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While taking my three nephews on a hike, I asked them what to do if they got lost. Much to my utter shock and terror, they replied, “run around to look for help.” I had figured these smart and capable boys, the oldest around twelve, would know the most basic safety rule to follow. I learned a valuable lesson that day.
Never assume a kid knows the basics of outdoor survival
5. Reteach Them Some Basic Rules
Some of the rules that we teach children in their day-to-day lives don’t apply or are in opposition of what they should do in the wilderness. How often do we tell them to never talk to a stranger? There are stories of kids lost in the forest who initially ignored the voices of rescuers calling their names because they were scared. The stranger-danger lesson had been drilled into them so much that when they’re hungry, cold, and tired; they default to listen to their subconscious above common sense. Teach them different circumstances require different rules.
4. Play Survival Games at Home
When Malachi Bradley went missing in the high Uinta mountains, he had a few things going for him. His father, an avid outdoorsman, had taught him some outdoor skills. And just a week prior, he and a friend had played a game pretending they were lost and practicing some of the skills they’d already learned. They covered themselves with leaves and dirt* and built a lean-to during their game, which he found helpful during his night lost. When I was a kid, we would find ditches in our yard and cover them with branches before crawling in—not to mention all the huts we built in the trees.
*When teaching this, remind them it’s better to stay out in the open and visible. This is only for when cold is more of a danger. Malachi had to survive a very cold night.
3. Figure Out What They Know and Don’t Know
As I said above, I was stunned to realize my nephews would run around if lost, but it makes sense. If they’re ever lost in a store or at a ballpark, that’s what they would do. Ask what they would do if a friend wanted to go off the trail. What would they do if the trail disappears and they find themselves on something steep? Help them brainstorm how to handle certain situations.
2. Take Photos of the Trail Behind Them
I’ll never forget going on my first long hike as a teenager. While we were with a large group, the length (15 miles) and steepness of the trial had everyone spread out over a long distance. My best friend and I took a shortcut and became convinced we were on the wrong trail (we weren’t). That was the first day I understood how completely different a trail looks coming the opposite way. Now I encourage kids to stop at obvious changes in the trail and have them take a photo—or at least take note of how things look and find some sort of landmark.
1. Give Them Their Own Pack with Some Survival Tools
Give them a water pack and fill it with snacks and a few survival tools that are age appropriate. Your kids are far more likely to stay hydrated (dehydration is a bigger risk than them getting lost) if they have constant access to water. They can also carry their own snacks (which, let’s face it food is the key to happy kids). If they get separated at all, they have their own food and water.
They can also carry a few band-aids, a small pocketknife (which, you’ve taught them how to use safely), and even this fun accessory—which is a paracord, compass, and fire starter.
A story that still haunts me to this day is that of Garrett Bardsley.
Garrett was out fishing with his father at a small lake in the Uinta Mountains of Utah when he slipped in the water, getting his feet wet. It was cold that morning in the high elevation and his dad sent him back to camp to change. The campsite was at the end of a well-trod trail and only 150 paces or so away. Only a few minute’s walk and he’d be there.
His father followed that same path a mere 15 minutes later to find his son hadn’t returned. Only 15 minutes. They immediately started looking for him, certain they would find him. I don’t know what went wrong—no one does—but that area is rugged and remote with thick growth and innumerable ways to lose oneself. The temperatures that night dropped to 18 degrees.
Garrett never made it back. Everyone’s best guess is that he sought shelter in the cold—maybe in a boulder field or under some brush—and fell asleep never awakening. His parents are going on twenty years of him being missing. I yearn to go back in time to tell that little boy to hold still the second he realized he was lost, to wait for one of the thousands of people who would search for him. He’s the reason I had that conversation with my own nephews years later.
His parents are determined to never let another person go missing in Utah’s wilderness and have launched a foundation to search for other missing people in the wilderness.
For an outdoor adventure without ever having to get outside, check out the Lost Gorge Mystery series!
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I love your tip to look at the trail behind you. That’s something I’ve recently started doing very intentionally. I stop and turn around and pay attention to unique trees or rocks so that I know what to look for on the way back. Great idea to teach kids while they’re young!
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Practicing survival skills at home is such a great idea! Taking pictures of the trail around us is always a must. Great tips!
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This is a topic that all hiking parents should consider at some point. Thank you for sharing these tips! We have talked about getting lost with my niece and nephew and they know that they should stay put and utilize their bright colored clothing that could be easily spot from the air. For this reason, I don’t think they should be told to cover themselves with branches and leaves. Perhaps older kids understand that better.
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Thanks, I added a clarification to the post. The leaves definitely saved the life of Malachi who had to spend the night in freezing conditions.
Eep for the story of Garrett Bardsley – that is such a scary story for all families.
Your tips are all really useful (and important too.) I want to take my niece and nephew hiking in Canada, so I will be sure to talk to their parents about it and try to go through these tips with them before we go.
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