Spend enough time in the backcountry and you're bound to have a scare, as our writer recently discovered. Here's how to teach kids what to do when that happens.
It was a beautiful afternoon for a walk in the woods: cloudless and 70 degrees with a light breeze. My husband, Steve, our two daughters, and I were hiking three miles up Cave Creek Trail to a series of small caves in the Pecos Wilderness, an hour east of Santa Fe. The ponderosa pines gave off a sweet butterscotch scent of sap, the creek was running high and fast, and the brown trout were biting in the calm eddies along the bank. Steve brought his fly rod and every few minutes ducked off the trail to sneak in a cast or two. Then he’d lope along and rejoin us.
We had reached the caves and were doubling back to our car when we realized we hadn’t seen Steve for 15 minutes, since he’d stopped at a small pool and pulled out a brown trout no longer than his index finger. The girls were busy trying to catch butterflies in their bare hands, and it was too pretty to rush, so we strolled along, expecting him to catch up.
At the junction with the Dockwiller Trail, Steve still hadn’t appeared, so we sat down on a log to wait. Surely he’d catch up. Several minutes passed, then several minutes more. The edge of something uncomfortable began to press into my mind, not worry exactly, but awareness—of time passing, of the empty trail, of silence.
“Let’s head down to the car. I know he’ll catch up,” I told the girls confidently.
We hiked for a minute or two, and then my six-year-old began to whimper. “Where’s Daddy? I don’t want to leave Daddy.”
“Oh, he’s coming. I bet he just lost track of time while he was fishing. You know how he does that,” I said, feigning exasperation to distract her.
We kept walking downhill, and she kept whimpering. “I want Daddy.”
I hesitated. It had been 25 minutes. The creek was running high, choked with downed logs and strainers. I allowed myself a single thought: What if he’d slipped and fallen?
Now I was trying to keep my voice light but emphatic. “He’ll catch up.”
Now Maisy was crying. A picture popped into my brain: Steve, facedown in the creek.
I stopped and spun on my heels. “C’mon girls!”
Now we were running back up the trail, away from our car, hollering for Steve at the top of our lungs.
Steve and I spend a fair bit of time exploring the backcountry with our daughters. We’ve backpacked, hiked fourteeners with them on our backs, ventured out on countless day hikes on trails both familiar and new. I always thought that if we kept our girls within sight, no one would get lost.
I was wrong.
We must have run uphill for three-quarters of a mile, my mind racing through scenarios. If Steve had fallen and gotten hurt, he’d have been swept downstream. The creek was three feet deep, swift but shallow and no more than five feet across. My rational brain knew he was probably OK, just obsessively fishing as usual, but it was strange that he still hadn’t appeared, and I didn’t want to leave him if he needed help.
I focused on staying calm for the girls while moving fast together. We had plenty of daylight left; the weather was fine; we were close to the car (though Steve had the keys). I had a quart of water in my pack but didn’t want to stop to drink. Behind me, the girls had stopped crying and were fast on my heels. We ran to the spot where he’d been fishing, scanning the river. No sign. I figured if we turned around and went back the same way, we’d have to run into him, probably coming back up the trail to find us. There was no reason to yell; the rush of the river would surely drown out our voices.
We turned around, and I slowed to a walk, reasoning out loud to the girls. “He must have followed the river, off-trail. I bet he’s below us. He knows where the car is and will come find us. We’re not lost.” Inside I was thinking, if he’s not at the trailhead, what then? My cellphone was dead, and there was no reception in the canyon.
Then, there he was, rounding a corner and coming toward us. Steve put his hands in the air: Where were you? The girls ran to him, squealing with relief. He was fine, of course. He’d followed the creek through the canyon, veering off the trail for a few hundred yards, then rejoined it and tried to catch up. But by then we’d backtracked and were above him. When Steve didn’t find us, he went to the car, then hiked back up on the trail. A classic case of miscommunication. Make that no communication.
Later, over pizza, we talked about our confusion. Steve hadn’t been lost even for a second, and yet I realized we’d made a classic error: The trail had seemed so straightforward, and our comfort in the backcountry so assumed, that we hadn’t agreed on a plan. We hadn’t known what to do when we became separated. And what would we do if one of us did get lost? To find out, I checked in with Sara DeLucia, family program manager at the Appalachian Mountain Club for commonsense strategies for staying found this summer.
#1. Prevention Is Key
Set expectations, and make sure everyone knows the plan and route before you go. Even if it’s a trail you hike all the time, review it in detail as a group: “It’s an out-and-back hike. We’re hiking to ____ place and turning around and coming back to the car.” Even kids as young as five are capable of understanding a general route if they know it in advance. At least one adult should carry a map. Point out your route to the kids before you leave the parking lot.
#2. Communicate Goals and Intentions
If one of you wants to fish while the others hike, or run while the others climb, figure out where and when to meet in the event that someone gets sidetracked. Agree that you’ll all stay on the trail, or if you plan on going off-trail, choose a place to meet, either at the car or a junction. Whatever the scenario, discuss it in advance so everyone’s clear.
#3. Stay Together
This one’s obvious, but keep children within visual or voice range at all times to avoid getting separated and in the event that you encounter wildlife.
#4. Bring the Right Gear
Outfit every kid with their own pack, including water, snacks, extra clothing, a trash bag, and a whistle in case of emergency. Teach them to blow it loudly three times in a row if they become separated or need help, waiting 30 seconds between the next set of whistles to hear if someone’s calling back.
#5. Wait at Every Trail Crossing
Remind everyone in the party to wait and regroup at every trail junction, water crossing, or challenging feature. This gives you the chance to assess risk as a family and decide whether it’s safe to go on. Seeing the caves up close required us to shimmy across the creek on a log, which did not thrill me until we took a closer look and talked about the consequences of falling off and what kind of exposure we would risk if we did. The creek was shallow and unobstructed; the biggest risk was getting wet on a warm day two miles from the car. We decided it was not a big deal and crossed it.
#6. Stay on the Trail
This is especially true for kids, and especially if they’re not with an adult. It’s easy for kids to become so focused on the grasshopper they’re chasing that they get disoriented and lose track of the trail, even if they’ve wandered only a few yards away. Take time at the beginning of the hike to become familiar with the blazes or other trail markers on your route.
#7. Stay Calm
When Maisy first got upset, I let her tears sway me and jumped to the worst-case scenario. In hindsight, I realize I was probably hungry, tired, and not thinking clearly. I’d brought ample snacks for the girls but not for me—dumb mistake.
#8. Stop and Stay Put
Emphasize the importance of staying put if a child finds themselves lost. They can find a tree or rock to cuddle up next to. Blow the whistle while staying in one place. Put on or display their brightest-color clothing. If they are getting cold or it’s raining, they can make a hole in the trash bag and put their head through it to keep themselves dry and warm. Keep blowing the whistle, making sure to pause to hear if anyone’s calling back. Wait for help to arrive.
#9. If Your Kid Is Missing, Call for Help
Immediately. If you have cell reception, you can call as soon as you discover your child missing. If you don’t, you can send an adult in your party to the nearest location with cell reception, usually on higher ground.