*SAR Field Uniforms*
A Search and Rescue team in the field is just that, a Team. They have to work together to have any chance of being successful. Most SAR teams have developed their own uniform standards in the field and allow very few exceptions. As we will see, this has some benefits in addition to team loyalty.
Rubicon SAR Members Note:
Rubicon SAR Members may or may not have other Rubie teammates on a search with you. If you do, then by all means attempt to look like a team, dress the part and try to match as much as possible. However, if you "go it alone" to a search, you should always try to look professional and represent your fellow Rubies in a way which would do them proud.
This article discusses field uniforms for land searches only. If you intend to conduct water based searches and/or rescues, the uniform changes drastically. Wearing the uniform described below during a water search and rescue operation can get you seriously injured, up to and including death. Boots, packs, heavy jackets, etc. have no place around water; especially cold water. Another article will address water uniforms.
General Look of the Rubicon SAR UniformÖ and Why
I have seen many different SAR uniforms over the years, from full combat fatigues (BDU) to bright orange jumpsuits to casual street clothes (blue jeans and a t-shirt). Each team had their own reasons for choosing the uniforms they selected and we will too.
I propose the standard Rubicon SAR Uniform consist of:
Pants - woodland camouflage fatigue pants (BDU pants)
Shirt - fluorescent hunter-orange shirts (long or short sleeved)
Hat - baseball style caps, fluorescent hunter-orange
Boots - black boots (hiking or military style)
Patches, nametags and other accessories will come laterÖ
Why this uniform?
In the field, you need a uniform which is durable, comfortable and visible. There are many times when you need to call in a helicopter to a particular landing spot. If youíre dressed in full camouflage, it is almost impossible for them to spot you. However, if youíre wearing a bright orange shirt and hat, the flight crew can easily spot every member of your team, which is especially helpful if youíre team members are circling a landing zone. Military BDU pants are comfortable, durable, inexpensive and readily available. Bright orange shirts and hats can be found in abundance during hunting season, are inexpensive and are readily available in a variety of season weights, from thin t-shirts to heavy wool. This particular uniform has been in use by our local SAR team for nearly 20 years and has undergone few, if any, major changes after thousands of hours in the field. Adding a pack or equipment belt will round out the uniform, but thatís addressed below.
For simplicities sake, weíll start at the bottom (foot gear) and work our way up (hats and accessories)Ö
Searchers walk. Period. Thereís no other way around it. Unless you are highly skilled at aerial search with lots of credentials to prove it (and maybe your own plane), youíre going to be assigned a search area which requires you to hike it. So, your footgear is extremely important. Some of the options Iíve seen include leather combat boots, jungle boots, hiking boots and tennis shoes.
I personally like jungle boots and/or hiking boots. Jungle boots are combat boots which have nylon ankle supports. Hiking boots usually offer better support, lighter weight and more comfortable walking, but tend to be more expensive. Leather combat boots tend to be heavier unless you need the extra ankle support for mountainous work. Tennis shoes, while very comfortable, simply donít offer the support and durability needed for SAR work. Like all SAR clothing, you need boots which are very comfortable, very durable, offer ankle support and provide sufficient protection for your feet while walking through underbrush, rock, etc.
Combat and/or Jungle boots can be found online or at your local Army Surplus. Hiking boots can be found online or through a local outdoor outfitter. I would not recommend purchasing boots from Walmart or some other discount shoe store until you know exactly what you want and what features you need. These stores typically sell shoes which "look" good and are cheap; not necessarily designed for long term comfort and durability.
Anyone who has spent time hiking knows socks have a job to do. They should wick moisture away from your feet and keep your feet as dry as possible. Their secondary job is to keep your feet warm during cold weather, and thirdly, of course, is to offer some padding and cushion to your walk.
I have always stuck with the old Army trick of wearing a nylon sock to wick away moisture, covered by a heavier wool sock for warmth and padding. I understand there are some products on the market now which do both. The key is to do what works best for you. If you donít know, find someone in your local area who has spent a lot of time hiking in boots and ask them what they use.
