Wednesday, January 18, 2012

What to do when lost with kids on a day hike

If lost, stop walking and get your bearings. Photo courtesy of Lyn Baxter/
Dreamstime Stock Photos

First rule of being
lost: Don't panic 

How do you know you’re lost? When you don’t know where you are and you don’t know which way to go. The two are not mutually exclusive. You could be hiking along a trail and not be able to pinpoint on a map exactly where you are yet still be confident that you’re heading in the right direction simply because no other trails have branched off yours and because key landmarks are easily identifiable on the horizon.

As soon as you’re uncertain where you are and whether or not you’re heading in the right direction, though, stop walking. You must do this not just for your safety for those of any children with you. They are more vulnerable to the elements than you as an adult, and you so you must minimize your distance from a point where you know your location or from where others might quickly find you.

Reassure children
For children, you being lost can be a very difficult experience to grasp. They will sense your nervousness and feel it, too. They probably have confidence in you as an adult to resolve the problem, but soon basic issues they have – from being hungry and thirsty to being cold and afraid – will overtake them. Their verbalized fears and potential crying can compound your nervousness and fear. You’ll want to keep them calm and reassure them that all will be okay. That’s vital for your own ability to swiftly find your way.

Indeed, the first rule of being lost is don’t panic. It’s the greatest danger as it can lead to poor decision-making. Just take a rest stop and pull out your maps. Check the topo map and see if you can spot any obvious landmarks. These could include prominent peaks, roads, water towers, power lines or waterways.

If you can’t locate an obvious landmark, consider tracing your way back to the last spot you checked your map and knew you were going in the right direction. This is called backtracking.

If lost, you’re probably not too far away from your trail. Experienced hikers know the odds are good that they can get back to the right trail.

Ask for help
As parent Melissa F., of Moab, Utah, advises, “Estimate how much time has passed since you last knew where you were, then estimate how far you probably can walk in that amount of time. If you cover a mile every half hour, and 15 minutes have passed since you last saw a landmark that you knew was on your trail, at worse you’re only a half-mile off course. By knowing the compass direction of a landmark you can identify, you can estimate which direction the trail is.”

Fair warning, though: It’s probably not a good idea to try to find your trail but best to stay where you are and take comfort in knowing that you’ll be fairly easy for rescuers to find. If you keep walking in the wrong direction, you likely will increase the time rescuers need to locate you.

Should you see other hikers, don’t hesitate to tell them you’re lost. They’ll probably be able to help you find your bearings. At the very least, they can take you to a trailhead and then hopefully back to your vehicle.

Should you rescue yourself while a search operation is underway, be sure to let a park ranger or the authorities know. There’s no need to continue the search once you’re safe. Such operations are expensive, and you may needlessly be draining manpower and resources away from another rescue.

Read more about day hiking with children in my guidebook Hikes with Tykes.