In late January 2019, as AOL reports, 3-year-old Casey Hathaway got lost in the woods in Eastern North Carolina. Miraculously, they found him two days later tangled in briars, cold and lethargic but otherwise in good condition.
It’s every parent’s worst nightmare. And although we don’t want to think about our child getting lost in the woods, doing so will make us come to an important realization: We probably haven’t done anything to teach them to survive in such a situation.
If your own child got lost in the wilderness or found themselves in an emergency situation without an adult around, would they know what to do to stay safe? Would they know how to find water and food or administer first aid? Would they know what to do if they were home alone and spotted a wildfire coming their way?
While some people enjoy learning survival skills and know what to do if they get lost in the woods, many parents don’t think about teaching their kids these same skills. However, children at any age are capable of learning basic survival skills to save their own lives if they wander off during a family camping trip. And many of these skills translate well in other emergency situations, such as getting separated from adults during a natural disaster or even if they get lost in a crowded area in a large, unfamiliar city.
Basic Survival Skills Your Kids Should Know
A quick search through Google News yields pages of horror stories that would turn any parent’s blood cold. Children get lost in the woods, buried in rubble after an earthquake, or left on their own when something tragic happens to their parents.
Innocent events, like a family camping trip, quickly turn tragic when a child wanders away from the campsite. In the woods, children get lost quickly. According to an analysis by SmokeyMountain.com, 41% of adults get lost in the woods because they leave a trail and can’t find their way back. Children, who are full of curiosity and fascination with the natural world, are even more at risk.
As parents, we know we can’t always be there to protect our children. However, children can and do survive incredible odds, and even minimal training helps increase the chance they’ll make it out alive.
Just teach your children a handful of simple things so they have the tools they need to survive until help arrives.
1. Stay Put
In March 2019, as The Washington Post reports, Leia and Caroline Carrico, ages 8 and 5 respectively, got lost in the woods of Northern California. They were gone for two days before rescuers found them.
Fortunately, the girls had some survival training provided by their local 4-H Club, and they wisely followed the most important piece of advice. Once they realized they were lost, they stopped walking, took shelter under a nearby bush, and waited for help.
Staying put is the most important survival skill to teach your children. The farther they wander from the site where they were last seen, the harder it’s going to be for rescuers to find them. Staying in one place will also conserve precious energy and reduce their risk of falling or getting injured.
Tell them that, if they get lost, they should find a nearby tree, rock, bush, or flower they really like. Tell them to sit down and give it a name, to talk to it and keep it company until someone comes to find them. Talking to an inanimate object helps them feel less alone and is an outlet for their fears.
But do make it clear there might be times your child does need to move. For example, there might be a predator nearby or they might need to go search for fresh water.
2. Trust Rescuers
The CBC reports that in August 2019, 4-year-old George Hazard-Benoit got lost in the wilderness of British Columbia. When he got lost, he got scared and actually hid from rescuers calling his name.
Time and time again, children who are lost or in another emergency situation fear rescuers, in part because they learn about “stranger danger” at an early age. Sometimes, they’re so afraid they hide from the very people searching for them or trying to help.
Explain to your children that if they find themselves in an emergency situation, the people calling their name are trying to help them. Show them what emergency professionals look like in their various uniforms: firefighters, law enforcement officers, and professional trackers. They also need to know about search and rescue dogs because they’re often used to help find children in emergency situations.
Your child should know that trained K-9 search teams often help during an emergency. If your child is afraid of dogs, help them understand these dogs are well trained and taught not to bite or jump. The CIA also has a website highlighting some K-9 heroes. Read some of these stories to your child to help them be less afraid of these dogs, especially during an emergency.
3. Carry a Survival Kit
Children are more susceptible than adults to hypothermia, which occurs when your body temperature falls below 95 degrees. Their small body cools off quicker than adults’, especially at night or if they get wet.
Make sure they have extra clothing during every single outing into the woods. Even on a hot day, they should have some insulating layers in a backpack that’s suitable for their size.
Packing extra clothing is essential when you’re out with your kids on a day hike because a short jaunt in the woods is when you’re most likely to get lost. According to Great Smoky Mountain National Park’s Andrew Herrington, a survival instructor interviewed by National Geographic, day hikers are responsible for 90% of all search-and-rescues within the park. Nationwide, they make up 42% of all search and rescue cases.
You and your kids should always carry these survival tools when spending time in nature:
- Extra clothing, such as a long-sleeved thermal shirt, socks, a warm beanie, a pair of pants, and a compressible puffy jacket for warmth – store them in a large plastic bag or dry bag so they stay dry even if immersed in water
- An emergency whistle
- A child-size rain poncho, rain jacket, or garbage bag to stay dry in the rain
- A flashlight or headlamp with fresh batteries
- An easy-to-use water filter, such as the LifeStraw
- A mylar thermal blanket
- Food bars (that they actually like to eat)
- A few items to provide psychological comfort, such as a family picture, a toy, or a small stuffed animal
- A signal mirror
- Hand warmers
- A pocket first-aid kit
- Most children ages 10 and up are old enough to carry a lighter with cotton balls smeared with petroleum jelly to start fires
- A misting bottle to help keep them cool when it’s hot out
Make it a rule that every time your child goes near the woods, even if they’re going on a well-known shortcut to a friend’s house, they must have their pack on.
