By Kristen Laine
"Parents are natural risk managers," says Aaron Gorban, AMC's manager for leadership training and risk management and the father of a young daughter. That protective concern, however, shouldn't keep parents and their children away from outdoor activities. By trying to avoid risks, Gorban says, parents may actually risk something more serious, in experiences lost and connections not made. By getting children outdoors, parents can provide important opportunities to learn and grow.
Gorban's first suggestion to parents: Do whatever it takes to get comfortable enough to bring your children outside. Read books and articles, get help from people with more experience, and if necessary, sign up for a class to learn new skills.
Second, Gorban suggests assessing children's sense of risk. Some have no fear. Some live in constant fear. "Parents need to be dialed into these dynamics," he says. "At AMC, we educate our leaders about how children may behave at different ages and at different developmental stages."
It can make a lot of sense for families new to outdoor activities to join outings that are organized by groups like the Appalachian Mountain Club. In these organized outings, parents and kids, both, can learn from others who are more experienced. AMC trip leaders, for example, undergo safety training, which includes wilderness first aid, and carry first aid kits.
Once parents have a basic level of familiarity with the outdoors—and a sense of what activities are appropriate for their children—they are ready to develop safety skills for the entire family. For short outings, these skills can look a lot like simple common sense, and parents and children can learn them together. HikeSafe, a joint program of the White Mountain National Forest and New Hampshire Fish and Game Department, offers a short list of safety guidelines that parents can teach children:
Dress appropriately for the outdoors. On a hike, wear sneakers or hiking boots, not sandals. Wear bright colors that make you easy to spot. Bring a jacket and extra clothes even if it's warm at home. Temperatures in the mountains are often cooler than in cities, and mountain weather is more variable.
Carry safety essentials — food, water, warm clothing, whistle, large garbage bag or rain poncho, flashlight or headlamp — with you on the trail. Even young children can carry small packs with these basic safety items.
Stay together. Keep to the trail. Wait at trail junctions.
If you get lost, stay in one place, preferably in the open. Stay warm and dry. Blow your whistle (three short blasts) every few minutes. If you hear a noise, make a noise back: It might be someone looking for you. Don't worry about wild animals (they'll try to avoid you) or your parents being angry.
AMC's "Lost and Alone" workshops teach children how to stay with a group in the outdoors and also what to do if they become separated from the group. Parents may be surprised by the attention their children give such lessons. And, of course, the safety whistles are always a big hit: "We give them about 15 seconds to blow them as loud as they can," says Gorban. "And then we tell them, OK, now it's a tool."
Courses can also help parents reach the next level of safety skills. AMC destinations and chapters offer map and compass courses that teach basic navigation in the woods. Although many trails are well marked, it's useful, Gorban notes, to know how to orient yourself if a trail sign is missing, or if you get turned around in the fog.
For more experienced hikers looking for advanced safety skills, Gorban recommends two-day Wilderness First Aid courses. Like map and compass courses, these are taught throughout the year at AMC destinations and through AMC chapters. The course teaches participants how to manage problems that may come up during a weeklong hiking trip and builds a "dynamic list" for first aid kits, depending on a changing set of variables. AMC also holds a more extensive two-week Wilderness First Responder course.
More safety tips from Aaron Gorban:
- For younger children, keep track of how much they're eating and drinking on the trail. Take frequent breaks to create down time for snacks. Use games like scavenger hunts along the trail to get food in them. Some parents bring drinks that are otherwise forbidden, such as sports drinks, to encourage drinking, or buy kids' daypacks with built-in hydration systems.
- Use pragmatic controls to minimize risk. For example, you can minimize the risk of mosquito-borne illnesses by avoiding going out at sunset, wearing long sleeves, and using appropriate insect repellents. Similarly, dress appropriately to avoid sunburn or frostbite; learn what's appropriate to the season and outing you are planning.
- With older kids, give them enough information to make wise decisions on their own about risk and health. At the start of AMC's Teen Wilderness Adventure trips, for example, some leaders circle up the teens, have them rub their hands together, and talk about heat and friction, which can cause blisters. The instructors remind the kids that if they get a blister in the first two hours of a weeklong hike, the entire trip, for everyone, will be affected.
- Watch for slips and falls. When children get hurt in the mountains, it's often because they're running or engaging in a behavior that makes them less aware of their surroundings. Or else they're just tired. "Fatigue is a commonality" in many accidents in the backcountry, Gorban notes. "Add wet or icy or slippery conditions or other environmental hazards" and it's more likely that an injury will occur.
Gorban would like to see parents move away from being concerned about the risks of being outdoors and focus instead on teaching children to assess and manage risks. "The outdoors is a perfect learning environment," he says.
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