Outdoor safety and survival skills are crucial for outdoor enthusiasts. But what about adventuring families? What safety and survival skills should parents and children know for exploring the great outdoors? The majority of our outdoor adventures are uneventful but we have encountered several situations that have highlighted the importance of being prepared. This spring we have found ourselves briefly lost on Mount Kobau, nearly out of water at the top of McIntyre Bluff, caught in a thunderstorm on Ellis Creek Canyon Trail and in close proximity to bears on the Trout Creek Trail. While we came away from these adventures unharmed, these experiences have taught us valuable lessons. So, drawing from our own experiences, I have decided to compiled a list of nine tips to help adventuring families explore the great outdoors safely and confidently.
1) Be Prepared.
Taking your children hiking is a fun and rewarding experience, but like any activity things can and do happen, so it is important to be prepared. For starters knowing some basic safety and survival skills will keep you calm if unexpected situations happen. This preparation can be done by reading books, signing up for a basic first aid course and/or taking a survival course. Outdoor Safety & Survival, a book written by Mike Nash (from Prince George, BC!), is one of the most approachable books that I have read on the topic and I highly recommend it.
Another aspect of preparedness is having the right equipment. This means having good hiking gear and outerwear for yourself and your children and bringing some basic safety and survival items. For easy hikes close to town we carry a small first aid kit, water and energy filled snacks. For anything longer, more technical, further away and/or out of cell range we carry many more items such as extra clothes and outerwear, bear spray, a knife, water purification tablets and/or life-straw, headlamp, storm-proof matches, survival blankets, piece of rope, compass and map. Another tip is to bring a long strip of duct tape wrapped around a water bottle; it can fix a lot of things! At first it might seem silly to carry all these extra items but I am grateful for having them if the unexpected does happen.
2) Teach Children Outdoor Safety and Survival Skills.
Hiking safely is a skill, and just like any other skill it needs to be taught. The Hug-A-Tree and Survive Program teaches children basic outdoor survival skills and can be done online or through a local Search-And-Rescue organization. We talk about these skills often and even role play them occasionally. Children can also learn to be prepared by carrying their own backpack with water, snacks, a whistle and a survival blanket (and knowing how to use them). Before we go hiking my kids are responsible for checking their packs to ensure that they are properly prepared. Other important hiking skills for children to learn include: staying together as a group, paying attention to their surroundings, being aware of dangerous plants (poison ivy), and respecting wildlife.
3) Know the Trail.
As a parent it’s important to feel comfortable with the trails you and you children are exploring. Take the time to learn about trails from books or on the internet, and bring a map, mapping device (cell phone or GPS unit) and/or a compass. Sometimes information on a trail may be lacking or out-of-date. If you are unsure about a trail go with someone that is familiar with it or scout the trail beforehand with a couple friends.
4) Consider the Weather.
Children are at greater risk for developing heat or cold related problems with weather extremes. If it’s very hot children can dehydrate quickly and experience heat exhaustion or if its very cold children can lose heat quickly and become hypothermic. Be sure to consider the weather before going out and prepare accordingly. For instance, we avoid hiking with our children on exposed trails during hot summer afternoons in the Okanagan Valley.
5) Start Easy.
From an early age children are curious about the natural world and want to explore it. It’s important to foster this curiosity and make outdoor exploration an important part of childhood. When my children were very young we would go on little adventures in parks and on easy paths close to home. Now that my children are getting older, stronger and more independent we are beginning to explore trails that are more complex and further away. Whether children are younger or older, if hiking is a relatively new adventure for your family start on easier trails to build skill, endurance and confidence.
6) Let Children Lead.
When we go hiking my children want to take the lead. A friend of mine, whose children are now adults, shared that by letting his children take the lead it allowed them to set the pace and stop when they needed a rest. He found that his children went farther and faster this way and I couldn’t agree more! Also, being in the lead fosters an atmosphere of adventure! My children know that if they are in the lead they must always be in sight (no running ahead out of view). And, of course, there are times when letting children lead is unsafe such as when navigating a technical trail or if there is evidence of bear activity.
7) Keep Groups Small.
When it comes to hiking with children I have experienced a wide spectrum of group sizes, from very large to just myself and my children. What I’ve learned is that hiking with large groups of children and parents can be challenging, sometimes even chaotic and unsafe. This is partly because there can be a wide range in ages and abilities and lack of leadership. That’s not to say that hiking with a big group of children cannot be done, it just means the leaders need to spend some extra time considering the logistics. In Outdoor Safety & Survival the recommended groups size ranges from three to twelve (3-12) depending on the type of hiking adventure. Generally, I find it safe and enjoyable to hike as a family unit or with one or two other families.
8) Have a Contingency Plan.
There was a recent incident in Prince George, BC where a father went hiking with his two-year-old daughter and broke his leg in a freak accident. Thankfully someone came to his aid, and everyone was fine in the end. The point of the story is that things can happen so it is important tell someone where you are going and when you plan to return. This is especially important if you are hiking as a family or out solo with your children. If you do hike solo with your children it is a good idea to teach your older child what to do in the event that you are injured and need help. It’s always a good idea to carry cell phone if you are hiking within cell service or a satellite communication device such as a SPOT, inReach or FastFind if your adventures are taking you to more remote areas.
9) Make Hiking Fun!
Hiking with children is always an adventure! Sometimes it can be challenging but it can still be fun. It helps to choose hikes that have lots of interesting features (creeks, waterfalls, rocks). While hiking, its important take the time to appreciate nature. Bring along a plant identification book to identify plants, dip your toes in the creek, look for fairy homes and appreciate the views together. Also, I find that it helps to make small goals along a hike and to stop often for “energy breaks”. If things get challenging try telling a story or even singing your favourite songs. A friend of mine would tell stories to his sons but would stop the stories when they stopped, thereby encouraging them to keep walking. There are many way to make hiking a fun experience for the whole family so be creative, go explore and have fun!