Search and Rescue

The SAR Pack, Part 3

by David Dixon

This article originally appeared in Volume 7, Issue 11 of Lost... and Found.

Previously, in SAR Pack 1 and 2, I wrote about equipping yourself for missions with proper gear and clothing. Part 1 especially included long lists of necessary (and some usually unnecessary) items for both your summer and winter packs. Having just the right contents is certainly essential but so is physical conditioning and as we all know the former is very much related to the latter. The weight of your pack is a big factor in your ability to haul the thing around. For me, age is also a factor because as I get older so especially does my back, and anything I can do to give it a break will make missions more bearable and keep me in the field longer. That break is reducing the weight of my pack. In this article I change directions and go on a pack weight loss program. Not generally by removing but reducing because as with any weight loss program you don't want to jeopardize your safety or in this case the "health" of your pack. This is especially true for search and rescue work. You've already given much thought as to what goes in your pack and weight loss becomes more of a challenge. Reducing the weight of your pack by even a few pounds can make a big difference though not only for your back but in the reduction of energy expended. In this program depending on what I end up carrying I was able to reduce my pack weight by 2-5 lbs.

I am not the only one who is interested in weight loss. The Feature Article in the current issue of Backpacker is an Ultralight Plan. They have a lot of good tips but most of their plan doesn't really apply to us since we aren't functioning as traditional backpackers. (Hey, I tried shortening my toothbrush but couldn't find one in my pack). We can't and shouldn't "remove some items just because we've never used them in the field". Some of our gear is insurance that needs to always be there. Technology, not surprisingly, also has gone the same direction with big advances made in lighter materials and companies formed solely around lighter weight items. Some of these things cost more and my changes did involve some expenditures but who doesn't like a reason to buy some new gear.

Knowing the weight of everything in your pack is an obvious first step in the program so I brought home a balance scale to weigh my pack items down to the ounce - actually gram. I found that sometimes weight differences of clothing and gear was surprising. That difference affects what I decide to pack. The weight of some items, like water, can't be reduced but there are many things that can. (I can loan out a scale if you're interested).

Finally, a reminder that even though items you are wearing, like a headlamp, boots and clothes are not in your pack they're still considered part of your total weight.


You can't give up clothing. You need your layers. One interesting thing I did find though was that mid and light weight clothing sometimes referred to thickness of material and not actual weight as my heavyweight polypro top and bottom weighed less than lighter weights. I found that I could save a few ounces by carrying an extra top that was actually thicker and more insulating but lighter weight, even in summer. This in fact is related to another positive thing about our no cotton philosophy - for the same thickness synthetics generally weigh less than cotton. Not all synthetics of the same thickness weigh the same though and knowing the weight of all your clothing items helps you make better decisions about what goes in your pack (or on your body) during any season. I also found that a pair of strong, insulated leather palmed gloves which work great for litter hauls and keep my hands warmer actually weigh less than my uninsulated all leathers. They now go into my winter pack. Also, lighter weight winter caps also work just as well to keep my head warm in most conditions.


My first set of breathable raingear was a top and bottom of ultrex which I carried for years. But they're bulky, double layer with a combined weight of almost 3 lbs. In addition, I rarely used the bottoms. I now have a more lightweight top weighing 11 oz. and a pair of simple, coated nylon bottoms weighing just 6 oz. for a weight savings of almost 2 lbs. This new set has so far worked fine. The bottoms aren't breathable but the top breathes better than the ultrex. (More of that new technology at work).


I have always relied on dried meat, dried fruit and nuts, plus a few candy or energy bars - compact, high energy food. Not many ways for me to save weight here but I did decide that I was carrying a little too much. Other than some additional snacks I have close at hand (and eat during most missions) my food cache now weighs just over a pound. Note: If I am carrying it my stove package includes instant soup, tea, coffee, hot chocolate and a package of dried rice or pasta.


Even though I don't always carry it I was able to save 7 ounces here by trading in my old stove for a 3 oz. Pocket Rocket and replacing my large canister for a smaller one. (How much burn time do you need on a mission anyway?) I also reduced the weight of my cook kit by a few ounces by taking out a one pan and carrying a few less dried items (see above).


I got a big weight savings here although I think the jury is still out on LED's. My headlamp that I have used for years, the SAR standard Petzl zoom with the 4.5v battery weighs 11 oz. In addition I carried a second hand held light source that weighed almost as much. My new 4 bulb LED weighs 4 oz. (3 AAA batteries included) and so far seems fine for most trail hikes. For better light and searching I've added a compact 4 AA flashlight with lithium batteries that weighs only 6.6 oz. and shines like a spotlight. LED's and AA Eveready e2 lithium batteries (not titaniums) are more examples of that new lightweight technology. LED's give off a more diffuse light that takes getting used to but the bulbs last forever. Lithiums weigh half of alkalines, last up to 6 times longer and work much better in the cold. I think their higher cost (4 for around $10) is worth it. Also, with new batteries you may decide that you don't need spares for LED's that burn for 30, 40 or more hours, an additional weight savings. When I added the weight of necessary spare batteries to my old standard bulb light sources my weight savings was over a pound. (Although I will admit that sometimes, depending on the mission, you need the old standby on your head). Note: I have a new 3 AAA LED/Halogen combo light that I just tried on a recent mission. Jury's still out.


I hadn't gone through my kit in nearly a year and in doing so I realized that I didn't quite need all the bandages and multiple items I had. In addition after much thought I pulled my hefty (6 oz.), plastic-paged copy of the WMA Field Guide. I figured in a medical reality I'd be too rushed and excited to use it anyway. Hey, not having it forces me to make sure I know all the stuff. In all I reduced my kit's weight by over half a pound.


Finally what does your pack itself weigh. Mine weighs about 4 lbs. I could probably save a few ounces by changing to a lighter one although not at a compromise to size. If your pack is too large you could consider down-sizing. A smaller one probably weighs less but you don't want one that compromises it's ability to stand up to the rigors of the field. A "LightIsRight" philosophy doesn't always apply to us.


I saved a few more ounces on assorted pack items that I felt I could do without. I decided 2 of anything is enough, so I got rid of an extra compass, a prussic, some batteries and a few other things.


As with my other articles I can't end without a few other Tips on saving weight.
  1. A roll of trail tape is heavy. Do you need more than one roll or even a whole roll on every mission?
  2. Do you carry a bivy? What does it weigh? There are options that weigh less and would probably function as well.
  3. Larger knives are heavy. How many do you carry? How many do you really need? (Acknowledgement to David Chapek for this tip).
  4. Try to find out weights of items before you buy them and think about them as pack additions.
  5. If you carry a closed cell pad like I do try reducing its size to a bare minimum. If you're using it you probably won't sleep much anyway. A piece just 20x36 or so protects your torso from the cold ground but saves you a few ounces and more importantly pack volume. I carry a piece of accordian z-rest. It's sections can work well as splints.

Think about everything you carry. Weigh it. Reduce it. Your pack and back will thank you.

Now if they can just come up with reduced weight water.

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