Last summer my family was on a backpacking trip in Olympic National Park. My daughter Paige, who was 10 at the time, wandered off a short distance into the woods next to our camp to relieve her bladder while the rest of us were setting up our home for the night. Fast forward fifteen minutes, and I was finally not distracted by camp chores. It dawned on me that I had never seen Paige return. “Paige?” I called. Silence. I called her for her again with a louder voice, to only be met by silence once more. “Has anyone seen Paige?” I asked our family friends who were backpacking with us and setting up camp nearby. They had not seen her come back either. No one in camp had seen her since she left, and the instinctual mother fear of something tragic happening to my child gripped me like a vice. A few minutes later I found her nearby, happily playing with some of the kids in our group. She had told Larry where she was headed before she joined them, and he was not in camp to allay my fears as this unfolded.
This story is hardly a story, since it ended well and without incident. It happens though, even with adults, losing your sense of direction with something as simple as stepping off the trail a short distance to take a pee break. As any parent knows, we can’t hover over our children with every step. The woods are no exception.
Because I can’t be everywhere with them at all times when we hike, I’ve developed a packing system for their personal safety. Whether we are going on a day hike or a multi-day backpacking trip, I recommend that kids have on their body and outside of their packs:
2. Lighter or Waterproof Matches
These bracelets gained their popularity with runners. Road ID is a popular brand and they provide an instant identification system for a young child, as well as provide alerts to emergency services of any potential allergies or medical conditions.
The reason I have them keep these items outside of their pack and on their body elsewhere probably makes sense if you think of the story above. Paige had taken off her backpack before she headed off, but she would have at least stood a chance of being found easily with these items, especially the whistle. I personally carry these same items on my own body in a small zipped pouch in my pocket, and not in my pack, for the same reason.
Of course, my kids are ages that I can trust them with the items on this particular list (14, 11, and 10, if you’re wondering). Would I trust a 6-year-old the same list? Heck no! For each kid, the age and what they are allowed to carry will differ, based on their maturity and backcountry experience. A whistle, however, should be always be on a child’s body somewhere during a hike (and my apologies in advance for the problems this will create with the younger crowd, who will be in disbelief that a parent is actually mandating that they carry a whistle at all times!)
What about the “10 essential systems,” some of you might be wondering? Don’t they need to carry those, just like an adult does on a hike? If you have no idea what the 10 essentials are, please, before you do anything else, read this post.
I absolutely consider the essentials we should all carry, but I pare it down a bit for their needs and skill level. Specifically, my kids carry the following in their packs, regardless of the distance of our hike:
- Rain Jacket
- Warm Jacket
- Extra Socks
- Emergency Bivy or Trash Compactor Bag
- Headlamp or flashlight
- Extra Food
- A couple of band aids
- Small “Lovey” for Comfort (remember “Wilson” from the movie Cast Away? Need I say more?!)
- Note with reminders of what they should do if they become separated (more on this below)
- Options for colder temperatures: Gloves, Hat, Hand/Foot Warmers
What to include in a note your child carries in his/her backpack
Just like an emergency plan you possibly have in place for your home if there is a fire, tornado, etc., it’s wise to educate your child in regard to safety in the backcountry. Clearly, preventing an incident is your number one priority, and it’s imperative to set ground rules and expectations before you head into the backcountry.
That being said, you don’t want to scare the living daylights out of a child before they hit the trail! Our modern culture is often geared towards kids thinking our wild spaces are dangerous and hostile places. We don’t want to promote that kind of nonsense, so be careful with your phrasing and tone as you educate them.
Here are some ideas for what to include in that note you stick in your child’s backpack:
1. Stay where they are and don’t wander further, unless they are in immediate environmental danger.
2. Stay calm and remember that help is on the way as quickly as possible. Teaching the acronym STOP, which stands for Stop, Think, Oserve, and Plan is a good practice too.
3. Exercise in place if they are cold (jumping jacks, running in place, etc).
4. Stay as dry as possible. That’s where the rain jacket and bivy/trash compactor bag can help. A trash compactor bag could also be stuffed full of dry leaves to help insulate the space.
5. Blow their whistle in 3 short bursts every few minutes.
6. Notes on how to start a fire (if they have the equipment to start one, based on what you packed for them)
7. If they have a phone, keep it in airplane mode but see if they have a signal to call 911 or text someone their coordinates (read this post to learn how to teach them to do this).
In addition to what they should carry, a couple of other things you can do to keep them safe are:
- Have them wear brightly colored clothing. I always chuckle when my family travels or hikes because we look like a bunch of brightly colored Easter eggs! Whether we are in a crowded airport or a remote hiking trail, a kid is going to stand out with brightly colored clothing, and that’s a huge plus if they’re lost or separated from you.
- Make sure someone is “it” in regard to being the primary person to remain accountable for the whereabouts of young children. It’s easy to think someone else is watching them and all of a sudden they’re not with the group, and it’s been awhile since someone remembers seeing them. Pass a verbal baton when handing off the duty of being “it” to someone else–one astute reader said her family uses “on deck” and “off deck” when passing the responsibility to watch their toddler.
These lists are certainly not limited. Chime in below in the comments section if you have your own kids carry something you don’t see here or if you have suggestions. Also, I’m happy to send you a printable checklist of the items kids should carry and reminders of what your note should include in their backpack (see below). Now go forth and have fun in the woods, but be safe!