How to Join a Search and Rescue Team

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. | Source
Outbound Dan on a SAR patrol.
Outbound Dan on a SAR patrol. | Source

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. | Source
Fundamentals Of Search And Rescue
Fundamentals Of Search And Rescue

"The Fundamentals of Search and Rescue" by the National Association of Search and Rescue is a must-have book for any SAR volunteer.


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 searcher 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. | Source

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

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 at 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. | Source

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 FEMA Emergency Management Institute. 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 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. | Source

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

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 while 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 for any test like this, must be conducted safely and consistently throughout your membership.

Work Capacity Test Standards

Work Category
Pack Weight
3 miles
45 minutes
2 miles
30 minutes
1 mile
15 minutes
Data from the "Work Capacity Test Administrator's Guide."

An Awesome SAR Recruitment Video from New Zealand


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.

Have you considered joining a SAR team?

  • I'm already a member
  • I would like to
  • I've considered it
  • I don't think I would be a good fit on a team
  • I just don't have the time
See results without voting

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 on joining a SAR team, please ask in the comments section below.

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Comments 22 comments

cclitgirl profile image

cclitgirl 4 years ago from Western NC

Wow! What an awesome, comprehensive hub! I didn't know there were mountain bike SAR teams. Hmm, perhaps if I could get in gear, I could help out with that. Good to know!

I also like that NIMS formed after Hurricane Katrina - if only it was in place before that. But, I remember thinking that we needed a much better system than what we had. There were so many people put in harm's way unnecessarily because of lack of organization.

Many votes and shared.

CyclingFitness profile image

CyclingFitness 4 years ago from Nottingham UK

Fantastic article. Once I head out of the city and into the countryside to live this is on my list of voluntary things to do to give back to the community. Awesome

Outbound Dan profile image

Outbound Dan 4 years ago from Niagara Falls, NY Author

Mountain bikes are actually a pretty efficient way to covering a lot of terrain during a hasty search. My team has been contemplating instituting mountain bikes into our training.

Though ICS has been around for years in the wildland firefighting service, it took September 11th to get the ball rolling on a national system. It took Katrina to solidify the need and test how it works. Now 7 years later, the system works pretty well with most units.

Thanks for reading and sharing CC!

Outbound Dan profile image

Outbound Dan 4 years ago from Niagara Falls, NY Author

Being a SAR team member is a fantastic way to give back to the community. It is kind of a pain though living in an urban environment when you are responding to the great outdoors. Sometimes it take several hours for team members to respond where I live based on location and general time for gearing up.

Thanks fr stopping by CF!

Sergemaster profile image

Sergemaster 4 years ago

Hey Dan,

Another great article, and I especially dig the video, very cool! Since you brought up SAR and folks that go missing, there's a great 2 volume book that just came up on the subject. It's called, "Missing-411 - Unexplained disappearances of North Americans that have never been solved" by David Paulides.

He has documented going back about 100 years, hikers, hunter, backpackers, and ordinary folks that seem to disappear from state and federal parks, sometimes literally in the sight of others, never to be seen or heard from again. He really details the initial responses of SAR teams that were dispatched and their total lack of explanation of what happened to these people.

He found so much information thanks to FOIA requests to the government, that he broke it into 2 volumes, Eastern and Western US and Canada. You should check it out. He has some of his radio and television interviews that are posted on Youtube.

I think you would find it absolutely fascinating just as I did. Especially being a fellow outdoorsman. Makes you think twice before going solo into the woods.



Outbound Dan profile image

Outbound Dan 4 years ago from Niagara Falls, NY Author

I've seen "Missing 411" start to pop up around the SAR community, but I haven't had a chance to snag a copy yet and read it. I'll have to check out some of Paulide's interviews - it is a fascinating study.

I've been part of searches for people that have never turned up despite how many weeks and how many resources were spent in the pursuit of finding them. That feeling of not knowing is the worst - you can't even bring closure to the family.

Generally, I think most of these unsolved cases involve a devious demise. That said, I've studied searches that went totally wrong in their execution. One more reason to standardize training for responders.

Thanks for reading and recommending the book(s) Serge!

bankscottage profile image

bankscottage 4 years ago from Pennsylvania

Very interesting Dan. Being a small community in the Allegheney Mts. my town has a SAR team. Many of the guys I work with volunteer (and also on the volunteer fire depts. or ambulance services). I don' t volunteer, but I do send in a donation every year to support the SAR team mission. As you point out, the volunteers often have to supply their own equipment. There is still plenty of equipment that has to be purchased for the team. That money comes from donations. I hope everyone, if they can't join the team, they at least support it.

Outbound Dan profile image

Outbound Dan 4 years ago from Niagara Falls, NY Author

Many of the guys on my team multi-task too: ambulance, fire, and SAR.

Thanks so much for donating to your local team, I know how much it is appreciated. Though the occasional grant come through, we depend mostly on the good will of community members.

Right now we are in the process of acquiring interoperable radios - it is a very pricey venture.

Thanks for reading Mark and thanks for supporting search and rescue.

Teylina profile image

Teylina 4 years ago

What a fantastic hub! Wish I could have found something so perfectly laid out and concise when I was physically able--accidents and age don't go together--did take a less intense form of "SAR" thru fire department re primarily hurricane/ disaster type work and also trained and joined for a "mental crisis team" on-site, on call 24/7--victims left in shock in fatal accidents, etc. Very small sense of helpfulness--the latter more so because constant needs (drownings/suicides, etc). If I had the physical powers now, YOUR HUB would have me searching for a truly REAL SAR team! Fantastic writing! Everybody out there, if you can do it and have any desire, follow Outbound Dan's steps. You won't regret it!

