Search and Rescue

The SAR Pack

by David Dixon

Your search and rescue pack is your life support system. What it contains, how it fits, and how much it weighs are all important pack factors. Consider also convenience, efficiency and necessity when choosing and equipping your pack. The following covers various aspects of the SAR pack and is based on the requirement of equipment and clothing necessary for 12 hours in the field. And, even though this may rarely be the case, the time period may include staying and possibly sleeping overnight. If you are serious about search and rescue (as all of us are), this must also be a consideration. I conclude with some helpful tips gathered over the years.

I stress that these are my thoughts relative to many backpacking and outdoor experiences and a year and a half of SAR under my padded belt. Hopefully you know much of what is here but can otherwise glean some knowledge from this overview.

Choosing a Pack

There are two types of packs, internal and external frame. An internal rides closer to you and is better for mountain climbing, varying terrain and off-trail travel. An external is better for long hikes on open, gradual terrain. An internal moves less due to a snug fit but thus does not allow air circulation around your back. An external is cooler but may move and even squeak. A good internal has compression straps which makes the pack more compact. An external's design makes is easier to tie gear onto but make sure it is secure and doesn't move around. Small to medium internals often have side pockets that work well for water bottles but lack other external storage. Most external packs have side and back pockets that are nice for storing small, readily accessed gear. Most people start with an external but find need for an internal for specific activities. I like an external for general backpacking and an internal for search and rescue.

Make sure your pack fits well and is padded in the waist, back and shoulders. Good packs have torso length and shoulder strap adjustments. Try it on loaded with weight before you buy. All of us have some experience with a pack. When buying a new one consider what has worked for you and what you want in a pack. Remember, it is your most important item in terms of comfort so don't buy a cheap one.

A pack with a volume of 2000 to 4000 cu. in. will work best. The pack I carry most of the time has 2900 which may be large for some and too small for a few who really like to carry a lot. I have a larger internal that is 5500 cu. in.but weighs more and is really too large except for winter overnights or carrying other equipment. A pack weight of 25-30 pounds is comfortably possible for most of us. Carry 10 or 20 lbs. more and it becomes harder to move well during searches and you'll be more physically stressed (unless you're in great shape). If you haven't done any backpacking or carried 45 or more lbs. on a search you should do so on some short hikes before buying a big pack and loading it up. Borrow a larger pack from someone before buying one and realizing you really can't or don't want to ever carry 50 lbs. A pack loaded with lots of gear for any situation does no good if you can't carry it very far. Most sources advise carrying no more than 30% of your weight and that is relative to longer excursions with lots of equipment. Knowing you can carry more sometimes could be helpful, though. Having a larger pack available may be a benefit if a subject has been found and large or heavy gear is requested.

Seasonal Packs

You should develop two different pack contents relative to seasonal needs which I will call Moderate and Winter. (I'll use the term moderate instead of summer as it is more weather-realistic). The six-month ranges for these given below are variable and what you carry may be adjusted accordingly. You'll have transitional needs during fall and spring, warm summer searches at lower elevations, cold snowshoe searches, etc. Most of the differences in the two are clothes, so I have included clothing requirements here.

Pack Contents

We've all seen gear lists. [Editor's note - CSAR has a minimum gear list in the Member Guide and on the website] I have tried to further revise and include some specific items I think are important. Clothing is listed separately.

List 1: Essential Gear

a quality headlamp plus a second light source pack cover
preferably another headlamp ruler or straight edge
batteries for both light sources for 12 hoursspare bulbs
a quality orienteering compass plus a decent secondtrail tape
whistle gaiters
signaling mirror sunscreen
rain gear (breathable top and bottom is best) or poncho toilet paper (in ziploc of course)
knife or multi-tool general fixit kit (see Tips section)
first aid kit sunglasses
matches/fire starter/candle garbage bags
map bandana
small rope hat
watch binocular or monocular
leather gloves chapstick
tarp or space blanket personal items: toiletries, medications, glasses
pencil/small notebook water for 12 hours, usually 3 liters and water purification tablets
GPS (including manual) food for 12 hours

Food Ideas MREs work well, especially when Cibola will buy some for you. Some other suggestions if you're not into those are jerky, dried fruit, nuts, tortillas, peanut butter, cheese, packaged sausage, power bars, hard candy, canned chicken or tuna, and if you have a stove, noodle mixes, instant rice, many hot possibilities.

