Why tracking doesn’t work for Misper SAR in the UK

(And why every SAR team member needs to learn basic tracking skills)

Here we go… this post will attract a minimum of two types of response:

1. “you don’t know what you’re talking about, if your skills were as good as mine you could follow a flea across a glacier”
2. “tracking is too slow/doesn’t work/is overrated”

Well, quite.

Both views have some validity, and that’s the point of this post.

Tracking, within the context of SAR/non-combat scenarios, is often represented by evangelists who want to present tracking as a panacea to locating any human OR by those who have sworn off it having tried the techniques (sold to them on a course) on a live operation and found that it just slows everything down and eats up resources. Each side will defend their own hilltop to the last man – neither attitude being actually that helpful to achieving the end goal.

Looking for Jim

Let’s consider Jim. Jim wasn’t actually called Jim, wasn’t necessarily a him and didn’t necessarily have this motivation – but Jim is roughly based on a real person and a real job.


Jim knows this forest well and runs here regularly. He likes to drive into the forest, park at one of the secluded public car parks and head off into the woods for a 5-10km run along the paths and forest roads.
It’s 06:44 and he has just locked the car and has set off on the trail leading to the lake. It’s a last-minute decision but it’s a trail he knows well.

At 08:44 Jim’s wife is wondering what time he will be back. At 11:30 she is really starting to get worried and at 12:37 she tentatively rings 999 and asks for the Police.

By 14:00 a police officer has contacted her to see if Jim has made contact yet. By 15:00 a PolSA (Police Search Advisor) has started to co-ordinate the early response to this incident, and by 17:00 a police officer in a vehicle has discovered Jim’s car in the secluded car park. It’s sat safely amongst the slamming of car doors and shouts of dog walkers, families with kids on bikes and mountain bikers returning or leaving their vehicles at the beginning or end of their forest adventures.

At 17:32 a message is sent through SARCALL to the local volunteer search and rescue team and the incident moves to the next level of response.


It’s a fairly standard missing person callout – someone without any previous indications of despondency, medical distress or other factor goes out into a relatively remote area for a short activity and just doesn’t return to their vehicle, and a steady but measured response unfurls from the emergency services – allowing for various scenarios but also not assuming immediately that Jim is dying in a ditch, and it’s most likely to be a miscommunication between Jim and his wife, and Jim is happily doing something blissfully unaware of the multi-agency search developing in the forest.

The volunteer Search and Rescue (volSAR) team will follow their own protocol for calling the team members together, establishing a search control/staging area and gathering other assets – dogs, helicopters, even drones. A Search Manager will speak with the PolSA, Jim‘s wife and possibly anyone else involved in the response thus far. This will lead the Search Manager to come up with a variety of scenarios in the following categories:

  1. Jim is in the area, but stationary and possibly in medical distress (or worse)
  2. Jim is in the area but mobile (either in a good cognitive state or otherwise)
  3. Jim is somewhere completely different (Rest of World)

Search Managers may be good but they are not omniscient so they must focus on the first two categories – Jim is somewhere out there in an area they can search with the resources they have now, and the resources they are likely to have in the future.

So they work out a search area, based on a combination of barriers to travel, previous search incident data for profiles similar to Jim, his own patterns of behaviour and fitness and what can be accomplished in the next few hours and days. They have a Last Known Point (LKP) – Jim‘s car, as he HAD to be there in order to park it and run off somewhere. He did this unseen by anyone else (as far as the Search Manager can know) but it gives them an Initial Planning Point (IPP) to set a radius around and begin the process of planning search areas, calculating probability and the other wizardry and dark arts of Search Theory.

The next steps are a combination of good personal skills exercised by both SAR team members on the ground and their party leaders and data gathering/handling. Search parties are deployed to an area or areas with a brief of what Search Control expects them to do – it might be a ‘hasty’ (fast search along trails and tracks to ensure that the misper isn’t lying in plain sight) or an area search of a section of woodland or open ground marked out on the map. They perform their search brief, return to control and pass on the information they gathered. This feeds back into the search plan and a new tasking might be generated.

