Cibola
Search and Rescue

The SAR Pack, Part 2

by David Dixon

This article originally appeared in Volume 6, Issue 2 of Lost... and Found.

The SAR Pack (Part 1) appeared as a Mini-Lesson in the October 1998 issue of the Cibola newsletter. It is available online in the non-member section. It was an overview of the SAR pack by season, contents, and included some pack tips. I encourage you to read it. In this part I will not talk about all the specific pack contents outlined in Part 1, but will expand on important aspects further gleaned from an additional two and a half years of search and rescue participation. As with the first article, the contents of the following are based on NM state requirements and Cibola SAR philosophy, but also the opinions of the author.

Pack Type

In Part 1, I covered the 2 types of backpacks, internal and external. Some of our members use an external but most of us consider the internal the better type for SAR use. Certainly much of our mission time is spent hiking on open trails, and externals are better for this. And they do keep you cooler. But internals fit closer, don't move around as much and as such are better suited to off-trail scrambling, ropes and litter hauling, the other things we end up doing.

Before buying a pack make sure you try it on loaded with enough weight and adjust it according to pack instructions. Most good packs are meant for a specific size torso. Measure yours (or have the store do it) and make sure the pack fits your size. The pack should ride and tighten well right on your hips. If you find one that seems right, wear it loaded around the store. If the torso doesn't feel right, if the straps don't work well, if the sternum strap is too high or other important structural needs keep it from fitting right put it down and keep looking. If the store doesn't know how to measure your torso, if they don't seem to know about packs or have a problem with you filling it and wearing it around, go to another store. Also, unless you've tried on the one you're ordering don't buy from mail order or online. You'll probably end up sending it back. A good pack should have all of the following: a wide, padded waist belt, padded back and shoulder straps, adjustable sternum strap, torso adjustments, compression straps, some external pockets and loops and be of strong nylon construction.

There are two types of internal packs to consider, top-loaders and panel-loaders. Both have advantages and disadvantages. Top loaders have one, deep main compartment which makes it a stronger pack but also makes accessing items on the bottom a pain. (To make this an easier task keep items you don't use as often on the bottom.) Panel loaders have a large main zipper in the front, which makes getting at pack contents easier. But the zipper weakens the pack and if it breaks in the field you're screwed. Make sure this type has compression straps to relieve tension on the zipper.

How much is a good pack? You don't need to spend hundreds. REI and other sources have fine quality internals for around $100. On the other hand you probably aren't going to find a decent pack for a lot less.

Pack Size and Weight

An appropriately supplied SAR pack should weigh between 25-40 pounds depending on the season. Any less and you're probably not fully equipped. Any more and you're probably taxing your ability. My moderate season pack is right at 30 pounds. I add 5-8 lbs. to that for my winter pack. This weight is not necessarily light for someone not used to carrying a pack. Cibola and NM state assumes you are in good shape and can handle the load. Also, you might leave room for the possibility of carrying needed supplies or water from incident base to the field.

A good pack size for this weight range is 2500-3500 cubic inches. You don't want a pack that is too small with stressed seams, nor one that weighs more with lots of extra room. I have an extended trip pack of 5200 cu. in. that is just too big even for all my incidental winter gear. If you bring a big pack as a backup, though, it could be used for carrying ropes, water or other supplies to a subject. But not if its loaded with too much weight.

Most sources will recommend a pack that is no more than 30% of your weight. But realize that is 66 lbs. for a 220 lb. man, a weight many big boys couldn't carry for miles, especially while handling a litter, even if they are in the best of shape.

Loading and Wearing your Pack

Heavy items should be evenly distributed over your waist and near your back. Keep less used items like first aid kit and bivy at the bottom of your pack with things you use all the time at the top. After you have loaded your pack, set it upright and shake it to settle the contents. If space is needed this will give you a little more room for that extra item. After that, tighten it down with your external compression straps to make it more compact. This will make it ride better and relieve stress on any zippers. Too put it on, raise it to your thigh and swing it onto your shoulders, tighten shoulder straps first to raise the pack to your hips, tighten the waist, attach the sternum strap and then go back and adjust the shoulders. It should be tight but not too constrictive on your body.

It really helps to have some items like compass, paper/pencil, and GPS readily available. Consider adding an extra pouch at the chest or waist for these small and oft-used items. Most of us have also discovered the convenience of a water tube and nozzle. I use a couple of liter bottles in my side pockets.

Seasonal Packs

As covered in Part 1 you should carry equipment and supplies relative to one of two seasons. I call them moderate and winter packs. As mentioned, moderate covers approximately April to September and winter includes October to March, relative to New Mexico. In thinking about what items to take during any season your primary factor is temperature. Even though most of your pack contents don't change from season to season you will be adding some items during winter - especially clothing. Another important factor to always consider is to be prepared for an overnight no matter what the season, and being comfortable using your pack contents.

Moderate Pack

When thinking about your moderate season clothing layers don't forget that if you are out overnight you'll probably be at a higher elevation where temperatures could get much lower than down in the flatland. A wind would lower the temperature even more. Consider clothing accordingly and don't skimp on your layers. I carry a minimum of a light first layer and medium weight second (and of course 3rd layer raingear). I also have another light or medium top to replace a sweat-soaked one or to add another layer if it gets chilly. The question to ask yourself again is, "Will I be warm enough for any condition I encounter, including nightfall, wearing everything I have?"