In cold weather, stay away from cotton athletic socks. When cotton gets wet, it will actually make you feel colder as the water evaporates from it.
Woodland camouflage fatigue (BDU) pants. For a SAR team, you need pants which offer freedom of movement, plenty of pockets, durability in a field environment and are inexpensive. BDUs fit the bill. Plus many, if not all, of the other search teams on site will likely be wearing BDU pants in the field.
Okay, the Rubicon SAR team is not going to be so invasive to tell you what type of underwear to wear, although boxers do offer a certain freedomÖ (maybe thatís too much information).
However, in cold weather, you need to make sure you have a set of long underwear. Stay away from inexpensive cotton long-johns and lean toward the polypropylene and/or natural silk materials. Both poly and silk will pull moisture from your body and retain their thermal heat insulating ability even when wet. In a pinch, you can even pick up some pantyhose to create an insulating layer, although you have to be very careful of what your fellow searchers say about you later.
As mentioned before, the shirt should be bright fluorescent/blaze orange for visibility in the field. A team wearing blaze orange can literally be seen from a mile away against a dark backdrop and continue to be visible later into the evening than other searchers.
Personal Experience Side Story: In 1989, few if any SAR teams wore blaze orange. However, our team decided it was a good idea for reasons already mentioned. So, we ordered shirts and hats with the Sheriffís logo, etc. printed on them. They arrived just in time for us to wear them to a two-day FunSAR class where fifteen or more teams would be represented. Needless to say, the first morning when our team showed up, we became the laughing stock of the other SAR teams. "Pumpkin Team" was a name that still sticks in my head. Every time they got a chance, the other teams would poke fun at our shirts and hats. Then came the field exercise. The way it was designed, the instructors and search leaders positioned the command post at the top of a small hill. The student search teams would be in the valley below where the instructors could watch, guide and make suggestions. About an hour into the search, all the teams were suddenly called in from the field. When we arrived, the senior instructor said there was no way for them to keep track of the various search teams, with the exception of our team because of our blaze orange shirts. So, he assigned two people from our team to EACH of their teams so they could keep track of us. Those blaze orange shirts suddenly made sense to everyone in the class. At the debrief, the instructor suggested everyone get blaze orange shirts for their field work in the future.
Baseball style caps are inexpensive, easy to find and are available in lightweight and heavier varieties for cooler weather. If you are operating in a very cold environment, you need to adjust your uniform so it matches the environment. However, blaze orange is the preferred color if possible.
As most outdoor people know, you lose 60% of your body heat through your head if you arenít wearing a hat. So, even a light weight hat is better than nothing at all when itís cold out.
Also, since searchers can find themselves in nearly any environment, having something to cover your head minimizes the chances of getting things, like burrs, branches, etc. stuck in your hair or from scratching your head.
Load Bearing Equipment (LBE)
Okay, all you military folks know this, but for the sake of everyone else. Load Bearing Equipment is the military term for the pistol belt and suspenders worn over BDUs to attach all the pouches, pocket, canteens, etc. This has recently been replaced by the Load Bearing Vest, which I understand is more comfortable to wear.
I personally would adjust my load based on how long I expected to be in the field. For a single day, where there was no chance of being on your own overnight, a full pack is probably too much to carry. But, there are still many accessories youíll need, and some type of LBE was the most comfortable way to do it.
Military style pistol belts and their various attachments follow the same criteria as much of the other gear. Itís inexpensive, readily available online or through an army surplus, is pretty durable and performs well in the field. If you and your local team prefer hunting gear, a specific brand, etc. thatís fine, again just make sure you match other local Rubies.
The National Association of Search and Rescue (NASAR) defines a set of "required equipment" for anyone in the field. Iíll soon get this list posted as a separate article. And, this is an excellent place to start to ensure you have all the accessories you need in the field.
When packing your accessories, think about self preservation.