Outbound Dan profile image

Outbound Dan 4 years ago from Niagara Falls, NY Author

I have to hand it to the members of fire-departments around the country - they do so much more than put out fires (as if that wasn't enough).

The metal crisis team is an integral part of any emergency response community. Within my experience, some searches are really tough on the responders as well as the families. I know that the service is greatly appreciated by all.

Thanks for reading and commenting Teylina!

Teylina profile image

Teylina 4 years ago

You are right about the responders. While I was doing that, we were called immediately by police or fire dept depending on need. They rarely failed to let me know (I'm sure others too) how glad they were I was there. Someone watching their home burn to the ground often puts firemen in precarious positions when they've already got their hands full, and nobody likes watching the body bag of a loved one taken out of the water or out of a house. So in a very small way, I learned people can be trained to be of help so the real SAR and first responders can do their job w/o family/friends trying to help or get questions answered and only making things worse. I hope it helped everyone just a tiny bit. It was all I could do, and I think that's the trick. We need to all think about what we CAN do--you superheroes who are able to do the tough jobs can always use a little TLC of your own, too.

Outbound Dan profile image

Outbound Dan 4 years ago from Niagara Falls, NY Author

One thing we must always be mindful of on a search is where the friends and family of the subject are. Sometimes, they will join search parties or be inside the incident command building. The worst thing to do, is to speculate on the whereabouts or condition of their loved one - even when you know that the chances aren't good.

It's up to the crisis specialists to distract, reassure, and keep them (and responders) as calm as possible.

Thanks Teylina!

Teylina profile image

Teylina 4 years ago

Your last two lines summed up all I was capable of doing--but I was horrified at first to find how these peoples' fear, guilt, whatever, got in the way of you truly needed responders. My heart goes out to all victims, their families and, yes, to those of you who put your lives on the line to help--sometime with more hindrance than help! Don't know how you do it. Yes. I do. Nike said it: Just do it! I'm grateful to everyone who has gone through your experiences; lifesavers.

Outbound Dan profile image

Outbound Dan 4 years ago from Niagara Falls, NY Author

Just had a late night search last night at one of our large local parks, luckily the missing people were recovered a few hours later. Happy endings when nobody is hurt are always a good thing.

Teylina profile image

Teylina 4 years ago

I would believe that, a good heart, and hard-to-believe training and stamina would definitely pay off w/fab feelings on nights like last night--good endings! I'll drink to that!. I'm so glad for every single person you must have saved or helped; I hope the good endings give you enough memories are the ones that you remember most-- that's probably one things that keeps you going. So happy for you and those you've helped, because the only ones I've seen are the unhappy ones. You should carry a smile for a while! Thank you again--for your help and for the hub. I hope it inspires some who are able to follow in your footsteps. Many people want to help but don't know where to start, and that's what really drew me to this hub because I've seen those like you bring back or not the ones I dealt with: there aren't enough of either.

Bim 3 years ago

Good show!

My son, PommeFritte, commented on one of your Hubs about hikes in the Adirondack High Peaks. He also saw this Hub and it rang a bell with him because I was a Wilderness Search and Rescue (SAR) volunteer in New Mexico for over seven years. After about three years of SAR work, I was so impressed by what we did and accomplished that I wrote a memoir about my and my team's experiences. Entitled SAR-WE HAVE A MISSION, it is now available on AMAZON as an eBook. I have to say those seven years provided some of the most rewarding and satisfying years of my life. I urge those people who might be interested to give SAR a try.

Your Hub gives excellent directions for getting into that activity. I feel you have done a good job laying out the requirements. I would only add that experiences will vary from place to place. In my case, New Mexico is a different ecosystem than the Adirondacks and the search experiences will differ slightly. However, the point is that people get into trouble and SAR members, usually volunteers, have to help them.

For books on the subject other than my own, try THE FALLING SEASON about Aspen Mountain Rescue in Colorado, and MOUNTAIN HIGH MOUNTAIN RESCUE about El Paso County SAR in Colorado. These books provide stories people can read and learn what the activity is like.

Outbound Dan profile image

Outbound Dan 3 years ago from Niagara Falls, NY Author

Jim, great to read your comments and thanks for your service as a SAR team member. You've also included some great resources that I plan on adding to my reading list. I'll pass those titles to members of my team, especially with a half-dozen new recruits this year.

Thanks again for reading!


bensen32 profile image

bensen32 3 years ago from Round Lake Park

Very interesting, thanks for the info, motivates me to look into my area see what they require

Outbound Dan profile image

Outbound Dan 3 years ago from Niagara Falls, NY Author

You are welcome bensen32 and thanks for reading. If you are LinkedIn, there is a Search and Rescue group there too which may be able to get you some more information.

Kristina Pitts profile image

Kristina Pitts 2 years ago from Greenville, SC, USA

You forgot one thing. In order for there to be a team to join, you need someone to go missing.

Outbound Dan profile image

Outbound Dan 2 years ago from Niagara Falls, NY Author

Ha, very true Kristina. "Luckily" for us people continue to go hiking in unfamiliar terrain that exceeds their ability and without any emergency gear. We count on their lack of judgment to keep us busy.

Bob Pauls 7 months ago

I just read and liked the book "75 Search And Rescue Stories" by Shaun Roundy from

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