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How to Report a Missing Hiker

Search and Rescue Call out
Search and Rescue Call out

You’ve written a hiking trip plan and left it with a responsible adult. But you’re overdue and possibly incapacitated. Who should they call to activate a search and rescue effort to come looking for you? The answer might not be as obvious as you think.

In the United States, the best number to call to report an overdue hiker is 911 (if you’re in the same state as the hiker) or the State Police for the state in which the hiker was hiking. 911 will relay the call to the State Police troop closest to the rescue area and they’ll call in the designated Search and Rescue agencies responsible for coordinating and resourcing a search.

There’s a good reason to go through the State Police when reporting a missing hiker. They have the 24 x 7 response and communication infrastructure and staffing to call in the state agencies and volunteer groups that will mount a search. They’re also the best staffed and able organization, particularly in rural areas where they handle most of the emergency calls for service. While it varies regionally, most of the search and rescue groups and stage agencies that staff SAR callouts don’t publish public phone numbers or answer them outside of business hours. That’s why you want to call 911 (if you’re in the same state as the hiker) or the State Police for the state in which the hiker is hiking. They’ll answer the phone and get the ball rolling.

Recommended Hiking Trip Plan Information

If you’re not in the habit of writing a hiking trip plan and giving it to someone before your trips, here’s a list of basic information that you’ll want to include. I’m a very experienced hiker and backpacker, but I still give my wife a trip plan for all of the non-urban solo and group hikes I go on.

  • Your name and cell phone number
  • Names and phone numbers of your companions
  • Date & time they should call for help if you haven’t returned or contacted them to say you’re safe
  • Phone number and agency they should contact if you’re overdue
  • Planned itinerary
    • Planned route (trail names and distances)
    • Campsites, if known in advance
  • Location of your parked vehicle (checked first to see if your vehicle is there or if you’ve already left the area)
  • Survival gear carried (shelter, insulation, fire making tools, fire-aid kit, etc)
  • Hiking experience and skills

The Limits of Satellite Beacons and Personal Locator Beacons

Does carrying SPOT GPS Satellite Messenger, a Garmin InReach, or a Personal Locator Beacon eliminate the need to leave a hiking trip plan with a responsible party? No. These devices won’t activate themselves or send emergency messages if you’re unconscious or incapacitated.

My advice: leave a trip plan with a responsible friend or family member and concise instructions for who they should call if you’re overdue.

Written 2017.

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12 comments

  1. All good info. Another reason to call the State Police is that many SAR organizations cannot self-deploy. I know this is true in at least California and Virginia. Here if Ca, even if we want to deploy we cannot until authorized by the Sheriff’s office. They also arrange coordination with other agencies and mutual aid calls from other nearby SAR teams.

  2. In any western states where I’ve ever backpacked, the appropriate contact is the appropriate county sheriff, who, as Keith stated, is the only one who can authorize SAR. When I’ve left itineraries, I’ve included the sheriff office phone no. and stated what county (or counties) I’ll be in on approximately which date. I also include my car info (make/model, color, license no.), a physical description of me, my tent and my backpack. When you push that PLB button, the first thing that will happen is that the Coast Guard will call your contact person(s). The more info they have, the better! In fact, emailing your contacts a current photo of you to keep on file is an excellent idea.

    Calling the state police, at least in Oregon, Washington, Colorado, and Wyoming (the states in which I’ve backpacked), is an extra step which takes extra time. The info about sheriffs is easily obtained online and should be included in your itinerary. Only if there’s no emergency no. listed for the sheriff (I’ve seen this happen only once) should you have to go through the State Police.

    It’s easy to set up a permanent email format with your info and personal details, to which you can add the itinerary and other info pertinent to the specific trip.

  3. There’s also the issue that in some states the “State Police” is only a highway patrol, while in others (Oregon is an example) they have a wider jurisdiction. Here in Oregon, though, we’re specifically told to contact the appropriate county sheriff.

    • What if you don’t know what county you’re in. That’s why 911 was invented. Call them and they’ll redirect the call to the sheriff.

      • I thought we were talking about trip itineraries here! When I am at home planning the trip, my maps tell me what county or counties I’ll be in. My computer is right there, to look up the sheriff info. I put that on my itinerary before emailing it to my contact person. I take a printout of the itinerary with me. How difficult is that?

        If I’m out in the western mountains, there is no cell phone coverage, so I won’t be calling anyone. That’s why I carry a PLB, although the main purpose of that is to keep friends/family from fussing.

        911 in Seattle (where my primary contact lives) will have no idea whom to contact in the wilds of Wyoming! Why not start with the agency that is responsible for calling out SAR?

  4. In the states if you are ever unsure you can always call 911, which is a dispatch center. They can then notify whomever is the appropriate agency. In Maine search and rescue calls are coordinated by the Warden Service (which are a police agency).

  5. I have a good deal of experience participating with our local volunteer SAR community. Above is all good advice. As noted up thread, include a description of your tent or shelter. Some hikes have “bail out” options, which people use if the weather turns really gnarly or other problems arise. Be sure to include any foreseeable alternate routes in your trip plan. Notes on age, general fitness, and any medical issues is also helpful info to include.

