Mountain Bike Search and Rescue -
North Central Mt. Bike Patrol Search and Rescue

Across the country a growing number of volunteer search and rescue teams have experimented with the use of mountain bikes to enhance search efforts when looking for lost or missing persons. The first, and oldest such unit may be in Ventura County, California, where the Sheriff's Mountain Rescue Team has had a bike unit functioning since 1990. Other groups in Oregon, Pennsylvania, Minnesota and other states have also used mountain bikes successfully in SAR. The National Mountain Bike Patrol (NMBP) program was founded in 1994, and with one of it's stated purposes is to assist in backcountry search and rescue operations.

Ventura County Search and Rescue

Photo Credit: Ventura County (CA) Sheriff's
SAR Team 3

Search operations on a bike are not a ride in the park. (Unless, of course, you're searching in a park!) Although you can probably get away with wearing a shirt or jersey and riding shorts on some missions, the rigors of riding for SAR require different clothing than are normally wear bicycling, or even while patrolling. (Speaking from experience, jerseys do not hold up well in brushy areas.) The equipment you carry both on your bike and on your person is going to be different, also. Remember that when you ride on a search mission, you are riding for a whole different purpose than law enforcement, EMS, or trail patrol. One of the first rules of search and rescue is to not become a liability to the search effort. The other primary rule is that old Boy Scout motto, "Be Prepared!"

Preparation involves a number of things, both personal (physical conditioning and emotional preparation) and equipment. While ALL members of a search operation, be they human, canine or equine, need special training and conditioning, bike searchers are going to require more. Why? Because, more of our strength and endurance goes toward motion than any other type of searcher. For example, SAR dog handlers and grid searchers cover their assigned areas a walking pace. In some cases this may be a fast walk (open terrain) and in others it may be a literal crawl, under heavy undergrowth, through marshes or heavy blowdown, it is still done at a walking pace. Mounted searchers rely on the strength of their horse. Bike riders are moving themselves and 30-50 pounds of bike and equipment through a variety of trail conditions, and may have to climb hills on their bike, ford streams carrying  their bike, or leave the bike to check out something they spot off the trail. This requires more than a donut and coffee at search base for energy and stamina. Preparation for a search mission actually begins days or weeks before a search arises. A cyclist, should be ready physically for any trail conditions you might find in your area. You will need to be psychologically ready for the stress of a search, and in particular the emotional drain of an inconclusive mission (no find) or a search where the subject is found deceased.

With the enormous variety of "mountain-type" bikes available, it may be difficult to decide what kind of bike would best meet the needs of a SAR team. Whether the bike is owned by the unit, agency, or is property of the rider can best be determined locally, within the unit, however all bikes used for rescue should meet certain, pre-established criteria. "Mountain bikes" purchased off of the floor of a local discount store are not going to withstand the rigors of search and rescue. Experienced riders, who are familiar with local terrain and riding conditions should be consulted. Some of the best resources for bicycle information are the staffs of reputable bicycle shops, local mountain bike club members and local police bike patrol officers. They should be able to assist you with basic considerations such as frame construction, component (drivetrain, brakes, etc.) quality, and adaptability to necessary equipment. While price alone may rule out bikes built of more exotic materials, it also serves as an indication of bicycle quality. A good bike for SAR operations is going to cost a minimum of $400.00, without any extra equipment. Riders have to decide between ChroMoly Steel (Chrome-Molybdenum, a light, strong steel alloy) or aluminum. While aluminum may save a few pounds in bike construction, damage to a ChroMoly frame is far easier to repair, particularly in the field, which can mean the difference between riding your bike back to base or carrying it. Front-end or stem shock absorbers are an option that SAR-cyclists may want to give serious consideration. Fully suspended bikes (front and rear shocks) are starting to see more use in emergency services, due to the development of new, stronger racks that clamp on the bicycle seatpost, allowing the bike to carry needed search gear, and rear shocks that can be locked out for climbing hills.

