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How to Join a Search and Rescue Team

As a search and rescue team crew leader, Outbound Dan Human delivers his best tips for hiking safely in all seasons.

SAR team members get ready to conduct a hasty search for a lost person.

SAR team members get ready to conduct a hasty search for a lost person.

Outbound Dan on a SAR patrol.

Outbound Dan on a SAR patrol.

If you enjoy pushing your way through thick brush in the middle of the night during an ice-cold rain, you may want to join a Search and Rescue team. Every year, lost and injured people rely on the life-saving services of volunteer and professional Search and Rescue (SAR) groups.

A person spending the night in sub-freezing temperatures will be glad to see an emergency responder in an orange shirt coming to their aid. It's also a good feeling to be the person doing that rescue. So, how do you join?

Though each team's application process differs, there are similarities in joining any team. This article provides tips on what skills you should know and how to become a SAR team member.

A SAR team briefing on a cold and rainy day for a search that will extend into the night.

A SAR team briefing on a cold and rainy day for a search that will extend into the night.

Many Types of SAR Teams

Though there are a few professional search and rescue organizations, most of these teams are volunteer. You may even be surprised that as a volunteer you'll probably have to invest much of your own money for training, equipment, and transportation. Your location determines the type and scope of search teams available to join.

Common Types of SAR teams:

  • Urban
  • Wilderness
  • Mountain
  • K-9
  • Horse
  • Dive
  • Mountain Bike
  • High-Angle

It is possible for large teams to consist of many components and specialties. For example a primarily wilderness team of human searchers could have sub-teams for K-9, high-angle, and winter mountaineering.

Rappelling is a skill that most SAR teams should master, especially those with steep canyons and cliffs in their area.

Rappelling is a skill that most SAR teams should master, especially those with steep canyons and cliffs in their area.

Skills that SAR Teams Look For

Though most groups have excellent training programs, it is a great idea to have some sort of background prior to filling out the application. Most teams tend to attract outdoor experts: licensed guides, climbers, mountaineers, backpackers, and survivalists.

These are a few of the most sought-out skills on a SAR team.

  • Navigation
  • Radio Communication
  • Wilderness Survival
  • First Aid
  • Rope and Climbing Experience
  • Leadership and Teamwork
  • Experience Trekking in Harsh Environments


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Wilderness First Aid Skills

Though every team differs, most require some sort of first aid and CPR certification in order to be a member. The most common certifications are Wilderness First Aid, Wilderness First Responder, and CPR for the Professional Rescuer.

The biggest difference between wilderness medicine and standard first aid is the remoteness of the incident. Sure, paramedics may be able to meet you on the road, but you have to figure out how to stabilize the patient and move them miles over rough terrain.

Please remember that first aid is a perishable skill and it must be practiced frequently to hone your abilities. Though most first-aid certs last two or three years, chances are you'll forget how to splint, bandage, and otherwise treat after only a few months.

It never hurts to pick up a wilderness first aid book now and then, and to incorporate a medical portion into each training session.

Wilderness first aid relies on skills and improvisation.  In this picture, a trekking pole is used to form a traction splint.

Wilderness first aid relies on skills and improvisation. In this picture, a trekking pole is used to form a traction splint.

Take Free ICS Classes

Getting certified in Incident Command System procedures is a free and easy process. Achieve most of your certification classes online for free at the FEMA site. After completing an online training module you'll receive a professional printable certificate.

As you progress up the ladder in ICS, you'll have to attend actual classes. Be sure to register as soon as possible when you see these courses as they are rare and highly competitive. Remember that all emergency responders, SAR, Fire, EMS, HAZMAT, and Law Enforcement require training in ICS and NIMS.

What is the Incident Command System?

Following the tragedy of September 11th and the mass confusion of Hurricane Katrina, the nation's emergency responders unified their approach to managing incidents and standardized their procedures with the National Incident Management Systems (NIMS).

As a component of NIMS, The Incident Command System (ICS) is

"a standardized approach to incident management that is applicable for use in all hazards by all levels of government."

From traffic accidents to large-scale disasters, ICS exists as the overall command system.

Though a newbie searcher won't end up deploying tactical resources as the Operations Section Chief, it is important to have a good understanding of this system before your first search.

The following courses are great for most SAR team members.

  • IS 100 (ICS 100) Introduction to the Incident Command System
  • IS 200.b (ICS 200) ICS for Single Resources and Initial Action Incidents
  • ICS 300 Intermediate ICS for Expanding Incidents
  • IS 700.a NIMS, an Introduction
  • IS 809 ESF #9 Search and Rescue
Search and Rescue high-angle equipment is generally team gear.

