Prepare Kids for the Possibility of Being Lost in the Woods

Summer vacation season has arrived, and families will be rushing to destinations across the country, from the hustle of major amusement parks to the serenity of the great outdoors.

While on vacation, many children will be lost for some period of time. Most of these incidents don't escalate into anything as dramatic as the recent case of Brennan Hawkins, the 11-year-old who got lost at a Boy Scout camping event. The massive search ended happily, with Brennan found alive and in good condition after spending four nights alone in the Utah mountains.

But parents might want to look at the lessons learned from the case of a lost boy who met a tragic end back in 1981.

Albert "Ab" Taylor, a professional tracker for the Border Patrol, was one of those called to find 9-year-old Jimmy Beveridge, who went missing on a family camping trip near San Diego. After four long days of searching, volunteers found Jimmy's body. He had succumbed to hypothermia.

Although he had been involved in many searches for lost children, this was the first search Taylor had been a part of that failed to find the child alive. This failure sparked Taylor to develop a program that could help lost kids.

Taylor and his colleagues developed the Hug-A-Tree program, designed to present children with a short, simple list of things they should do and items they should use to stay safe and help rescuers find them quickly.

If you would like more information about the Hug-A-Tree program, Click Here.

The 30-minute, scripted presentation is designed to be presented by an adult, usually either a volunteer or professional in an emergency service such as a firefighter, police officer or search and rescue team member. The original presentation (an upgraded version is now in the works) includes about 100 slides and audiotapes that demonstrate the sounds a lost child might hear at night -- from the call of an owl to what a searcher's voice might sound like when calling a child's name.

All these elements are aimed at introducing children to a serious topic while at the same time reducing their fear of the unknown. The program primarily targets children between the ages of 5 and 12, although Don Cooper, Hug-a-Tree committee chair at the National Association for Search and Rescue, said all children can benefit from the information.

The lessons of Hug-A-Tree are easily remembered by a child. If you are lost, stop and stay near an immovable object -- for example, a tree. Always carry a whistle and a garbage bag, which can fit in a pocket. Once you've stopped, blow the whistle in series of three blasts every few minutes, and if you are cold or it is raining, make a hole for your face to peek through the side of the garbage bag and wear it like a poncho.

Doug Ritter, the publisher and editor of, a Web site dedicated to a wide range of emergency preparedness issues, is a believer in the program.

"I think you'll see a resurgence in Hug-a-Tree, because I think it's absolutely, positively the best thing in the world for kids and survival in the wilderness. It is so effective at getting the message across to children to stay put and to be a participant in their rescue, not work counterproductively, as we saw in this [Brennan Hawkins] case. Again, it all worked out in the end, but it wouldn't have taken but a single change in one of these variables of weather and temperature and all the rest of this for this to have turned out tragically."

So what went wrong in the Brennan Hawkins case? Ritter said parents can learn a lot from Brennan's ordeal.

One problem is that what is a very common message from parents -- "don't talk to strangers" -- is repeated to children so many times that it has sunk in wonderfully, but no provision is made to permit the child to ask for help if he or she is lost.

"This is a situation where we see a case of primacy -- the first thing the child learns takes precedence over any common sense or fear or anything of their immediate circumstances," Ritter said.

And while parents may feel that interactions with strangers are a top danger to their children, Cody Lundin, founder and director of the Aboriginal Living Skills School based in Prescott, Ariz., said that the most common outdoors scenario that leads to the loss of life begins with a simple day hike, where the hikers feel no need to take any safety precautions, and ends with a victim succumbing to hypothermia.

In his book "98.6 Degrees: The Art of Keeping Your Ass Alive," Lundin says that when people face an emergency, factors such as embarrassment, stress, fear and fatigue can lead adults to use poor judgment. In a telephone interview, he said that while "stranger danger" messages may be a factor in why children would hide from searchers, there are cases of lost adults who have also avoided rescuers out of fear. One key to overcome this is getting kids to know what they should do in case of an emergency, and to practice what they should do at home, before they're in the situation.

Since it can be difficult for unprepared adults and older children to recognize or admit that they are in trouble in the wild, how can younger children be taught to realize they are lost? Lundin suggested parents help children define being lost this way: "You should tell Junior, 'if you look up and you realize that you want to come back to mommy or daddy, and you don't know how to do that, that means you're lost.' "

Next, Lundin said, children must know that if they stay where they realized they were lost, someone will come and find them. "I think it's psychologically important for a kid to know that he's going to have people looking for him -- not at the end of the three-day camping trip, but that night, before it's dark, and that it's been agreed upon by the family."

Parents must also be able to recognize when there is a problem. If a child goes missing or is not back at camp by an agreed-upon time, Ritter says, "as soon as you have a reasonably solid suspicion that the child is lost, that's the time to not panic, but to contact authorities."

"Do not spend an hour or two trying to find them yourself," said Ritter. "Often, a second or third person will get lost. The typical parent has no better ability to locate themselves in the forest than their child does. Beyond calling out or blowing a whistle, it's time to get professionals."

Parents shouldn't worry about bothering rescue officials, or be embarrassed that they have called only to have their child quickly turn up. In his book, Lundin says: "Don't be shy! Rescue personnel would much rather be called out and 15 minutes later get a radio message that [the missing person] showed up than be robbed of valuable daylight."

Ritter and Lundin had suggestions to supplement the Hug-A-Tree program's list of items children should have when traveling outdoors, plus some precautions parents can take. All of the items should be able to fit in either a fanny pack or small daypack, and its weight should be kept low so the child will be more likely to carry it consistently.

If you would like more information about Doug Ritter's suggestions for kids' safety, Click Here.

Water. At least a quart, more for older children who can easily carry the added weight.

A small LED flashlight with long battery life and/or a chemical lightstick, which can help a child from being afraid in the dark and may be helpful in signaling to rescuers

An additional garbage bag. And when choosing garbage bags, heavy-duty leaf bags or 55-gallon drum liners are larger and sturdier. Also, brightly colored bags are preferable.

If there is room in the child's pack, a warm hat and/or an extra sweater. It is most important to keep the head, neck and torso warm.

A small toy or activity, such as a book, a bit of Play-Doh -- anything that engages your child's interest and can help them pass the time as they wait to be found.

Perhaps a high-glucose snack, granola bar or similar food item, but both men stressed that food is much less important than water in most instances.

For older children whose parents are satisfied they can handle such items responsibly, a folding knife and/or a means of starting a fire can be helpful

Before heading out for a hike, parents can have their children make a simple footwear imprint. Place a piece of heavy aluminum foil flat on soft ground or a towel, then have the child stand on it. This will give trackers an exact image of the mark their footwear makes.

If a child is missing, parents can help searchers using tracking dogs by providing an article of clothing the child has recently worn.

And every bit as important as giving children a bag filled with these goodies is practice. Even just a few repetitions of the actions and skills suggested in the Hug-A-Tree program will make it much more likely a child will be able to repeat them when they are lost and scared.

Lundin said parents should sit down with their children -- at home, before a trip begins -- and make some things clear to them.

"If you ever get lost, it's totally OK -- daddy's been lost, mommy's been lost. Here's what you do, here's why we're giving you this stuff. And then I would practice -- go in the back yard or the park, and do a mock scenario."