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Survival Skills

Prepare, practice these tips to keep kids safe outdoors

Prepare, practice these tips to keep kids safe outdoors

In an instant, the backpacking trip in Idaho’s Sawtooth Mountains turned from an idyllic family outing to every parent’s nightmare.

By Leon Pantenburg

One moment, my son Daniel, 16 months old at the time, was playing around the campsite. In the next, despite the close supervision of four adults, he had vanished.

Though warmly dressed, this youngster would be hard to find if she got lost in the winter woods. Her clothing blends in with the surroundings and there is no whistle attached to her coat.

The adults immediately split up to search for Dan. I sprinted back down to the lake, while my wife, Debbie, ran the other way, up the hill. Out of the corner of her eye, Debbie caught a flash of Dan’s bright red jacket as he disappeared over the rise. She collared the would-be wanderer, who thought the chase was part of a game.

We took my oldest son, Dan, on his first backpacking trip when he was five months old. Debbie carried him and all the paraphernalia associated with an infant, and I carried all the camping gear.  When my brother, Mike, went backpacking with us, he and I would split the weight up. We didn’t go far, but we still managed to get back into the mountains, away from most of the crowds.

Infants are easy to take along, as long as you have properly prepared their gear. They can’t wander off, and a tarp in the sunlight, along with some favorite toys, quickly turns them into happy campers. And talk about fantastic  memories!

The difficulty starts when kids reach the toddler stage and before they’re old enough to go to kindergarten. Kids in this age group have boundless energy and curiosity, no concept of danger, and a near suicidal lack of  common sense. By the time children reach kindergarten age, they are generally considered old enough to be taught. But if you’re taking a little kid into the backcountry, plan on spending all your time on full alert.

Here are some steps to make your child as safe as possible, and outing preparation should start long before you arrive at the trailhead. These tips have worked well with all three of my children:

* Always dress kids in bright clothing. Soft, muted earth tones or black or white jackets are like camouflage, and the youngsters should be highly visible at all times. You may want to take along some fluorescent duct tape and/or flagging and attach it to the youngsters so they will be even more visible. ALL FLORESCENT FLAGGING TAPE

* Permanently attach a whistle on their coats or somewhere it won’t be lost. Explain that the whistle is always to be carried with them and only used if they get separated. Fox 40 Pearl Safety – Pink

* Teach them (and practice) the drumming game: Teach the child that if separated from the group, find a tree and a stick and start hitting it to make noise. Blow the whistle as part of the game.

* The usual rules about not talking to strangers are suspended if the child gets lost in the wilderness. Explain that there will be many nice people trying to help find him or her, and these searchers will know the child’s name. You don’t want the child hiding from rescuers. Re-enforce this idea as you hike, so they don’t forget.

* Keep them hydrated and fed, even if separated from you: Dehydration in the wilderness is a danger to anyone. For youngsters, especially, it can be deadly. My kids each had a bladder-style hydration system, which work well. CamelBak Skeeter Kid’s Hydration Pack The novelty of  being able to drink out of a drinking tube, and the fact that the system was carried like a backpack, means the child probably won’t lose their water.  If the child is lost, it may take several hours to find them, and they will need to drink. It’s also a good idea to put snacks in the backpack part of the bladder backpack, so the child learns to look there for food. Clif Kid Zbar Variety Pack – 8 Chocolate Chip, 8 Chocolate Brownie and 8 Honey Graham per Box

Here are some child safety recommendations from Deschutes County (Oregon) Sheriff’s Office Search and Rescue:

* Everybody stays together.

* Teach the children that if they get lost or separated, to sit down, stay put, drink water and eat their snacks.

* Look bigger for searchers: Your waiting space, if possible, should be near an open space. Blow your whistle if you hear or see anybody!

* Don’t lie down on bare ground.

* Stay away from large rivers and lakes.

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Survival Skills

Leon Pantenburg is a wilderness enthusiast, and doesn't claim to be a survival expert or expertise as a survivalist. As a newspaperman and journalist for three decades, covering search and rescue, sheriff's departments, floods, forest fires and other natural disasters and outdoor emergencies, Leon learned many people died unnecessarily or escaped miraculously from outdoor emergency situations when simple, common sense might have changed the outcome. Leon now teaches common sense techniques to the average person in order to avert potential disasters. His emphasis is on tried and tested, simple techniques of wilderness survival. Every technique, piece of equipment or skill recommended on this website has been thoroughly tested and researched. After graduating from Iowa State University, Leon completed a six-month, 2,552-mile solo Mississippi River canoe trip from the headwaters at Lake Itasca, Minn., to the Gulf of Mexico. His wilderness backpacking experience includes extended solos through Yellowstone’s backcountry; hiking the John Muir Trail in California, and numerous shorter trips along the Pacific Crest Trail. Other mountain backpacking trips include hikes through the Uintas in Utah; the Beartooths in Montana; the Sawtooths in Idaho; the Pryors, the Wind River Range, Tetons and Bighorns in Wyoming; Rocky Mountain National Park in Colorado, the Catskills in New York and Death Valley National Monument in southern California. Some of Leon's canoe trips include sojourns through the Okefenokee Swamp and National Wildlife Refuge in Georgia, the Big Black River swamp in Mississippi and the Boundary Waters canoe area in northern Minnesota and numerous small river trips in the Midwest and Pacific Northwest. Leon is also an avid fisherman and an elk, deer, upland game and waterfowl hunter. Since 1991, Leon has been an assistant scoutmaster with Boy Scout Troop 18 in Bend, and is a scoutmaster wilderness skills trainer for the Boy Scouts’ Fremont District. Leon earned a second degree black belt in Taekwondo, and competed in his last tournament (sparring and form) at age 49. He is an enthusiastic Bluegrass mandolin picker and fiddler and two-time finalist in the International Dutch Oven Society’s World Championships.

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