Hiking with Kids Blog

Keep kids safe while hiking

We were nearing the 4,800-foot top of snow-streaked April Bowl on the Fourth of July when my friend Lisa noticed a dot moving slowly across the lush green valley far below and outside the steep-walled mountain basin where we stood.


It wasn’t a bear—the dot’s gait looked human—but that’s about all we could discern from that distance. We stood in the frigid wind, watching and wondering why a hiker would choose to climb the steepest, tallest part of the Bowl from that direction, when the wind paused and we heard what sounded like crying and a scream: “Daddy!”

Why was a child wandering alone in a nearly deserted, secluded area of Hatcher Pass, especially in cold, windy weather? Perhaps the adult who had been caring for the child fell or—the most scary possibility—was attacked by a bear or wolf. That was one of our first thoughts.

Lisa and I immediately rushed down the rocky and then tundra-caped slope, waving, calling and keeping the still-moving dot in sight.

The dot was, indeed, a child. He was a 7-year-old boy —we’ll call him Jon—who had come to Hatcher Pass in a white van with his dad and a big group of people.

Jon’s dad and the others with him planned to hike up April Bowl. Despite snow along the route that was obvious from the trailhead parking lot, Jon wasn’t wearing a hat or coat—just sweatpants, sneakers, T-shirt, a thin cotton sweatshirt and thin gloves.

The weather became more chilly and windy as the trail ascended. Jon grew cold while hiking, so he huddled in the shelter of a low crescent-shaped wall made of rocks, part of the way up the Bowl, while his dad and others in the group hiked on to Hatch Peak.

Somehow the group split into two groups, and each group thought the other group was taking care of Jon.

No one was taking care of Jon, however. He had felt so cold he decided to leave his rocky windbreak and make his way down to the van. He did not go back down the trail, and didn’t realize when he descended the steep slope outside April Bowl that he was heading in the opposite direction from his dad’s van, into wilderness.

Lisa and I earlier had passed Jon’s dad and his group, as well as the other group, while trudging up the first segment of the ridge trail.

Jon seemed unhurt when we reached him. He wasn’t hungry or thirsty, but did say he was very cold.

We quickly put a warm hat on his head and had him don a windproof, insulated coat one of us had been wearing— it covered most of his legs and the sleeves dangled almost to the ground, but at least Jon was protected from the freezing wind.

We guided him back up the steep side of the Bowl ridge and asked him for his dad’s phone number. Jon didn’t know what it was.

We could see the parking area in the distance, northwest of us, with people next to a white van. There was no one scurrying up the trail, however. We guided Jon down, helping him negotiate the loose rocks and sloping snowfield in our path.

We were off the ridge and in the “bowl” of April Bowl when we saw a man with a trio of friends bee-lining for the trail we had just left.

Relief flooded the man’s face when he saw his little boy, safe.

Lisa and I each have young children and we frequently take them hiking.

Our encounter with Jon reminded us how critical it is to properly supervise children on a hiking outing. It also reminded us how important it is to teach children what they need to know if they get lost and items they need to wear and have with them to be prepared for the unexpected.

Some tips:

• Don’t assume someone else is taking care of your child. If a large group is hiking, check to be sure each child in the group is assigned to a specific and reliable adult who will be responsible for keeping track of that child. Tell each child which adult they should be staying close to.

• Count heads at the beginning and end of a hike and check frequently during a hike to be sure each child is accounted for. Consider getting walkie-talkies so different groups or people can communicate during an outing, when cell phones might not be usable.

• Have an adult act as “sweep” during the outing, hiking at the very back of the group to be sure no children lagging behind get separated or lost.
• Teach a child his parents’ names and phone numbers. He should also know his address. If a child is very young, attach that information to the inside of his jacket before going hiking.

• Have the child wear noncotton layers of clothing. If it’s cold, he should have long underwear, warm hat and gloves, pants and shirt, a fleece, a windproof jacket and pants and, if it’s very frigid outside, a down or otherwise insulated coat. Cotton won’t keep a child warm if it gets wet or sweaty.

• Have the child carry a small backpack or fanny pack. My daughter, now 10, wore a Camelbak-style fanny pack when she was younger and graduated to a school-sized pack with waist belt and sternum strap last year. In it she carries a long-underwear shirt or fleece, rainproof shell, extra socks sealed in a Ziploc bag, snacks in a Ziploc or Tupperware-type container, Nalgene bottle of water, warm hat and gloves, adhesive bandages in a Ziploc, headlamp, small plastic garbage bag, bug dope towelettes and a whistle.

• A child is usually taught to stay put as soon as he realizes he is lost, to wait for someone to find him. Jon didn’t do this; he was fortunate someone just happened to look down and in his direction at the right moment while he was wandering, lost.

• And the most important tip: Teach children basic survival skills: examples include why it’s not a good idea to drink water from a stream, how to put together a makeshift shelter, using a whistle to summon help, what to do if they see a bear or other animal.

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