Kids Get LostThere are a lot of eventualities that I prepare for when I go outside, even if the likelihood of them occurring is slim. I have a plan of action for injury, illness and unexpected weather and, over the years, a lot of those things have happened. But two weeks ago, while hiking in the Jefferson Wilderness of Central Oregon, I found myself in a situation that felt more like a movie plot than something you might be prepared for in a wilderness survival class.

I found a lost child in the woods.

He was nine years old, spunky, polite and really really scared. He was also dehydrated, disoriented and entirely unprepared to be outside by himself. His parents hadn’t just let him go off alone; they had let him take the dog on a short walk down a trail by a campsite they had used many times over the week they had been camping. He was only supposed to be gone for a few minutes. But when the dog bolted and he lost the leash, he ran after it into the forest, worried about getting in trouble for losing it. When he finally decided he couldn’t find the dog, he discovered he also couldn’t find the trail. From that point on, he just kept wandering farther and farther into the woods. That he was smart enough to call out to me and ask for help was to his credit, but that was where his ability to help me, or himself, get him back to his family ended. He couldn’t tell me where he was staying, what kind of vehicle his family drove, or even a cell phone number for his parents. It was hours before I was able to, with the help of other hikers, campers and the sheriff’s office, reunite him with his panicked family.

It turns out that this is more common than we would like to believe. Kids are spontaneous, curious and often unaware of time and distance. It is easy for them to wander off, run off trail following wildlife, become disoriented or get separated from adults by lagging behind or running ahead. Once they are out of visual range and ear shot, it can be very hard to find them again. It was an eye-opening experience for everyone involved and a great learning experience about prevention and how kids need to be prepared to go outside. Here’s what we learned:

Kids Get Lost
Photo by Andy Porter

Before You Go:

Make sure your kids know their birth dates and first and last names (and yours if they are different) and how to spell them.

Have them memorize at least one emergency phone number, or prepare an emergency information card that they can keep with them outside that includes contact names and phone numbers, where you are staying, a description of your vehicle and any important medical conditions.

Make a family safety plan and talk about it before you go. This should include setting time and distance boundaries, what they should do if they get lost, and what your plan of action will be to reunite.

Pack additional safety/emergency items including medical bracelets, safety whistles and kids-sized packs and watches so they have some essential tools if they get separated from you.

When You Arrive:

Walk the area with them, note major landmarks and the name of the campsite, trail head or nearest road.

Make sure they’re wearing their safety card or medical bracelet, I have even seen parents write an emergency number in permanent marker on kids arms, it will wash off in a day or two.

Remind them of your safety rules and tell them that if they get lost, stay put and use their whistle.

When you head out, make sure they are carrying a minimal amount of safety equipment themselves, including first aid, water and an extra layer.

Kids Get Lost
Photo by Rebecca Walsh

If They Get Lost:

Call the sheriff and the ranger and notify camp hosts and other hikers and campers in the area.

Leave one person by the trail head or campsite in case they find their way back, and have a plan for checking in with one another.

Use your safety whistle, it may guide them back to you.

Don’t panic. Moving too quickly may only put more distance between you and officials, and volunteer searchers need you to be calm and communicative. Hysterical parents only draw focus away from the search and slow down the process.

Kids Get Lost
Photo by Anatol Jasiutyn

When You Find Them:

Check them for injuries and dehydration immediately, kids will often try to hide these things out of embarrassment.

Reassure them that they’re not in trouble before asking them for information or chastising them for breaking rules.

Wait a day or two before revisiting the incident to review safety rules, they will be more receptive after they have had a chance to recover.

Frame the conversation in positives, let them know what they did right, and what they can do differently in the future.

Review your own handling of the situation and adjust your plan of action and safety rules for the future.

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