    Regarding who to call, 911 is generally the best option. The 911 dispatch center will know (or be able to quickly determine) which agency to contact. In the lower 48, county sheriffs usually have responsibility for SAR, but in some areas it will be the NPS. Here in Alaska, we don’t have counties, and the State Troopers have legal responsibility for most land SAR. The actual work of SAR is often largely done by volunteer teams. However, as noted above, volunteer teams will almost never deploy unless activated by the responsible agency (sheriff, state troopers, or NPS)

    Note that if you are onshore in the US and activate a PLB, that alert will first come in to one of two Rescue Coordination Centers. For the lower 48 that will be at Tyndall Air Force Base in Florida. For Alaska it will be the RCC at Joint Base Elmendorf Richardson in Anchorage. SPOT or InReach are commercial devices and the alert will first come to their own center, then depending on your location they will punt it to one of the federal RCCs.

  6. I email at least a half dozen friends and relatives copies of my planned itinerary. I give them the local County Sheriff’s telephone number to call (I know the county or counties because of my planned itinerary) along with where my vehicle is park, the make, model and license plate number. I always emphasize that I plan to stay on or very near the trail; no bushwhacking or no leaving my planned route.

    I used to tell my trail monitors not to call the sheriff’s office during “evening” hours, since it would be useless for an S&R team to start looking for me in the dark. I was told differently years ago, though, by a park ranger. The ranger said that the night hours could be used by the sheriff and the S&R team to review all trail information, my trail itinerary, etc. to plan for the S&R effort the next morning, thus allowing the S&R team to be at the trailhead (and at other entry points to converge on finding me) as soon as the sun rises. Otherwise, waiting until early morning to report my failure to return off the trail would delay the Sheriff’s S&R planning party to head out looking for me, as they would be planning that morning what they could have been doing during the night. So now I inform my trail monitors to call at night if they have not heard from me that I am safely off the trail, instead of their waiting first thing to do so in the morning.

    I never have used the state’s highway patrol or 911 as I always review my itinerary to see what counties are involved in my trip. I also call the respective County Sheriff’s office number to “validate” that number is the appropriate number to call before giving it to my trail monitors. As one commenter noted previously, Alaska is different and so is Canada.

    • Sheriffs don’t have these responsibilities in the east. They mostly transfer prisoners between court and jails.

    • “I used to tell my trail monitors not to call the sheriff’s office during “evening” hours, since it would be useless for an S&R team to start looking for me in the dark. I was told differently years ago, though, by a park ranger.”

      Whether or not SAR teams will deploy at night depends on the situation, terrain, and other factors. If the local SAR leadership feels that sending a team out in the dark can be done without excessive risk to the rescuers, and that they might have a good chance of a successful live rescue, they might send a team out at night. It just depends.

      Also, if it is felt that the subject might still be mobile and moving, they may quickly send out teams in the dark to do “containment”. For example, in some areas, experience has shown that due to terrain, lost people tend to wander down certain routes. Quickly sending a team to a critical terrain point can sometimes intercept the lost person before they wander into really nasty terrain. Another technique sometimes used when a subject is thought to be mobile is “attraction”. That might consist of sending a team to some widely visible spot to build a big fire, and make noise, hoping the lost person will see/hear it and move to that point.

      You are absolutely correct that alerting authorities at night is helpful, even if they don’t send a team out immediately. It takes time to alert and assemble search teams. This is especially true when much of the boots on the ground consists of volunteer teams. Getting the word the night before gives the responsible agency time to plan how to do the mission, call out resources, and have them ready to start at first light.

  7. A couple more points about calling 911 vs calling a sheriff or other agency directly.

    Jerry Doyle notes a key point up thread. If you give a direct number to the sheriff, make sure to verify (by calling and talking to them) that it is an appropriate number for this purpose, and that it is answered 24/7. Keep in mind that sheriffs typically use the 911 system as their primary dispatch. In these days of tight budgets, smaller counties may only have a few people on duty at night. And that number listed on their web page may not be answered off hours, unless it specifically says it is for emergency use. Verify the numbers you give!

    Most 911 Public Safety Answering Points (PSAP) are nowadays pretty good at finding out who/where to transfer your call too, if it is out of their service area. They have databases for this purpose. I won’t say it is 100% reliable, but it is getting better. This is largely due to the widespread use of cell phones. When you call on a cell phone you might hit a cell tower feeding into an entirely different jurisdiction than the one you are in. This is especially true if you are high on a ridgetop somewhere. For example, on a recent visit to Mt Rainier, I got cell service when up on a high ridge. I was probably talking through a tower somewhere way out east of the Cascades. PSAPs are adapting to this new reality.

    Because I can sometimes get cell service in really unexpected places, especially if I can get up on high terrain, I generally carry my cell phone in my pack. I keep it turned off to conserve batteries. If you can get a weak cell signal, a text message will often get through when a voice call will drop. However, DO NOT ASSUME you can text 911! A few PSAPs can receive text messages but many (most?) can’t do that yet. It is coming, as part of “Next Gen 911”, but most places aren’t there yet.

    If you have a PLB, SPOT, or InReach, make sure your contact info is up to date. If the person you leave your trip plan with is different than the emergency contact listed for your beacon, make sure to note that on your trip plan. Let the beacon contact know who will have the trip plan, and vice versa.

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