Camping and hiking are fun, but there are risks anytime you head into the woods. Getting lost is scary for parents and families to contemplate, but essential to consider.
Through education and preparation, you create the best chance of keeping little ones safe and in sight.
Of course, we’d all like to avoid getting lost altogether, but knowing what to expect and how to react could save lives. Here are some tips to keep kids informed.
Prepare for Emergencies
Preparation is the key to nearly any camping or hiking situation. Being prepared involves a wide variety of factors, including dressing for the elements, bringing along survival gear, and ensuring you have food and water with you.
Don’t be nervous to about talking with your children about what could happen if they go missing. It’s very important that as a parent you talk with your child about emergency plans.
Teach Emergency Basics
Having the right gear is important, but so is knowing the basics of wilderness survival. Children who know the rules of the forest are less likely to panic, and more likely to use their skills to find you or be found.
According to the U.S. Forest Service, the best plan of action when lost is to S.T.O.P.
- S (Stop): When you notice you’re lost, don’t keep going. Stay where you are and try not to panic.
- T (Think): Look at your surroundings and try to find something familiar. If you don’t see any recognizable landmarks, don’t go any further.
- O (Observe): Use your compass to find your bearing. Check your immediate area for signs of a trail, or trail markers. Listen and look (without wandering) for streams or drainage.
- P (Plan): Now that you’ve calmed down, thought about what to do, and considered your surroundings, you can formulate a plan. For children, teach them that the best plan of action is to stay where you are.
Other emergency basics include staying alert and safe. The top cause of injury or death in the wilderness is exposure. This is where having the right gear comes in handy to keep you dry, warm, fed, and hydrated.
Bring The 10 Essentials
Apart from the clothes on your back, there are essentials to bring on the trail. These tools make a big difference to your experience on the trail, especially if you get lost.
Some of these essentials change for older children. Obviously, younger kids won’t be hiking with fire-starting supplies.
Here’s what to pack for your trip:
A simple flashlight or headlamp will do.
Kids should have extra snacks on them when hiking, and adding in a few protein or granola bars is always a good idea.
If it’s nice out they don’t have to wear extra clothing, but it should be packed so they are prepared if weather conditions change.
- Sun Protection
Sun exposure is no joke, and your kid might not be old enough to reapply sunscreen. A long-sleeved UPF blocking shirt and a hat should be good enough.
A campsite map or your campsite number written on your young child’s arm is a good start. That was if an adult does find them, they can get your child back to you faster.
Older kids can carry a knife and it will help their survival a great deal. Cutting rope, creating tinder for a fire or cutting branches to gather for a windbreak are all a possibility with a knife.
- First Aid
Having at least a few bandaids in a small first aid kit is a great idea for any kid.
- Survival Shelter
A survival blanket can easily be transformed into a survival shelter with a little rope or branches. If your child can’t create a shelter, teach them to wrap in the blanket once they start to feel chilly.
Water is essential to survive and each one of your kids should have their own water supply on them.
- Fire Starting/Staying Warm
Older kids can carry fire starting equipment, younger kids should use layered clothing and possibly electric or single-use hand warmers to stay warm if they have to spend the night in the woods.
These are just the top 10 supplies to pack for a hike. Again, the age of the hiker dictates which tools are suitable.
Have a Meeting Place
If your kids get lost in the campground instead of in the woods, have a meeting place that is very easy to see and get to, like the main bathhouse.
Don’t rely on your kids remembering your campsite number, even if you’ve written it on their arm. Fear takes away a lot of logical brain function, even in adults.
Teaching them to go to a specific place if they can’t find you is a great plan and helps in public areas like shopping malls as well.
We touched on this above, but it’s worth mentioning again. Staying calm is a critical step to survival when lost.
It’s easy for a young hiker to panic and run in an effort to find camp again. Running could send them further away from their parents and safety.
Staying calm ensures a clear line of thinking and gives your lost child or kiddo a better chance at finding you again.
Look for Places People Will Be
If moving from the initial place you realize you are lost, think about places other people might be. Sometimes kids get lost on a trail, rather than in the woods.
