Child Wilderness Saftey
Updated: Mar 22
A few February’s past, my parents rented a rustic weekend cabin in the Poconos, and invited our entire family to enjoy some late season skiing in the mountains on them. The weather was spring-like, golden. I couldn’t help but sing “Sunshine on my shoulders makes me happy” as we set out for a walk along the trail behind the house. Lenore wrote her name in the trail log and I drew a quick sketch of the cabin-- smoke blooming from the chimney, rhododendrons nearly budding. My husband dug pieces of exposed coal out of the hillside as we walked.
But a simple family hike turned into a nightmare when we lost our Lenore. She had gotten tired, lagged behind, and decided to head back to the cabin they way we had come. All the possible tragedies of a small child lost in the woods, along a highway, in bear country in early spring, and near a lake overwhelmed me. I searched frantically and called her name over and over. My cries of panic were answered only by deceptive duck calls that sounded “Ma” over the lake. I became a ghost-mother, wailing. Cars whizzed past, and the water lapped softly on the lakeshore.
I have never experienced that kind of desperation or terror before. It is a feeling that must only arise when confronted with the loss of a child. I have also never experienced such intense feelings of relief and gratitude as when she was found, and knew she was safe.
I share our story to promote Child Wilderness Survival. If you plan on going on a hike with your family, make sure to discuss what to do if your child gets lost.
Here are some things you might wish to talk about:
Keep CALM by singing, whistling, or telling yourself jokes. Use your imagination to make yourself feel better. (When Lenore was lost, she imagined that she was Mowgli in the Jungle Book. She also thought about the brave little boy in Home Alone. These characters from her favorite movies gave her courage).
Answer a noise with a noise. If you hear a noise in the woods, make a noise back. If it is a wild animal, it will run away. If it is a rescuer, you will be found. (We make sure each of our children carry a whistle on hikes to blow if they get separated from us. Lenore told us that she had called for us, but we just couldn’t hear her little voice in that great big woods.)
Dress your children in bright colours if you plan to walk in the woods. (Lenore was wearing a bright purple jacket that caught the eye of a passing motorist. This woman pulled over, called the police and stayed with her until we were reunited. She may have not noticed the little girl alone in the woods if not for her brightly coloured clothing.)
To overcome a fear of the dark, memorize your surroundings in the daylight so you can use your memory to see at night. Nothing changes because it is dark. Encourage your kids to practice this in their bedroom.
Make sure they understand that there is NO punishment for getting lost. Children have been known to hide from rescuers for fear of punishment.
Ensure your child that there are friendly strangers-- police officers, firemen, paramedics, and search and rescue teams. Generally these strangers work in groups. (Lenore was very uncomfortable talking with the police officers and wouldn’t give any information to them. We have since talked with her about how important it is to cooperate with these “helpers”).
Teach your child your full name. If they are found, they should be able to tell their rescuers who their parents names, not just “mommy” and “daddy”.
If your child is with a friend or a pet, make sure they know to stay together. Do NOT separate.
Stay in place. Do not wander. (Lenore retraced our steps, walking through an abandoned campground, across a busy road, and back along the trail before she was spotted by a passing motorist. We would have found her if she had stayed put).
Keep warm and Dry.
Find a cozy waiting place, not a hiding place. This means find shelter from the wind and rain, but remain visible so rescuers can see you.
Do anything you can to attract attention.
Do not eat anything you are unsure of.
My girls on that fated walk in the woods before we lost Lenore. Circa, 2017.
Jim Thorpe, PA.
We since taken our children on many hikes, implementing the tips given above. Here are some of the highlights from these adventures:
Airport Mesa Vortex, Sedona, AZ
Fairytale Loop, Bryce Canyon, Utah
Scout Cave Trail, Snow Canyon State Park, UT
Bard taking a rest
Life of the Dunes Trail, Assategue National Seashore
South River Falls, Shenandoah National Park, VA