Even in summer your arms should be protected from sun and brush. Try a synthetic T-shirt covered with a light non-cotton or blend long-sleeve top. Button sleeves allow you to roll them up at times. (There is a reason Arabs wear loose, flowing, white garments).

Winter Pack

Your clothing needs change in winter. You should turn to your heavy or expedition weights as a middle layer. That doesn't mean you shouldn't hike in a medium or even light set. Even in colder temperatures you'll find a light first layer with a medium top or even windbreaker sufficient. But as soon as you stop you must have another dry set, preferably heavier, to change into. In fact, don't forget to change. After any hike you'll be wet as even synthetics don't wick all your sweat. It is also better to replace a wet top than to put another dry one over it.

What should your winter clothing layers be? There is no perfect combination that fits everyone for either season. It will take some trial and error on your part to finally decide. What you ultimately take away from incident base will also be reflective of the mission, terrain, weather and other conditions at the time. What generally works for me as a winter minimum is a light or medium weight first layer, expedition weight second and wearing or carrying a medium to heavy weight fleece insulating top and raingear. I hike in the medium or light weight and fleece if it's cold and make adjustments if it's warmer. In most stationary situations the dry expedition weight fleece and raingear is sufficient when stopped. You should also have on fleece or wool hand and headwear. Some might be comfortable hiking in just a medium weight or medium plus core-warming vest combination. If severe conditions are expected or if you get cold easily you should consider adding a down jacket. As you have heard before nothing warms like down. But beware! If you are in wet conditions, and this includes snow, you should cover the down jacket with your rainwear. If it becomes wet from the outside or inside it will be a heavy, useless, heat sucker. Your bottom doesn't lose heat like your torso and layering needs are probably less down there. I can usually get by with a light or medium first layer, expedition second plus raingear. Just the expedition under your rainwear might be enough. Always wear your gaiters in snow and even rainwear bottoms. Fleece can pick up snow like a magnet and then melt. Not so with nylon or slicker blends.

The one winter item that always comes into question is a sleeping bag. Here again you need to consider weight and size. A bag, even a light down one, still might be too big to stuff into your winter pack. If it will fit and doesn't max out your weight by all means carry it. It may end up saving the life of a hypothermic subject. I have taken mine on only a few missions though. In most cases I have my down jacket in serious winter conditions and it serves me as a torso sleeping bag. Wearing all my layers including the down jacket will keep me warm in all but the most severe of conditions. I can even survive, albeit a little uncomfortable, a cold night in these layers huddled in my bivy bag.

Another item worth mentioning is a stove. As with the warmth of a sleeping bag, warm liquids will do wonders for the hypothermic subject. There are many stoves on the market, but most are a pound or more not including fuel. Add another pound for an aluminum pan and food items and weight again becomes a factor. The answer most of us have found is the collapsible, tablet type (Esbit is one brand). If you stay with a small pan or sierra cup and a light menu of teas, broth and sugar drinks you can get the whole unit to a pound. I also carry a dehydrated meal that only weighs a few more ounces.

General Gear

Here are some gear items not on our standard list that I've learned I can't be without.
Gaiters: Get a strong, high top pair and use them all the time.
Helmet: Ok, you're not into climbing, don't carry a harness and are just there to help pull. If you're under any rocks, if there is anything or anyone above you, or you're just there to pull, you need a helmet. Carry it whenever there is the possibility of need. Hey, it's only your head.
Binocular or Monocular: I have used mine every year to search for someone or something. Small and cheap works fine.
Foam pad: A piece of thin, closed cell foam about the size of your torso (mine is only 15"x30") weighs only a ounce or two and is enough to keep the cold, bumpy ground from your tired bod. Use the folding z-rest type and you also have some great splinting material. (WFRs take note).
Maps: Start acquiring a set of topos of our prime areas and keep them in your extra bag. Never count on incident base to supply any.
Sunglasses: Protection from sun and branches. The bigger the better.
GPS: Someone on your search team needs one. It might as well be you. I just saw the eTrex on sale for $99.
Spare Pair of Glasses: This is for me (and anyone else over 40) . If I'm without my reading glasses I can't read maps, period. (I'm assuming you have a 1st pair).

Pack Tips (Part 2)

  1. Clothing with pit zips or mesh underarms work great to vent sweat while hiking. Look for them when buying any of your layers.
  2. I stressed the use of zip-loc freezer bags in Part 1 and can't repeat it enough. Stuff everything in your pack into different sizes, squeeze the air out while rolling them up, and snap a heavy rubber band on it. In addition to waterproofing, they shrink your contents, make packing easier and you can see what's in them. Make sure all your maps are also in them.
  3. Keep a bandanna handy while hiking to wipe sweat off your face and neck.
  4. Consider carrying the manuals to your radio and GPS, especially if you're not as familiar with them as you would like. Better yet, make copies of the most important instructions and take those instead.
  5. Instead of taking up pack space, larger items that can be rolled up like foam pads or bivys can probably be lashed on the outside of your pack. Keep extra straps handy for these and other items like your helmet.
  6. I have found it best to keep my radio batteries plugged into the charger all the time. Too often time or cold has drained them.
  7. Speaking of batteries, the same applies to your headlamp batteries. Check them often, especially if your pack stays in your cold vehicle all the time.

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