Lost-Proofing your Kids

Image you are outdoors with your family or friends – and your kids – when you realize that a child has wandered off and is missing! Many of us have probably joked about being "temporarily disoriented" but actually being lost or having someone be missing is definitely a much more serious situation.

The Science of SAR Getting lost can be a scary situation, for anyone – but especially for kids. In recent years, from researching thousands of Search and Rescue (SAR) missions, a reliable statistical reference base had been developed that does a pretty good job of profiling the anticipated actions of people who become "lost". Among that study group are sub-groups of children stats broken down by age groups – and then further broken out by a whole list of contributing factors that tend to influence behavior patterns in varies scenarios.

A definitive work in this field is Lost Person Behavior – A Search and Rescue Guide on Where to Look – For Land, Air and Water. Author Robert J. Koester used information gathered from over 16,000 searches and 50,000 SAR incidents to develop a series of stats and patterns to be employed by SAR agencies in finding a wide profile range of victims as quickly as possible. Koester makes an interesting – and important – observation right from the start. He says the term "lost" is from the person reporting's perspective, not from that of the person "missing". That person may not even consider themselves "missing" and will behave differently from a person who is actually lost.

Compiling SAR statistics on searches for missing persons can be traced back at least to the late 18th century when Father Lorenzo at the St. Gothard Hospice in Switzerland began keeping track of the number of victims saved by the famous St. Bernard dogs sent out by the monastery to find lost travelers. Today it's an evolving science used by a variety of agencies throughout the world. What the stats are showing are consistent patterns of behavior that guide rescuers to victims with a statistical rate of success in most cases. Some of these include:

  • 50% of all searches find the victim in under 4 hours (3:10);
  • 81% are then found within 12 hour;
  • 93% are found the first day;
  • 99% are all found within 50 hours.

The overall average time it takes to find a missing/lost person is 16 hours but is skewed upward by the data from those few greatly extended searches included in the calculations.

It's also important to note that these victims have become lost during normal outdoor activities for the most part, not in some exotic, foreign environment. Koester found that almost 60% of campers become lost in the immediate vicinity of their campsite. Typically 78% of those found are mobile and responsive; 8% are responsive but immobile; 2% are mobile and unresponsive while sadly 12% are neither – they are the bodies "recovered", not persons "rescued".

How Kids Tend to Act: 

In the case of children and adolescents, knowing how young person will probably react to being lost helps establish methods for finding them and also in developing techniques to keep them from becoming lost – or at least minimizing the situation – in the first place.

Like most learning processes, "lost-proofing" is enhanced by anticipating actions and circumstances and applying methods designed to reduce the chances of becoming lost or by further enhancing the chances of being rescued recommended by groups such as "Hug-A-Tree".

Children become lost due to many actions such as taking shortcuts or cutting switchbacks. Smaller children may be drawn off the trail by their innocent curiosity and some are purposefully "lost" due to a negative family/social incident. Oftentimes concerned parents or friends believe they know the actions their child will take such as: "She can't walk far away" or "He would never cross the highway".

Another problem with background information about the victim – it is often incorrect or, at the very least, misleading. In one classic case a wife described her missing husband as being 52 years old - 6'4" tall - "athletic" in stature - and weighing 180 lbs. She also said that he did not wear glasses. Luckily a man walked out of the woods where SAR rescuers learned he was, indeed, the missing husband. He looked to be in his mid-60's, he was only 5'11" and he had a pot belly (230 lbs.). Not only that – he was wearing glasses!

Two steps to help SAR members in locating and identifying your child is by providing a current photo to the search coordinator along with a foil impression of the footprint of the shoes/boots they typically wear outdoors (especially if you have a designated pair that are their "special camping/hiking" boots).

Age Behavior Factors: 

Koester breaks down ages into 5 groups: 1-3/4-6/7-9/10-12/13-15. Each subgroup tends to act in a certain way, many that overlap through the transition to the next older age group:

1 – 3 years old: By age 3 children have a concept of "lost"; tend to wander aimlessly; are attracted to water and animals; do NOT respond to whistles or calls; tend to sleep through loud noises; tend to find shelter.

4 – 6 years old: They understand "lost" and will try to return; target to turn around-focus on end points; tend to roam 50% beyond their presumed "home range"; are attracted to animals; tend to follow trails or tracks, take shortcuts (but not those adults might assume they would use); seek familiar landmarks, are usually told not to talk to strangers.

7-9 years old: Intentionally hide for fear of punishment or are seeking attention, have more developed directional skills; have mental maps but are often distorted; can be lost over 400% beyond "home range"; often get lost due to shortcuts, fantasy play, exploring; those who stay put do so in structures or near familiar areas.

10-12 years old: Are lost beyond 93% of "home range" distance; their skill at scanning for familiar landmarks is equal to that of an adult; tend to take shortcuts; tend to fantasize and explore; have same fears as adults but with greater emotion; 50% are found in structures.

13-15 years old: Actions similar to adults but lack experience and maturity; more likely to be in a group – and if so, tend to stay together; have good survivability.

Other behavior patterns include a tendency of small children to move uphill (33%) compared to 7% of adult hikers and hunters who move uphill. Researchers are seeing more movement uphill due to an increase in cell phone use outdoors (attaining height to find a better signal).

These behavior patterns and years of experience by SAR volunteers and researchers have developed methods that can either reduce the likelihood of becoming lost or can optimize the chances of being found. "Lost-proofing" your child (and yourself perhaps) therefore becomes an exercise in being proactive and prepared for staying found as well as how best to react when lost.


One of the best and most well known programs was developed in British Columbia: Hug-A-Tree. It was developed by two searchers after an attempt to find a lost 9-yr. old boy ended four days later when he was found - he had died from exposure. Full details of this program are available atwww.ussartf.org/child_survival_.htm.

