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Keeping Kids Safe on Trail and in Camp

How do we ensure that kids explore outdoors as safely as possible without quashing their fun? WTA runs down tips to keep kids safe on trail and in camp.

Sticking close to a buddy on the Squak Mountain Access Trail. Photo by Susan Fairchild.

If you've ever held your breath as a four-year old runs headlong down a rooty or rocky trail, or as a ten-year old carelessly waves a marshmallow torch toward his sister's hair, you know that safety with kids in camp and on trail is paramount.

But it is also harder in the backcountry. One reason why kids love to camp and hike is because there is a certain amount of freedom and risk that they don't get at home. You want them to explore their boundaries, but not too much. The question becomes, how do we let them explore outdoors as safely as possible without quashing their fun?

Preparation is Key

Tote a well-stocked First-Aid kit. That's the first piece of advice from WTA staffer and mom, Susan Elderkin. Whether it's a half-mile nature loop or a five-mile backpack with her kids, she always carries a First-Aid kit.

She suggested purchasing a stocked kit from an outdoor store and then supplementing with items specific for kids: Bactine for cleaning wounds without the ouch, a variety of bandages for little fingers or big scrapes, children's Tylenol and a bug bite stick.

Dress for success. Don't get caught without an essential. Make sure you have everything you will need in your backpack. Dress the kids in layers, allowing them to cool down and warm up as the conditions change. Even on hot days, a summit can have a cold wind, a waterfall a freezing mist or a meadow  a swarm of mosquitoes.

Being able to take off and put on clothing is a key to a happy hiker and safety. And always take a raincoat. Conditions in the mountains can change very quickly.

Pack plenty of food and water. Kids should eat and drink regularly along the trail. Food can be both a motivator and a rejuvenator; water is absolutely essential. If your kid is flagging, consider whether he has drunk enough water. Dehydration can be extremely dangerous, and kids often don't even know when they are extremely thirsty. Bring extra water.

Stopping for a Snack on the Skyline Divide Trail. Photo by Darct Mitchem

Set on-trail Expectations

Setting expectations with the kids before embarking on a hike or setting up camp is an essential safety step. Being clear and consistent at the outset gives a kid the ground rules and helps establish lifelong good etiquette. We asked parents around the office for their top five trail rules for kids. Here's what we got:

  1. Stay on the trail.
  2. No running and no throwing.
  3. Remain with the group - younger kids within eyesight; older kids within earshot.
  4. Always stop at a fork in the road and wait for others.
  5. Be courteous to other hikers by stepping aside and always ask politely to pass.

These rules are as important for a three-year-old as for a fifteen-year-old. Sometimes it is the older kid that can get into the most trouble by hiking on ahead and getting separated from the party.

Expectations in Camp

Establish ground rules around the fire before diving into marshmallow roasting. Photo by Heather Johnson.
The two biggest campground safety issues are the campfire and getting lost. When first arriving at the campsite, explore the area together and set up a perimeter around which the kids can explore.

If there are trails that lead off from the campsite into the forest, explore them yourself first. Many peter out, and once they do, it can be hard to find the way back. Make sure your camper knows her campsite number by heart so she can return if she gets turned around.

The campfire holds a special allure for both young and old. Take the opportunity to educate the kids about fire and directly supervise them at all times. Establish rules about how close they can come and what they are allowed to do. Special attention should be given to how much poking they are allowed to do in the flame, and how to keep said sticks safe from their companions.

Keep a bucket of water handy for when the fire needs to be extinguished. Always use established fire rings and put out campfires out cold to the touch when leaving the campsite or going to bed.

Make Sure the Kids Know What to Do if Lost

Equip kids with a whistle and teach them how to use it

Let's say that even with all of the preparation and expectations, your child gets lost. The final piece of essential gear for a kid should be a whistle. Attach it to a backpack or have them wear it like a necklace. Underscore that it is not a toy and should be used only in an emergency.

Three quick blows on a whistle means "I need help" or "I am lost." If a kid is lost, he should stay in one place and blow his whistle, counting to three between each toot. Then be quiet and listen for someone calling to them. This should be repeated every few minutes until he is found.