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Kids in the woods
Family Health

Embrace the Wild: The Essentials of Outdoor Safety for Kids

Kids need the outdoors. There's something in them that just wants to be out in nature, running around and getting dirty. But they also need to learn that the wilderness can be dangerous, and it isn't a place to let down your guard. Even a short adventure can turn risky if you don't take the proper precautions.

As much as we want them to experience nature, we also want them to respect it and understand how to safely enjoy the outdoors. If you get to know the essentials of outdoor safety for kids and teach them how to protect themselves, you'll lay the foundation for a lifetime of safe, rewarding experiences in the wild.

Where to Start

The best way to teach kids how to stay safe is through firsthand experience. Go hiking with your family, and do it frequently. Kids learn through observation and experience much more effectively than through lecturing.

Make sure your kids understand their own limitations. Many kids think they're indestructible -- clearly not a great attitude to take into the wilderness. Injuries or other health issues that would normally be routine can quickly become more serious when you're on a hike far from immediate medical attention.

Knowing when your child is ready to venture outdoors without you is the tricky part. There's no one age that's right for everyone -- kids develop their sense of responsibility and ability to cope with unexpected circumstances at different rates, and experience counts for a lot, too. Even the most responsible kid may not have the skills to explore the woods on their own just yet. Spending plenty of outdoor time with your children will help you gauge their skill level and decide when they're ready to go solo.

What Kids Need to Know

So what lessons should you teach your children about staying safe in nature? Here are a few key principles of outdoor safety for kids:

  • Always let someone know where you're going and when you expect to be back. This rule applies for adult hikers, as well. If someone is aware of your plan and you don't return by the time you intended, they'll know to look for you and where to start the search.
  • Get familiar with the area you plan to explore. Learn as much as you can about the place before you set out. Are there any special risks in that area? What plants and animals live there, and how should you act around them? Who owns the property you'll be exploring, and what rules are involved? What kind of natural and man-made features exist in the area, and what precautions do they require?
  • Use the buddy system. Always stay within speaking distance of each other -- shouting distance isn't close enough. And although your kids may want to play games on the trail, you should never play hide and seek on a hike.
  • Dress smart. Clothing choices have a big impact on safety and comfort. Have your kids wear bright colors that don't blend in with the environment so they'll be easier to spot. Pack layers for them so that they can adjust to changing temperatures and different levels of exertion, and have them strap on structured shoes or hiking boots to prevent injuries.
  • Stay on the trail. You're much more likely to get lost or become injured when you stray from the beaten path, and blazing your own trail or cutting through switchbacks can erode the natural environment you're trying to enjoy.
  • Carry the essentials. A backpack containing water, food, a flashlight, a compass, a loud whistle, a topographical map of the area, and a plastic garbage bag can help keep kids safe and prepared if they get lost.

As your kids become more well versed in outdoor safety, they'll need to know how to prepare for the worst-case scenario. The National Association for Search and Rescue's Hug-a-Tree protocol is for kids to understand and remember.

Here's how it works: If you get lost or hurt, the first and most important step is to stop and take stock of your situation. Next, find a tree and settle in next to it. If you hear a noise in the woods, blow your whistle. Three sharp blasts signal a distress call, and if there's an animal nearby, the whistle might scare it away. Stay hydrated with water, eat your snacks, and remain beside the tree to wait for the searchers to find you.

Outdoor safety for kids is serious business, but if you take a proactive approach, spend a lot of family time in the outdoors, and teach them the essential lessons along the way, you'll feel confident when you're finally ready to let your kids roam the wild on their own.

Posted in Family Health

Judy Schwartz Haley is a freelance writer and blogger. She grew up in Alaska and now makes her home in Seattle with her husband and young daughter. Judy battled breast cancer when her daughter was an infant, and now she devotes much of her free time to volunteering as a state leader with the Young Survival Coalition, which supports young women with breast cancer.

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*This information is for educational purposes only and does not constitute health care advice. You should always seek the advice of your doctor or physician before making health care decisions.