Rinse, and repeat. Until either Jim is found or a decision is made to stop searching for Jim.

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If it was always this easy...

Deploying the trackers

The above is probably familiar to anyone involved in misper SAR around the world. A person leaves their car in a busy parking area, heads off into increasingly ‘wild’ terrain and doesn’t return. They had to leave SOME sign of their passage surely, so couldn’t trained trackers be deployed to go out, find those signs of passage and link them together into SOME kind of narrative?

When it comes to looking for humans and the physical signs they leave behind on the ground (training humans to search by scent has been largely unsuccessful and unpleasant for all involved) there are two things a tracker will hope to find:

  1. Prints (foot or occasionally hand, often referred to as a subject-print) – including partial prints, vague smears on muddy banks and impressions left in soft surfaces
  2. Physical sign – everything from vegetation bent at unnatural angles and broken off in unusual ways, foliage turned over the wrong way by a trailing foot or hand and even broken cobwebs and a thousand other clues

Finding signs of some human passage through an area isn’t that hard – in a few hours you can train somebody to look for the obvious signs of a track in most terrain. It’s the noise-to-signal ratio that matters – which of these dozen prints or physical signs belong to your misper and which are just the dogwalkers and hikers?

In the above scenario any SAR tracker deployed as part of the search would either hope to find a print or series of prints that they could, with good certainty, assign to Jim and use for tracking further down the trail.
In an ideal world they would be able to find out exactly what brand, model and size of running shoe Jim wore that day, if they had any unique wear patterns and even what clothing he was wearing, which snacks/gels he carried and anything else he might discard by the trailside. They might even be able to get a calibrated photograph of a print from somewhere at Jim‘s home.

It isn’t an ideal world though – and Jim‘s wife doesn’t know what shoes he wore other than “the blue ones”. He’s a size 11, but sometimes 10. He probably took a water bottle but maybe not. She can’t find his expensive GPS watch she bought for him last Christmas though… And so it goes. Information dribbles in over time and analysis is made as to how accurate or useful it is.

On the ground

The gravel area around the car has been heavily trod since Jim was declared missing. Several members of the public parked close by and walked either side of the car, the police poked around the vehicle when they first found it and again when they forced entry to see if there was any clue inside to Jim‘s whereabouts. The volSAR team members had a good poke around too. Any hope of discovering a sterile print is probably lost – but what about further out?
As the laid surface of the car park ends it turns back to mud and soil and there is a chance of finding a print at the start of the various trails that radius out from the parking area. There are plenty of partial prints – from the public, police and volSAR. They are layered down into the damp soil and the most recent start to obscure the previous ones. There is a bottleneck at the start of most trails and the prints cluster together. It takes time and careful examination to find a few candidates that match the vague criteria for a Jim-print: running shoe, roughly UK size 10-11 and laid roughly twelve hours previously. With several possible trails and a limited number of trackers they must make a decision about where to move to next.

Meanwhile the search parties move along the trails, sweep through open areas at a regular spacing and gradually reduce the Probability of Area (POA, the likelihood that Jim is in that bit of woodland or open ground) for their tasked areas. They trample and crush, make new trails through vegetation and turn untouched wilderness into a footpath – but move far ahead and faster than the tracker teams.

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Search Control isn't the best place for finding that first subject-print...

Limited Resources

The enemy for Search Managers is not nature herself or the elements – it’s depletion of limited resources:

Time and Daylight

Jim could be lying somewhere in a poor medical condition and getting worse by the second. Eventually he will reach a point where his recovery is unlikely and then expire. All searches run the possibility of becoming a recovery rather than a rescue if too much time passes before the search subject is located. A slow and methodical search would probably find that misper EVENTUALLY, but the whole point of SAR is to try and locate that person and help them.
The sun is also setting over in the west and it’s not unusual for volSAR to not be called on until the end of the day – to allow enough time for the misper to be located by the initial response, or just wander home under their own steam. As soon as darkness falls the whole job has become harder – reducing the effectiveness of the searchers and potentially compromising their safety.

