For most of us, exploring the outdoors is a lifelong passion. A love for the wilderness is something we often develop as children and carry with us for the rest of our lives. When it comes time to raise kids of our own, we want to pass this special relationship with nature down to them. And while we want our kids to learn, grow and explore in the wilderness, keeping them safe is always the highest priority. But, despite our best efforts, things happen and children can get lost.
The right survival knowledge can save an adult’s life in an emergency situation, and the same is true for children. Kids are never too young to learn what to do if they become separated and lost in the woods. Although we all hope this never happens, it never hurts to be prepared.
The folks over at Adventure Smart have a wonderful program called Hug-a-Tree and Survive that teaches our little ones what to do if they get lost in the woods. This program outlines four easy-to-remember rules to help kids stay safe in the backcountry. But, with winter fast approaching, we were wondering if the same rules apply for after the snow falls. The answer is yes. While literally hugging a tree may not be possible amid heavy snow, the same basic principles can be followed to ensure your children’s winter safety.
Here are four easy rules to go over with your kids before they head out exploring this winter:
- Before going out, ALWAYS tell your parents or another trusted adult where you are going, who you are going with and when you will be back. While it is best to tell them in person, you can also do it over the phone, through a text or by leaving a note somewhere they are sure to see it.
- If you find yourself lost and confused, seek the nearest sheltered area and stay there. This could be a tree, a snowbank or a large rock. Because you have told your parents where you are going and when you will be back, people will come looking for you. If you keep moving further away, it will just take them longer to find you. While travelling through the woods in winter, it also important to avoid walking across lakes and rivers – you never know if the ice is thick enough to hold your weight.
- Before you head out exploring in the winter, you will surely remember to put on your warm winter jacket, toque and gloves or mittens. You should also wear extra layers of clothing that you can take on or off depending on if you are cold or warm. If you have gotten lost and are staying put in one place, you can stay warm by walking in circles or doing jumping jacks. If you need to sit down, you can make a seat out of nearby branches and needles to keep your bum off the cold snow. Just be sure not to fall asleep so you can answer rescuers’ calls when they come near. If there are lots of branches nearby, you can even make a shelter with walls and a roof to protect you from wind and snow. Or, try building a snow cave.
- If you are reported lost, your parents, police officers and search and rescue volunteers will come looking for you. They will be calling your name, so be sure to listen closely and respond by yelling back when you hear anything. If you pack a whistle with you, this is where it will really come in handy. It is also important that the searchers can see you, so leave lots of tracks in the snow around you, especially if you have built a shelter or are protecting yourself under a tree. If you have anything bright coloured, like a handkerchief or a ribbon, hang it from a nearby tree branch.
How to Hug a Tree to Survive
Tell an adult where you are going
If you are lost ‘hug a tree’ and stay put
Keep warm and dry
Help searchers find you by answering their calls
Of all the children’s winter safety advice mentioned above, the most common mistake both kids and adults make is not staying put once they are lost. According to search and rescue workers, unless you are absolutely sure you know how to get out, staying where you are is your best bet for being rescued.
Additionally, in an emergency situation, a carefully packed backpack with a few key items can make all the difference. Here are some lightweight, easy-to-carry items that you can pack for your child:
- Emergency whistle
- Thermal blanket
- Extra clothing
- Coloured ribbons
- Small flashlight
- Light snacks (granola bars, beef jerky, dried fruit, nuts, etc)
As mentioned above, building a shelter is an important part of surviving an extended stay in the winter wilderness. There are many tutorials found online that provide easy step-by-step instructions for building a snow shelter. Take some time to go over these with your kid or, better yet, get outside and practice building one together. Packing a small, compactable snow shovel with your child can be a huge help if they are put in a situation where they have to build a shelter.
Another helpful bit of knowledge is how to recognize the signs and symptoms of frostbite and hypothermia. Our Frostbite and Hypothermia 101 blog tells you how to recognize these conditions and what to do in case you are afflicted. The number one thing to remember is dress appropriately. Wear layers of wool or synthetic fabric, with an outer shell for wind protection. It is better to overdress and remove a layer or two than be caught underdressed in the cold. Be sure to protect your extremities with good socks and boots, gloves or mitts, toque and scarf. If any of your clothing gets wet, change into something dry as soon as possible.
It is also important to note that wild animals can be a serious hazard while travelling through the backcountry. There are practical steps to take if you or your child ever encounters a dangerous animal in the woods – you can check out our When Animals Attack blog for detailed information on encounters with a variety of animal species.
Of course, the best case scenario is that your kids will never put themselves in a survival situation in the first place, but instilling our young explorers with the right knowledge, and with respect for the wilderness in general, only makes them more capable outdoor explorers.