Preparing for time in the woods — Good Parenting



ThinkstockPhotos 200117127 001Dear Dr. Debbie,

We have started taking the family on a couple of short hikes in preparation for tent camping in a national forest in a few weeks. My husband is a much more experienced outdoorsman than I am, so this is helping me as much as the kids, ages 8 and 6. While I have been taught how to avoid tics and poison ivy, I worry that our adventurous six-year-old or the self-confident eight-year-old will wander off and get lost in the woods. At the same time, I don’t want to seem over-anxious by making them stay by my side the whole time. Is there a “fun” safety drill, like “stop, look, and listen” and “stop, drop, and roll” for this?

Long Pants, Long Sleeves

Don’t miss last week’s column Adopting twin toddlers — Good Parenting

Dear LPLS,

Your children are at an age when they can be expected to carry out some safety precautions on their own. Up to the age of five, children are too prone to impulsivity to be able to recall every safety lesson when an emergency happens. But even preschoolers can learn procedures to follow in a playful, but serious way. Be sure to devote some time for the family to practice these drills.

The simple message for children to memorize is “Hug a Tree.” Here are simple actions that a child can follow to keep himself from being lost in the woods for long.

Essential Equipment
Each hiker should carry: water, a whistle, a large trash bag, and if there is a chance of cold temperatures overnight, a heat-reflective emergency blanket.
Practice the use of the whistle to find each other a long ways off. The “I am lost / I’m right here” alert is three short blasts, a pause, and three more blasts; repeat until found. You can practice this in your home on a rainy day as a version of hide and seek. Or take it outside to your community park or playground. Curious families may want to join in the game if you explain it to them! The trash bag is to be used for shelter – show your child how to rip a neck hole in the bottom, so he can put it on over his head to keep his body warm and dry.

Directional Wisdom
When you are outside on a sunny day, take note of the shadows. Teach your children how the sun can help us to use North, South, East, and West to plan a route between two points and back again. Treasure hunts – with cryptic clues from a pirate – are a fun way to put compass directions to practical use. This knowledge comes in handy for knowing which way you are heading so you can come back the opposite way.
Landmarks are good way to take mental note of the things you pass along a trail so you can return by following them backwards. On one of your short hikes, name a few trees by their appearance or personality. At the end of the trail, quiz the children to list them in reverse order: Crooked Man, Lollipop Tree, Umbrella, or whatever.

I’m Lost Protocol
Rehearse, safe at home or in your local park, what a child should do when he realizes he is lost.
1. Hug a tree. Pick one and stay there. You will be easier to find than if you are moving around.
2. Blow your whistle. Three toots and a pause. Repeat. The sound goes further than your voice can.
3. Pretend it’s getting colder, starting to rain, or getting dark and make a shelter out of the trash bag. Cover your head but not your face.
4. Blow the whistle some more.
5. Since parents will be calling 9-1-1 to a get a rescue crew as soon as they realize you are missing, expect a stranger’s voice to be calling out your name. (Pretend to be the helpful stranger who calls for your child to answer back, “I’m over here!”)

More to Know
Since the Hug-A-Tree and Survive protocol was developed in 1981 following a failed search in California, many lost children have been quickly recovered. Schools, scouts, and other community groups are the perfect setting for a group training. The Hug-A-Tree and Survive program now has several online resources 
echoing these simple but life-saving procedures to follow. Other countries have joined the movement to arm children and parents to prevent tragedy. Canada’s Adventure Smart webpage  includes a 12-minute video you can watch as a family.

Here’s an uplifting quote from Stephen King, author of countless fantasy calamities: “There’s no harm in hoping for the best as long as you’re prepared for the worst.”

A little precaution should ease your mind.

Dr. Debbie

Deborah Wood is a child development specialist in Annapolis. She has a doctorate in Human Development from the University of Maryland at College Park and is founding director of the Chesapeake Children’s Museum. Long-time fans and new readers can find many of her “Understanding Children” columns archived on the Chesapeake Family Magazine website. You can find her online at

Click here for more parenting advice by Debbie Wood.

What do you think? Email your comments or questions to Dr. Debbie at editor[at]