I’ve heard from a lot of members over the years the suggestion that we should wait until morning to begin searching for overdue hikers. Many tell me that this is what we used to do, and wonder why we have changed our ways. Indeed, reliance on one’s self has always been part of any educated and responsible person’s wilderness travel plans. Is it simply our society’s expectations of immediate satisfaction that has us being called out in the middle of the night for someone who is only a few hours overdue? Is it someone’s concern for potential liability that prioritizes these cases enough to launch an immediate search? In fact it’s neither of these.

All things being equal – and admittedly they rarely are – the total area to be searched increases more than 36 times between the first and sixth hour of a search. This is because the subject is potentially moving. So a search area that begins as only 3 square miles after one hour, can be 113 square miles after six hours [this is assuming one mile an hour of travel in an open search area]. The rate of growth of the search area lessens over time, so the second six hours only sees an increase of 400%, or 452 square miles. Obviously the earlier a search begins, the smaller the search area. But the numbers above point out exactly how critical the first few hours can be. It might not be necessary to grid search an area in the middle of the night, but it is crucial that the perimeter of the search area be closed off as soon as possible.

When I first joined SAR I remember an experienced member telling me "if we enter the field after 10:00 AM, we will probably be spending the night." The statistics don’t exactly bear this out, but search missions do tend to be longer and often times more remote than other events. On a recent incident our teams took several hours to even reach the search area. By the end of the first day we were inserting teams just to spend the night and not even begin searching until morning. Subjects are most active and alert in the first hours of the day. It is this period of time that we need to have our teams actively searching. To do this, we need our teams entering the field well before dawn. Waiting until morning to call out resources would waste nearly an entire day of searching, not just the few hours between the call to 911 and the sun coming up.

When we commit teams into the field they are not looking for the missing subject. It would certainly be nice if they found the person, but it would be like looking for a needle in a haystack. No, there are far more clues in any given search area then there are missing people. So our teams go into the field instead looking for clues to the subject’s presence.

Such clues can include clothing, equipment, food wrappers, but these types of items are difficult to identify as belonging to the subject – unfortunately there is a lot of trash in the wilderness. The most useful clues are ones that deteriorate relatively quickly, such as tracks in dirt or snow, scent trails, and other disturbances. Because these clues disappear in a relative short period of time, they are more likely to belong to the search subject. However, for the very same reason, we need to begin searching for them as soon as possible, before they have a chance to deteriorate.

When a person is reported as overdue, it is impossible to know what their current condition might be. Imagine being injured in the wilderness, or your spouse or child being alone and injured. The subject might be sitting exposed to the elements in a position they can’t move from. Or, in their efforts to return home, they might get into an even worse situation then just being overdue.

We have encountered all of these situations before, and many others where a quick start to the search made all of the difference in the subject’s final condition. It is not just KCSARA that begins searches without delay; virtually every modern search and rescue organization recognizes the need for an immediate response.

In fact, not every mission results in an immediate callout. The on-duty SAR deputy has the authority to decide if and when to callout resources. The written operation guidelines suggest that a mission is urgent any time two or more of the follow conditions exist:

  • Very young or very old subjects
  • A known or suspected injury or illness
  • A single subject, vs. a group
  • An inexperienced subject
  • Existing or imminent poor weather
  • Poorly equipped subjects
  • Known terrain hazards

Naturally these guidelines are not to be blindly followed. If at any time the on-duty SAR deputy feels an urgent callout is warranted, they will immediately move to do so.

So you now understand that search really is an emergency. We can’t afford to wait until morning to callout search teams. And the decision to callout teams isn’t an arbitrary one. In the past it was common to wait, today more commonly we begin searching immediately. Improved resources, new technology, evolving theory, all contribute to this change. Societal expectations and litigious worries, while easy scapegoats, have little to do with this evolution in reasoning.

Next time I overhear someone suggesting a midnight callout is unnecessary, I’ll smile, knowing the truth, and gently set them straight.