Search and Rescue high-angle equipment is generally team gear.

SAR Equipment From 24-Hour Packs to Uniforms

Being a SAR member requires a lot of gear, most of which is your personal equipment. You may not want to pick up too much gear until you are approved to join a team as some teams have specific gear requirements.

  • 24-Hour Pack:

Within your 24-hour pack, you carry all the gear you need to sustain yourself and your mission for 24 hours. As a general rule, always keep your pack on your back and never separate yourself from your gear—it is what keeps you from becoming an additional victim.

Many SAR veterans are well acquainted with the dreaded pack check in the NASAR SARTECH II Exam. And though there will always be questions of why one must carry the 10-feet of woven steel wire, it is a general guideline for what you should carry in your 24-hour pack.

It is common for a team to have their own pack content standards. Remember that the mission and environment dictates what you carry.

  • GPS:

Though every wilderness responder must know how to navigate using map and compass, GPS usage is a critical skill. From marking waypoints of critical clues, to recording tracks of your search passes, you must learn to use a GPS proficiently.

The most popular units for SAR teams is the Garmin GPSMap 60CSX and the new GPSmap 62 series. Be sure to check out "How to Use a GPS for Search and Rescue Operations" for more information.

  • Chest Harness:

It's really hard to answer your radio when it is stuck inside your pack. It is likewise hard to navigate using a GPS when it is buried inside your jacket. A chest harness holds radios, GPS units, pens and maps with ease.

Most chest harnesses are cut to wear with backpacks and even for high-angle rescue.

  • Search Bag:

Each responder should put together a bag to keep in their vehicle for meeting the needs of any emergency. Sure, keep search materials like extra rolls of flagging tape and string line in the bag, but keep comfort items in there too. It's nice to return to the staging area to find a change of clothes and a warm sleeping bag.

  • SAR Clothing:

Established Search teams usually have uniform requirements in their standard operating procedures. Whatever the uniform choice is, there will be times where it may be worn for a few days straight. The only washing it may see will be when you cross a waist-deep frozen stream. Most people don't have the courtesy to get lost on sunny temperate days.

Characteristics of SAR Uniforms:

  • Made from non-cotton performance materials.
  • High-visibility colors: orange, yellow and red are common colors.
  • Made from durable materials that hold up to thick brush and thorns.
The North Face Terra 35 is a nice size for a SAR 24-hour pack.  The Coaxsher radio harness is a necessity.

The North Face Terra 35 is a nice size for a SAR 24-hour pack. The Coaxsher radio harness is a necessity.

SAR members climb up out of a steep traverse at Zoar Valley.

SAR members climb up out of a steep traverse at Zoar Valley.

SAR Physical Fitness Standards

Carry a 200-hundred pound man on an improvised litter over rough terrain for a few miles and you'll learn why it is critical to be physically fit. Each member must be able to respond quickly and deftly without becoming a victim themselves.

The wildland firefighter Work Capacity Test from the U.S. Forest Service is a favorite and fair standard that several SAR teams use. In this test, members walk a relatively level predetermined course, with or without a weighted pack. Each member must complete the course in the time allotted.

Remember that any test like this must be conducted safely and consistently throughout your membership.

Work Capacity Test Standards

Data from the "Work Capacity Test Administrator's Guide."

Work Category Pack WeightDistance Time

Arduous

45

3 miles

45 minutes

Moderate

25

2 miles

30 minutes

Light

None

1 mile

15 minutes

About NASAR

The National Association for Search and Rescue (NASAR) is an educational and certifying agency for professional and volunteer Search and Rescue members. Joining NASAR exposes you to the world of recovering lost individuals and earns you discounts toward training and search gear.

How to Find a Local Search and Rescue Team

The internet is the best source for finding a local Search and Rescue team to join. Many SAR units have established their own websites and Facebook fan pages. Check out Niagara Frontier Search and Rescue's Facebook community page for an example of how emergency responders use social media.

If you seem to be striking out in finding a local team, contact County Emergency Services or your County Sheriff. Ask those two entities just who is responsible for finding missing persons in their jurisdiction. You may find, that in many areas that the local fire department is responsible for conducting searches.

Policy differs for each state as well. For example, in New York State, DEC Forest Rangers are ultimately responsible for wildland searches. However, the member units of the NYS Federation of Search and Rescue Teams work closely with the Rangers to provide the expertise and manpower to conduct efficient searches.

If you have any questions about joining a SAR team, please ask in the comments section below.

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

Question: What is the age limit for search and rescue?

Answer: The age limit for SAR tends to be 18 to as old as you want to be and still drag stuff through the woods.

Question: If I'm interested in having a career in the search and rescue field, what should my first steps be?