You can do a lot to limit your risk in the mountains. However, even with the best preparation, accidents can and do happen. If you wander off route or break your leg during a fall, do you know what to do next? Calling search and rescue sounds easy enough, but a lot can go wrong. It can be tough to find and sustain a signal, and the rush of adrenaline can even make sharing the right details difficult in the moment. Here is my advice on how to call for search and rescue to give yourself the best odds possible for a successful rescue.
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Start with Proper Planning and Preparations
The best defense is a good offense. The right time to start thinking about mountain safety is before an accident happens – not afterwards. Always research your route thoroughly and check the weather conditions so you can plan ahead. You should leave a detailed copy of your itinerary with someone dependable back home and bring a partner if possible. Lastly, bring the ten essentials – this list of critical gear helps you survive unplanned nights outdoors and respond actively to an emergency. They will give you a much larger margin for error should something happen to you in the mountains.
Before we discuss how to call search and rescue, we need to discuss when it’s appropriate.
When Should You Call Search and Rescue?
It isn’t always quote clear if a situation warrants calling search and rescue, especially if you are new to hiking and camping in the mountains. Anytime you genuinely believe you cannot make it back safely, either because you are injured, sick, or lost, call for help.
Here is a good general rule of thumb. If you are wondering whether or not you need help, you should call 911 and speak to the dispatcher about your situation. They can help determine whether or not you need assistance, and provide advice to help you self-evacuate if appropriate. Here are a few sample situations to demonstrate when you should call for help, and when you should evacuate on your own.
Situation 1: Jake collapsed a mile from the trailhead with a muscle cramp. The pain stops after a few minutes, but he is afraid it will happen again. Should he call search and rescue?
Muscle cramps are a normal side effect of strenuous hikes, especially if you are out of shape. Jake should rest for a bit and stretch, and slowly try to make his way back to the trailhead. Calling search and rescue is not appropriate in this situation – a cramp is not usually severe enough to prevent you from self evacuating.
Situation 2: Sarah is hiking her first 14er and begins experiencing mild altitude sickness around 12K ft. By time she reaches 13K ft she is vomiting. Should she call search and rescue?
Altitude sickness can be a scary experience for those who have not dealt with it before. However, symptoms of altitude sickness usually resolve very quickly by descending even a few hundred feet. If you begin suffering moderate to severe altitude sickness, descend immediately. Waiting for search and rescue will take hours, with symptoms worsening the entire time. Self evacuation is almost always the best course of action.
Situation 3: Carl and Edgar are backpacking when Carl trips and injures his leg. He is unable to put any weight on it. Edgar says he can help him walk out - but Carl is not quite so sure.
Carl and Edgar are backpacking, which means they have a lot of gear to carry, and are likely many miles from the trailhead. It also means they have a tent, sleeping bag, and other key necessities. Rather than try to self-evacuate. it is probably better in this situation to call search and rescue, share their location, setup camp, and wait for assistance. Edgar may injure himself trying to evacuate his friend with heavy gear over a long distance – it is not worth the risk.
Situation 4: Tina fell behind while descending Mount Yale and soon wandered off the trail in the dark. She thinks she can follow the creek still to the trailhead, but she is uncertain.
Getting lost in the mountains is not a good situation to be in. It is easy to head in the wrong direction deeper into the backcountry and away from your last known location without ever knowing it. It is almost always better to stop and call for help if you have completely lost the route, rather than wander further away from help. Tina should stop where she is, find a signal, call for help, and stay put, before she gets even more lost.
Let’s move on now to the real discussion: how to call search and rescue the right way.
How to Call Search and Rescue: Step by Step
Once you decide your situation is serious enough to call for help, you should do so as quickly as possible. It can take Search and Rescue crews up to 48 hours to reach you depending on where you are and the current conditions. Most people use either a cell phone or a satellite messenger to call for help – it is highly recommended that you bring one or both with you in the mountains.
Here is a step-by-step guide on how to call search and rescue.
1: Find a safe place with a good signal
Before you start to dial, make sure you have a good location. You will need to stay in your location after making contact with search and rescue, so take a moment to ensure it’s a safe place to wait. You may not have a signal – climb up to a ridge line or point with no tree cover for your best chance at getting a signal. If you don’t have a good enough connection to place a call, try sending a text message instead – most 911 dispatch centers receive texts.
2: Plan out what you will say to the dispatcher
Once you have a signal, take a moment to plan out what you will say to the dispatcher. You may be injured, in shock, or distressed, which makes is harder to think clearly. With a poor signal, you may only have a few seconds to speak before you get disconnected, so take a moment ot plan out what you will say. I recommend practicing your ‘speech’ so you get through all the key details in 30 seconds or less. Think through the 5W’s of the situation:
- What is happening?
- Who is there?
- Why do you need help?
- Where are you?
- When do you need help?
These details will help the dispatcher send you the appropriate resources and provide you the right advice. For example, if they know that someone is injured, it may speed up your rescue, while if they know you have survival gear, they may be able to come for you in the morning to reduce the level of risk to the rescue crew. The more information you can share, the better.