The Hug-A-Tree concept offers 9 easy-to-follow steps to teach children what they can do to be found if they ever become lost. For parents, it offers tips and reminders for "lost proofing" your children as well.

Here they are, with a few tips to complement each rule. Explain to children that these things they can do to help them "survive" - which means staying warm and dry, and waiting to be found:

9 Rules for Survival 

    (It's important to explain to children why they should do these things):
  • STAY TOGETHER – Don't separate, from a friend or a pet. You want to stay warm, so snuggle together. Keep them close by your side.
  • STAY IN ONE PLACE – Don't wander off - HUG A TREE! People are looking for you to bring you home so don't run – and you could fall and hurt yourself.
  • KEEP WARM – Keep all your clothes on and fasten them up. Try to cover all exposed skin and your head. It's important to stay dry too, because being wet makes you even colder.
  • FIND A PLACE TO WAIT – DO NOT HIDE – People are looking for you and should find you soon, so stay put. Don’t be afraid, just stay warm. Try to stay somewhere you can be seen – or hear people calling for you. Staying under a tree is usually good unless there is lightning. They should then pick a medium tree (a mama tree) in a group of trees, not a tall "papa" tree – especially a tree standing alone.
  • PUT ON SOMETHING BRIGHT – Wear something bright that you can use to make a signal - but never take off any clothing. Make a big signal (an "X" on the ground as long and wide as a school bus) if you can. Or wave something that will attract attention from far away or if someone is looking down from a search plane.
  • LOOK BIGGER FOR SEARCHERS - Your waiting place should be near an opening or clearing so when you hear an airplane or helicopter you can move out into that space and make yourself BIG by lying down and spreading out your arms and legs like you are making an angel in the snow. The ground can be very cold so once the plane flies over, get back up. Be as big as you can be so the pilot can see you.
  • DO NOT LIE ON THE BARE GROUND – It's OK to lie down when you are making your signal. Other times though, you need to be off the ground so you stay warm. Making a bed of leaves, grass or moss that is as thick as the mattress you sleep on at home can help keep you warmer.
  • DO NOT EAT ANYTHING YOU ARE NOT SURE OF - Unless you are absolutely sure what kind of berry or other food it is, don't eat it! You can go a long time without eating anything at all, so don't worry about food.
  • STAY AWAY FROM LARGE RIVERS & LAKES – You should drink water, but be careful you don't fall in. Look for water in small streams, puddles and even dew or raindrops settled on branches that you can wipe off with a cloth, ring out and drink.

Being Pro-Active & "Lost-Proofing":

There are several pro-active steps that can help prepare you and your child should they become lost. Many of these steps are part of basic survival and self-reliance procedures that can be called upon during emergency incidents in the field.

• Bright clothing – Choosing a bright jacket or other item of clothing when shopping for outdoor wear gives you a bright piece of material to be used as flagging for a signal. You may want to consider a special outdoor outfit or "uniform" for kids for them to wear outdoors – make it bright and perhaps treat it as a reward for trusting them to be an official "outdoorsman". A bright raincoat works for adults, too – as a signal and body shelter.

• Make a foil footprint – SAR volunteers may come across a scattering of footprints – which one is your child's? Take a sheet of aluminum foil and lay it out on the carpet. Carefully have a child step onto it so they make a clean impression of the sole of the footwear they typically use outdoors. Put the child's name on the foil.

• Plastic Yard Bag (a bright one!) – An appropriate-sized bag can be slipped over the head and used as a poncho to keep dry and warm. ALWAYS tear a hole into the side of the bag large enough for their face to fit through BEFORE you give it to a child. Make it part of their basic "survival" kit and explain how very important it is to stay dry and warm.

• Current photo – It helps SAR personnel to know what the lost/missing person looks like. Carry a good photo of each child that clearly shows them close up and includes their name and a current description on the back.

• Make Noise – Give each child – and adult – a signaling whistle (one without a rattling pea inside that can get stuck and not work). Make sure your child understand that it is not a toy! Tell them they can make a long, loud sound from a whistle a lot longer than they can yell. Tell them to blow three blasts on the whistle, then wait for a response.

• Afraid of animals? – Tell children if they hear or see an animal to stay still and make a loud noise (blow their whistle). Animals are usually always more afraid of people and will run off. A trained SAR dog will still be able to lead searchers to you.

• Don't talk to strangers? – A good lesson for most situations - except when being sought by a searcher. Explain to kids who good "strangers" can be. Give them a special nickname or word and let them know that if someone uses that word or name, they are probably someone trying to help them. Most SAR volunteers/authorities will be able to use a phone to contact parents who can then reassure their child that the stranger is not going to harm them.

• Stay on Trails/Pick out landmarks – Teach children the importance of staying on the trail, not wandering off. Teach them to look for prominent landmarks along the way that they will recognize again later.

• Deal with it! – If you are lost, admit it right away – start using your head, it's your best survival tool. If someone is missing – call the sheriff or other authorities right away! Time is essential.

Staying Found 

There are many aspects that ultimately affect our situation from being "temporarily disoriented" to becoming totally lost! Learning basic outdoor skills and emergency procedures is as proactive way to deal with such incidents. Getting your kids involved in the outdoors and guiding them along as they gain expertise help, too. Perhaps setting up your own program of educating every member of your family to the basic rules of lost-proofing and Hug-A-Tree rules will make it easier for you to work at staying found!

Be safe! Have fun out there! Take a kid along!

Tom Watson is an avid sea kayaker and freelance writer. For more of Tom's paddling tips and gear reviews go to his website: www.wavetameradventures.comHe has written 2 books, "Kids Gone Paddlin" and "How to Think Like A Survivor" that are available on Amazon.com.

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