Staying Safe: Search and Rescue in Utah
Know how to stay safe and informed during your Utah trip and who is helping when you get into trouble.
The temperatures soar as I gulp back the last remnants of my first of two liters of water on this exceptionally dry summer’s day. After a week of canvassing endless miles of desert and a combined 4,000 volunteer hours, the search had been called off.
Even with a GPS device giving rescuers his last known location, the vastness of the surrounding country proved too complex to home in on his current location. Was he alive?
I saw the message on a Facebook post. The missing man was connected to my greater community and his family and friends sought volunteers as they refused to give up hope. I headed out to help in any way that I could.
Despite the help from volunteers and staff from three sheriff’s offices, local search and rescue (SAR) teams, friends and family, private drones and airplanes, he was still missing. So there I was, a last-minute volunteer, driving and walking nearby mountain ranges with a satellite printout displaying potential spots where the missing man might be.
My 48 hours of searching were fruitless. Most of the points from the satellite turned out to be boulders catching glare off the sun or random tidbits of discarded debris. Like the search and rescue team members the week before, I too headed home.
While this may be an extreme SAR case both in incident and breadth of search, it truly opened my eyes to what can happen when people need to be rescued in the wilderness.
Staying Safe in the Outdoors
While not everyone is expected to be formally trained in outdoor education, it is important for all visitors, whether experienced Utah outdoor enthusiasts, first-time visitors — or somewhere in between — to do their part to be safe and informed.
Escalante-based guide, outfitter and search and rescue volunteer, Rick Green said it best: “The well-prepared traveler is the person who is going to have the best time, because they're going to have gathered information in advance, they're going to understand the conditions of the place they're going, they're going to understand what's going to be required of them on that day, and they're going to be in a situation where they could help others if they had to.” (Read: Be Prepared for the Backcountry)
And it’s not just the visitors to the rugged wilderness areas of Utah that need to be informed. Even visitors to Utah’s national parks can find themselves in need of aid from time to time: Zion National Park conducted more than 130 SARs in 2021.
“SAR responders are trained to respond to incidents involving canyoneering, climbing and wilderness travel,” says Jonathan Shafer, Zion National Park’s Public Information Officer.
In addition to all the day-to-day work that park employees do, they are often informing visitors on ways to plan ahead and how to always be prepared.
“While we can respond if you need help, your safety is your responsibility,” says Shafer.
“The best kind of SAR is the kind that never happens.”
Recreating in Utah’s parks and monuments is exciting. Visit the state’s visitor education hub and individual park websites to learn more about how to plan ahead and the unique challenges you should be prepared to face within and around the parks.