Chapter 12: Travel Skills: Foot Travel for SAR Personnel




I. Resources

PowerPoint slides, Chapter 12


II. Teaching Points


A. Technical and non-technical travel (p. 194)

  1. Walking and non-technical travel (searching, getting to the search area) may be necessary in one or more general environments (e.g., desert, mountain, arctic, river, forest).
  2. Climbing or more technical travel (e.g., accessing a search area, examining high-risk areas, technical rescue) may also involve one of many environments (e.g., ice, rock, talus).

B. Recreation (p. 194)

  1. The traveler has total control where and when travel takes place.
  2. A distinct advantage in terms of safety
  3. Technique still plays a large part.
  4. Planning is far more important because it is not nearly as rushed.
  5. Dangerous routes can be avoided.


C. Urgent or emergency situation (p. 195)

  1. Walking/running may be the only way out of a dangerous situation.
  2. Motivation comes from survival senses and is rarely related to travel skills and knowledge.


D. Walking (p. 195)

  1. Conditioning is an important component of SAR.
  2. Walking is the primary mode of transportation.
  3. Condition will make the difference between effectiveness and futility.
  4. Conditioning should include nutrition and hydration.
  5. To prepare for travel in SAR work you need five things:
    1. Fitness
    2. Energy
    3. Water
    4. Rest
    5. Technique
  6. Planning and preparation
    1. Determine the best type of travel and plan the best route.
    2. Maps and experienced individuals are valuable tools.
    3. Know your route and follow your plans.
    4. Be prepared at all times.
    5. Maintain a level of physical conditioning.
    6. Eat proper foods in appropriate amounts and get plenty of rest.
    7. Maintain hydration by drinking plenty of water before and during a mission.
    8. Be properly clothed for type of travel anticipated.
    9. Pack and carry the appropriate equipment.


  1. Walking technique
    1. A curved route of greater distance may be easier and faster than a straight path.
    2. Following a route of constant elevation can be easier than moving uphill and downhill.
    3. Route finding

                                                               i.      Traveling by altimeter can be a valuable skill.

                                                             ii.      Game trails, roads, and manmade trails allow quicker walking and therefore less overall travel time.

                                                            iii.      Factor terrain, weather, and vegetation into the decision to take a longer but quicker and easier route to an objective.

    1. Pace

                                                               i.      Pace and rest play a big part in traveling efficiency.

                                                             ii.      Maintain a realistic pace.

                                                            iii.      Keep body temperature stable by reducing the practice of quick starts and lengthy rests.

                                                           iv.      A realistic pace is essential in high altitude to avoid hypoxia.


    1. Rhythmic breathing

                                                               i.      Will reduce headaches, nausea, lack of appetite, and irritability

                                                             ii.      Rhythmic breathing is simply a consistent breathing cycle to a set pace

                                                            iii.      Maintaining regular breathing and pace ratio allows for a more relaxed walk.

                                                           iv.      Takes the mind off of the drudgery of monotonous travel

    1. Rest

                                                               i.      Fatigue in the SAR environment is dangerous.

                                                             ii.      Fatigue increases the chance of accidents and poor judgment.

                                                            iii.      Everyone needs rest but do not force it.

                                                           iv.      If you are exhausted between rest stops, rest more often.

                                                             v.      Inexperienced travelers tend to rest too often and underestimate their abilities.

    1. Rest step

                                                               i.      Terrain may be so difficult and energy required so great that a rest is required between each step.

                                                             ii.      Adopted from mountaineering, the “rest step” or “lock step” is a technique of taking small steps, locking each knee, and synchronizing the breathing to allow for a respite before taking the next small step.

                                                            iii.      Technique is slow, but may be the only way to travel over difficult terrain, especially at high altitude.

h. Other considerations

                                                               i.      Novice travelers make the mistake of walking too fast, usually thinking of the distance to be covered, the urgency of the situation, or the perceived shame of traveling slower than others.

                                                             ii.      Walking too fast decreases the probability of detection and reduces energy stores.

                                                            iii.      In a group, pace is determined by the slowest traveler.

                                                           iv.      Excess energy is far better than severe fatigue.

                                                             v.      Spacing between individuals is important.

                                                           vi.      The rate of travel and the terrain determines the distance between travelers: The rougher the terrain, the closer the travelers.

                                                          vii.      Walking downhill

(a)    Less fatigue than walking uphill, but still has its problems

(b)   Toes are jammed into the front of the shoes and knees are jarred.

(c)    The entire body begins to ache from dropping the weight of the body onto locked knee and leg at each step.

(d)   Tighten your laces to decrease the movement of the foot inside your boot; this reduces blisters but also reduces circulation to your feet.



E. Ice axe (p. 198)

1.      Primary use in mountaineering conditions, usually at high elevations when ice and snow conditions are coupled with severe terrain.

