Losing a Child: it’s every outdoor parent’s worst nightmare – something distracts you momentarily and you turn around to find your child nowhere in sight. Calls are unanswered. A hasty search of the immediate area yields no sign of them. You don’t know where they are – do you know what to do?

The first thing you must do is remain calm. Science has proven that when we panic, our thinking brain literally shuts down. Take deep breaths, repeat a mantra, say a prayer or grab a stick of gum. Do whatever you must to stay level-headed!

Next, begin a search of the immediate area, calling your child’s name every few minutes. If others are with you, direct one person to stay on the trail at the point they were last seen, while the others fan out in all directions. If you haven’t located them in 30-60 minutes (depending on the time of day), it’s time to call for help.

One of the most important pieces of information you need before calling for help is the “point last seen” or PLS. Find out where you are – take a GPS coordinate if you can. If you use a cell phone map program, turn it on to see if it can locate your position. Take note of your surroundings – notice any peaks, trail signs, junctions, rivers or other obvious features. Snap a few photos of the location on your phone. Then physically mark the location – a bandana tied around a tree branch or a rock cairn built up on the side of the trail.

If you have a cell phone and a cell signal, call 911. This is the quickest way to get help headed your way.

If you don’t have cell signal but are hiking with friends and it’s safe to do so, you can split up. Send someone back out to find the nearest ranger station, park office building, maintenance yard or spot with a cell signal. You can flag down any park or forest employee as they usually all carry radios. Leave someone at the PLS in case the child comes back. If you have a third person, consider sending them to wait at your vehicle at the trailhead.

If you are hiking alone with your child and you have no cell signal, you have some tough choices to make. You will have to go for help yourself, if your search is futile, but mark your location first. If your child can read, leave a note in an obvious location with instructions. If, as you are hiking out, you run into other hikers, you can enlist their help. Perhaps they can go back to the trailhead and call for help while you wait at the PLS. Be sure to give them all the important information to pass on.

Once help has arrived:

Expect to answer a series of questions before an actual search begins. Depending on where you are hiking, help may arrive in the form of a park ranger, forest service ranger, search and rescue (SAR) team member, or deputy or police officer. They will all walk through a standard lost person questionnaire that will include questions like:

  1. Your name and contact information. Full name and age of your child.
  2. Where was the point the child was last seen (as detailed as possible)?
  3. Detailed description of your child: what are they are wearing, hair color, eye color, height, weight, complexion?
  4. Any medical or behavioral problems, such as diabetic or autistic?
  5. Do they have any food, water or extra clothing with them? Do they have an emergency whistle?
  6. Have they been taught what to do if they get lost? This tells them if your child knows to stop and wait, or if they would be more likely to keep wandering further away.
  7. Have they ever been lost before and what did they do?
  8. How do they respond to strangers? Would they ask a stranger for help or would they hide?
  9. Will they respond to a stranger (a searcher) calling their name or would they keep quiet?
  10. Are they afraid of dogs? Some search and rescue operations rely on dogs.
  11. What were the circumstances just before they disappeared? Were they in an argument with a parent or sibling? What was their emotional state?

Don’t be offended by any questions they may ask!

The information you provide – even if it seems trivial to you – is important to them and will help them organize the most efficient search. They will also be taking into consideration the time of day and weather conditions before they formulate a plan and send out personnel. The SAR team will take over from here.

Waiting for the SAR team to find your baby is the hardest part of the process for parents. Take heart in knowing that the VAST majority of lost children are found fairly quickly and that you have now done everything you could to make that search successful!

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