Ventura County Search and Rescue

Photo Credit: Ventura County (CA) Sheriff's
SAR Team 3

One advantage of a mountain bike is that it can, within reason, carry a certain amount of field equipment on a pack rack behind the cyclist. Although saddle bags (called "panniers") and bike packs are available to carry up to 12,000 cubic inches of space for bicycle touring, the weight, balance and side clearance requirements of a SAR mission restrict the amount that can be safely carried to what will fit in a rack pack and a fanny or daypack worn by the rider. A growing number of companies manufacture rack bags that are available at most bike shops, which provide over 1300 cubic inches of storage space. When used in combination with a medium day pack, this provides over 3000 cubic inches to carry necessary equipment. Perhaps the two most important things that mountain bike SAR personnel should carry are appropriate and comprehensive first aid gear, and a good selection of bicycle tools or one good "multi-tool" (available at bike shops) for making emergency repairs. Personally, I have had great success with the Gerber "Cool Tool" for a number of years, but Topeak also is making some excellent tools, including the "Alien" and the new "MacGuyver", named after the "do anything with a pocket knife" TV character. Due to the rugged terrain that may be encountered, the repair kit should include an air pump, at least two spare tire tubes and an "enhanced" (double) patch kit. SAR-cyclists should also consider treating their tires with a puncture resistant material, such as "Slime" (TM) as a preventive measure. A good quality, double headlight systems will make night missions much safer, and should be used in conjunction with a helmet mounted headlamp for optimum efficiency.  SAR cyclists should always carry the "Ten Essentials" for any outdoor activity, including:

  1. An accurate topographic map of the area;
  2. A compass, and the knowledge and ability to use the two together;
  3. An extensive First Aid kit;
  4. A flashlight, with spare batteries and light bulbs;
  5. Multi-blade pocket knife. (Such as a Swiss Army knife, which now comes in several models made specifically for cyclists, or the Leatherman-type multi-tool.);
  6. Extra dry, warm clothing and good rain gear;
  7. Quick energy food;
  8. Water purification tablets or a good water filter;
  9. Water and windproof matches; 
  10. A whistle.

Units in technical terrain may also want to carry rope and rappelling gear, in case it is needed. Although bicyclists tend to want to wear shorts, searchers on bikes should think about wearing long pants that can be pulled over riding shorts and can be gathered, bloused or taped at the ankles, (such as BDU fatigue pants or cycling pants,) and a bright colored shirt or jacket. The pants will protect the rider's legs on narrow trails, and keep them warmer in cool or wet weather, and the shirt will protect their arms and help other searchers, air support and (hopefully) the victim see the searchers more readily. Of course all bicyclists should always wear ANSI approved cycling helmets with good ventilation. Other equipment should include items such as cycling gloves, gaiters, sun glasses and light hiking boots. In our unit we recommend light boots used with toe-clips (foot retaining cages on the pedals) over cycling shoes, since the rigid soles of bike shoes are not designed for walking, climbing or wading that a searcher may have to do off their bike.

As in all disciplines of search and rescue, cyclists should be fully trained in wilderness first aid, CPR, map and compass, communications, backcountry survival and search procedures, both general and mountain bike specific. Comprehensive knowledge of visual tracking, and emergency bicycle repair are also necessary for optimal utilization of bike mounted searchers. Training sessions can be as simple as familiarization with the trails in potential search problem areas, such as parks and woodlands. Informal recreational riding along such trails, gives team members the opportunity to be aware of the tracks, litter and other signs they see, in order to enhance their clue awareness skills. More involved training should consist of having someone "get lost" in a given area and then breaking into teams and searching for both clues and the subject using SAR biking skills and knowledge. Team members can further be challenged with medical or rescue scenarios once the victim is located.

One of the primary reasons to add mountain bikes to a rescue unit is the bike's ability the cover more ground, faster. A searcher mounted on a bike can travel as much as twenty-six feet with each pedal stroke (in highest gear) as opposed to two or three feet per stride, walking. Therefore, the most effective function of a mountain bike team in SAR operations is to rapidly cover roads, trails and pathways in the search area, checking for evidence of a person's passing. Deployment of a bike team into an area that is barely passable on foot would defeat the advantages of using a mountain bike as a search tool. Working in teams of two, bike crews can be assigned to check trails during hasty search, effect containment using trails and roadways, and use their bikes as a platform for visual tracking. Bike teams will check for signs of a person's passage, (foot or bike tire prints, gum wrappers, cigarettes, etc.) and can rapidly follow footprints that may belong to the missing party. They can set up "track traps" in areas the person might pass through, to catch footprints, and then check those track traps, and follow any leads gained from them. Bikes can also be used to jump ahead on a person's track, or sent ahead to attempt interception once a probable direction of travel is determined. When the victim is located, cyclists with medical and rescue training and equipment can reach them  more rapidly than a team on foot, and begin rescue and/or medical stabilization efforts. Other SAR functions where the bikes may be useful can be determined by the mountain bike team leader working with the search mission coordinator during the course of the search operation.

Mountain bikes have already made numerous inroads into search and rescue across the country. Over 70 volunteer National Mountain Bike Patrol units now exist across the country, and park and Forest Service rangers have used bikes in recent years, to assist on searches in a variety of locations. Successful deployment, combined with proper training and utilization, will allow the mountain bike to quickly take it's place along side dogs, helicopters and satellite technology as a legitimate, innovative and successful tool in search and rescue.

SAR Equipment List