In Our Backyard: Enjoy the Outdoors Safely

By Larry Malone

Part 2 of a 2-part series

Part 1 focused on preparations for hiking and walking in the outdoors, how to avoid and safely confront wildlife, and when needed, calling 911 to summon an extensive network of responders.  

The Nightmare Situation. This is the search and rescue operation professionals fear the most—a lost child. Fortunately, however, teaching aids have been developed to help lost children help themselves, their parents’ peace of mind, and their rescuers.

The Association of National Park Rangers has several resources specifically designed to help children avoid getting lost in the woods, and to teach them what to do should they become lost. Kids and their parents should learn these things together.

Within the ANPR website are the excellent Lost But Found Safe and Sound materials, including the Lost But Found video, the parents’ pamphlet, and presentation items.  The Shenandoah Mountain Rescue Group has incorporated the ANPR video into its own program, sited in Shenandoah National Park.  As stated in the video narrative:

“This 12-minute, professionally produced video is designed to show children, ages 4-12, what to do if they become lost in remote areas such as parks or forests. It follows the actions and thinking of 7-year-old Kelly, who sets out on a long-awaited hike on a beautiful day in the woods with her parents and brother. She runs ahead, gets separated from the rest of the family and becomes lost.

In Our Backyard

“Kelly initially panics and runs aimlessly looking for her family.  She then realizes she is lost, and she begins to recall the time a park ranger came to her school and explained what to do in this kind of situation. Gradually, as day turns to night, Kelly takes the appropriate actions and spends the night alone in her “nest” in the woods. The next morning, she is found safe and sound by Leni the search dog and his handlers … Although she is cold, Kelly is just fine because she remembered what to do.”

The SMRG program is presented by volunteers to scout groups, church groups, and school organizations, among others. Its presentation includes the Lost But Found video and related materials, a discussion period, Q and A session, and a demonstration of useful actions.  

Another outstanding teaching aid, the Hug-A-Tree program, was started in San Diego after a search for a 9-year-old ended tragically. A group of those searchers put together that program to teach children how not to get lost, and how to be safe and be found if they do get lost. The program, as augmented here, has eight key points.

1. Hug a tree if you think you are lost. One of the biggest fears children–or anyone–will have if they think they are lost, is being alone. Hugging a tree or other stationary object, and even talking to it, calms the child and helps prevent panic. By staying in one place, the child can be more easily found, and cannot be injured in a fall or other accident.

2. Build a nest.  Laying on the cold ground for a very short time, attracting attention, is OK. Being in direct contact with the ground for a longer time is dangerous, because the cold ground can rob precious body heat. Build a survival nest using available materials such as soft branches, moss, dry grass and leaves.  The nest should be as thick as your home mattress. Then gather at least the same amount of material for cover.

3. Call 911. Many kids, even as young as 6, carry cell phones. Children should never be reluctant to call 911 if they feel they are lost. Kids should be taught that even if a regular call doesn’t go through, a 911 call or text still might connect.

4. Always carry a trash bag and a whistle on a picnic, hike or camping trip. By making a hole in the side of the bag for the head—always teach the child to make the hole to avoid suffocating—the bag can help keep the child warm and dry (preferably in the nest), and reduce the danger of hypothermia.

5. Your parents will not be angry.  Time and again, children avoid searchers because they fear their parents will be angry. If children know a happy reunion filled with love awaits them, they will be less frightened and prone to panic, and work hard to be found by hugging a tree as they’ve been taught.

6. Make yourself big.  From a helicopter, it is difficult to see people standing, or in a group of trees, or wearing dark, drab clothing. If possible, find your tree to hug near a small clearing, and wear bright-colored clothing for your outdoor adventure.

7. Do not be afraid of animals.  If you hear a noise at night, yell at it. If it is a wild animal, it likely will run away. If it is a searcher, you will be found. Fear of the dark and of lions and tigers and bears are big factors in causing children to panic. They need strong reassurance to stay calm and not run. Children also should know that search and rescue operations typically involve specially trained dogs, who wear clearly visible identifying harnesses. The kids should not hide from, or be afraid of, these dogs who now have rescued them.

8. You have hundreds of friends looking for you. Children need to know they have not been abandoned, and even in the dark, a multitude of people are still looking for them.

Adults, as well, would benefit from using such protective measures.

Be safe out there. When weather permits, anytime is a great time to enjoy the mountain paths, the back roads, and the park trails in our beautiful area.  Furthermore, it is easier to observe the social distancing rules outside than indoors.

You can be confident, should the unexpected happen, there is a large, well-trained, well-equipped network of experienced professionals and volunteers dealing with your emergency, no matter how minor or traumatic. A little forethought and preparation will assure your safety and reassure your family and friends.

Larry Malone is communications director for Friends of the Blue Ridge Mountains, a 501(c)(3) organization founded in 2007. For more information, go to Malone also is a member of the Executive Committee of the Loudoun County Rural Economic Development Commission. To review the ANPR materials, go to For information on SMRG group presentations, contact Ronald Herning, For more information about the Hug-A-Tree program, go to In Our Backyard is compiled by the Loudoun County Preservation and Conservation Coalition. To learn more about the organization, go to

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