Dressing for Cold Weather Search and Rescue Operations

By Bob Twomey, Rescue Instructor, Pilot Search & Rescue

Whenever winter arrives, we respond to the normal search and rescues as in the many years past. While it may seem ridiculous to talk about proper dress and equipment issues utilized while you are in a cold weather search, it remains an important topic. 

How many times have you wished it was easier to access your needed rescue gear while dressed for cold weather searches and rescues? How much easier would it be to be able to wear your normal Search and Rescue (SAR) pack without having to put it on over winter-weight clothing? When changing elevations on that long search, how do you “dress in layers” yet remain capable of not getting overheated during exertion, or dress in layers in a cold rainfall yet be able to access your gear without getting soaked?

It may seem odd to think we need to consider these things…but these issues have belabored rescuers for many years. We want to stay warm and dry in cold or wet rescues, yet the very nature of a search and/or rescue dictates that we are able to perform the rescue in all clothing options and weather conditions.

Take your SAR pack for example. First, it must be large enough to accommodate the likely needs of an extended SAR operation (See the National Association for Search and Rescue (NASAR) website for a list of suggested contents for SAR operations). While it is one thing to have all of these needed supplies, it’s an entirely different matter as to how you pack them for ease of access during bad weather. Some supplies, such as hand warmers, energy foods, initial-use first aid kits, spare batteries, or electronic gear (GPS units, radios, etc.) need to be more readily accessible from the SAR pack, such as from side storage pockets, rather than having to dig through the entire pack contents in a drenching rain. This requires planning and also comes from experience; as to what items will more likely be needed quickly or more frequently on an extended mission. Unfortunately, a lot of this is learned through trial and error …generally more error than trial. 

Your SAR pack MUST be comfortable. It must be adjustable, enough so that you can do it easily over multiple layers of winter clothing or tighten it securely enough to wear over your shirt in the warmer seasons. The SAR pack should be able to be secured easily with shoulder strap adjustments, waist/hip securing belts, and chest-level shoulder strap adjustment straps. To be comfortable during hours of wear in rugged terrain, the pack must fit properly on your body. If it rides too high on your back, your shoulders bear more weight than necessary, leading to fatigue in short order. If it rides too low, not only does it put extra weight on your shoulders, but it is not secure on the hips, which are easily capable of bearing SAR pack weight, hence the hip belts and padding on those belts. If the pack is resting on the mid to upper curvature of your back, it is not as secure or balanced on your back, thus it is more susceptible to lateral movement and instability. This is NOT what you need on a steep mountainside while working your way through dense vegetation. The pack must be secure and balanced. However, the pack must not be secured to your body so tightly as to hinder blood circulation or restrict ease of movement.

The higher the center of gravity is on your back, the more likely you are to be unstable on steep terrain. Likewise, if the lateral balance of your pack is significantly unequal, your center of gravity (CG) will be to the left or right. This can cause early fatigue and difficulty when navigating steeper terrain. Many high-quality SAR packs come with an internal, adjustable frame that can be customized for the loads you need to carry. They “conform” to the curvature of your back and allow for some of the pack’s weight to be more evenly distributed across your shoulders, back, and hips. Remember that your pack must be adjustable for various clothing Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) configurations and layers for the seasons of the year.

Rescuers love pockets and pouches. They are handy for carrying smaller items that will likely be needed frequently or on a more regular basis. Many rescuers like the packs that integrate “mollie” attachment configurations. The military learned years ago that the ability to quickly attach equipment specific to a unique mission, allows one to have what they need and be ready for quick access. However, you do not want so many attached pouches that you look like a western pan wagon rolling through the prairie either. In general, uni-pocket packs are not the best choice for SAR. Contents must be placed into one large pack without the options for external compartmentalization, which means you open the entire pack to access each needed item. In a 35-degree winter rain on a mountainside, this is very inefficient. 

