So you're trying to step up your adventure game by coordinating lengthier hikes or trail runs with your friends or even alone. However, you're also aware of the fact that with each step you take further away from civilization comes a greater responsibility to keep loved ones informed of your whereabouts and safety. If you've taken a look at our blog on the importance of creating an outdoor itinerary
(and downloaded the PDF template
), you can take comfort in knowing that someone close to you will be alerted in the event of your absence. But what are they to do with this responsibility? What steps do they need to take to ensure your safe return?
We talked to experienced outdoor enthusiasts and Search and Rescue volunteers Michael Geoghegan
and Eric Triplett
(retired) to create a step by step process that will help you navigate this stressful affair.
But I Have a Satellite Beacon/ Personal Locator Beacon (PLB)
Although PLBs (Personal Locator Beacon or Satellite Beacon's) are extremely useful when traveling through the depths of your local wilderness area, they are rendered useless if you are unconscious, the device runs out of power, or you are separated from the beacon itself. On top of that, people have been reported missing after satellite communication has gone quiet in the back country only to find that the device simply malfunctioned or the signal was lost for up to 24 hours. Simply put, these devices are not as reliable as they seem. It is best to use a satellite beacon in conjunction with
a hiking itinerary
and the following missing outdoorist protocol
to ensure you return safely.
Who Should I Delegate to Use This Missing Hiker Procedure?
Your first thought might be to rely on loved ones (eg. parents, siblings, or spouse) for something of this nature. However, this is not always the optimal choice. Although all of these people share a strong commitment to your well being, they may lack the ability to detach themselves from the situation or even a certain level of awareness to what it is you are doing. This potential lack of resources could lead them to making impulsive decisions far before they are necessary.
While the person you entrust with this duty should definitely care for your well being, they should also be someone that is relatively informed of your skills and habits in regards to outdoor travel. In fact, they would do well to be an outdoorist as well. This will help them make informed decisions throughout the process below.
Someone is Missing, When Should I Start to Follow the Missing Hiker Protocol?
Being concerned for someones safety is normal, but there is no ideal time frame for following the missing person protocol. You will need to use your best judgement by asking yourself the following questions:
Were they on a day hike or camping several nights? The difference between a day hike and overnight travel is vast. Someone prepared to spend the night would have shelter, clothing, and food for several days. They would be capable of handling varying conditions. This might make them more likely to delineate from a schedule by as much as a day or more. An individual on a day hike however, would be likely to stick to their itinerary.
Is this the type of person to deviate from a schedule? It is our hope that the individual left you with an itinerary but you should understand that the outdoors is a place to experience spontaneous adventure and they might be having the experience of a life time veering from their original intended course.
The "time to act" is circumstantial, but it doesn't hurt to at least inform someone that an individual is missing. If you feel that there is something awry, make the call and emergency services will be able to provide proper guidance.
Report a Missing Outdoorist Protocol
The following information will be useful to your delegated responsible party if you are overdue on an expected time frame. Feel free to download and print the PDF
before your next trek.
Listed below is the procedure to follow in the event that one does not return from a hike, run, or backpacking trek, This protocol is to be used by a delegated responsible party in conjunction with an outdoor hiking itinerary. If an outdoor itinerary is not provided, the steps below describe what general information one would want to collect before contacting emergency services.
First and foremost, the hiking party will likely be in contact via a satellite communication device (if applicable) long before any of the below steps need to be taken. They will try to update the delegated responsible party on a possible late exit or other complications keeping the party from making the scheduled time frame. This is the best case scenario
1. Initial Action - Reach Out to Secondary Contacts
Hikers are overdue with no contact. Alert secondary emergency contacts.
Before leaving for a backpacking trip, the hiking party communicates to you (responsible party) their hiking itinerary. The designated return time frame arrives (eg. Sunday around 3-4 PM) and they (hikers) are seemingly overdue. Their satellite communication device is unresponsive. The unaccounted party is likely hiking out in the dark and possibly facing further complications. They (hikers) are aware that their loved ones are worried and are likely doing everything necessary to make it back to signal.
Before moving to calling professional teams (Police) please reach out to the designated individuals listed below. These are patient and understanding individuals who will likely have or be able to find crucial information regarding the unaccounted hiking parties whereabouts. It would also be beneficial that these individuals are a part of the overall search going forward since they likely spend a lot of time in the wilderness with said missing person(s).
Below is the contact information of secondary emergency parties who may have crucial information in regards to the hikers whereabouts:
Name Phone Number
Name Phone Number
Name Phone Number
Name Phone Number
If none of these contacts have productive information on the hiking parties whereabouts, schedule changes or modifications to their route; it is probably time to escalate the search endeavors.
*IMPORTANT* Please inform anyone reached to stay calm and refrain from alerting others via social media, as it could attract more visitors to the search area. This can be detrimental to search efforts. Let them know that you will coordinate any communications with authorities moving forward unless otherwise noted.
2. Missing Hiker Information Gathering
You've reached out to the secondary contacts and still haven't achieved a sense of relief.
Now is a good time to start gathering and organizing as much information as possible. The provided hiking itinerary will be extremely helpful for this part, but here is a good place to start if you don't have one:
Trail head (starting point)
Intended goal (ie. were they ascending a mountain? Were they backpacking to a lake?)
Vehicle Make, Model, Color, and license plate (extremely important -- Finding a vehicle will be the first step in moving toward a Search and Rescue mission)
Backup plan (if applicable)
Camping Locations and sites
Time of departure
Expected time of return
Last known location (this one is also crucial as SAR will start their search here.)
General physical attribute description (ie. weight, height, hair color, eye color)
After as much accurate information is gathered as possible, the next step is to wait. We are aware that this is extremely difficult in this time, but it is still a possibility that the hiking party is merely facing unforeseen challenges and will contact you as soon as they reach phone service. Hopefully the information gathered in the above procedure will help you make a better decision as to when to carry out step three.
3. Contact Emergency Services
You've gathered information and come to the conclusion that the individual/group is likely in danger. Time to initiate a Search and Rescue mission.
Who You Should Contact
If at this point there is still no contact with the hiking party, it is time to alert the authorities. First, use the internet to find the nearest town to the trail head from which the hikers departed. Having this information on hand will help the operator put you in contact with the correct resources for your emergency. Call 911 if the hiking party is in the same state as you OR the corresponding Sheriff's department if the hiking party is in another state. The benefit to contacting Sheriff's Department directly is that they have the necessary communication infrastructure in place to quickly mount a search. Be patient with anyone you speak to and be prepared to repeat the information several times to additional individuals.
Once you have relayed all the collected information to the local police, they will then contact the Search and Rescue service that is assigned to whatever area the hiking party is in. They will mobilize a plan & be the absolute best bet for help. Depending on the severity, they have ground action and helicopter capabilities that work in tandem.
Stay in touch
Before hanging up with the operator, be sure to ask who is directly responsible for the search efforts. You should know who to contact to follow up with any updates. Many of the groups that will be investigating the hiking parties whereabouts are volunteers and may be putting their lives on the line to comb obscure sections of the wilderness. Any further help you can provide is crucial to getting everyone home safely.