Brian Faughnan - Main | Journal (blog) | Brian - Summary | Brian - Missing | In Memoriam | Guide for Friends & Families of Lost Persons

Guide for friends & families doing a wilderness search (Canada)

  • Introduction
  • Overview
  • Details
  • Links
  • History
  • Rev: 08/01/2010 10:03:22 PM CT.


    In July of 2002 my brother Brian, aged 35, went missing. He was last seen leaving a hostel in Whistler British Columbia, apparently heading for a day hike. His search failed. Brian's body has not been found (as of 8/04).

    In August of 2004 Sam Black went missing. His search succeeded -- after he was lost for 6 days near Whistler. When Sam was lost his family found Brian's story to be a useful reference. That experience motivated me to assemble this quick reference. Time in search is critical, so I wanted to assemble the key tips I passed on to Sam's family. Other information may be gleaned by reviewing Brian's site and the diary written to communicate with friends and family during the search.

    Our experience is with summer search in Whistler, British Columbia, Canada. Ski season searches may be quite different. Searches in the US are likely different.

    My 8/04 cell number is 651-336-5548 and my email is  -- but this page covers what I'd likely to be able to tell you. I wrote this page, but it reflects the contributions of all who searched from Brian in July of 2002, especially my brother Steven, Brian's MOC friends, and the many, many people in Whistler who helped us. Errors and omissions, however, are mine.

    If you come here in desperate straits, know that my heart is with you. I hope the spirit of my brother may aid your search.


    1. Not all searches are the same. You may be able to influence the level of search you receive by use of the media and by "marketing" your loved one.
    2. The keys to search are weather and search area definition. You can't control the weather, but sometimes the search domain can be narrowed.
    3. Helicopter search is critical.
    4. Key contributions of the family are likely to occur outside the search domain.
    5. Search is like a small business startup.
    6. Take care of yourself and your family.


    Not all searches are the same

    The search for the lost 4 year old child of the Prime Minister of Canada will more intense than the search for a homeless 30 yo male drifter. Solo adventurers exploring off trail may receive less search than a tourist separated from a tour group. Critical resources, like helicopters, may be needed elsewhere. Budgets shrink and grow, and may become depleted. The locals are almost all very kind and supportive, but they go through this year after year.

    It helps to remember that search is dangerous, and that in British Columbia S&R teams are volunteers with many responsibilities and duties. S&R and RCMP resources are very limited -- especially helicopters.

    You can't change the fundamentals (in Canada providing personal  funds to cover costs is usually not culturally acceptable), but there's a few things that may help optimize the search:

    The keys to search are weather and search area definition

    Weather determines when helicopters can (relatively) safely fly and how well ground searchers can work. You can't do anything about the weather.

    Search area definition is critical. The wilderness is vast. Unless you've tried to walk untracked terrain in the mountains of BC, it's hard to comprehend how big the wilderness is. Imagine looking for an person in a city -- with no clue where they are. Now imagine that it takes all your energy and resources to walk a single block.

    Someone who's on trail isn't hard to find, but once they leave the trail the problem is exponentially harder. A strong walker can cover a lot of ground.

    Brian's search was almost a worst case scenario [1]. We didn't even know for sure what trail he was on. In fact, we had no proof he'd ever reached any trail -- so he was a "missing person" as much as a "lost person". Sam's search was much easier because he'd left his truck at the trailhead, but it still took 6 days to find him.

    If anyone who was hiking spoke briefly with your loved one on the trail, you might get a critical clue as to where they were at that time. Since hikers in the Whistler area move in and out of the region very quickly it's very important to get the word very quickly (though locals often hike too). Put posters up in the youth hostel, in areas where hikers hang up, put your friends and family outside the food markets and hiking areas (good publicity), put posters up at trail heads, etc. It's something to do, and it can help. If the RCMP is winding down a search, a new piece of information from a witness can extend the search.

    Helicopter search is critical

    Experienced searchers in a helicopter can do ten to a hundred times the job of men on the ground -- especially if the lost person knows to make themselves visible (spread out a colored tent, etc). It's also dangerous and expensive.

    The RCMP discourages this, but you can rent helicopters. If possible you should solicit an S&R trained person to accompany you, but this is politically tricky as it can irritate the RCMP. In Canada it is culturally tricky to use personal funds to extend search beyond the RCMP's mandate. The helicopter pilot, however, is likely to be a search volunteer. They will provide some basic training, and, in our case, they searched as well. (How one can fly and search at the same time is something I tried not to think about while my brother an dI were up there.)

    Key contributions of friends and family are likely to be outside the search domain

    When the RCMP decided to end Brian's search his friends, many of whom are mountaineers, searched on their own. Without special equipment, search training, intimate knowledge of the area, helicopter support -- it's tough. Our team had some superb mountaineers and so we did cover considerable additional terrain -- but most friends and family members won't have that special expertise. (After a search is completed, especially if the result is not good, I think it is valuable to visit the area for personal reasons. It helps to see the beauty and the vastness of the wilderness. If one is unable to do this on the ground, a helicopter trip may be worthwhile.)

    S&R and the RCMP discourage independent search, since the searchers themselves may need rescue, but they can't forbid it. By getting maps and tracking where S&R worked, and learning which areas they consider secondary, you can focus your resources on new areas. If someone does need rescue, however, this will take resources from the primary search.

    Although it's hard for most amateur teams to add much to the wilderness search, there is much that can be done on the ground.. You want to encourage S&R and the RCMP to persist, and you can do this by building community support. Even more importantly, you may locate a contact who might narrow the search. The RCMP are much better at information gathering than amateurs are, but they have other tasks to focus on. Contributions on the ground, roughly in order of value, include:

    Search is like a small business startup

    If you look over the list above, you can see how it maps to a business:

    Imagine assembling a small business in 1-2 days in a strange place under enormous pressure. You have my sympathy; I've been there. Try to assign domains to particular people, some will have more than one. It may be the person that a neutral "board" would assign as CEO isn't the right choice for your family and friends. Someone else may need to take the position. Fuzziness, compromise, and keeping friends and family together are most important. Other jobs tend to fall more naturally to particular people.

    Take care of yourself and your family

    Ultimately, the RCMP, S&R, luck, and the resources of the lost person are the most critical factors. Friends and family can only do their best, and strive to suport one another.

    You won't do everything perfectly. Nobody could. You'll make mistakes. Forgive yourself. Forgive your loved ones. Forgive your friends. Forgive the RCMP officers that are flawed, and forgive the S&R people who are brave and generous and have lives and challenges of their own. Forgive the one who is lost.

    Remember those at home who cannot be on site. They want to help.

    All you can do is your best. You have my wishes and support and, I hope, Brian's spirit with your quest.




    [1] Under ideal circumstances one starts out knowing the search domain based on trip plans and evidence the hiker entered the trail. The latter often comes from a vehicle at the trail head. In Brian's case he was on foot, so there was no vehicle. Based on his east coast hiking he would have expected to sign a trail log at the trail head, but those were removed from BC trails a @ 2000. Having walked to the trail late in the day, he would have been unlikely to hike back to Whistler and phone someone to let them know his plans for the day. The absence of the trail logs was unfortunate and came as a shock to all of us.

    Last Revised: 22 Jul 2002. Author: John G. Faughnan