In my life I’ve picked up a few tricks when it comes to teaching myself how to do things. One of the tricks I learned early in life, is this: you can pick up a skill by pursuing an occupation around that skill.
I stumbled upon this idea when I thought I wanted to cook for a living back in high school. I didn’t know how to cook but by getting a job at a restaurant I was able to learn how. Although cooking isn’t something I want to do for the rest of my life, I left that kitchen with a few skills I’ll carry with me for the rest of my life.
I’ve done this with a few other things including iron work (learned how to work hard), bouncing (learning how to communicate), and personal training (learned how to start a business). Just recently I’ve begun learning survival skills by joining my local search and rescue (SAR) outfit. I’ve always wanted to learn some survival skills, but haven’t been in the place to do so until recently. Now that I’m in training up I’m learning all sorts of cool things about backpacking – how to pack, what to pack, how to store gear – not to mention all the real life survival information I’m being taught.
I was never in boy scouts, I can’t tie many knots. I’ve never learned to turn make shelter out of a tarp or how to start a fire in the snow, but I’ve always wanted to. By volunteering with this group I’m able to learn some cool stuff that can help others for less than $150.
Search and Rescue
About 5 years back a friend of mine told me about a local search and rescue program run by one of his college professors. Learn sweet survival skills now and when there is an emergency you help out. At the time I figured I’d just learn the skills and peace out, but after getting into the training I’ve learned that all the fun is in going out on the calls.
Imagine backpacking for a reason – you’re hiking with a destination in mind against pressure. The weather sucks – there’s hard rain, it’s dark out, and the trail is covered in mud. You and your team has very little information on the subject, and you’re unsure if you’ll be able find him. Then on your radio you hear someone has made voice contact.
Now it’s time to pay attention. Now it’s time to get to work.
See? Search and rescue is an adventure!
Well, it could be anyways. I’ve only completed the first of six overnight training exercises, it could be hell form here on out.
In this article I’ll go over who SAR is for, what a volunteer should expect, what you’ll learn as a trainee, as well as some other pros and cons around the business I found interesting.
Who’s it for?
If I had to say who this course was for, at this point I’d say it’s for:
- People who are new to mountaineering/camping/backpacking
- People who already know how to stay safe and are looking for some adventure
- People interested in meeting other ambitious people
- People who want to give back to their community
- People who want to learn and practice leadership skills
- People who want to challenge themselves
All of the types of people listed above would benefit from joining their local SAR group. I think doing anything outdoors is very beneficial to your well being, doing something outdoors that teaches you how to communicate with a team and problem solve? Even better.
What Does A Volunteer Do?
SAR volunteers can decide which missions to participate in and which ones to sit out.
Missions can include helping someone down a hiking train, searching for a lost child, or even looking for evidence at a crime scene. Really, the scenarios are endless.
There is no requirement that you do ANY mission. It’s all volunteer, it’s all up to you.
If you do accept a call and go out on a mission you may end up working on a muddy incline in the rain or walking around a large park in the sun. The scenarios vary, the conditions vary.
What do you learn?
So far, I’ve learned what gear to buy, where, and why. I’ve learned how to spot and treat hypothermia, how to read maps, and have had some experience with triangulating my position on a map using nearby landmarks. I’ve learned to find bearings with a compass, and estimate distances based on my pacing. I can now tie some useful knots that can be used to put together the different types of tarp shelters I learned to build. I also learned how to pack and carry a litter.
In the future we’re supposed to go through more practical compass exercises, a helicopter safety course (sweet!), and more in depth first aid training. We’ll also be doing a mock search and will learn some laws around searching and rescuing.
Hows the teaching?
The teaching itself is top notch. I was really surprised by how well the weekend was planned and how clearly the information was presented. We were busy the entire time, from 6:30 AM Saturday until 4:00 PM Sunday. To bed at 10, packed and ready to go by 6.
All of the information was practiced with hands on application. We were taught it, got to practice it, were able to ask questions, and were even provided an extra 2 hours on Sunday to practice some of the skills we had trouble picking up.
Learn to work as a team
Since we were moving around so much, we were eating constantly to keep our energy levels high. All this movement made it easy to stay warm in the cold, wet, Washington winter.
Throughout the weekend we were reminded to keep track of our teams food and water intake levels. By doing this, we ensured that no one in our group would end up the next subject in need of medical attention.
At one point in the training we were geared up with our packs, carrying a subject down a dark muddy trail. During times like these, teamwork is required to ensure the subject and your fellow volunteers make it out of the mission safely.
Pros and Cons
Training is cheap (gear is not, see ‘cons’) – Training is only about $150 and you receive a compass, notepad, some pencils, and some measuring tools. That’s $150 for 6+ classes on how to survive in the wild. That’s cheap.
No obligation – After training, you don’t have to go help people. If you’re a jerk, you can learn it and peace out, no problem. I don’t think you’ll be able to do that once you see the training though, the missions sound like the good stuff.
Learn some sweet survival skills – I’ve learned tons, we talked about it earlier.
Meet cool new people – You’ll find tons of ambitious do-gooders at this training. Some great people to connect with.
Practice leadership skills – If you’re old like me, you’ll be working around younger individuals that may not have enough confidence to step up and get to work, that’s where someone like you gets to set an example and get everyone working together to get the job done. Great practice.
Spend time in nature – Hanging out in nature is good for you. If you live amongst concrete and steel (and rain) like I do, you can really notice the difference in your attitude after a long hike or a weekend in the woods. Get out of your house and into some brush and alone with your thoughts and I’m sure you’ll return home super relaxed.
Gear is not cheap – I spent tons of money on gear. Granted, I didn’t have hardly anything when I started, it was still a lot more than I would have spent had I not committed myself to taking the course. There are ways around this – value village, second hand mountaineering stores, borrowing stuff. You don’t have to spend loads of money, but do expect to spend some.
Online information is crappy – My particular division of search and rescue has some crappy online videos that you have to use for the first series of homework exercises. It’s not the end of the world, but they are pretty bad. To be fair, one of the instructors informed us they’d be updating them soon, so hopefully we were the last group to have to use them.
Training varies – Depending on where you are, your experiences are going to vary. I’m in Washington, this was my experience here. Your local SAR organization may do things completely different than mine, I don’t know. You may need more training, you may need less. There might be a larger fee, might be a smaller one. Go check them out, find out, and let us know.
All in all, my experience with SAR has been awesome so far. They’ve provided me an opportunity to learn basic survival skills, have fun in nature, and meet some great new people. If you’re interested in learning how to spend time in the wild, I highly recommend doing a google for your local SAR organization and seeing what it’s all about.
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