Three things to teach your kids before they get lost in the woods

Tuesday’s story about a 7-year-old boy who got lost in the woods overnight should make any parent tense up. It got me thinking, for sure.

Last summer my husband and I lost track of my son in the woods for a bit. We didn’t communicate well regarding who was in charge of him when our group split up and next thing we knew, we were facing a potentially lost 4-year-old in deep wilderness. Luckily, as soon as he realized he couldn’t see either of us, my son started screaming. He was screaming so loudly, in fact, that I thought he was being attacked by a bear. That’s not a joke. I really did. The time between my husband and I doing the whole “I thought he was with you!” “No, I thought he was WITH YOU!” thing and finding our screaming son was about two minutes. It felt like three days.

I’m sure the parents of that boy are going to spend years reliving last night, but the truth is this: everything their son did was exactly right, which means they taught him exactly right.

Learn from us, learn from them. Here are three critical things you need to teach your kids about getting lost in the woods:

Stop walking. As soon as you realize you are lost, stop where you are. Nothing will make being lost worse than getting more lost. Our son stopped, this boy stopped. This is the number one rule for kids: once you realize that you are alone and confused, stop where you are and stay there.

Make noise. Right before our fateful trip last year, I had read Kate Braestrup’s wonderful Here If You Need Me. In it, she recounts a search for a missing child and discusses the tendency of kids to stay quiet when lost (in fact, they often fall asleep). Thankfully, our son does not have a subtle personality. So when he lost track of us he, instead, screamed loud and long, allowing us to find him within seconds. This is a great, easy instruction. It’s not a bad idea to outfit your kid with a whistle when you head outside, though we’ve never done it because I know our kids would use them all the livelong day and I am not made of enough patience to deal with that. We have started a family tradition of hooting like owls at each other when our fast and slow hikers get separated on trails and I can see that becoming handy. The point is: noise makes it easier to find people over distances. Use that to your advantage.

Ask for help. When it got light out and he realized there was a road nearby, what did this kid do? He went to the road and flagged down a car. Imagine if he’d been taught that strangers were bad and that you should never speak to them? If my kids take a wrong turn on a trail, I want them to ask other hikers for help. The chances of them stumbling upon a child predator are much, much slimmer than of something bad happening to them in the woods. I have full confidence that any adult my children find in the wilderness will do everything they can to get my kids to safety.

Whenever you take a child–or anyone–outside, there is a potential for getting lost. When all the precautions fail, and they sometimes do, these three things can help keep an error from turning tragic. Make sure your kids have a plan in place.

children in the woods

What do you teach your kids about getting lost?

Cherie Galyean

About Cherie Galyean

In a perfect world, Cherie Galyean would spend hours every day chasing her kids up hiking trails, pretending to garden, and baking things. Instead, she works full-time in the non-profit sector and fits those other things in-between loads of laundry in her free time. A Maine native with multiple hometowns, she currently lives on Mount Desert Island with her husband, seven-year-old daughter, five-year-old son, and the best shelter mutt in the world.