YSAR courses teach young people essential skills in search and survival. 

How to learn search and rescue skills


When it comes to the future, Steve Campbell reckons we’re in great hands. As co-founder and CEO of New Zealand’s Youth Search and Rescue (YSAR), Steve and his team play a vital role in training tomorrow’s search and rescue heroes – and despite 15 years at the helm of YSAR, our young people continue to amaze him.

“The stereotype of teenagers being disengaged and unproductive couldn’t be further from the truth. They’re focused, determined, creative, courageous, honest, energetic, patient and caring,” says Steve. 

“Not only do they hold an altruistic world view and want to give back to their communities, but as digital natives they’re well versed in using technology for innovation and complex problem solving, expanding possibilities for improving emergency response capabilities, and ultimately saving lives.”

Teenagers learn important outdoor skills on a YSAR course.

Teenagers learn important outdoor skills on a YSAR course.

The youth Steve is referring to are the 14-18 year-olds who participate in YSAR’s three-year training programme, an 1,800 hour course that’s building the country’s next generation of Search and Rescue (SAR) and Civil Defence Emergency Management (CDEM) practitioners. Through weekly two-hour classes and monthly weekend camping exercises, these altruistic and adventure-loving teens gain the confidence and capabilities they’ll need to transition into the national community volunteer sector.

Since its launch in Tauranga in 2009, YSAR has gained significant traction. They now have established branches in Auckland, Waikato Central, Thames Coromandel and Wellington, and next year will expand their reach into Dunedin, Wakatipu, Christchurch and South Auckland, with a branch specialising in training Pasifika and Māori youth. 

Youth from all walks of life are putting their hands up for YSAR – including those who’ve never had any outdoor experience – and currently there’s a 50/50 male-female split. The first step on the journey gets students comfortable in the outdoors with Level 1 teaching them about bushcraft and giving an overview of search and rescue operations. Level 2 training is focused on search and rescue and emergency management methodology and includes the special aspects of Lost Person Behaviour, the characteristics of the missing person, and how they interact with the environment in which they’re missing. 

Students learn bushcraft and search and rescue operations.

Students learn bushcraft and search and rescue operations.

Meanwhile, leadership and management play a starring role at Level 3 with students running weekend camping exercises, just as they would in a real emergency. Students graduate with a Maritime VHF Radio Operator Certificate, their skipper certificate, outdoor first aid certificates, as well as CIMS (Coordinated Incident Management System) and Action Oriented Team Leader qualifications.

“Our students are incredible. We test them and push them to their limits, and they thrive. They soak up the institutional knowledge and experiences of our volunteer instructors like sponges. I don’t think they fully comprehend the impact the programme will have on them until much further down the track.”

While the students are the stars of the show, Steve says the volunteers who keep the programme running are the unsung heroes.

“As a not-for-profit, we’re heavily reliant on volunteers at all levels of the organisation, and together we’re greater than the sum of our parts. Contributors to YSAR’s evolution recognise that success isn't about individual achievements, but the collective vision and collaboration of numerous hard-working individuals.”

Steve Campbell, co-founder and CEO of YSAR.

Steve Campbell, co-founder and CEO of YSAR. Photo by Jessie Casson.

YSAR instructors are a fantastic example, giving 600 hours of their time each year to empower students to ‘survive and thrive’.

A passionate advocate for ‘lifelong volunteerism’, Steve understands the impact these volunteers have on those going through the programme. 

“I believe volunteering plays a pivotal role in restoring balance and serves as an essential component of an ecosystem that fosters sustainability. That’s what we’re instilling in our youth through YSAR.”

Their efforts are clearly paying off.  As part of the programme every YSAR branch offers their services to a local community group. Steve says the attendance rates at the community days confirms that young people are just as altruistic as any generation. 

“Our students feel proud to be aligned to the NZSAR sector,” he says. “They hold it up as a badge of honour.”

Around 500 students have graduated from YSAR since its inception and once they’re at full capacity they’ll be training 1,000 students each year. In a world where disasters seem to be on the rise, that’s good news for all of us.


Story by Vanessa Trethewey for the Spring 2023 issue of AA Directions Magazine. Vanessa Trethewey is an Auckland-based freelance writer who regularly contributes to AA Directions Magazine.

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