Preventative Search & Rescue

SAR team in Ponca Wilderness
Rescuers from Buffalo National River Search and Rescue team (BUFFSAR) load a patient into a litter in the Ponca Wilderness.

ProRanger L. Patton

Every year, dozens of visitors are rescued from the backcountry and wilderness areas of Buffalo National River. Some get into a tight spot on the river, some become lost off trail, and others fall off of cliffs. Occasionally, some even die in Buffalo River's backcountry.

When the call comes, a team of highly-dedicated, highly-trained rescuers (about half of whom are volunteers) respond in all weather conditions to help those in need. These search and rescue (SAR) missions are both dangerous and expensive. Each incident costs money for the taxpaying public.

How do we prevent, or at least reduce, SARs? Part of the answer rests on YOU, the individual visitor. Read on to learn how to prepare for your trip and prevent a SAR during it. Take a look at our Hiking, Paddling, and Leave No Trace webpages for further information on how you can have a safe and enjoyable time at the river. Please, take some time to prepare for your visit.

Top 6 Search and Rescue Locations

Hemmed-in Hollow Falls in the Ponca Wilderness of Buffalo National River
Hemmed-in Hollow Falls

The trail to Hemmed-in Hollow Falls features 1,200 feet of elevation gain. This area has the most SAR incidents of any location in the park.

Colorful inner tubes on the gravel bar at Buffalo Point
Buffalo Point Area

The Buffalo Point area sees multiple SAR incidents involving ambitious innertube floats and hiking the Indian Rockhouse Trail.

Three paddlers kayaking down the Lower Buffalo River
Rush/Lower Buffalo Wilderness

Several SAR incidents each year involve paddlers overshooting and missing their takeout at Rush Landing.

From a high, narrow ledge we view the rugged, wooded hills of the Ponca Wilderness.
Centerpoint Trail

Hikers visit Big Bluff for sweeping views of the Ponca Wilderness. Slips, trips, and falls account for most rescues in this location.

A protruding bluff over the Buffalo River
Grinders Ferry

Swimming and diving accidents are common occurrences at Grinders Ferry. This location sees the most drowning deaths on the Buffalo River.

Hikers perch on top of large boulders beneath a bluff shelter
Lost Valley

Most accidents on the Lost Valley Trail are caused by slips, trips, and falls.

Hiker on the Nars
A hiker in a blue jacket and red hat walks carefully along The Nars in the Middle District.


Be Prepared. Plan Ahead.

Tell someone where you are going. Leave a detailed itinerary and map of the area with somebody at home who can report you overdue if necessary. Give them the telephone number to Buffalo National River's 24-hour dispatch: 1-888-692-1162. Remember, cell phone service is unreliable in the park.

Know your limits and prepare. Search and rescue missions often result from visitors who get in over their head and become overwhelmed by trip duration, difficulty, or environmental conditions (air and water temperatures). Things you should ask yourself include: Are you a strong swimmer? Do you possess basic survival skills, such as lighting a fire, and can you perform those skills while soaking wet and shivering? Are you healthy enough for strenuous activity? Can you carry your pack for miles? If you are floating the river and river conditions change, do you know when to pull off of the river and wait for better conditions?

Check the weather forecast. Give yourself enough daylight for day trips. If the weather forecast looks questionable, consider postponing your trip. If you decide to proceed with your trip, be prepared for adverse weather conditions. Know what time sunset occurs and plan for unexpected delays. Carry several light sources with you.

Check the river gauges. Thunderstorm events can cause rapid short term changes that need to be taken seriously. Awareness of storm potential will help you make a decision about whether to go or not to go, or at least how far away from the river to set up camp and pull your boats. These storms are sudden and can happen far away from where their effects are eventually felt. It depends on the severity of the storm and the watershed into which it falls. A major storm in the Upper District can cause serious problems in the Middle and Lower Districts without you ever hearing a clap of thunder or even seeing a cloud!

Stay on designated trails. Carry a topographic map of the park and know how to read it. There are many bluff lines that offer stunning views of the park, but do not get close to the edge. Hunting is permitted in most of Buffalo National River's backcountry areas. If you are hiking, consider wearing high-visibility orange outerwear during hunting season. If you are hunting, know where you can hunt, be aware of the trails, and remember that visitors might be hiking nearby.

Leave No Trace. There are special considerations to make when traveling in the park's backcountry. Please visit the park's Leave No Trace page to learn more about Buffalo National River's Leave No Trace efforts.

A kayaker paddles downstream from Ponca
A kayaker paddles through swift water at Ponca in the Upper District.

T. Fondriest

Wear your life jacket. All persons floating the Buffalo River are required to have a life jacket in their vessel. All children ages 12 and under are required to wear their life jackets at all times while in the boat. This isn't just a good idea, it's the law. Be sure your life jacket is US Coast Guard approved, in servicable condition, and worn properly. The park recommends that ALL persons wear a life jacket while on the river. Remember, "It won't work if you don't wear it." Learn how you can borrow a life jacket from the park.

Tube responsibly. While personal flotation devices (PFDs) are not required while recreating in an inner tube, we strongly recommend the use of one while floating the river, for both children and adults. Without a paddle, you are at the river current's mercy, and you cannot steer or make the tube go faster. For this reason, the park recommends tube trips no longer than 1.5 miles. You are very limited as to what you can take with you on a tube, and there is often no room for water, snacks, or sunscreen. Please take all of this into consideration when planning a float on tubes.

Avoid sweepers and strainers. A sweeper or strainer is a tree or trees that have fallen across or along the edge of the river but may be above the river level, partially submerged, or may lie just under the surface of the water. Often, these are found on the outer side of bends where the river is fastest, or in fast-moving and narrow chutes. Either way, they can cause a canoe or kayak to capsize and require extra care to avoid. Experience is the best practice; avoidance is the best caution. The park removes downed trees when they are judged to be a hazard. Operating a chainsaw in a boat on a river is a very dangerous undertaking. Not all trees are removed. Some are considered nuisances and not hazards, and are part of the river experience.

Do not attempt to unpin a pinned boat. If your boat becomes lodged, DO NOT ATTEMPT TO UNPIN IT! This is a very dangerous situation with powerful forces being extered on the boat. Leave it where it is and report its location to a park ranger as soon as possible.

Have the right equipment and secure it. Be sure to place all of your gear in sturdy, waterproof bags and tie everything down in your boat to prevent it from washing away if you capsize. Wear sturdy footwear even if you are floating. Flip-flops or slip-on water shoes can get pulled off of your feet if you capsize.

Wear the right clothes. When floating during the fall, winter, or spring, wear wool or synthetic fibers such as polypropylene or a wet suit. Avoid cotton because when cotton becomes wet, it loses the ability to insulate and quickly contributes to a hypothermic state. Hypothermia results when your body loses heat faster than it produces it and can be deadly. Waterproof garments are highly recommended.

Be aware of other floaters. Chances are you won't be alone on your river trip. You may run into people with expectations of quiet and solitude, or similar expectations of a floating party. You may encounter groups whose interests are more inclined to boom boxes and alcohol. It's important to understand that the National Park Service manages for multiple interests, placing limitations or prohibitions only where absolutely necessary to preserve the resources and ensure visitor safety and satisfaction. If you are approaching a narrow chute or bend and see the potential for congestion, slow down to avoid a collision that could result in inconvenience or injury. This includes other watercraft, swimmers, and horses!

Recreate Responsibly

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    Last updated: December 28, 2021

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