Four years ago, I was accepted into our county's search and rescue team. I didn't expect it to be a profound experience, but between the forged friendships and camaraderie of our team, learning loads of new outdoor skills, and, of course, paying it forward to my fellow outdoor enthusiasts, it has become one of the most meaningful parts of my life.
Many of the people we help are in situations that are largely preventable with good ol' common sense (I'm looking at you, 20-something-year-old guys scaling slick rocks beside a waterfall in flip flops), but aside from the obvious lack of humility for the backcountry and the enormity of Mother Nature's power, well, sometimes, shit happens.
An Instagram-worthy trip can fall off the rails quickly with a single innocent misstep, either literally or figuratively. The misstep might happen when a day hiker unknowingly veers onto a game trail and ends up lost, or while cruising down a known trail and severely spraining an ankle when stepping off an unstable rock. At that point, whether the injury or degree of "misplacement" is large or small, the clock starts ticking and environmental factors like weather can make a significant difference in a person's outcome.
My Gossamer Gear Kumo pack is perfect for SAR operations and has held up beautifully in off-trail terrain.
The Essentials for Survival in a Search and Rescue Situation
If hikers spend any time at all educating themselves about preparedness and safety, they will undoubtedly come across a list of " The 10 Essentials" to pack for a trip in the outdoors. I can't stress enough how important it is to carry them, and even more importantly, knowing how to use them. Waterproof matches won't do you much good without knowing how to build a fire with wet wood (Pro Tip: Whittle a small branch down to its dry core for tinder shavings to help get one started). And a compass is dead weight if you don't know how to shoot a bearing or use it correctly with a map.
Think of it this way: Would you risk driving your car to get to the trailhead without insurance, or risk driving your car at all without learning how to drive first? The same principle applies to hiking: You need outdoor skills and an insurance policy in the form of specific gear for your survival, should the unexpected happen.
However, these skills and vital gear are only half of what you should carry when you enter the backcountry. The good news is that what's missing from the essentials doesn't weigh or cost a thing–because it's what you pack in your heart. It's called Positive Mental Attitude (PMA).
A search and rescue perk: Witnessing amazing sunrises and sunsets.
How Positive Mental Attitude and Remembering to STOP Impacts Survival During Search and Rescue
If there is one overarching theme to a person's survivability that I have seen play out time and time again, it's PMA. On more than one occasion, I've been convinced that our patient will be deceased once found, and my jaw practically hits the forest floor when they're found alive. Interestingly, some of our most nail-biting missions have had an inversely proportional relationship with a person's outdoor experience level and appropriate gear in their pack, and PMA playing a starring role in the story of their survival.
PMA doesn't translate to denial about your situation or pretending things aren't as bad as they may actually be. It simply boils down to this: Even if your skillset and knowledge don't match the challenges you face, you make a firm commitment to yourself to live to see another day. You have faith that you will survive your ordeal, despite the odds that may be stacked against you, and your attitude reflects that mindset.
The trickle down effect of PMA is that it subconsciously combats the physiological and psychological response to stress. It frees up and opens the mind to finding creative solutions and outlooks rather than focusing on how dire things may be.
A complement to PMA that we also witness is someone taking a moment to control their fearful mind from racing into a downward spiral of panic. Comments like, "I knew I was in trouble, but I just took a minute to stop and calm myself down," are typical from those we rescue successfully. The acronym STOP, which stands for Stop, Think, Observe, and Plan, is an incredibly useful tool hikers should also pack away into their mental toolkit.
Our search and rescue team on a rescue operation in Great Smoky Mountains National Park.
What Search and Rescue Can Look Like in the Field
A great example from one of our own operations is a woman we found after surviving a bitter night of snow, sleet, and rain with minimal gear and clothing to protect her, other than a cheap rain poncho. She was mesmerized by the epic views in the incomparable Shining Rock Wilderness of western North Carolina, lost track of time, and didn't make it back to her car by nightfall. Rather than panicking and frantically attempting to get back to the trailhead in the dark, she hunkered down in a grove of evergreen trees, turned off her phone to save the limited battery she had left, and in her words, she "became a tree hugger that night."
When she didn't return home as expected, her daughter alerted the authorities, and my team was dispatched. We found her the next morning on the move, using her phone she had wisely saved the battery power from, to navigate back to her car. She was shaken and exhausted, but she insisted on walking out on her own two feet. Despite her lack of backcountry skills and gear to protect her more adequately, she survived by stopping, thinking clearly, and, of course, with a hefty dose of PMA.
PMA isn't just reserved for those being rescued, though. Look no further than an extensive search and rescue operation to see the power of it in practice. It's likely the most universal quality a good search and rescue team possesses. I was reminded of this during a recent 5-day operation my team was involved in, as we searched for a missing gentleman with dementia in Great Smoky Mountains National Park.
I befriended the survivor of one of our most nail-biting winter searches who had incredible PMA during his ordeal.
As the search wore on, the National Park Service posted updates with photos on their Facebook page. One of the photos highlighted a search dog and her dedicated handler, smiling for the camera. Several people criticized her in the comments, stating that she should be more serious during such an emotionally charged search effort. Earlier in the day, before the photo was taken, I had counseled this handler on how to treat her dog in the field for multiple bee stings (I'm a veterinarian in "real life"), requiring her team to carry the weakened dog out of the woods. The fact that she was smiling at all after such a traumatic experience was not lost on me.
I wonder now if I should have commented in that thread to explain to the critics that the smiles on our faces during searches have nothing to do with disrespect and everything to do with PMA. On an extended, multi-day search effort, it can mean the difference between heading back into brutal and unforgiving off-trail terrain, or backing off the effort if the survival statistics are low for our patient. We smile, we joke, we laugh, and we search like hell for people, never relinquishing the thread of hope that someone will defy the odds and surprise us by calling back. PMA is what fuels every bit of it.
Prepare for Survival Now By Practicing PMA in Everyday Life
Never give up on yourself and your capacity to find a solution for your situation, no matter how dire it may seem at the time. PMA may not save everyone, but you better believe it has saved plenty of people before you. It takes practice with everyday stress to dial in your capacity for it if it's not your natural inclination. So, tap into it the next time you're stuck in traffic or faced with a seemingly insurmountable and stressful task at work.
When faced with the unexpected in the backcountry, PMA could truly mean the difference between living to hike another day or not. Or, at a minimum, it may make your predicament feel a bit less overwhelming until help arrives by way of a search and rescue team–possibly even with smiles on our faces.
If you'd like to read more about the study of survival psychology, the book Deep Survival: Who Lives, Who Dies, and Why by Laurence Gonzales is one of my favorites, and a fabulous read.