Personnel Availability

Voluntary SAR teams all suffer the issue of availability of their team members. You don’t join unless you are able to help and attend callouts, but the 24/7 nature of volSAR means that not everybody will be able to attend every callout. Work, family, health and even finances can keep a team member away for part or all of a search and a volSAR team that boasts 50 members might be only able to field 15-25 at one time. Those team members on the ground also have a limited time they can search for – whether due to fatigue/operational effectiveness or just the demands of their ‘real’ lives. Eventually every volSAR team member will need to return home and a Search Manager cannot guarantee how long they will have that team member for. A good Search Manager will start to stack up potential reinforcement and replacements from neighbouring teams as soon as it looks like a search will run for that long.


Specialist search teams are a boon for any Search Manager, but use of them can pull resources away from other parts of the operation. The moment the search moves to near-water (T6 or T7 terrain) then a decision needs to be made about whether that area is left unsearched or to redploy part of the search teams for water search – something that cannot be done without several team members plus specialist equipment and PPE.
Dogs are another exhaustable resource – they can only work for so long, and although they can cover a large acreage quickly they can still only ‘search’ part of the area at once.

So with the above resources dwindling, does a dedicated tracking cell within a volSAR team actually work? Where and when would they deploy – prior to the hasty teams and when the minimal amount of damage had been done to what trail remains? Are trackers a specialist search asset to be deployed from the SAR toolkit like Swiftwater Rescue Technicians and dogs?

You’re burning daylight and with a limited number of searchers available for the next few hours is it appropriate to separate out a few tracking-trained team members to faff around on the fringes with elastic bands and sticks?

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Tracking should be seen as as essential as any other SAR skill
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Tracking-awareness can be that vital link between the LKP and the casualty being safely rescued

The cohesive approach

Although we teach tracking as a distinct skill from search techniques as part of the EST Framework courses I do not think the two can be completely separated. By the very nature of the skills required a good searcher can be a good tracker, and vice versa. The skills of Land-SAR search (searching the cube, staying in formation, personal safety) are all essential skills for a SAR-tracker, but an understanding of the importance of certain patterns (or indeed, breaks in those patterns) can highlight certain things to a tracking-trained searcher.

When a tracker is either looking for a specific print or any relevant sign of passage then she or he can pick them out from the background scenery and analyse them – if they are also searching then they can do that in-context and feedback information to their Party Leader of Search Control.

Basic tracking skills and an understanding of both the benefits and limitations of those skills within a SAR context should be seen as an essential skill for any volSAR ground team member (and indeed, understood by Search Managers and Search Coordinators).

Any sign of Jim?

What if every team member on the ground in this search had been given some basic training in tracking (e.g. how to extrapolate an entire print from several partial prints, or to spot the signs of passage by an adult human through dense vegetation etc) and had been deployed by a Search Manager who also understood this?

What if those initial hasty parties had been on the lookout not only for an adult male runner somewhere within their search radius, but also slowing down to check likely track-traps such as the edges of puddles or choke points between trees? Or if they had performed their first search around the edges of the car park, looking for candidates for a Jim-print?

This is how it SHOULD be done, but rarely is. Tracking is often seen as a separate skill or occasionally an afterthought when previous efforts are proving fruitless – but it should be part of the mindset of any volSAR deployment where the misper could possibly leave sign of their passage. Too much emphasis is often put on looking for the body of the misper, not a 20% partial print that could become the next LKP and shift the whole search in a positive direction.

