Safety Tips for Outdoorsy Families, from My Experiences in Search and Rescue.

During my time as a search and rescue volunteer in the Rockies, I saw my share of both happy and heart-breaking endings. Often, the difference between a missing person’s safe return and tragedy is in how well-prepared they were for the worst case scenario BEFORE they even stepped foot outside. If the worst does happen, there are steps one can take to maximize their chances of being located. Even young children can learn these simple steps. As the weather warms up and more and more folks are getting outside to camp, hike and otherwise enjoy the outdoors, I’d like to share some pointers on how you and your family can avoid having a great day in the sticks turn into a crisis.

Keep your Kids Safe Outdoors

After a search for a 9-year-old boy who had gone missing from a family camping trip in the California mountains ended in heartbreak, search and rescue volunteers created an educational program called “Hug-A-Tree" with the goal of preventing further tragedies by teaching kids what to do if they become lost in the wilderness. Here are some of their most important tips for kids and parents.

Stay on the trail.  This is important for everyone who recreates outdoors, both adults and children. Set a good example by always staying on the trail yourself, and teach your kids at an early age to do the same.

Footprint your child. Trails are often covered in the footprints of hundreds of people. If searchers have an imprint of a missing child’s shoe or boot, trained trackers can focus in on the correct pair of tracks which can lead directly to the lost kiddo. Before you set out, place a piece of foil on a folded towel and have your kid step on it with both feet. Save this imprint in a safe place. If your child has more than one pair of boots or shoes they wear out in the sticks, or if you have multiple children, be sure to mark each set of prints well. It’s a good idea to do this for any outdoorsy adults in your family as well.

Teach your kids to hug a tree.  It is a lot harder for searchers to find a moving target, and a child is more likely to be injured if they’re running around, so it’s very important for kids to stay in one place as soon as they realize they are lost. Hugging a tree can calm a scared, lost child, and keeps them in one place, making it much easier for them to be located.

Have your kids carry a trash bag and a whistle in the outdoors. A whistle allows a lost child to alert searchers to their location, and a trash bag makes a good makeshift poncho to help a child stay warm and dry. Just make sure to show them how to make a hole for their face before heading out. Most kids will get a kick out of practicing this!

The National Association for Search and Rescue has more educational materials and tips on their website, including this fun printable activity and coloring book, and a pamphlet for parents and caregivers. 

 Always tell people where you’re going and when you’ll be back.

This allows people to raise the alarm should you not return as expected, and will allow them to notify the proper authorities and give them information critical to locating you. It’s important to be specific. Keep in mind that some parks/trails/lakes/etc in your area may share the same name, have multiple trailheads or routes or be very large, so it’s a good idea to provide them not only with the name of your destination but further information such as the county it’s in, the specific trailhead or parking lot you plan to use, or ideally, a map of the location and your planned route. Make sure that they are also aware of who exactly is accompanying you (including any pets), any boats/ATVs/etc you’re bringing and what vehicle you’ll be using if your family has more than one.

Whenever I go on an adventure, I always notify at least two trustworthy people (who live nearby and will be in town) of our plans beforehand. I’ll send them an email with as much information as possible about where we plan to be and when. I also give them a general time we plan to be back in town, and ask that they contact the authorities if they don’t hear from us by a particular time. Here is an excellent printable hiking/camping plan form created by LA County Search and Rescue that you can fill out and provide to your trusted contacts.

Carry The Ten Essentials 

Even if I’m just going on a quick day hike, I never set off without a few critical things. These are often referred to as “The Ten Essentials.” What those essentials are will vary based on the activities you’re engaging in, the location and season, and your unique needs, but the idea is generally the same – it only takes a few items to be prepared for the worst. If I’m planning on going out for a day hike, I prepare as though I might get stranded at least overnight, just in case. Here is what I generally bring with me as my “Ten Essentials” for short hikes.

1. Navigation. I always carry maps of the area and a compass. Even if you have GPS it’s a good idea to have a backup, because batteries die, weather can impede your connection, etc, etc.

2. Sun protection. Sunglasses and sunscreen. Remember to reapply frequently, and that the average person needs about a shot glass worth of sunscreen to cover their body.

3. Extra clothing. For summer day hikes in the mountains, I generally carry a rain coat, a fleece jacket, a warm hat and extra wool socks. Nothing is more miserable than having cold, wet feet!

4. Light. I carry at least a headlamp with an extra set of batteries .I’ll also carry a glowstick as a backup, mostly so I can  be more visible at night should I become lost.

5. First Aid. I usually bring an assortment of Bandaids, sterile gauze, medical tape, tweezers, antiseptic wipes, small packets of hydrocortisone and antibiotic ointment, small packets of OTC medications like ibuprofen (Motrin) and diphenhydramine (Benadryl), an Ace wrap, tampons and eye wash. It’s also a good idea to carry a few day’s worth of any prescription medications you take. Pro-tip: I strongly prefer duct tape to moleskin for covering blisters (I’ve had a lot of them after hiking hundreds of miles for search and rescue!) Duct tape is a lot cheaper and much more durable and versatile (since you can also use it for minor repairs, etc). Just put some gauze or a bandaid over the blister itself before taping over it. Pro-tip two: small, unscented tampons are great for nosebleeds.

6. Fire. I keep a lighter, waterproof matches and cotton balls dipped in petroleum jelly in a Ziploc bag in my pack. During my field survival training I experimented with lots of different fire-starting methods but nothing worked as quickly and consistently for me as lighting Vaseline-soaked cotton balls with a small flame or spark from a lighter or matches. The cotton balls burn very well for a surprisingly long time, making it much easier to get a fire going.

7. Tools. At a minimum, I carry a pocketknife and a length of 550 Paracord. These two items alone can help you in a innumerable amount of tasks... everything from starting a fire to building a shelter.

8. Water. I bring enough not only for my planned trip, but also enough for another day or two, and the rule of thumb is a gallon per person per day. Water purification tablets also take up very little space in a pack and can be life-saving in an emergency.

9. Food. Again, I bring enough for a few days if I’m planning on being gone for a day.

10. Shelter. A trash bag, emergency blanket, or tarp can help keep you warm and dry should your day trip unexpectedly become a night trip.

Do you have any of your own safety pointers, or have you had a close-call in the outdoors? Please share below! Have a safe and fantastic summer y'all. :)

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