Foot Travel

The core of land search and rescue operations revolves around technicians on foot. Being able to walk comfortably on a trail is different than meticulously searching an uninhabited wilderness area. This section will discuss several unique aspects to ensure comfort, optimal speed, and a degree of safety while conducting SAR work. 

*The following information relies heavily on personal experience and the National Association for Search and Rescue's (NASAR) Fundamentals of Search and Rescue 2nd Edition handbook.*

Image by Mr.Autthaporn Pradidpong


Being a land SAR Technician means potentially walking or hiking long distances. Unlike recreational hiking, where difficult or dangerous terrain can often be avoided, SAR travel may necessitate moving through those difficult locations. Non-technical travel includes: moving to the search area, searching, and moving through general environments. Technical travel may include: climbing or moving over ice, rock, talus, or any other condition that may require special skills or knowledge.


If you have followed the Phase I modules in order (which is recommended), then everything you need to prepare for has already been addressed. Namely, physical fitness, clothing, gear, equipment, and planning are the first things that need to be considered before traveling on foot during a SAR operation. NASAR provides these additional tips to make your travel more effective and your operations successful:

  • A SAR incident could occur at any time, so you should be in a state of readiness at all times.

  • Maintain a level of physical conditioning commensurate with your specific SAR responsibilities. In other words, field personnel should maintain a high level of conditioning.

  • Eat proper foods in appropriate amounts and get plenty of rest.

  • Maintain hydration by drinking plenty of water before and during a mission.

  • Be properly clothed for the type of travel anticipated.

  • Pack and carry the appropriate equipment for the type of travel anticipated.

  • Before traveling in a SAR mission, plan your travels and know your route.

Traveling Techniques

Ultimately, the best way to get better at traversing through or over any given terrain is to do it. The more frequently a land type is traveled through, the more experience will be gained and the better you will get. However, knowing your route, keeping a steady pace, and utilizing techniques like the rest-step and pressure breathing, will help you in most circumstances. 

Route: Sometimes traveling in a straight line is not the quickest or the safest. When determining how to get to a point in the distance, pause to observe what lies ahead of you. There may be impassible terrains like swamps or rock formations. Better yet, you may discover there is a game or man-made trail to follow. In either case, it would be wise to take the safest route.

Pace: How fast you move and how frequently you rest play a huge role in energy expenditure. Maintaining a pace that will allow you to travel comfortably for hours on foot is more important than trying to travel as fast as you can. Slowing down will allow you to observe your surrounding more thoroughly, increasing your probability of detecting important tracking signs. Additionally, practicing rhythmic breathing will help prevent headaches, nausea, lack of appetite, and irritability. Fatigue can be dangerous in wilderness areas, and maintaining a slower pace will prevent injuries. Occasionally, the terrain may present steep slopes that must be traversed. When these slopes do not require technical rope skills, two walking techniques will reduce fatigue and increase safety: the rest-step and pressure breathing. There are also some precautions to take when descending a steep slope on foot. Watch the videos below to learn more about these techniques:


Moving through thick vegetation should normally be avoided unless a search necessitates doing so. Walking through brush (small trees, shrubs, or vines), presents tripping hazards and can pull carelessly attached gear from packs and belts. If walking through brush is unavoidable, NASAR suggests:

  • Walk around the brushy area, if possible. Even walking miles on a trail or road can be easier and safer than several hundred feet of heavy brush

  • Avoid areas where brush flourishes, such as ravines, drainages, and recently forested areas. Learn where brush usually grows and be able to identify it on a map. Searching these types of areas may involve more sign cutting than an area search. Someone passing through brush usually leaves a great deal of evidence of his or her passing.

  • If travel in a drainage or creek bed area is necessary, consider walking right in the creed or stream. It may be safer than the alternative.

  • Find game trails. Animals have the same problems with brush as humans. They rarely travel through dense brush, and if they do, trails they leave are much easier for human passage.

  • Brush usually does not flourish on scree, ridgelines, and where snow is always present. Consider these routes if they can be traveled safely.

Water Crossing

A search may necessitate crossing a moving body of water. Streams and rivers can come in various widths, depths, and speeds of water flows. Crossing any waterway is preferably done where the depth is the most shallow, but it is not always possible. It may be necessary to take some time to inspect the river up or downstream for some distance to find a suitable and safe crossing. Before attempting to make a water crossing, unfasten the waist strap of any pack and remove one arm from the shoulder straps to facilitate an expedient escape from the pack should swimming be required after a fall. For this reason, it is a good idea to make sure any water-sensitive items are kept dry with waterproof bags or cases when packing. Using a pole to feel ahead of you will help avoid unseen underwater holes or drop-offs.

Never underestimate the power of moving water! It is one of the most powerful forces of nature. Never tie a rope to a crosser. If a belay is used, it should only be held in the hand so it can be easily dropped. It is ideal to have a partner downstream on the bank with a throw rope in case it becomes necessary. If you find yourself moving downstream after a fall, make sure you keep your feet downstream with toes up and out of the water, swim on your back, and ditch your pack. Facing downstream in this manner allows you to see objects coming and lets you use your legs to push off obstacles or climb over a strainer (a partially submerged tree, root system, guard rail, etc. that allows water to pass through but catches larger objects) rather than being sucked into it or becoming entangled. Paddle with your hands toward shore and do not attempt to stand until reaching shallow water near the shore.

When crossing a waterway where the water is fast-moving, NASAR suggests the following precautions:

  • When possible, select a travel course that leads across the current about a 45-degree angle downstream.

  • Never attempt to ford a stream directly above or close to a deep or rapid waterfall or deep channel. Cross the stream where the opposite side comprises shallow banks or sandbars.

  • Avoid rocky places, since a fall may cause serious injury. However, an occasional rock that breaks the current may be of some assistance. The depth of the water is not necessarily a deterrent. Deep water may run more slowly and be safer than shallow.

  • Have plan of action for making the crossing before entering the water. Use all possible precautions, and if the stream appears treacherous, cross using a technique that stabilizes the traveler in the water. Some of these techniques include rope assistance, pole assistance, and team crossing.

  • Point feet upstream and avoid pointing the feet downstream. A foot or ankle can easily be trapped under a rock or in a root, causing a fall and entrapment. Falling in moving water with a foot entrapped can quickly lead to death.

Watch the following videos to learn more about how to safely cross a waterway:
















There are regions of the world where snow falls to thick depths and trying to move through it with boots alone is overly arduous if not impossible. Thankfully, modern snowshoes are light and allow travel over snow by dispersing body weight and preventing each step from sinking too deep. Walking in snowshoes is more efficient when taking striding steps and lifting the snowshoe no higher than is necessary to clear the snow. If the front of the snowshoe catches, stop and pull the foot back to free it before continuing on your way. It would be best to practice wearing and walking snowshoes before using them during SAR operations. Watch the video below to learn more about snowshoes and walking techniques: