Could Your Child Survive Alone in the Woods?

If your family enjoys spending the weekends outdoors, it's never too early to teach children what to do if they're lost in the woods. Sergey Slabzheninov/Shutterstock

For any parent, the idea of your children wondering lost and alone in the wilderness is a terrifying one. A family in California had their worst fears come true on March 1, 2019.

Two sisters, ages 8 and 5, miraculously survived 44 hours alone in the woods in freezing temperatures. But it wasn't just luck that kept them safe. They relied of survival skills they had learned from their 4-H club, according to their mother.

Leia Carrico told a local news reporter that she and her 5-year-old sister Caroline drank water from huckleberry leaves, found shelter under a fallen branch and used a rain jacket to keep them warm at night, reports CNN. Leia even started a fire by rubbing a round stick between her hands into a plank of wood and said she kept watch most of the night while trying to reassure her younger sister. The girls also sang as loud as they could — hoping their dad would hear them.

Firefighters found the girls on March 3 more than 1 mile away from their house after hearing their voices. Despite being dehydrated and hungry, they were in good spirits. Upon finding them, their parents were overcome with emotion.

"They did the right thing," said their mom Misty Carrico. "They saved each other. I'm the proudest mom. I raised superheroes."

These girls' heroic story is evidence that it's never too early to teach kids the fundamentals of wilderness survival.

Survival starts with the basics

It’s worth remembering that there is a clear hierarchy of skills in terms of actual usefulness — particularly for children this age. According to Rich Johnson of Outdoor Life, survival skills for children can be summed up by four key lessons:

1. Stay in one place: Even when very young children get lost, they can often wonder many miles from where they were last seen. Johnson’s article includes the tragic case of one child who left his dad fishing to walk 200 yards back to their camp to change his shoes. The boy somehow got lost, and wondered off, and was never found again. Encouraging children to stay in one place as soon as they realize they are lost is one of the single most important ways to keep them safe.

2. Be seen and heard: Shouting, using mirrors, waving brightly colored clothing, putting shiny objects out in the open. These are all ways to be seen and heard. It’s crucial to tell your kids — especially if they’ve been taught to be wary of strangers — that rescuers are there to help them. According to Johnson, sometimes children who are panicked in the woods will avoid rescuers for fear of "stranger danger."

3. Stay warm and dry: Wearing clothes to protect from rain and hypothermia is important, and children can improvise shelter from logs, rock formations or trees. It’s important, however, that they don’t hide too well. Leaving personal items out in the open can be a good way to tip searchers off to their presence, even as they stay dry.

4. Be patient, don’t panic: This can be the hardest concept for a young child to grasp, and that’s why Paul Osborn’s, outdoorsman and creator of the website The Outdoor Adventure, focus on psychological comfort and keeping occupied is so important. The more confidence you can instill in your children that there will be search parties and rescuers out looking for them, the less they will be likely to get panicked and walk further into the wilderness.

Creating a survival kit tailored for children

For Osborn, fear that this could happen to his own child became an inspiration to do something about it.

Working with his 5-year-old daughter for a kindergarten school project, the pair assembled a small survival kit that would help her stay safe should she get separated from the group on one of the family’s many hiking trips.

While the kit includes plenty of practical items that would provide for a child’s physical needs (rain poncho, survival blanket, signal mirror, flashlight, emergency whistle), Paul was also savvy enough to include several items that are more about psychological well-being and a sense of hope.

For example a fire steel and striker, while useful for a skilled adult or teen, is hardly of practical use for a 5-year-old. It is, however, a great way to keep a determined and resourceful child occupied until help arrives.

Ultimately, most children who do get lost will be found fairly quickly. But whether you hike in the wilderness with children or not, it’s worth building their confidence and their ability to make rational decisions about their own safety. Not only will these skills keep them safe if they do ever need to use them, but they will also teach your children a thing or two about the real nature of the natural world. And that can only be a good thing.