2.      Use of an ice axe

a.              On any slope where a slip may lead to a quick descent

b.              Ready position

                                                                                       i.      Place one hand, preferably your stronger one, on the head of the axe with the thumb under the adze and fingers over the pick.

                                                                                     ii.      Place your other hand on the shaft next to the spike.

c.              Do not try to lift your body off the ice while pressing the pick into the ground.

d.              Keep the axe close to the chest and keep your face down.

e.              Do not press the spike end into the ice to attempt an arrest because this could rip the axe out of your hand.

f.                Keep the axe below the shoulders.

g.              Hold on to your axe; in mountainous terrain, the axe is a priority tool.


F. General wilderness travel (p. 199)

1.      Requires constant awareness

2.      Two fundamental rules need to be mastered in order to expend a minimum of energy and time.

i. Keep your weight directly over your feet.

                                                                                     ii.      Keep the soles of your boots flat on the ground to improve traction.

3.      Trails

                                                                                       i.      Can vary from small “highways” to virtually invisible, rarely traveled paths.

                                                                                     ii.      Animals may be responsible for creating some trails.

                                                                                    iii.      Manmade trails usually have markings that allow for trail identification.

                                                                                   iv.      SAR workers should use trails as avenues of least resistance.

                                                                                     v.      Trails provide likely spots for clues.

                                                                                   vi.      Traveling on trails is easy and deserves little time dedicated to technique, but some guidelines are helpful:

(a)    Give space to fellow team members.

(b)   Loosen shoe laces.

(c)    Rest off trail so that others may pass.

(d)   Keep your eyes open for clues.


4.      Brush

a.              Get through it quickly or travel around it.

b.              Found in gullies and drainages

c.              Can be small trees, shrubs, or vines that cause difficult travel

d.              Downhill brush can be dangerous because a foot may slip or catch and cause a fall.

e.              Thorns may be present.


5.      Grassy slopes

a.              Watch your footing.

b.              In ascending, use indentations or protrusions for traction.

c.              Step on the upper side of protrusions where ground is more level.

d.              When descending, traverse the slope.

e.              Be especially careful if grass is wet.

f.                Grassy areas tend to easily show signs of travel.



6.      Scree and Talus Slopes

a.              Consist of small rocks and gravel that have collected below rock ridges and cliffs

b.              Each step must be picked carefully.

c.              Done by kicking in with toe of the upper foot so a step is formed in the scree


7.      Streams/rivers

a.              Take time to examine the possibilities before deciding to jump in.

b.              Cross at a 45-degree angle downstream.

c.              Never attempt to ford a stream directly above, or close to, a deep or rapid waterfall or deep channel.

d.              Avoid rocky places.

e.              Before entering the water, have a plan of action for making the crossing.

f.                If the stream appears treacherous, employ a technique that stabilizes the traveler: rope assisted, pole assisted, or team crossing.

g.              Unfasten the waist strap on your pack and remove one shoulder strap. Examine the route carefully before crossing.

h.              The speed and force of water is easy to underestimate.

i.                Never tie a rope around the crosser.

j.                If you find yourself in fast moving water:

                                                                                       i.      Place your feet downstream.

                                                                                     ii.      Lie on your back.

                                                                                    iii.      Ditch your pack.

                                                                                   iv.      Use your hands to paddle toward shore.

                                                                                     v.      Do not attempt to stand until reaching shallow water.


8.      Desert

a.              Before traveling in the desert, weigh the decision to travel against the environmental factors of terrain and climate.

b.              The time of day for traveling depends on two significant factors:

                                                                                       i.      Temperature

                                                                                     ii.      Type of terrain

c.              A compass is a valuable piece of equipment in desert travel.

d.              Mirages cause considerable trouble.

e.              Distances are deceptive in the desert.

f.                The persistent wind has no cooling effect.

g.              Wind carries particles that get into eyes, ears, nose, and mouth and can cause severe irritations.

h.              Three types of deserts

                                                                                       i.      Mountain

                                                                                     ii.      Rocky plateau

                                                                                    iii.      Sandy/dune


9.       Jungle environments

a.              In some cases, the easiest routes are rivers, trails, and ridgelines.

b.              There may be hazards associated with these routes.

c.              Trails may lead to dead ends or thick brush, and vegetation along a ridge may conceal crevices or extend out past cliffs.


10.  Snow

a.              Greatest hazard is intense cold and high winds.

b.              Can lead to hypothermia and frostbite as well as loss of dexterity and coordination

c.              Judging distance can be difficult because of the lack of landmarks and the clear, cold air. Image distortion is common.

d.              Avoid travel during white-out snow conditions.

e.              Common problems with snow travel include:

                                                                                       i.      Depth perception

                                                                                     ii.      Footing in steep terrain

                                                                                    iii.      Crevasses on glacial snow

                                                                                   iv.      Varying conditions throughout the day

                                                                                     v.      Extra equipment

                                                                                   vi.      Energy expenditure in deep snow condition