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 – and chances are they don’t know where they are either. Does your child know what to do?

They will if you take the time to prepare them for an emergency. As summer hiking season approaches, this is a great time to introduce or revisit this important topic with your family.

First, lay the family’s ground rules for hiking safety. Write down your few most basic rules, then teach it to your children. Talk about it often so it’s familiar to everyone. Rules will vary among families, but here are mine:

  1. Kids must remain in sight at all times. Running ahead is okay only if they can look back and still see me.
  2. An adult always brings up the rear.
  3. Kids must stay on the trail at all times unless accompanied by an adult.

Second, have a casual conversation with your kids about what they must do if they ever get lost. Start this conversation young – I started around age three with mine – and revisit the topic often.

What you teach them to do will vary depending on the approach you use. There are books, videos and programs that teach these principles and can be very helpful if you are not sure what to say. All of them have the same basic principles.

If lost, a child should:

  1. Stay put. Once they realize they are lost, they need to hug a tree, make a nest or whatever imagery you choose to use to convey the idea they need to stop walking, sit down and wait for help to arrive.
  2. Call out loudly and often from where they have chosen to wait. This can be “help!” but the key is to repeat it every few minutes as long as they are able. Because this can get tiring, some parents choose to outfit every child with a safety whistle that either goes around their neck on a lanyard or in a pocket before every hike. The sound of a whistle will carry much farther than a child’s voice. If they have one, let them practice blowing into it at home in the backyard to get comfortable with it.  Then instruct them if lost to blow on it every few minutes.
  3. Stay warm and dry while you wait for help to arrive. You can make sure your children always have a pack with extra layers on them when they hike, or stuff a plain old black garbage bag in a pocket before a hike for them. Precut a hole for their head and they can use it like a poncho as they sit on the ground. This can be practiced ahead of time at home, too. You can also show them how to cover up with leaves or pine needles to stay warm. Reiterate that it might feel like a really long time until help arrives, but assure them rescuers are coming.

Preparation is key

We can sometimes feel hesitant to bring up topics like this with our little ones because we don’t want to inadvertently cause fear of the outdoors. That is totally understandable! Just remember that how you approach the topic will be key – explain it as calmly as if you were explaining table manners. But also remember that by talking about it ahead of time, you will actually be reducing fear and anxiety for them if they ever do get lost because they will know what to do.

As with all emergency preparation, the hope is that your kids will never have to actually use the skills you have taught them! But if they do, you will have given them tools to stay calm and act appropriately while, at the same time, making it easier for rescuers to find them.

A few helpful resources:

Lost But Found Safe and Sound (National Association of Park Rangers DVD and program that can be purchased at www.anpr.org )

Hug a Tree and Survive Program (National Association for Search and Rescue program found at http://www.nasar.org/hug_a_tree_program)

Read more:

Editor’s Note: Hike it Baby is not an expert on what to do if your child gets lost on a trail. However, we think it is extremely important to prepare ourselves and our children. Please take appropriate measures when hiking with your children and consult a Park Ranger or the appropriate authorities in the event that your child does get lost. 

2 thoughts on “Losing a Child on a Trail: Preparing Your Child

  • Audra
    Audra Ostergard

    Good article on teaching kiddos (and even older “kiddos) what to do when being separated. I found some sage advice from Robin Tawney Nichols book “Hiking with Kids” about using a whistle. On page 25, it states “blow three short, loud tweets on a whistle because this is the universal signal of distress”. So, three short tweets then a pause then three short tweets again, repeat until help arrives. I’ve also seen whistles built into sternum straps of backpacks. We’ve taught our daughter this technique. In addition, each of us carries a whistle.


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