Vancouver Outdoor Community Spotlight: Michael Coyle of Coquitlam Search and Rescue

Michael Coyle and his dog

Michael hiking with his dog Curie. Photo: Michael Coyle

Vancouverites love to spend time outdoors hiking, biking, and camping. But not every adventure goes according to plan. That’s where search and rescue (SAR) comes in. We chatted with Michael Coyle from Coquitlam Search and Rescue about what it’s like to volunteer with SAR, both professionally and personally, and what hikers in Vancouver need to know before they hit the trails.

Michael explains, “people getting lost around town can ask for directions, but in the backcountry when you get lost there’s no one to ask for directions, especially if you don’t have your cell phone or if there is no service. So, search and rescue is exactly what the words say: we search for people who are missing and we rescue people who can’t get out of the backcountry by themselves.”

It’s important to note that SAR begins before you get lost or hurt on a hike. Michael says “You have to have already made a trip plan and left it with somebody so that if you don’t come back they can call for help. In BC… the mountains that make the place beautiful also make it incredibly hazardous since they block radio and cell communications.” That means that you may not be able to use your phone to call for help. He explains that satellite messengers are helpful since they work where phones don’t, but since many people don’t carry them, leaving a trip plan is the most important thing you can do to help get rescued.

MIchael Coyle with a Coquitlam Search and Rescue teammate

Michael (left) at a helicopter training session with a teammate from Coquitlam Search and Rescue. Photo: Michael Coyle

“In BC all search and rescue is done by volunteers. There are no paid search and rescue positions for ground search and rescue in BC. [SAR volunteers] are just your community members, the people around you: the hockey coach, lawyers, there’s a glazier on our team, carpenters, some people are retired, some are going to university. The people who have the time to dedicate are the people who end up being on our team.” They often recruit people with outdoor skills like backcountry skiing or rock climbing, but they offer new volunteers all the training they will need including medical instruction and how to use their specialized gear.

Despite what some might think, Michael wants hikers to know that “search and rescue in Canada is completely free… When people think they’re going to be charged they delay calling [for help] and that actually makes it a lot more hazardous for everybody… It makes it more hazardous for the person who’s calling for help because they have to wait those extra hours and it gets dark, or there might be more snow falling, or their injury may get worse. And then [SAR] might be coming out at night which is more hazardous… So the main thing is we prefer people not to hesitate to call for help when they need it.”

Members of Coquitlam Search and Rescue pose in front of a helicopter

Members of Coquitlam Search and Rescue on a helicopter rescue task at Pitt Lake in 2017. Photo: Kelsey Wheeler/Talon Helicopters

Michael has volunteered with SAR since 2000. He explains, “I heard that a friend of mine had died on a mountain… One of the people I was going to university with was a volunteer who had helped recover the body. And I thought, well this is something I can volunteer with because I already have some outdoor skills.” Michael is currently on medical leave, but he usually volunteers as a search manager. His role is to “interview the missing person or the family members and figure out how to deploy our resources to find them or rescue them.”

For many volunteers like Michael, helping with SAR can be very fulfilling. “It’s very satisfying to bring on new volunteers and to train them to be these professional, calm team members.” He also says that being involved with SAR has introduced him to people he never would have otherwise met and also changed his life. His feels as though his SAR team members have become his family. “These people who get up in the middle of the night to search for strangers, imagine how they treat their friends. That became very important to me when my kidneys were failing because one of my team members, his wife gave me her kidney. It was just the most natural thing for her to do.” Michael received his kidney transplant in May 2020 and hopes to return to active duty with his ‘family’ at Coquitlam SAR soon.

Learn More About Search and Rescue and Outdoor Safety

Created by the BC Search and Rescue Association, AdventureSmart is Canada’s backcountry safety organization. Visit to sign up for webinars and presentations about outdoor safety. They also have a great trip planning app.

If you’re interested in volunteering for search and rescue, the British Columbia Search and Rescue Association has a map that shows all 79 search and rescue teams in BC. Each team does its own recruiting and training, so you’ll need to get in touch with them directly for more info.


Michael’s Vancouver Favourites

We also asked Michael to give us his recommendations for outdoor adventures around Vancouver.

Michael’s Favourite Vancouver Area Outdoor Destination: “I recommend Elfin Lakes [in Squamish] because so many firsts can happen there: hiking, backcountry skiing, and backcountry camping. You can also ride your bike. It’s an amazing place. It’s busy, but there’s a reason why it’s crowded.”

Michael’s Favourite Spot for Apres: “I love Cotto on Hastings [in North Burnaby]. [They make] really good wood-fired pizza and pasta, which is the perfect food for after a hike. The fire makes it really warm and cozy after a day outside.”

Michael’s Outdoor Advice for Beginners: “Choose your destination based on the conditions. Recently, I’ve seen people planning a trip, and maybe they only have a weekend to do it, but if there’s a storm coming in, or it’s raining, or there’s lots of snow you have to be able to say no, I’m going to go somewhere else or do something else. You have to be able to plan for conditions, especially in BC. A beginner hike in a guidebook can be advanced or extremely hazardous when the conditions change.”

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