Stay still and look for a bathroom, information center, or bench along the trail will bring them in sight of other hikers.
Of course, the rule, “don’t talk to strangers” is important to instill. In an emergency situation, however, teaching kids it’s okay to ask for help by phoning mom and dad is important.
We avoid teaching “stranger danger” in our house and instead teach about “strange behaviors”. If you’re lost in the woods, adults calling your name or asking if they can help you is NOT a strange behavior.
For example: Someone trying to lure you away from your campsite with the promise of seeing a puppy is strange behavior.
Hug a Tree
Tree hugging isn’t just for nature enthusiasts, it’s also a great rule for kids lost in the woods. The Hug a Tree program was started to help children lost in the woods become easier to rescue.
It’s easy to slowly wander from the spot you’ve stopped at. Hugging a tree provides a stable unmoving point to stop. It also offers a touch of comfort to young hikers.
Hugging a tree holds more than one meaning, including:
Don’t move from the spot you first realize you’re lost (unless it’s unsafe to stay there). The more you wander, the more likely it is you’re wandering away from help.
Find a large tree and stay nearby. Many children are overconfident about their ability to self-rescue and they will often walk further away from the trail.
Stay Warm or Cool
Regulating temperature is important when lost. Adrenaline can kicks in and could throw off your ability to monitor how your body is reacting to the elements.
The shade of the tree might help you stay cool, or if it’s cold out teach your child to set up a survival shelter in a safe place by the tree.
We talked about this above, but it needs to be reiterated. Hydration is life when lost in the woods.
Once you’re sitting still waiting for help, ration your water, but continue to drink. Don’t chug it all at once, but don’t forget to use it while you wait.
Visibility when hiking is always essential. Bright-colored clothing, reflective tape, and headlamps in the dark all keep you visible.
You should already be wearing light colored clothes to avoid ticks, and it’s a good way to stay visible.
It’s cute to dress up in camo when camping or hiking in theory. In practice, it’s not so fun if someone gets lost.
Missing children tend to be scared they’re going to get into trouble or worry about wild animals so their instinct is to stay small and out of view.
Getting lost is scary. It’s tempting for children to hide when they feel scared. They might crawl under some shrubbery, or climb a tree to get away from wild animals they’re nervous about encountering.
Teach young hikers not to hide on the trails or in the woods. Again, visibility is crucial to rescue teams finding lost hikers.
Tell your little one to stay seen. They can even make themselves more visible by hanging up reflective or bright items around the spot they’ve stopped to wait for help.
Use Your Whistle
A whistle is invaluable in the woods. Show your children how to use a whistle to sound sharp blasts when lost.
Explain that they should continue sounding 3 or 4 sharp blasts every few minutes until found. If they get tired of using the whistle, take a break, but continue as soon as they can.
You never know when someone will come into hearing range of the whistle. Continued whistling increases the chance that a lost hiker will be found quickly.
Practice Your Safety Plan
Children learn by doing, so it’s a good idea to practice your safety plan and what kids should do if they get lost.
You can go to a local park and have them hide behind a tree and blow their whistle so that everyone can hear what it sounds like.
In your mock scenario you can teach your child different examples of what “being lost” might mean. It generally means if they can’t see us or hear us, then they need to begin following the steps of our survival plan.
These are just some of the rules and tools we use to teach our son about hiking safety. Nobody wants to get lost in the woods, but it’s better to be prepared than find yourself left to your own devices in the wild.
To reduce the chances of losing someone on a hike, use the buddy system. Everyone stays with a buddy while hiking, and nobody leaves the trail. Having a buddy to keep you accountable to staying close is a great way to teach kids the safe way to explore the great outdoors.
We hope this blog offers some insight and real-life tips for keeping both you and your family together on the trails. As always, have fun out there and stay safe!
I’m Molly Foss, aka Momma Critter. I’ve been camping since I was 9 years old and I always wanted to be Robin Hood and live in the forest when I grew up. I’m excited to share my love of camping with my son as he grows up. My favorite thing to do while camping is roast marshmallows over the fire.