There perhaps is no greater fear among parents than not knowing where their child is. All of us have experienced moments when our child has wandered off when we had turned away only for a second, leaving us feeling totally helpless as we scanned the busy street or mall but couldn’t locate him or her.

When day hiking with children, the potential for a child to amble off and become lost are high. The wilds are full of intriguing sights that can grab a child’s attention while we’re fiddling with gear, trying to reload our backpack, or find ourselves enamored by some vista. Once lost, we know the child is at the mercy of the elements and faces any number of dangers from drowning in water to suffering an injury in a bad fall.

You can decrease the chances of lost kids by taking some precautionary steps. Before heading onto the trail, discuss with your child the importance of always staying in sight of you and of always remaining on the trail. In addition, go over with them what to do if lost: He should stop walking, remain in that spot, and know that you’re looking for him. Finally, always have your child carry a safety whistle, which he should blow on upon realizing he’s lost.

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©Rob Bignell

Even then, your child may wander away during a day hike. So what should you do then?

The first rule is don’t panic. By keeping a cool head, you’ll be able to make the best decisions about finding your child. The odds favor him being very nearby, and if he stopped walking once he realized he was lost and blows on his safety whistle, you’ll find him very quickly.

Next, begin the search by blowing on your whistle to let the child know you’re nearby. The whistle’s sound will travel farther than your voice. Hopefully he will whistle back, and then you can go to him.

If the child does not respond, contact officials immediately, if at all possible, without leaving the area. Even though you may find your child shortly thereafter, he may be injured and need medical attention. With a rescue team on the way, your injured child will receive help sooner.

If there’s no response to the whistle, begin a circular search of the immediate area, walking in a spiral pattern from a central point, known as “home.” If there are others with you, always search in teams, and never send young children to conduct a search. Make sure some of the party stays at “home” so more of you don’t become lost. Have the party at home shout the lost child’s names, and if darkness falls, keep a light shining there.

Pay close attention to bodies of water such as streams and lakes. Children often are attracted to bodies of water and simply may have wandered off to take a look.

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©Rob Bignell

When rescuers arrive, work with them. Don’t withhold any information and do as they ask. They have a lot of experience at rescue work and really are using the best strategies to quickly find your children.

You also should know what your child was wearing so you can provide good descriptions of them to rescuers.

Also, always keep one of the child’s belongings, such as a recently worn shirt, in your vehicle. Search dogs can use this to get the child’s scent. Some parents even take pictures of the kids’ boot soles so they’ll be easier to locate during a search.

With a little luck, you’ll quickly find your child, and the experience won’t be traumatic. When researching my book “Hikes with Tykes: A Practical Guide to Day Hiking with Children,” many parents told me that they found their lost child within a minute or two, and that often their child couldn’t understand what all of the fuss was about – he was just over there looking at an interesting bug.

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©Rob Bignell
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