Rescuers like the SAR pack contents to remain dry, especially spare clothing articles. There is not too much more demoralizing than to need a dry change of clothes during a long, hard SAR mission, only to find out that when unpacked, all clothing is soaked (remember the cold winter rain you are searching in?). This can be dangerous as it relates to hypothermia and your ability to stay warm. Over many years in SAR, I learned that one CAN NOT waterproof a pack completely. When it rains or snows, the pack is going to leak some, especially if opened and closed in inclement weather. The solution? Waterproof the contents of the pack and not the pack itself! Plastic freezer bags that can truly be sealed, excluding water leakage, will work well. They are clear, so you can see the contents without unsealing them. Just be sure that when you place things in them that you squash out all the excess air as you seal them, lest they “balloon” and become susceptible to puncture. A better alternative is to utilize vacuum sealing plastic wrap. A simple food vacuum sealing unit that uses plastic wrap that is vacuum sealed for freezer food storage works very well to seal and waterproof SAR pack contents. Spare clothing, such as socks, underwear, t-shirts, insulated undergarments, etc. can be sealed, waterproofed, and shrunk down to the size of a tennis ball! Other items you may want to waterproof are fuel bars/pellets for your cooking unit, fire starter kits, first aid supplies, and food. They weigh the same as if sealed in plastic bags but take up less than half the space and are clear so you can see the contents. Anything that needs to be waterproofed can be vacuum sealed, so, let it rain or snow to the point your pack is saturated; the contents will be dry!

A useful solution to being able to access readily needed gear is to NOT plan on all of it being on or in your pack. Pockets on your SAR clothing that are accessible AFTER you don your pack are good for dispersing gear across your body. This benefits ease of access and weight-balance distribution. As a minimum, heavy-duty cargo pants should be considered as the standard for SAR. Newer versions of cargo pants are readily available today in various fabric weights and configurations … and they have lots of pockets. Another alternative is the use of flight suits. They have pockets all over, including the lower leg areas, but they are one-piece articles of clothing. They can be various fabric weights and safety colors and can fit loosely enough to be comfortable. Remember, on a SAR mission, you are not there to make a fashion statement. You are there to perform a lifesaving rescue. All your clothing must do is be adequate for the mission, terrain, and weather conditions, and be waterproof, comfortable, durable, and efficient.

Searchers need clothing that is waterproof yet breathable, such that evaporation from perspiration can leave the body but rain or snow cannot penetrate the fabric. Clothing must also be relatively wind-proof, as convection of body heat from a brisk wind blowing around your body will quickly cool your body. Evaporative cooling, especially when enhanced by convective winds around you, can quickly place you in a serious hypothermic condition. Likewise, undergarments also should have the ability to wick water or perspiration away from your skin yet maintain body heat when wet. Boots must be waterproof, comfortable, sturdy, and provide traction. They require proper maintenance…so that you can depend upon them. 

Does all this sound too complex or even expensive? Well, yes … it is. Common sense dictates that we care for ourselves so that we can care for our victim(s). It is not complex to know that you dress in layers so that as weather conditions change, you can adapt accordingly for comfort and safety. Good, dependable outdoor gear and clothing are not cheap, but then, how important is your safety when out on a SAR mission miles from command when the weather takes a turn for the worse? You are no good to your team or the victim(s) if cold, wet conditions affect your ability to perform.

No one ever said wilderness SAR would be easy or even inexpensive. Many things relative to your locations need to be carefully analyzed, like terrain, elevation, field conditions, weather norms, typical SAR missions you can expect, SAR duration, and so forth. But then, this IS rescue. 

Bob Twomey has been in the volunteer rescue service for 46 years, having served on five Rescue Squads from the coast to the mountains. He is currently a member of Transylvania County Rescue Squad, past Chief and Training Chief, an EMT for 45 years, and is an IFSAC and OSFM certified Rescue Instructor. Bob has been active in SAR, Mountain Rescue, and teaches high-level rescue. He is the chief pilot of Wolf Tree Aviation, and flies helicopter searches and rescue support locally. He is a Crew Chief for the NC Forest Service. He can be reached at 828-884-7174 or at btwomey@comporium.net.

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