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In the COVID era, more and more people are venturing into the wild. As the wilderness became one of the only available escapes from Zoom meetings and one’s own home during the lockdown, more people began to seek the health and wellness that only nature can bestow. However, more inexperienced wilderness adventurers means more people getting lost or injured in the wilderness. Unsurprisingly, there has been a notable uptick in search and rescue (SAR) call outs since the lockdowns. This places SAR teams and their members at greater risk due to increased operational tempo. With increased call volume and stress, a SAR team member could easily become isolated due to injury during a night search or poor visibility in inclement weather. In this situation, the rescuer becomes the one needing rescue, and wilderness survival skills become essential.

SAR is an important and sometimes dangerous job for which many thousands of Americans dedicate their time. SAR operations require teams to use a broad skillset to locate and reach lost people, treat life-threatening injuries and stabilize patients for transport, and to extract them from the wilderness. This requires some level of experience in land navigation and wilderness medicine, in addition to familiarity with high angle rescue techniques and various off-road transportation modalities.

Often overlooked or perhaps underappreciated is the aspect of preparing SAR team members for an isolating event of their own that requires them to survive in the wilderness for an extended period of time. Contrary to what many might view on network television, wilderness survival is not all about preparing to survive without any equipment as seen on Naked and Afraid, nor is it about being ready to winter in the arctic as seen on Alone. However, SAR team members should always mentally prepare, train, and equip themselves to survive in the wilderness, because someday their lives may depend on it.

Consider an isolated SAR team member getting lost at night, with weather blowing in unexpectedly. To stay safe and affect rescue, many decisions will need to have been made prior to the isolating event itself. Some things that impact survivability in a situation like this include the equipment brought along on the search, as well as the amount of training that the SAR team member has in wilderness medicine and survival. However, the most important thing is the attitude of the isolated SAR team member. Without the proper attitude and mental toughness, no amount of training and equipment can make a difference.

SAR team members often carry quite a bit of gear during search operations. However, most of this gear is related to the medical stabilization and preparation for transporting an injured or ill person. The amount of gear specifically designed for wilderness survival is often limited. Having a sixty-gallon “bug-out-bag” at home does not benefit you if you don’t have it when you need it. Thus, SAR teams should load out survival gear for search teams based on their specific operational area, with consideration for water availability, as well as possible weather conditions such as extreme heat, cold, or precipitation.

Equipment carried into a dangerous situation is of no use if the person carrying it doesn’t know how to effectively use it under stress. SAR teams should regularly undergo training on how and when to employ survival equipment and strategies. Wilderness medicine training should also be provided with regularity, even for SAR team members without a specific medical role. In this way, SAR teams are simultaneously preparing the physical and mental response to an unexpected isolating event, which may make the difference between survival and not for themselves and their subjects.

In later installations of this column, specific gear and training will be discussed in detail, but the most important elements of wilderness survival are mental preparation and resilience. Mental preparation includes pre-operational planning, skill development, and training in the topics listed above. However, preparing the mind to handle stress effectively requires deliberate focus and effort. Only with practice can we process a novel situation quickly to enable rapid and appropriate decision making.

Visualization is helpful for this rapid and effective performance of tasks. Much as athletes visualize hitting or catching a ball, SAR teams can practice visualizing performance of emergency skills, perform table-top drills, or even physically simulate survival experiences. Resilience, or bounce-back, is another mental skill that allows a person to remain focused on goals and priorities of work despite setbacks. Anyone that has ever tried to start a friction fire knows that it doesn’t occur quickly, or easily, and mistakes are common. The perspective should be that setbacks are common, but quitting is the only failure.

Luckily, SAR team members becoming injured, ill, or isolated is rare. However, a SAR team member becoming isolated remains a high consequence event due to the inherently dangerous environment in which SAR teams work. Wilderness survival skills and planning for isolating events are critical capabilities often underdeveloped in some SAR teams. With better preparation—individually and as a team—risk is greatly decreased, improving rescuers’ chance of staying focused on their initial mission.

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