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One of the biggest fears most parents have while camping or hiking with a child, is a child will become lost. Well, while it is rare for a child to become really lost, it does happen at times. There is no way to protect your child to the point of this not being a possibility and have the child still enjoy the outdoors. Oh, sure, you can keep little Billy or Sally on a retaining strap, but how much fun would that be for them? I suggest, that instead of worrying about the possibility of your child getting lost, we teach your child what to do if they become lost, as well as what you can expect as a parent if it happens.
My children have been camping and in the woods since they were about a year old. Yep, it sure cut down on my enjoyment when they were younger, because they required constant supervision…at all times (young children require you to be with them at all times they are in the wild). But, once they were around eight years old, I could relax a little. I still kept an eye on them, but by then I had them conditioned to a certain degree. By age of eight, I had also trained them on what to do if they became lost.
The first thing I taught each child (there were three of them) was to always carry a canteen and a survival kit. The canteen will provide safe drinking water for the child in the event they become lost. The survival kit contained,
- Trail mix and a high-energy bar, pick the child’s favorite flavor of bar.
- A plastic whistle, teach the child to blow the whistle for three long blasts, then stop for a while.
- A large signal flag, cut from an orange garbage bag or use a bicycle safety flag.
- A signal mirror made from aluminum foil and cardboard.
- A bright orange garbage bag with a hole torn in the top, so it can be used as an emergency poncho. Do not cut the hole, or it may tear further when used by the child.
It is important for the child to be taught how to use these items. Have the child practice with each component of the survival kit until they can demonstrate how to use it properly (you can have the child demonstrate the proper use of the gear in the back yard).
Another area to train the child in, is what to do it they become lost. Often, a child will wander around because they are scared of getting in trouble or because they don’t know what else to do. This can cause real problems for search and rescue teams, because the child is constantly moving with no sense of direction. Here are some suggestions for a child if they become lost,
- All children (if more than one is lost) should always stay together.
- You should stay in one spot, do not walk around.
- Wait for help to come to you (remember, we love you and want you back).
- Try to keep warm, if with another child or a dog, cuddle up close to conserve body heat.
- Find shelter. The easiest shelter is under the lower limbs of a tree. But, try to stay were there is an open spot or field near by.
- Signal when you see an aircraft. The simplest way is to run out in the field, lie down, and pretend you are making snow angels…that way you are a bigger target for search aircraft to see. At the same time, hold your signal flag in a hand, so it is moving.
- Do not drink any water, except what is in your canteen. Any other water can make you very sick.
- Try not to lie on the bare ground (except to signal), because it will make you much colder. Dead leaves or grasses should be gathered up and you can sit on or sleep in them. But, watch out for snakes.
- Instruct the child to avoid snakes, but try not to scare them.
- Do not touch any animals in the wild, none!
- Stay away from rivers, lakes, pond or cliffs.
- Keep as clean and dry as you can.
- If you hear a noise at night and it scares you, blow your whistle five or six times, real loud! The whistle will scare off any animals that may be near you.
- Remember, lots of people are looking for you and we will find you. You can expect to be scared and to feel lonely. But, follow these rules and you will be ok.
There are a number of things parents can do also. First, when hiking, stay on designated trails. Second, until your child has some experience, camp only in designated campsites. Always keep an eye on the younger kids and know where they are at all times. Finally, don’t wait very long to call for help when you notice the child has disappeared. Don’t spent hours looking for a lost child. If the child is actually lost in the woods, you may not be able to find them on your own.
Search and rescue teams use everything from helicopters to dogs and are very highly trained in what they do. So, once you have reported the missing child, stay out of the way. Let them do their job (I know you will be concerned, but let them handle it). But, you can expect to answer some questions from the police as well as the rescue team leaders. They are not trying to put you on the spot, but some information is essential to speed up the recovery of your child. They may ask you about the child’s medical history (are they on any important medication), what they were wearing (import depending on the weather), how much they know about the woods, and so on. Be as honest as you can, because some of this information can impact the rescue.
Each year, thousands upon thousands of families spend time with nature. In almost all of these trips to the woods the child returns home safely. Nonetheless, make sure you and your child have been trained on what to do if the child becomes lost. It only takes a few minutes to make a survival kit, teach a child how to survive, and to prepare for the worse case scenario (it takes less time than that for a child to become lost). Make sure you and your family are properly prepared to enjoy your time in the woods safely. A lost child is a terrible situation.