3: Make a call or send a message
After practicing what you will say, take out your phone or device and contact 911. Speak as clearly as possible while still moving quickly (this isn’t a good time for small talk). The dispatcher will ask you a series of follow up questions to get more information. Try your best to answer their questions.
Dispatchers are human beings – and they are trained to help people in distress. Once you share all the key information and answer their questions, don’t be afraid to share how you feel or ask for advice. The dispatchers are there to help you.
4: Follow the instructions of the dispatcher
If you or someone in your group is injured, the dispatcher will likely provide some medical advice to help treat and stabilize them while you await rescue. They may provide more instructions, like moving to a location nearby, sending someone to meet rescuers, or helping clear an area nearby for a helicopter landing. If you don’t understand their instructions, take time to ask questions before you hang up, as you may not be able to reach them again. They may also provide advice on what to do with your phone- in some cases they may tell you to turn it off to save battery, while others may need to immediately reach you. Do whatever they suggest!
5: If you drop the call, redial and keep your phone on
If your signal is poor there is a chance you could lose the call midway through your conversation. If this happens, don’t worry. Someone knows you are lost, and has a general idea of your location. Try to call the back intermittently, so they have a chance to get through if they are calling you. If you are not able to reach them, stay put, and assume they are on the way. If you try to self-evacuate you will make it much more difficult for them to locate you. Staying put and waiting is your best option for rescue.
What to Do While Waiting for Search and Rescue
Depending on your location and the conditions, it could take anywhere from 4 to 40 hours for a search and rescue team to reach you. This is why it’s so important to bring extra food, water, and layers – you may be waiting for help for a very long while in a very inhospitable area. If you are near or below tree line you can get out of the wind and find fuel to build a fire for warmth. Try to avoid being too hidden so search and rescue misses you. Here are a few tips to make yourself easy to find while you wait.
- Stay put. If you move from your last location it makes it much more difficult to find you.
- Put out brightly colored gear and clothing to attract attention.
- Yell periodically or blow a whistle if you have one. The sound can travel for miles.
- Building a fire also creates smoke which can help alert rescuers to your location.
- If someone is injured, provide first aid and keep them calm as much as possible.
Myths About Calling Search and Rescue
There are many popular myths when discussing how to call search and rescue. Here are some of the most common ones I have come across while researching this topic, with an explanation of the true facts in each situation.
Myth 1: Calling Search and Rescue will cost you thousands of dollars
In nearly every U.S. state, search and rescue operations are 100% free to those who need them. While the ambulance from the trailhead may incur a cost, the initial rescue will not. Never put off calling for help because you are afraid of a large bill. Waiting often leads to a more dangerous situation for both you and rescuers. Call when you first need help.
Myth 2: You should change your voicemail message if you don't have a signal
You need a cell phone signal in order to change your voicemail message. Therefore, if you are able to change your message, you are able to call 911 and ask for help directly. Never waste signal, battery life, and time trying to change a voicemail when you could speak directly to a dispatcher at that moment to ask for help.
Myth 3: You must wait 24 hours before reporting someone as missing
This is a myth repeated by many detective shows, but it does not apply to search and rescue operations or requesting aid yourself. If you need help, or you need to report someone is lost, you do not need to wait a full day. Call search and rescue as soon as you think you need them, whether it has been 2 hours or 20 hours since you last saw them.
Myth 4: Search and Rescue can find you using your phone
It is true that a cell phone signal ping can sometimes provide rescue crews a proximate area. However it rarely is the case that rescue crews can find someone alive using a phone. These cases are almost always multi-week affairs where the goal is recovering a body. Getting cell phone records takes time and often doesn’t work. At best, it provides a general location – many square miles – which may or may not lead to your recovery. Never rely on a cell phone as a personal locator beacon. It isn’t one.
Wilderness First Aid Tips and Advice
If someone is injured in your group you may need to provide first aid until rescuers arrive. I highly recommend taking a basic or wilderness first aid training course. They provide a wealth of knowledge and hands-on skill development that could make the difference. In general, you should focus on treating patients for shock and keeping them stable until rescue arrives. This includes:
- Stop or slow bleeding with pressure, and if necessary, a tourniquet.
- Lay the victim down, cover them in layers and elevate their legs.
- Turn the person on their side if they vomit.
- Do not move the person unless they are in imminent danger.
- Reassure them and try to keep them calm and still.
How to Call Search and Rescue: Now You Know
Hopefully you never have to call search and rescue while out in the mountains. If the worst does occur and you find yourself injured and lost, remember this advice on calling search and rescue. Don’t hesitate – and take time to plan out what you intend to stay. Remain in the same place after your call, and provide first aid if necessary to yourself and those in your group. Remember, a wilderness first aid course is a very good idea for anyone sho spends significant time outdoors. I hope this helped you understand how to call search and rescue. Safe travels on the trail!
Additional Resources on How to Call Search & Rescue
Looking for more information on how to call search and rescue? Here are several good resources I found online while researching this article. If you have a suggestion for another article or resource to include, add a comment below with your suggestion and I might add it in my next article revision!