List 2: Other recommended gear
These are seasonal or other items available to take in the field when necessary or to have when returning. Prioritize items you still need to purchase (GPS, climbing helmet, radio) over what you'll rarely use (bivy, water purifier).

additional food and water water purifier
radio, spare battery small plastic trowel
sleeping pad: foam, thermarest crampons
sleeping bag: light, heavy small stove
bivy or small tent cook kit
small plastic trowel climbing helmet
signal flares carabiners
strobe light climbing harness
small saw (for clearing trail) snowshoes
spare pair of shoes warm food: soups, coffee (if a stove is available)
additional maps

List 3: Clothing. Listed by season and layer, and including what is worn.

Moderate Winter
Inner: Non-cotton top and bottom. T-shirts in summer Inner: Non-cotton top and bottom preferably heavy weight plus an additional light top.
Middle: Insulating top of fleece, polypro or wool. Long sleeve cotton shirt. Middle: Insulating top of fleece, polypro or wool.
Outer: Rain gear, additional layer of fleece or down if needed for cold temperatures. Outer: Rain gear, additional layer of heavy fleece or wool or, preferably, a down jacket.
Miscellaneous: 2 pair of inner and outer socks, leather gloves, light insulating gloves, brimmed hat, belt. Miscellaneous: 2 pair of inner and outer socks, leather gloves, heavy insulating gloves,brimmed hat, stocking hat, belt.


Boots are the last contact between you and the ground. All leather, Gore-tex lined or waterproofed hiking boots are best for our purposes. Boots with some nylon may breathe well but are not as waterproof nor as protective from cactus and other penetrables as all-leather. These can be worn year-round. Even in winter snow this type of boot is usually best. Stay away from heavy winter hunting boots or low-cut, heavy-soled running shoes that don't offer support. If you are using snowshoes pac-boots may seem better, but your regular boots often work just as well and offer more support. Always wear a light pair of non-cotton socks in addition to your heavy outer wool or blend socks. The combination will help control blisters.

Overnight Packs

You must make the decision whether you want to pack more for an expected overnight. The later you go out on a search, the higher the possibility that you'll be out overnight. You probably won't spend more than one night out on a search, but anything can happen. If you are not searching you're probably with a subject or have decided to bed down. The gear you carry for this is relative to the time of year, location and elevation. In New Mexico at higher elevations, you need, at a minimum, something under you, something around you and sufficient clothing to be comfortable overnight. There are various combinations to consider for the two seasons that you would add to your basic pack.

Loading and Wearing your Pack

If your pack has outside pockets or a large pocket in the top, use those for water and smaller essentials. Vertical pockets on the side will keep your bottles from leaking. In the main compartment, pack heavier gear near your back with least used items like a first aid kit or tarp at the bottom with food, rain gear and other readily needed items at the top. Your pack should ride high on your hips to help support the weight. Make adjustments if necessary. If your pack has compression straps, cinch them down to confine the contents to a smaller bundle. Keep your pack fairly tight to your back but not too constrictive at your arms or shoulders. When carrying your pack, periodically lift it off your shoulders at the bottom with your hands. It will briefly help relieve the pressure.

Helpful Additions

During a search you can't stop constantly to retrieve needed items out of your pack. A small chest or waist pocket that can hold your notebook, pencil, compass, mirror, whistle and other essentials is very helpful. A radio holster is also convenient since a radio needs to be accessible but is too heavy for your pants and you can't carry it in your hand. You can also get a remote clip-on microphone that will make operation even easier.

Water may be your most important provision, and the state requirement of 2 quarts is probably not enough for 12 hours of walking. Hydrating while on the go is very efficient. A small water bottle holder on your pack or belt works well, or try the new collapsible water bottles with a hose and bite valve. Attach the hose to the top of your pack and you can search and suck! You may find yourself going through your water faster, but you will be more likely to stay well hydrated -- sort of a positive problem. So if you can carry a little more weight, water should be your first consideration. Plan on taking at least 3 quarts, and don't forget purification tablets or a water purifier.(although each requires a water source to filter).

Organizing Your Stuff

You should always have your Essential Seasonal Pack ready to go and clothes you wear ready to put on. In addition, have another medium or large duffel bag that holds everything else. That would include extra food and water, boots or spare shoes, spare clothes and gear. At base camp you'll have time to quickly get your pack ready before a search and that will be easy with everything readily available.

