Mom Goes Camping

How to Protect Your Kids from Getting Lost When Hiking Backcountry

I honestly believe that hiking in the backcountry is safer for young kids than your neighborhood at home.  At home, you constantly have to worry about your kids getting hit by a car, cracking their head open on some playground equipment, and being exposed to crap on TV.     True, your kid could fall while climbing a tree or slide down a cliff on a hike – but landing in a bed of leaves seems better than falling onto concrete on the playground ;).  Yet one real concern is that your kids could get lost while hiking backcountry, or while camping there.  Here is to make sure that never happens and, if they do get lost hiking, your kids know what to do.


Each child (and Adult) Should Have a Whistle

Explain that the whistle should only be used if they are lost.  If your kids are like mine, they will still probably want to blow it.  To motivate them to not blow the whistle, remind them that blowing the whistle will scare away any animals you might see on the hike.

Teach you kids the hiker’s whistle code:

  • 1 blast = STOP
  • 2 blasts = Come to me
  • 3 blasts = Come to me quickly!


Show them the Route on the Map

At 5, my daughter is still too young to know how to read a map (she’s good at pretending to read it though).  But I still show her the map and our route before we set off on any hike.  If we were to get separated or, worse, I was to get severely injured and incapacitated on the trail, she’d be able to go back and get help.  Plus, by doing this, you are teaching them map reading skills.   

If your kids are older and can read a map, then make sure they get their own copy of the map and a compass.  Tell them that if you get separated on the hike but aren’t lost, they are supposed to go back to the base camp and wait for you.  If truly lost, you are always supposed to stay put!

daughter reading map on hike

My daughter pretending to read the map while hiking.


Set the Ground Rules before Starting the Hike

Before you go hiking, make sure your kids know that the rules in backcountry are different than the ones at home.  Depending on your kid’s age, tell them how far in front or behind you they are allowed to be.  My daughter is 5 now,  so I’m not letting her out of my sight.  By next year, I’m sure I’d let her go ahead of me (a little ways) on the trail so long as we could still make voice contact.


Don’t Let Them Off the Trail

There are often lots of interesting things to see just a bit off the trail.  Note that many national parks don’t allow you to go off the trails at all.  If you are allowed to go off trail, don’t let your kids do it without telling you first!  Be very clear about this: They must always stay on the trail.

If they want to explore off trail, that’s fine.  Just go with them and keep the trail within sight range.  If your sense of direction sucks, then take note on the compass which direction you are heading before you go off the trail. Or, if your kids are older, they can go off trail alone so long as they stay within sight or voice distance from where you are waiting on the trail.

my daughter hiking off trail to get berries

It’s fine to let them off the trail, but keep little kids within site! And check for snakes, poison ivy, and nettles first! My daughter went off trail here to pick some wild strawberries.


Make Sure Your Kids Know What to Do When Lost in the Wilderness

Before you go on your hike, casually ask your kids if they know what to do if they get separated from your or get lost.  Note it probably isn’t a good idea to sit them down for a formal lecture about “what to do if you get lost.”  This could freak them out and put them off the idea of hiking completely!


After blowing the whistle 3 times, they should be silent and listen for someone shouting.  If they don’t hear anyone, then they need to blow 3 times again.  Repeat.

Your children should know this.  Don’t just tell them.  Quiz them on it.  The last thing you want is your kids wandering lost in the wilderness while a search team tries to scour the entire area.  Want to more?  Read this post on what to do if you get lost in the woods.


Give Kids their Own Packs

Ideally, every person in your hiking group should have their own pack.  Realistically though, your little kids aren’t going to have their own packs. As soon as they are old enough to go ahead of you on the trail though, they should have their own pack.   In each pack, there should be the essential survival gear:

  1. Water
  2. Flashlight
  3. Waterproof matches
  4. Waterproof jacket

With just these 4 things, anyone can survive the night in the wilderness.  It won’t necessarily be comfortable, but they will survive.  Here’s the catch though: your kids have to know how to use the supplies.  Which brings us to the next point…


Teach Your Kids Outdoor Survival Skills

There are only three things you (or your kids) need to survive in the wilderness, and all three of these things can be achieved if your kids have the gear listed above.

1. Water
Hopefully your kids won’t be lost for longer than 1 day, so they will be fine with the water from their bottles.  But make sure your kids know that they should NEVER drink water from a lake, stream or river as it can contain “worms” and other “bad viruses and bacteria” which get into their bodies.  Your kids should also know how to filter water with your camping filter.  If you have a small filter like the Sawyer (read my review of the Sawyer Mini here), go ahead and put it in their packs.


2. Warmth

To stay warm, your kids need to know how to build a fire.  I taught my daughter how to make a fire when she was three years old.  Of course I didn’t let her actually light the fire, but she had fun getting rocks to make the outer circle and building a teepee out of sticks.  Now that she is five, I still don’t let her actually light the fire.  But, if she were lost in the wilderness, I am confident that she’d be able to do it to survive.

Warmth also means staying dry, which is why it is important for your kids to have a waterproof jacket in their hiking packs.  The same goes for adults, by the way!


3. Shelter

I bet your kids already know how to make an outdoor survival shelter.  They just don’t call them shelters.  They call them “forts.”   The next time you go hiking, go ahead and have some fun building a fort with your kids.  There are a whole bunch of different ways to build them quickly out of branches.



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About the author /

Diane Vukovic grew up camping and backpacking in upstate New York. Now, she takes her own daughters on wilderness adventures so they can connect with nature and learn resiliency. With dozens of trips under her belt, Diane is an expert in minimalist camping, going lightweight, planning, and keeping her kids entertained without screens.

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