How to deploy tracking in a SAR operation

This is part of the guidance that we give to candidates on the Level 3 Search Operations Management Course but is relevant for anyone involved in planning search operations and deployment of SAR assets for missing person search:

  • Tracking awareness should be seen as a vital skill for all trained searchers deployed on the ground and training should reflect this, challenging team members and preventing skill-fade whilst promoting personal skill development.
  • Search teams should be equipped and prepared for tracking re-deployment in the field.
  • Acquiring information for tracking-trained search teams should be a vital part of witness and family interview techniques and efforts made to isolate footwear type and shape – social media photos, prints at home and so on.
  • Tasking of search parties should reflect the potential usefulness of tracking, and time allowed for an initial search around the IPP for potential print candidates.
  • Be ready to re-deploy search teams to another area/track if they discover a potential trail on the ground – this highlights the need for Search Managers to have a good awareness of the limitations of tracking and the relative importance of the information being fed back in to Search Control.

For most applications tracking should be seen as a vital SAR skill, not a specialism and subset of strange folk with feathers sticking out of their gear and castration rings on a trekking pole. Of course training contact time is limited for volSAR teams, but once those skills have been gained they can be maintained fairly easily.

SAR Tracking isn’t THAT hard

Unlike some of my clients, nobody is going to be shooting at you whilst you are tracking within a SAR context. Your search subject is unlikely to be actively trying obscure their tracks or slow pursuers down with traps and IEDs, and they aren’t a small and fast mammal scurrying across a forest floor without even turning over a dead leaf.
Humans (well, ones not trying to avoid capture) are pretty lazy and bumbling. We step into soft mud, scrape our feet across mossy logs and boulders and trample over leaves and twigs crushing them into the floor under our bulk. We wade through long grass and vegetation turning the leaves and blades of grass over to flag our passage and even discard plastic and paper objects from our pockets as we walk.
It’s why our Level 1 Tracking Technician course is run over only 3 days, and that also includes crossover with navigation skills and interoperability with other organisations and a final exercise – tracking shouldn’t be seen as a mysterious and ethereal skill, but nor should it be dismissed out of hand because your deployment plan doesn’t allow for it.


Tracking is good and useful within a misper SAR context in the UK, but is often misrepresented by poor deployment and inflexibility of existing deployment procedures. There is also a lack of understanding by Search Managers who see it as an ineffective delay in the search operation and don’t ask pertinent questions when speaking to informants and witnesses. Tracking-awareness should be a vital part of any SAR search party members and be an intrinsic part of the training programme.

Tracking also has many limitations, and more so in the densely-populated UK where volSAR teams have to try and identify a potential subject-print early on in the search rather than hoping to the find the ‘sign of passage’ in the wilderness and following the resultant trail.

It’s also not that hard, and with a bit of training most competent SAR party members can become effective trackers.

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  1. Yes, having done the introduction by Lavalla and Stoffel at Crickhowell many years ago, and the weekend theory course at a previous conference I have tried it on occasions, On a search in Cheshire for an elderly lady a few years ago, I found distinct small footprints with a fine tread (could be slippers or delicate shoes) in the sticky mud, followed them wandering about randomly. I used the pace measuring method at times but sent an image back to control.
    Turned out to be wetsuit shoes used by the police underwater team. Bugger!

    I tried to introduce some awareness of tracking and the wider search theory at that time, but unfortunately the team leader – (a control freak) was only interested in the report writing part of search management to the detriment of the thoughtful part search planning. Unfortunately presentations of the “Northumbrian Rain Dance” and something about “Pinky and Perky” (No I don’t know either) and the American term “Hasty Team” damaged the credibility in the TL’s eyes and caused him to ignore the search theory element and concentrate on “Colouring In”, (until the Lancashire Police started their own in-house courses – which had more Kudos!).

    • That all is a little too familiar Alan 🙂

      Trends change very slowly in UK MRTs, and the “we’ve always done it this way” mantra can be heard in the back of converted LWB vans/search control vehicles up and down the country…

  2. I have been involved in mountain search and rescue in British Columbia for over 35 years, I have training and experience in many aspects I am considered a highly skilled tracker. Skills that i use frequently but are not the only tools in my tool kit. All skills are needed to succeed and fulfill mission objectives. The skill comes in when you know which to use.

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