Basic Skills


Foothills Skills TrainingA brief introduction to some skills that an effective ground searcher should know, or be aware of. Some of these are part of the basic required skill set for FSAR members, others are optional and highly recommended.

But first, a bit of humour to liven your day. When signalling for help, it is recommended that you use standard signals, although anything can be effective!   

First Aid

Standard first aid courses have the unstated assumption that professional help is no more than an hour away. While this is generally true in cities and perhaps in campgrounds, it is not true in the wilderness. Darkness, bad weather and terrain can all conspire to make evacuation times anywhere from several hours to several days.

The minimum skill requirement for our members is Standard Level First Aid (St. John Ambulance, Red Cross, or equivalent) but for the above reasons most Foothills SAR members eventually take Wilderness or Advanced Wilderness First Aid. These generally include two subjects not found in other courses: scene management and long-term care.

Scene management is the skill of quickly determining how many casualties there are and what resources they need (triage). The scene manager then tries to allocate the available resources in the most effective manner possible. Scene management is scalable from single casualty to incidents involving hundreds of casualties spread over multiple sub-scenes.

Long-term care refers to the skills necessary to support and comfort a casualty when professional medical care is many hours or days away. It includes assisting with all normal bodily functions: eating, drinking, sleeping and elimination. Since you may need to bring the subject to a trailhead to meet professional help, it also includes transportation, such as making a stretcher from available materials. Fortunately for all concerned, we rarely need these skills.

FSAR recommends that everybody take a first aid course of some kind. Even the most minimal course will teach you the basic principles of what to do and what not to do in an emergency and as such will help you to deal with medical conditions you may encounter. And the persons most likely to need your help are not strangers, but family or friends (or even yourself!). The amount of training you pursue will depend on how much time, money and interest you have.

How to Start a Search

SAR Basic Skills TrainingVolunteer SAR organizations like Foothills SAR cannot initiate a search: the authorities call us and we respond. There are very good legal reasons for this system, so if you call us directly we will be sympathetic but you will get us into the field faster by calling the appropriate authorities, such as the police.

Information to Gather

If you believe someone you know is missing, and before you phone the authorities, this is what you should do:

1. Determine if the person is really lost. Sometimes people change their plans or return from a trip without letting anyone know, check with friends and relatives for any information. If the missing person is a child, see section below for hints.

2. Gather information about the problem before you contact the authorities:

1. the person’s name;
2. a description of the person including age;
3. a description of any vehicles, clothing or equipment;
4. where they were going and what time they were supposed to be back;
5. what you have done to locate them;
6. any special problems they may have (medical conditions, unfamiliarity with the
area, car in bad shape, emotional problems, lack of appropriate clothing, etc.). Don’t withhold information because it might be embarrassing, that one item might give the search manager the additional clue he/she needs.

Who to call?

With the above information in hand, phone 911 (in most parts of North America). If 911 does not work in your area then dial zero (0) and tell the operator that you need search and rescue. You will be connected with the right agency for your area.

And then…

Let the professionals handle it. This may be the hardest thing you ever do in your life. Police and SAR procedures may seem like a waste of time when you want to run into the woods to look for a loved one, but following the system greatly reduces the chance that anything will be overlooked. Many valuable clues such as footprints have been destroyed by well-meaning friends and family trying to help in a search. Your most valuable role is as a source of information for the search managers.

Lost Children

A surprising number of children who were last seen in the house or yard are found either asleep or playing quietly. The best way to search is to pretend you are looking for something the size of a cat: look in bedding, piles of clothing, laundry hampers, cupboards, closets, under porches, under beds and in furniture. Children have been found in closed dresser drawers or hiding among boxes in the basement. Ask neighbours if they have seen the child, and ask them to check their houses, garden sheds and garages. Don’t forget to check the trunk of cars and any neighbourhood tree houses!

See the links page on this website for information on organizations like Child Find Canada, which specialize in looking for children who are missing rather than lost.

How long should you wait before calling for help?

