Clothing for SAR - PART 1
SAR personnel are expected to perform their duties in a variety of weather conditions and terrain/flora situations. The clothing they bring with them can enhance their safety and comfort, permitting them to remain in the elements for extended periods of time. With a proper choice of clothing for the situation, the SAR person can concentrate on his primary duties for the mission. This mini-lesson details some of the underlying concepts behind the choice of apparel.
Note - many missions do not challenge the SAR person's clothing choices, so it's not unusual for individuals to come through unscathed while wearing shorts, T-shirts, lightweight shoes, etc. This article is written with the tougher missions in mind.
Purposes of SAR Clothing
One duty of the clothing is to protect the SAR person from injury caused by external conditions. A second, and arguably the most important, is the ability to control body temperature. This paper will detail the first aspect, and a subsequent lesson will delve into the second.
Steep, rough, rocky trails require rugged footwear. Ankle sprains, abrasion injuries, and foot fatigue are consequences of less-than-adequate boots. Neither standard tennis shoes nor the popular canvas-sided high-top hiking shoes are up to the job. Sturdy leather boots are the only variety of footwear that can handle the rigors of SAR. Strong support for the ankle and a steel shank for the inner sole are proven assets in the field. In addition, leather upper panels help protect ankles from hazards that are encountered along the trail.
Inside the boots, it is imperative to avoid blisters, particularly near the back of the heel. The proven method is to wear two pair of socks. The inner pair is thin and slippery, usually polypro or a related synthetic, while the outer pair is a thick synthetic material specifically designed for hiking. These two layers slide on each other, mitigating friction between the boot and the skin of the foot. The outer layer also provides some padding for the pounding that occurs on the long hikes under heavy pack.
Wool socks are a popular choice as the outer layer, but they have a tendency to bunch up when wet, causing friction that may lead to blisters. Pre-hike application of coach's tape or moleskin to the heel area is an excellent idea.
Thorns, branches, cacti, abrasive rocks, and itchy weeds are common in SAR environments. Sturdy outer pants are essential to get through these hazards unharmed. The de facto choice of CSAR veterans are the mid-weight cotton/poly blend military BDU's. Cotton blue jeans would also serve the purpose, but they have temperature-control disadvantages that exclude them from the SAR wardrobe.
Gaiters not only protect from dew, etc., but can help alleviate damage from trail hazards. In addition, they can keep sand, dirt, and stickers from working their way into your boots or clogging up your laces.
Although many mountaineers wear shorts, they are not suitable for the rigors we might face, such as bushwhacking off-trail through heavy growth. In addition to the hazards mentioned above, you can add sunburn and insect stings in association with shorts.
The same sorts of things that assault your legs also attack your torso. A durable long-sleeved shirt is the only solution that is not an invitation to battle scars. Many CSAR members choose the orange cotton/poly blend work shirts for this purpose.
For reasons similar to those mentioned in the above sentences about shorts, a short-sleeved shirt is not recommended for SAR clothing. In warm weather, the long-sleeved cotton/poly blend shirt is often more comfortable than a cotton T-shirt because it tends not to be quite as clammy or clingy.
A standard baseball cap can help keep branches, needles, dirt, etc. off your head, as well as protect your face from sunburn. But a rock-climbing helmet is prudent whenever there is danger of falling rock, slapping branches, or head-high cholla. A bandanna covering the back of the neck will protect that exposed flesh from sunburn or chilling winds.
Leather gloves are requisite when handling the litter or ropes. In addition, you should wear them in areas that have substantial amounts of lava rock, thorns, cacti, etc.
Always wear rubber gloves anytime there is a chance of contacting pathogens. Although the flimsy ones used in hospitals sometimes suffice, they are prone to getting torn in the wilderness. It is acceptable to wear two pair of those, but a better choice is the hardy type used for dishwashing.
UV-blocking sunglasses with side protectors are the safest for your eyes in most conditions, both for glare and windblown dust/pollen. In blizzard conditions, ski goggles (anti-fog variety) can allow you to continue the mission where ordinary sunglasses fail. Sunglasses with dark lenses can do a lot to protect from snow blindness on bright winter days. A neckstrap to ensure that the glasses remain with you is a sound idea.
The orange shirts worn by CSAR serve more than the safety provisions detailed above. They also make the searcher more visible in forested situations. On a number of occasions, personnel from Incident Command and air resources have complimented the team on this increased visibility.
Self-Quiz on SAR Clothing - PART 1
- What are two major duties of SAR clothing?
- What benefits does sturdy footwear provide?
- Name some disadvantages that might arise from wearing shorts for SAR.
- What are some positive aspects of wearing a long-sleeved shirt, even in the summer?
- Under what conditions should a rock helmet be worn?
- When are rubber gloves imperative?
- Why would someone wear sunglasses in the winter?
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