- 2 Moleskin pads, 2"x3"
- 2 knuckle bandages
- Telfa non-adherent pad, 2"x3"
- Antihistamine tablets
- Ibuprofin tablets
I've also added an 18" Sam splint to my SARpack.
The Fire-Starting Kit
The SARpack contains a fire-starting kit, including:
- Stormproof matches, 1 box
- Emergency Magnesium Firestarter
- Match case with striker
- Firestarter sticks
- 2 emergency fire-starting candles
Unlike other "waterproof" or "windproof" matches, the UCO Stormproof matches are easy to light, and will stay lit for up to 15 seconds, even after being submersed in water.
Water Bottles (2)
There are two 48-ounce, Nalgene Silo water bottles made of 100% BPA-free Polyethylene in each SARpack.
This bottle has a wide mouth for the easy addition of drink mix, with a loop-top cap that stays attached in rough conditions. Nalgene Silos fit nicely in the Osprey Kestrel's outer side pockets for easy access.
Water Purifier: Aquamira
Chances are, you'll be able to carry enough water to stay properly hydrated for the duration of most missions and won't need to obtain additional supply from backcountry sources.
But just in case you're in the field longer than expected or it takes more water than you're carrying to quench your thirst or that of your subject, I've included a 12-pack of chlorine dioxide tablets in the SARpack. Each tablet purifies 1 liter of water.
Aquamira Water Purification Tablets release a powerful germicidal agent when dissolved in water, meeting stringent EPA guidelines and making it the safest solution on the market. Each tablet is sealed in an individual, foil pouch. To use, simply drop a tablet into one liter of water and wait the required time.
Whistle & Lanyard
When trying to locate a lost, responsive subject, it's certainly nice to be heard.
So I chose a whistle that's twice as loud as most popular whistles and capable of being heard above howling wind or other competing sounds. The Windstorm can be heard up to a half-mile away on land and even works underwater, with the sound traveling up to 50 feet.
The patented double chamber design allows the Wind Storm to be blown when held right side up or upside down.
Tracking, Signaling & Note-Taking Gear
Glow Sticks. Four, 12-hour light sticks are included in each pack. These waterproof and windproof, 6" sticks provide adequate light without batteries or electricity. The light is produced by a chemical reaction inside the stick when a small capsule is broken, simply by bending it until you feel the snap.
Safer than flares, these glow sticks are nontoxic, non-flammable, and non-heat producing. They are visible up to one mile away and are useful for marking your route ... or perhaps your location to be seen by a rescue helicopter.
The SARpack also includes:
Flagging ribbon for marking prints and other clues or cordoning off an area;
A Sharpie permanent marker for noting the date, unit number and/or any other necessary information on the flagging ribbon;
A tailor's flexible measuring tape for measuring footprints;
Note-taking supplies, including a small notepad, pen and pencil.
In the SARpack, I've included a 50-foot length of Equinox Viper nylon paracord.
Why nylon cord? Let me count the ways ... or at least just a handful of them:
- Emergency boot or shoelace replacement and other repairs
- Rigging your All-Weather blanket (see above) as a shelter
- Lowering or raising your pack
- Useful in making an improvised splint
- To hang a "bear bag" if you have to sleep out
Hand & Foot Warmers: HotHands
HotHands Hand Warmers are air-activated and will provide up to 10 hours of warmth inside gloves, pockets or wherever you feel chilled. All Heatmax warmers are made of natural materials, including iron powder, water, salt, activated charcoal and wood fiber. When exposed to air, these materials combine and react to produce heat through a fast oxidation process.
The Foot Warm-Ups are designed to work in low oxygen environments, like inside your hiking boots. This odorless, disposable, nontoxic and nonflammable product is individually sealed in an airtight package to guarantee a shelf life of six years.
Users should allow 10 to 20 minutes for these warmers to reach their optimal temperatures.
The SARpack contains:
- Heavy-duty, plastic trowel
- Bio-Wipe Toilet tissue, 1 small roll
- Hand sanitizer
Instructions for digging a cat hole, etc. are not included. :)
The Dry Sack / Stuff Sack: Outdoor Research
For keeping your stuff and extra clothing organized and dry, I've included an Outdoor Research Ultralight Drysack in the SARpack.
This stuff sack is made of tough but super light sil-nylon fabric, with waterproof taped seams, a roll-top waterproof closure, and a durable buckle. There are a variety of colors and sizes to choose from, to keep your gear organized and dry.
These are the additional items included in the SARpack:
- Storage baggies for keeping things organized and dry
- Large, heavy-duty garbage bag for additional protection from heavy rain, both inside your pack and on your person (or your subject) as an emergency rain poncho
- (6) Extra AA batteries
What's NOT Included in the SARpack Gear List
The following is a list of items not included in the SARpack but that should be added to a 24-hour pack, or at least considered before heading out on a mission. And some of these things you'll be wearing to begin with:
- Fleece jacket or pullover
- Loose-fitting nylon pants (or convertible pants with zip-off bottoms)
- Synthetic shirt
- Synthetic thermal underwear, top and bottom
- Waterproof jacket and pants
- Down vest or jacket
- Wool or synthetic socks
- Sun hat (or ball cap with bandana)
- Ski hat
- Ankle-supporting hiking or mountaineering boots
- Cold-weather gloves/mittens and/or glove liners
- Leather work gloves (particularly for technical SAR and litter carries)
- UV-rated sunglasses
- Extra socks
- Extra clothing change for wet weather
- Appropriate forest map
- Appropriate topographic map
- Needle and dental floss or monofilament fishing line (for repairs)
- Duct tape, 10 feet (can be wrapped around water bottle or trekking pole)
- Adjustable trekking poles (<--read about proper use and multiple uses for poles)
- Small stove, pot, cup and spoon
- Food and electrolyte replacement (drink mix)
- Lightweight down sleeping bag
- Cell phone (fully charged!)
- Camera (optional for some SAR teams but nice to have)
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.
Questions & Answers
Do you still recommend the osprey ( in March of 2019) for Search and Rescue?
Yes, definitely. Osprey is still very much my favorite pack, both for SAR and for recreational hiking/backpacking, and it's the most popular brand among my SAR teammates. I've looked at others over the years and tried others, but I definitely prefer the Osprey. I use a larger pack for winter, when I carry more gear on missions and a smaller model for warmer weather missions, and I also have a smaller Osprey daypack I keep on hand, in case a mission won't require us to go far from the vehicle (like some evidence searches), and I don't need to carry as much STUFF. So, long answer short: yes on the Ospreys.Helpful 5