There are no hard and fast rules about how long you should wait after you think a person is overdue before you call for help. For example, if you can’t find a child within an hour or so it is time to call for assistance. But an experienced camper who is 6 hours overdue from a 2-week hike might not be quite so worrisome. It depends on the people, how prepared they are, the weather, medical conditions, etc. But remember this: everyone in search and rescue would rather be called out and have the missing person show up five minutes later, than to be called out too late.



by Laura Morrison

Searchers cannot be effective if they don’t know where they were, where they are, and where they are trying to go. “Without your brain, a map is a piece of coloured paper, a compass is a glorified magnet, and a GPS is a waterproof battery case.”

Search and Rescue Navigation

Navigation I — Basic Navigator

In a SAR operation a basic navigator must be able to accurately lead his/her team through a landscape with any terrain and vegetation cover, and with variable weather and lighting conditions. Every member of a team in a SAR operation should be, at a minimum, competent at the basic navigator level.

Navigation I course outline — 15 hours
• role and responsibilities of navigator
• introduction to maps
• legends: man-made and natural features
• working with scale and distances
• contours and basic landforms
• UTM grid reference co-ordinates
• the compass
• basic field navigation
• bearings and back bearings
• declination
• basic map and compass navigation
• diversion (offset)
• resection (triangulation)
• basic route planning
• introduction to night navigation

Navigation II

Navigation II is recommended for all FSAR team leaders, FSAR search managers, and any member who wishes to gain additional skills. The program consists of six modules designed to improve basic wilderness navigation proficiency, and provide additional tools to help navigators deal with complex navigation scenarios. The modules do not have to be taken in order.

Title Contents location & duration Prerequisite
Coordinate systems
latitude/longitude, legal survey system (classroom, 4 hours) none
Night navigation
Grid references, bearings, field navigation, pacing and communication with point person (field, 6 hours)
Nav 1
Landscape navigation
Landforms and topographic maps (field, 8 hours) Nav 1
4 Intermediate map & compass navigation
Triangulation, pacing, distance & bearing, multi-leg navigation (field, 8 hours) Nav 1
GPS orientation
Background & history of GP system, set-up, using, maintenance, limitations, relating GPS to topo maps, datums, coordinates, bearings (classroom, 3 hours)
Nav 1
GPS navigation
Practical exercises: integrating GPS into map and compass navigation, setup, find location, enter waypoints, determine route, follow route, deviate from route (field, 8 hours)
GPS orientation

Ready Pack


SAR Packing for the Outdoors


One of the precepts of Foothills Search and Rescue is that each team (usually 3 to 5 persons) should be self-sufficient for 24 to 48 hours after leaving search base, even though teams do not routinely stay out overnight. Dog teams are an exception to this, as explained below.

Because a team may find the search subject(s) late in the day with bad weather closing in, it is expected that a team be able to keep itself and the injured search subjects alive through the night, providing first aid as needed.

A 40-70 litre capacity backpack lets you carry sufficient food, water, shelter, and clothing without being too heavy. Since FSAR takes a team approach, don’t feel that you have to be fully equipped before joining FSAR. For example, one team member might not have a first aid kit, but has expertise in navigation and communications and carries extra maps, compasses, GPS, radios, etc., while another team member who is trained in wilderness first aid carries a more complete first aid kit. And a team shouldn’t need four stoves!

Since in southern Alberta night-time temperatures can drop below zero any time of year, there is no division between summer and winter gear. Also, no mention is made of equipment that those trained in wilderness first aid, swiftwater rescue, or rope rescue should or might carry.

Disclaimer: This list is no substitute for knowledge, training, experience, and common sense. This list is geared towards the terrain and climate of southern Alberta, and makes no claim to be relevant for other regions.

So, bearing all the above in mind, here are some items that are suggested, recommended, or should be considered. Take into account your own physical condition and load-carrying ability. The categories below overlap, so some items are mentioned more than once. Also, especially in clothing and food, several possible alternatives are listed. Don’t even think of carring all this stuff; after all, you shouldn’t need four hats and four pairs of pants! You’ll have to pick and choose what to carry and what to leave in the car at search base, depending on the season and situation.

A tired searcher is not an effective searcher. No one else will carry your pack for you, and the more you carry, the faster you will get tired.