They also need to know what these items are and how to use them. Practice using the mirror in the sun to make signals. Take them to the creek and teach them how to use the water filter. Show them what the emergency mylar blanket looks like and let them use it so they’re used to its strange texture. Teach older children how to use petroleum jelly-smeared cotton balls to start a fire. These emergency supplies are pointless if your child doesn’t know how to use them.
Some of these items, like hand warmers and insulating clothes, might seem unnecessary in the heat of summer. But in children and adults alike, it’s possible for hypothermia to set in when it’s as warm as 65 degrees if they get wet.
4. Stay Calm
In August 2017, 18-year-old Austin Bohanan got separated from his stepfather in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. According to ABC News, he wandered for 11 days until he stumbled upon a kayaker who helped reunite him with his family. According to Bohanan, he survived because he kept moving and, most importantly, kept calm.
Staying calm in a survival situation is incredibly difficult, even for adults. One way to help kids stay calm is to teach them deep breathing, which is taking long, slow breaths from their belly. If they’re in a dangerous situation, knowing how to use deep breathing to stay calm helps them avoid panic and make better decisions. The book “Breathe Like a Bear” by Kira Willey has 30 kid-centric mindfulness exercises to help them learn this important skill.
Having an emergency pack for each of your children is essential when you go hiking or camping. But all too often, children wander into the woods near their homes when they’re out playing in the yard or they’ll follow a butterfly near the campsite and be unable to find their way back.
This is why it’s important to teach your kids how to use their clothing to insulate when they start to feel cold. Tell them to tuck their pants into their socks and fill their pants with vegetation – dry leaves work especially well. Then, tell them to tuck their shirt into their pants and fill that with leaves or vegetation as well. Dry vegetation also works well as a “blanket” to keep warm at night.
This is another survival skill you should practice with your children early and regularly. Your children will probably love practicing this skill, and if you make it fun, they’re more likely to remember to do it when they’re on their own.
6. Find or Build a Shelter
Knowing how to find or make a shelter is an incredibly important survival skill. In some cases, it means the difference between life and death.
Children are naturally gifted at building makeshift shelters, and it’s a fun activity they really love to do. With a little guidance, they will learn how to build a shelter that will protect them from the elements. This article from Boys’ Life has several examples of different shelters to build with your child, depending on their age and abilities.
Teach your children how to use existing shelters in an emergency situation. For example, caves, bluffs, or abandoned houses might seem scary, but they provide excellent shelter from rain, snow, and wind.
Another simple skill is knowing how to make “blanket” of dry leaves. Ask your child to lay down on the ground for several minutes, observing the environment around them – even if you’re just in your backyard. Then, ask them to cover themselves with dry leaves or pine needles. Which situation was warmer?
7. Find Safe Water
Children often get dehydrated quickly in an emergency situation, especially if they’re moving around a lot, and they should know how to get clean water.
The next time you’re outdoors with your children, show them some of the ways to get clean water:
- Collect rainwater using leaves
- Wring water from ground moss
- Collect morning dew
- Tie a plastic bag around the ends of leafy tree branches to collect condensation
Explain what types of water are best to drink. For example, water from small creeks will be cleaner than water from lakes and ponds.
Teach older children to look for signs of nearby water. The book “SAS Survival Handbook” by John Wiseman is an excellent source of information on this. For instance, grain-eating birds like finches are never far from water, and they regularly drink at dawn and dusk. When they fly straight and low, Wiseman advises, they’re usually headed to a water source. Flies are also never farther than 100 yards from a water source.
My family and I spend a lot of time in the woods. We live in a camper and travel the country full time, which means we’re often in state or national parks hiking or camping far from populated areas. As a parent of two young boys who spend most of their time outdoors, I constantly worry about them wandering off into the wilderness. All it takes is a second for a child to get turned around.
I purchased the book “Playful Preparedness” by Tim Young to help teach my young kids some important survival skills. Young turns these learning lessons into fun games that teach everything from situational awareness to trusting their instincts to learning hands-on survival skills. My boys love playing these games, and they don’t even realize they’re learning. They also have their own small backpacks with several survival items they take with them whenever we’re out hiking or exploring.
A child’s smartwatch will also give you peace of mind, especially when your child is away at a friend’s house or on a camping trip. These watches allow children to make emergency calls and include a locator to allow your smartphone to track their location.
Emergencies happen every minute in both rural and urban settings. Teaching your children basic skills, like how to recognize law enforcement officers and rescuers and how to stay put if they get lost, sound simple but are often lifesaving in an emergency.
What tips do you have for keeping your children safe in an emergency?