Training for Wilderness Rescue

Imagine if you will, receiving a call for an injured person two miles from a main road who has fallen off of a water fall. The patient is in and out of consciousness and lying on a rock ledge 30 feet above ground. How are you going to access the patient? How are you going to extricate the patient from the area? Who would want to take on this type of call?


A training picture of students completing skills related to caring for a hypothermic patient during a winter SAR class.

The need for wilderness rescue training can often be overlooked. Wilderness rescues are low frequency, high risk events for agencies that have wilderness areas in their jurisdiction.

Consider the above scenario occurring in the winter time with freezing temperatures and snow on the ground. This puts a whole different spin on the situation, but it doesn’t change the fact that specialized training for responders is needed to preform wilderness rescues. The need to respond to these incidents involves environments from swamplands and forested areas, to extreme mountainous terrain. As with any training program, constant application of these skills is necessary to maintain the level of competence to effectively, efficiently, and safely perform them during an actual incident. There are several components to wilderness rescues which include: incident management, navigation, rescue operations to include rope rescue, tracking and victim management.

A training picture taken of a high directional anchor system being used to train and preplan at common waterfall incident location.

While preforming a rescue of an injured horseback rider. Haywood SAR team assisted the riding stables with returning the horses to the stable.

A group picture of students and instructors, who just completed the NC TR Wilderness rescue class.

Rescue pick off of a climber who became stuck on his rope after an equipment failure.

One of the most important aspects of wilderness rescue training is navigation. You have to be able to locate a victim and then extricate them the best way possible. Understanding where you are in the remote wilderness helps determine a timely extraction and if you will get to receive additional help or not. Navigation is a skill that if not maintained can perish. A well rounded wilderness rescue technician should be capable of using a map and compass, as well as a handheld GPS unit. Understanding how to plot points on a map and obtain a direction of travel from preforming resections are required map skills when using a common map and compass.

This could make a difference in taking a better pathway out of the wilderness or a longer one. Handheld GPS units are great, but often one may find them-self in an area with no GPS reception from satellites. Or even worse, batteries may die and you’ve forgotten to replace your spare batteries the last time. It happens, but being a resilient wilderness rescuer you turn to your map and compass and know how to use them. Key components of navigation are understanding how to read maps, understanding different coordinate systems and map datum and also using mapping software. A wildernesses rescue technician should make it a best practice to train on navigation a couple times a year to keep skills sharp.

Conducting a rope rescue in the wilderness setting can be a daunting task. Having all of the equipment needed to perform the rescue, but not carrying the entire heavy rescue truck to the incident scene, can be hard for some folks. In the wilderness rope rescue setting, rescuers should take a minimalistic mind set. Sharing the equipment load amongst the team to limit rescuer fatigue is a must. For example, in a four-person team if every team member carries five carabiners then 20 carabiners will be available for the rescue. Same goes for all of the webbing, rope and pulleys. Using lightweight aluminum, even micro sized hardware, cuts down on the load being carried. For rope size, downsizing to 9 mm rescue ropes instead of the heavy

half inch ropes are very helpful. Of course, you need to follow your agencies policies and procedures for equipment. I strongly encourage everyone to look outside of the box on safety factors. It is becoming more commonly acceptable of many mountain rescue teams to utilize a 10:1 safety factor. Thus, allowing for the use of smaller ropes and lighter weight hardware.

Taking a look at your rope rigging and understanding what possible forces could be applied along with equipment limitations will go a long way. I’m all about using “G” rated or two person rated equipment, until it’s time to carry it five miles back in to the wilderness. Then, I would much rather lighten my carrying load.

Using out of the ordinary anchors such as rocks, trees and even artificial rock protection — chocks and cams — can be hard to understand. While most all wilderness rope rescues are the same set up as a high angle rescue in a city, the major difference will be equipment used and conditions in which setups take place. Preplanning of wilderness rope rescue areas is a huge part of preparing rescue teams. If you are able to perform training in the environment in which possible rescues could occur, this will greatly decrease possible safety issues and rescue times. Remembering how to tie a knot can be a perishable skill. So can remembering how to setup a simple mechanical advantage system, after hiking several miles back in to the wilderness. That’s why constant training on the basics is a must. I have found that when instructing wilderness rescue classes that having a show and tell of the equipment can be very useful. It allows the students to see that a small amount of light weight equipment, carried amongst the team, can facilitate a rescue almost as efficiently as if you had the heavy rescue truck with you.


In order to maintain proficiency, rescue teams must train together and practice on their perishable skills regularly. For example, my SAR team utilizes their monthly meeting to train on a different topic each time. One month may be a navigation course, while the next we may just do pack checks and review the various types of equipment each person chooses to carry. Training in wilderness rescue is a specialized area of rescue training. Preparing rescuers to be self-sufficient for survival and prepared for various weather environments is a large portion of training. Teaching this specialty can only be done with multiple hands-on exercises. Death by PowerPoint alone will not prepare students appropriately. You have to conduct mock search scenarios, put rescuers in the field preforming a navigation course and get them on ropes to boost the comfort level with lightweight rigging.​

Cody Parton has been involved in emergency services for 15 years, working in the wilderness rescue field from the beginning of his career. He is employed full-time as an engineer with the Waynesville Fire Department and works part-time as the Assistant Emergency Management Coordinator for Haywood County Emergency Services. Parton also serves as a volunteer with the Haywood County Search and Rescue Team as the Deputy Director of the team. He is also a part of the North Carolina state specialty team of Mountain Rescue Teams, NC-MRT 4. Parton specializes in teaching wilderness rescue at Haywood Community College as a NCDOI, level three qualified instructor.

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