Search equipment:

• compass with mirror
• note pad and pencils
• Sharpie-type marker
• watch
• measuring tape
• paper or plastic bags for evidence
• FSAR jacket
• FSAR T-shirt
• FSAR fluorescent baseball cap
• flagging tape
• headlamp or flashlight, extra batteries, spare bulb
• eye protection
• tracking and/or walking stick(s)
• sunscreen and/or insect repellant
• whistle
• nylon rope (6 metres of 7mm)


• compass with mirror
• notepad and pencils
• ruler
• map(s)
• large transparent bag for map(s)
• pacing beads
• GPS with extra batteries
• for night navigation add: – eye protection
• red bicycle flasher
• flashlight(s)
• lots of extra batteries


• toilet paper in ziploc
• whistle
• multitool (e.g., Leatherman)
• good sheath knife or hatchet
• waterproof matches
• fire starter (paraffin-soaked sawdust or dryer lint works)
• water purification tablets
• space blanket
• candles
• bear spray and/or bear bangers
• flares
• duct tape
• safety pins
• large orange garbage bag
• 35 cents for phone call


High carbohydrate, high calorie foods are recommended, as are lots of munchies and snacks.
• water bottles (about 2L capacity)
• Sport drink (e.g., Gatorade)
• trail mix
• instant porridge
• energy bars
• prepared meals (e.g., IMPs, MREs or Hotpacks, so a stove isn’t necessary)
• soup mix, dehydrated meals
• stove and fuel
• cooking pot
• knife, fork & spoon
• powdered drink
• fruit leather


• tarpaulin, tube tent, or space blanket
• large orange garbage bag
• sleeping bag or bivouac sac
• thermorest or ensolite pad
• parachute cord (10-20 metres)
• spare stuff sacks

First aid kit:

• Laminated quick reference cards
• First aid report forms
• Tylenol
• antiseptic cleansing pads
• sterile 4′′x4′′ pads
• safety pins
• lip balm
• gauze pads
• moleskin for blisters
• roller bandages
• triangular bandages
• latex or vinyl gloves
• tweezers
• tick removal tool
• insect repellant
• sunscreen
• ear plugs
• band-aids
• CPR face mask
• note pad and pencil
• space blanket


Whether you take any of this stuff depends on your pack space, how much you can tolerate fuzzy teeth and smelling like a goat, and whether you think your teammates are likely to toss you in the creek!

• personal medication; tell team members about relevant medical conditions!
• toothbrush and toothpaste
• waterless hand cleaner
• hand sanitizer
• hairbrush or comb
• razor
• deodorant
• tampons or sanitary pads (with ziplocs for packing out used ones)


Because falling in a creek or going through the ice is an ever-present danger, having a change of clothes in a watertight bag in the pack is a good idea. Synthetic materials are generally superior to natural fibres because of their ability to wick moisture and insulate even when wet. From head to toe:

• FSAR fluorescent baseball cap
• warm toque
• balaclava
• Tilley-type hat for protection against rain and sun
• bug hat
• sunglasses
• spare eyeglasses
• ski goggles
• scarf
• long-sleeve shirt
• yellow FSAR T-shirt
• fleece sweater
• fleece jacket
• FSAR jacket
• rain jacket
• winter coat
• thin leather gloves (especially for rope team members)
• fleece gloves or mitts
• heavy winter overmitts
• underwear
• long underwear
• rad or cargo pants
• fleece pants
• rain pants
• ** jeans are strongly discouraged because they absorb so much water
• socks, thin and thick (at least 2 sets)
• gaiters
• waterproof hiking boots
• Winter pack-type boots

Note: The Foothills command post does stock AA batteries for use in the GPSs, but isn’t likely to have other sizes. So make sure you care your own spares for unusual sizes.


Rope Rescue

SAR Roping Basics

What is “low angle” versus “high angle” rope rescue?

The steeper the ground, the more difficult and the more technical the rescue becomes. Ropes may have to be relied upon to gain access to the victim, to support the team members and the victims during the rescue and remove them from the rescue site. FSAR has only trained to be a low angle rescue team.

Low angle rescue is considered to be terrain that has a slope angle from 15 to 35 degrees. The condition of the terrain will determine the need for and the amount of rope support required. Is it muddy? Are there loose rocks or other debris that would cause poor or slippery footing? How many rescuers are needed to transport the victim and stretcher to safety?