Gear which is essential to your survival, like a survival kit, first aid kit, water and a knife should be placed in pockets on your person. I usually keep a first aid kit in one leg cargo pocket and a small survival kit in the other, along with a spare boot knife. That way, if I should get separated from all my other gear in a fall, etc. I still have the essentials.
Our team also requires certain items on your person anytime you step "off the blacktop" and into the field. These includeÖ
- a canteen full of water (or a Camelbak, my personal choice)
- first aid kit
- small survival kit
- whistle (usually on a lanyard around your neck under your shirt)
- compass (usually on a lanyard around your neck under your shirt)
- a large trash bag (can be used as a rain poncho in a pinch)
Never go into the field with something around your neck on the outside of your shirt. It will get hung up on branches and briars. If you fall down an embankment, it will be the first thing to get snagged and will immediately begin to choke you (or worse).
A Note About Weapons:
Different SAR organizations have different rules about weapons in the field. Personally, our SAR team is part of the Reserve Sheriffís Deputies Corps and have the authority to carry "on the job". However, we typically do not carry weapons into the field unless we are on a felony search. Does that mean people never carry in the field? No. After all, we see snakes and other critters as much as the next guy. But, you need to make sure and follow the local laws and have all the cards and permits necessary if someone discovers you have a weapon. A weapon will NEVER be a part of any SAR teamís standard field load.
Iíve found that people get very passionate about their packs. Some prefer military, some go for a large number of attachment points or pockets, while others try to find the lightest pack on the market. In all my years of SAR work, the absolute best pack Iíve ever foundÖ is the one which works best for you.
But, some advice to think about for a SAR pack. 1800 cubic inches is the minimum requirement for NASAR SARTech equipment requirements, so you might as well get one that size or larger if you ever intend to NASAR certify.
Next, SAR field teams trudge through some of the thickest underbrush youíll ever see in your life, and they arenít allowed to take the easy route around it. So, all those neat little attachment points, D-rings, etc. that make a pack "cool" to look at, will also get hung up on every vine, branch, twig and briar you come across. Iíve found that the smooth packs (internal frame with lots of smooth zipper pockets) work best in the field, but again, your results may vary.
You might also want to keep two or three packs depending upon your area. If you can have to on a search in the field for days and days, youíll need a large pack with plenty of provisions. However, most SAR teams are only in the field for 4-8 hours at a time, then they are returned to base camp where resupply is available. In that case, a large day pack might do just as well, while putting other equipment (such as radios, compass, insect repellant, GPS, flashlight, etc.) across your LBE where itís handy while walking.
Patches, Nametags, etc.
Some people love patches, certification badges, etc. and will decorate their uniform to the point that it looks like a walking RV bumper of all the places theyíve been.
I would recommend ordering some name strips (called name tapes) from a reputable army surplus dealer. You canít find blaze orange tape, but Olive Drab tape with white or gray lettering looks good and is easy to read. And will match your camo pants if youíre fashion conscious. I just checked Ranger Joeís website, they make a set of 4 custom name tapes for $9. Didnít check anyone else so you may be able to find it cheaper. Name tapes should be applied to the right side above the breast pocket (or where a breast pocket would normally be located).
Currently, we donít have any Rubicon SAR patches or Rubicon SAR name tapes, although that might be something to discuss as a group. These patches would be placed on the left shoulder.
If you wish to put a U.S. flag patch on your uniform, it should be located on the right shoulder, which I believe is the standard military location for BDUs. Remember, the stars should always be forward and the bars should point to the back.
I usually do not recommend a lot of certification pins and such be attached to a field uniform because they always get lost or snag on things in the bush. If you have a certification you wish to highlight on your uniform (such as HAM operator, K9 Team, EMT, etc.), I would suggest having a small, cloth tab made and locating it on the left sleeve below any Rubicon SAR patches.
Okay, well, thatís my two cents on SAR uniforms. Please let me know if your field experiences differ enough to suggest modifications. My experiences are primarily temperate climates and my extreme cold weather experience is limited.
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