Pack and Track Tips

  1. Pack everything possible into ziploc bags. They're waterproof, strong (use freezer bags) and stay together even if stuffed. Gear is visible and easier to find and pack.
  2. Even with ziplocs it won't take long to realize you also need a pack cover for added protection in heavy rain. A garbage bag works but a cover designed for your size pack is quicker and easier.
  3. Always wear something orange and visible during a search. A hat or shirt is the obvious but you could also bring a light, cheap orange hunter's vest to put on over your top. Your ability to be seen is crucial and wearing natural colors is, well, unnatural for us.
  4. When was the last time you replenished your first aid kit? Think about adding any of the following: moleskin, snake bite kit, eye care kit, second skin, razor blades, chapstick, small soap, sanitary napkins (make great absorbent bandages).
  5. If you don't already, think about carrying a small pair of binoculars or even lighter monocular. Weight is always a factor but they could be valuable during a search.
  6. Speaking of carrying too much, take time to go through everything in your pack and toss some items you have never used, or replace with something lighter or smaller. If you want further help in reducing your pack weight check out on the web.
  7. If you wear reading glasses make sure you always carry a pair (or 2). Not being able to read maps or your GPS would be a problem.
  8. If you want or need to take a stove, go for the lighter models with a small gas mix canister. This is the lightest option when you only need a day of use. Check Coleman and Gaz, they both make great models that boil fast.
  9. Decent climbing helmets are not expensive and could save your life. They should always be worn when working around heights. When buying used climbing equipment make sure you know its previous use and inspect it well.
  10. Always keep a few bandanas stuffed into your pack. They are great for wiping away sweat, cooling off and lots more. Choose a bright color and it can be used for marking or signaling.
  11. If you don't have breathable rain gear at some point you'll find yourself soaked inside as well as out. Gore-tex is considered the best but there are many decent clones on the market now that work well and cost less. Check Cabela's or other outdoor sources for sets as cheap as $100. If you're used to a clammy plastic poncho you'll be amazed at the difference.
  12. Always carry an extra first-layer shirt. T-shirts in the heat and polypro in the winter will both get sweat-soaked after a good hike and changing into a dry one will help prevent hypothermia, as well as feel better. In the winter, hike in your lighter top and put on the heavy one when you stop. Always change out of a sweaty top when the sun goes down, even in the summer.
  13. A small piece of thin, closed-cell foam could provide just enough comfort and insulation for a decent night's sleep. A rectangle as small as 15"x30" weighs just a few ounces and pads the important upper body from hips to shoulders. A small square also works great as a butt protector while sitting.
  14. Remember to give a quick look around before leaving your break spot, especially if you took your pack off and opened it. You don't want to go back for something left behind, and you probably wouldn't find it anyway. This is especially true at night.
  15. Always carry an extra compass. It is one of your most valuable essentials.
  16. Whistles also are necessary, cheap and light. Carry 2.
  17. Look back periodically especially when you are traveling off trail. It will help familiarize you to the terrain in all directions and keep you on track if you come back the same way.
  18. On a night search remember to bring items you'll need if you're out until morning: sunglasses, hat, sunscreen, T-shirt, etc.
  19. Dryer lint makes great fire tinder. A handful stuffed into a film canister weighs nothing.
  20. No matter how many times you go through and organize your pack, do you find yourself at base camp ready to go in the field and realize you forgot extra water or that new pair of gloves? Keep a list of items that you want to take always handy so that before you drive away you can quickly go through it and make sure you have everything. Keep another list of To Do and To Buy.
  21. Use the folded edge of a map as a straight edge to draw a straight line.
  22. Put together a general fixit kit of rubber bands, few meters of duct tape, some strong wire, safety pins, razor blade, needle and fishing line, aluminum foil, etc.
  23. Gaiters may be hot, especially in summer, but they keep nature out of your boots and protect your legs from cactus and other irritables.
  24. Keep a grease pencil with your note pad. They write on anything and always work.
  25. Make sure you have at least 4 extra batteries in addition to other minimum battery needs. You might be a light saver to a battery-less searcher.
  26. Carry a small sack or pouch that can hold all the extra small stuff: lighter, candle, extra whistle and mirror, batteries, fixit kit, etc.
  27. Don't forget to throw in some straps of various lengths to tie things onto your pack.
  28. Keep a pair of tennis or other shoes in your duffel bag to change into after a search. Your feet will appreciate the comfort on the ride home.
Back to the Minilesson Page
Copyright and Disclaimer:: The contents of this website and the newsletter contained here are copyright © 1996-2006 by their respective authors or by Cibola Search and Rescue, Inc., and individual articles represent the opinions of the author. Cibola SAR makes no representation, express or implied, with regard to the accuracy of the information contained in these articles, and cannot accept any legal responsibility or liability for any errors or omissions that may be made. Articles made available at this website may be reproduced, with attribution given to Cibola SAR and the author, by any member of the Search and Rescue community for use in other team's publications.

Web site maintained by the CSAR Web Staff

Search this site:

Google Custom Search

Last Modified: 04/20/15 12:44:33
This page has been accessed some number of times since 05/21/07.