Examples of low angle locations include: over-the-bank situations where a car has left a roadway and descended an adjacent slope.

Steep angle rescue is considered to be terrain that has a slope angle from 35 to 60 degrees. Again, the condition of the terrain will determine the level of technical expertise required to perform this rescue safely.

High angle rescue is considered to be terrain that has a slope angle of 60 degrees and higher. Rescuers are totally dependent upon the ropes used to keep them and the victims from falling and to gain access to and egress from the rescue location.

Examples of high angle locations include: pipe racks, ledges, catwalks, tops of vessels, cranes, and water towers.

High angles are also found below grade level in ship holds, barges, confined spaces, tunnels, sewer and piping systems. Good, competent technical rescue skills involving ropes, anchoring and belaying systems, lowering and hauling systems and litter/ stretcher work are going to be mandatory for the safe performance of the rescue team. High angle rescue operations involve unique hazards and require special training and equipment to be able to perform them safely. High angle rope rescuers are at a considerably higher risk of injury or death during training exercises and callouts therefore continual training and practice are recommended to keep skills sharp.



by Kevin Bruce

Mantracking is a retraining of the eyes to look for clues invisible to the untrained eye, to aid in finding the lost subject. For basic search and rescue, every searcher should at least know what a track is, and how not to destroy it.

Tracking“In searching, more people is seldom better. Sheer numbers do not guarantee success. Neither do millions of dollars or sophisticated equipment. Even the smallest group of well-trained searchers, under the direction of a skilful search commander, is far superior to a large unwieldy group tearing about the country. In fact, the large, untrained, disorganized groups, all too characteristic of searches done in this country, cost far more lives than they save.”

Ab Taylor, one of the founders of modern tracking, in Fundamentals of mantracking, p. 5.

Basic Tracking Terms

Track Impression left from the passage of a creature that can be positively identified. Tracking Following someone or something by stringing together a continuous chain of their sign.

Sign Any evidence of change from the natural state that is inflicted on an environment by a creature’s passage.

Sign cutting Looking for sign in order to establish a starting point.

Point man One member of the three person tracking team described graphically as the top point of the triangle formation. This person is responsible for print identification, determining the prime sign area, and tracking stick location of the “next” print focus in the step-by-step process.

Flank men The two members, one to the right and one to the left, just behind a point person that make up a three person tracking team.

Conclusively Human sign that on its own can be positively be said to have caused by a person and not an animal.

Corroborant a sign that is disturbance but not decisively human and could have been caused by an animal.

Footprints to other web sites:

Emergency Response Institute Canada

Book tracks:

Taylor, Albert (Ab) and Donald C. Cooper. Fundamentals of mantracking: the step-by- step method. 2nd ed. Olympia, Wash.: Emergency Response Inst., 1990. Kearney, Jack. Tracking: a blueprint for learning how. 1st ed. El Cajon, Calif.: Pathways Pr., 1978.


Donations & Donors

We do not telephone solicit and only raise money by helping at community events and donations mailed to us (a tax receipt will be issued for all donations).

Our Donors:

STARS Chain of Survival

Foothills Lions Club


Calgary Flames


RCMP Turner Valley

Order of the Eastern Star


Talisman Petroleum

Okotoks Rural Crime Watch


Square Butte Ladies Group

Devon Corporation

ATCO Pipelines

Compton Petroleum

Bill and Sharon Bieber

Shaw Communications

Tim Kelly

Don Reid

G. Hilton

Kathleen Ellum

RBC Turner Valley Staff

Windridge Construction

Signs “N” Such

Ed Williams and Family

The Canadian Motor Company

Penzoil Corp.

SDS Consulting

Oilfields Hospital

Executive Mat Service

Bennett & Jones

Global Surveys


Town of Turner Valley

Town of Black Diamond

Bank of Montreal (Okotoks)

Carpet Baggers

NGK Spark Plugs

Planet Auto

Automotive Parts Distributors

Skyline Design Ltd.

Valtus Imagery Services

If you wish to donate, please send a cheque to:

Foothills SAR P.O. Box 549 Turner Valley, Alberta CANADA T0L 2A0