When we go hiking my son carries his own Camelbak with water, snacks, his bird guide and a few survival items including a whistle and a flashlight. I have stressed to him since the very beginning the importance of being prepared, of having all he might need with him, just in case. As a father I feel one of the most important things that I can do for my son is to teach him the skills to stay alive in the bush. Of course our frequent practice of primitive skills goes far beyond the average person’s idea of being prepared, and of being self-sufficient. For the average hiker these skills are not entirely necessary, to say nothing of the average four or five year old. But it is very important that they know what to do if they become separated from you on a hike.
A note on terminology- I avoid using the term “lost”. “Misoriented” is a term used in the U.S. Army roughly translating to being lost. The philosophy is that you never really become “lost”- you are somewhere on your mapsheet and the mission depends on your continuing. “Misoriented” in this context is always proceeded by the term “temporarily”. There are psychological advantages to never allowing yourself to become “lost”, but rather “temporarily misoriented”, and to teaching this perspective to your child. With that said, I personally have never been lost in my life, and never will be. I stress this point to my son as well.
The Basics of Hiking Together
The following discussion assumes that you are teaching your child wilderness skills as you hike, discussing topics such as trees, plants, rocks, animals, and even the weather. It is assumed that you are carrying a map and compass, and that you are actively teaching your child about them, allowing him or her to use them as you hike. Teaching children about nature in general and about maps, about how to find north with or without a compass, and about basic navigation techniques empowers them and will help them develop a healthy relationship with the wilderness. For more on teaching children wilderness skills, see our Wilderness Kids pages. For more on land navigation see the Maps and Navigation pages at the Desert Explorer website.
The first thing to teach your young one before you ever take your first hike together is to stay close, at least in sight distance. Children are naturally and healthily attached to their parents- they want to be near us. They stay close to us at the grocery store, and keep us in sight at the park for example. Hiking in the bush should be no different. Talk to your children about the potential dangers where you are hiking- this might be a stream, animals, steep slopes, or thick brush where you could be quickly separated. Explain to them that you are not in your back yard, that they need to stay close, closer than normal- stress the importance, but do not scare them with it. You want them to enjoy the wilderness, not to fear it.
Each situation will be different, but if my son and I are following a discernible trail, I often let him take the lead. I then have him in sight all the time. If I lead I am constantly turning to check on him. We often hold hands and walk together on our hikes, taking in the sights and discussing everything we see.
If We Become Separated
Should we ever become separated my son knows what to do. I have taught him that if he cannot see me, cannot hear me, if I do not answer when he calls for me, that he should find shade and sit down. I have taught him to be calm, have a drink of water and continue to listen and call for me. In his pack he carries a very loud survival whistle. He knows that this is not a toy- it is to be used only in such a situation. That is his next step; get out the whistle and blow it at intervals. This whistle is so loud that there is little chance of me not hearing it.
My procedure is the same if we become separated- I stop and call for him, listen for him, and wait for the whistle. With him stopping in place and sitting down, I am given the advantage of being able to easily follow my backtrail and locate him. He knows that if he stops and sits down he is making it easier for me to track him. If I cannot find him on the backtrail, I can find where he wandered off our trail and begin tracking him to where he sits.
Thoughts on Being “Lost”- Panic or Calm?
Panic is the primary danger to people who become misoriented in the bush. Once a person realises they have lost control of their situation, that is, they are lost, a downward spiral can quickly occur. Stories abound of hikers hundreds of feet from the trail, or a mile from a road, heading off in absolutely the wrong direction, thrashing through the brush, leaving their gear behind, exhausting themselves, and putting themselves in extreme danger.
The thought behind stopping immediately could have saved many hikers from uncomfortable and unplanned nights in the bush, and worse. When people are lost, out of panic, they often begin to travel aimlessly- to wander, to cross their paths again and again, or to travel in circles looking for the lost trail or a recognisable feature. For rescue personnel who might be tracking them this makes the job all the more difficult.
The first thing to remember if you do “become lost” is to remain calm. Sit down, take a drink of water, and relax a moment. Then consider where you have come from and where you are heading. If you calmly and logically assess the situation, chances are you will quickly realise where you went wrong. If you are indeed unable to find your way back, you must remain calm and gain control of the situation. For more information on how to address being lost, and a survival situation in general, see the Survival Kit pages and the Primitive Skills pages at the Desert Explorer website.