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My Kids Will Survive! (I Think): A Parent’s Guide To Teaching Wilderness Survival

Author: Crosby Stansfield

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Every outdoor adventure parent has a responsibility to keep the kids safe. And hopefully, every parent has taught the kids what they should do if they ever get lost or separated. This week, Crosby Stasfield, the founder of Idaho based group  “Mountain Dads” has some thoughts about how to get this done. Here’s Crosby…

I have often given this topic a lot of thought. How does one teach survival skills to a child? I once heard a story where a seven-year-old girl was in a plane crash where both of her parents and other family members died; leaving her the sole survivor. She walked away from the wreckage, and eventually found refuge that night at a nearby home.

As a dad, I feel a sense of duty to provide my kids the skills necessary to learn and survive. After reading that story, it didn’t take me long to question whether or not I had taught those skills to my own kids.

So being a bit of a dreamer, I began conjuring up about a hundred different ways and scenarios that would get my kids knowing where to locate water, forage for food, or build an awesome lean-to that would make Jerimiah Johnson proud. Once I finished pitching my fool-proof ideas to my wife, she reminded me that the simplest approach is still the best.

What our kids would benefit most from is laying a foundation of survival know-how. Things like what to do if/when they get separated? How to stay warm/cool? and what to expect will happen if they become lost.


Right. Well it didn’t take me very long to know when a good idea is a good idea, and my wife was spot on.

The next step in my mind was clear. I knew I had to create a scenario in an environment they were already familiar with, but not too common that they knew exactly what to expect. On a professional level I work with kids, and this is what I know about them: they learn best when learning is both motivating and playful.

That means needing to feel safe. So I had to be cautious on using scare tactics to make the situation seem real. I didn’t want to scare my kids into distrusting the outdoors, but rather sober them up to the seriousness of a situation. So I decided to keep it simple and take our kids to a nearby trail down in the canyon at the edge of town.

On the drive out I began the education/discussion process (if your kids are anything like mine talking it out in a less-distracted environment is critical otherwise the distractions run rampant). Our conversation was shaped around these five principles of what to expect when you’re lost:

  • Know that if you’re alone for a long time, I will be looking for you.
  • When it is still a long time, I will be looking for you with other people and we will be calling your name.
  • Get to higher ground so you can see what’s around you.
  • Find a way to make noise.
  • Find a covered area to keep warm, dry or out of the sun.

Once we started the trail I was curious to see what principles would stick, and which one’s would not. Immediately my two oldest began to recall the trail they had once taken before. I felt a little pride when my oldest immediately started to familiarize himself out loud with his surroundings saying things like “giant rock,” “muddy spot,” and “short bridge.”

What then followed was a back and forth volley of my seven year old, six year old, and three year old taking turns as the the lead hiker. What I didn’t anticipate was when my oldest’s confidence began to get too big for his britches, and actually got himself and his younger brother and sister lost.

Even though I was with them, I decided to remain the silent partner throughout the process. Interestingly both of my oldest seemed to have the idea that the best thing to do was to find a high place to go. One of their high places started getting too high, and my three year old stopped, looked at me and said “Dad, no. Too high” and left his older siblings. Ha!


It seemed that every 100 ft or so my older son and daughter would test out different ways they could make noise. At one point my oldest was convinced tossing a medium sized boulder onto a larger one was a good idea, until both he and I at the same time saw his tossed boulder just miss an older couple coming up the main trail. (Sorry….After a quick apology we decided hitting sticks against rocks and making loud shouts would be good enough.


Discovering places for decent cover became entertaining as all three tried out different spots. At one point I think my three year old thought they were actually playing hide and seek. When it came time to wrap up they found the main trail, and walked back to the trail head. It was simple and genuinely fun for my kids. I’m kinda stoked for when I get to try it out again.


So, I go back to my original thought: how do you teach survival skills to a kid? The takeaway of this experience is pretty basic: Give your children opportunities to practice surviving. Keep it simple, make it fun and be consistent.


For me “practicing survival” meant to go on a walk with my kids. For those of you who want to try it out, here is my recommendation: Take advantage of your environment. If your walk happens in a neighborhood, campsite or national park make the most of it! Maximize the quality of your time outdoors with your kids by enjoying the teaching opportunities that come along the way.


Boost their confidence by having them become the lead hiker. If you have more than one dude or dudette like I do, have them take turns at different checkpoints. For those on longer hikes, incorporate imaginative play themes to keep the motivation high. And if you’re prepared enough, actually try to get a little lost!


As the Greek poet Archilochus once stated, “we don’t rise to the level of our expectations, we fall to the level of our training.” Put what you know under some pressure, and then help your little one along the way. When a child sees that his or her limits have been tested and overcome, you’ve accomplished a great thing. To learn, to survive and to take care of one’s self.


I salute you all in your efforts in continuing to create a world of adventure. It’s out there, go have fun in it!

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