It was nearly midnight and the half-dozen adults had finally drifted off in their sleeping bags when the cry echoed from the canyon below.
"Dad! Daaaad! Jimmy threw up!"
The leader for Jimmy's Boy Scout troop quickly dressed and scrambled down the hill, where a group of boys was undergoing a key requirement to earn their wilderness survival merit badge—spend a night in a natural shelter they built earlier in the day.
Jimmy survived the ordeal, but it can be unnerving for anyone to face a night in the outdoors without so much as a tent or sleeping bag. Being forced to do so is thankfully a rare occurrence, but knowing your child could cope with such a hardship is well worth the minimal time investment it takes to prepare him to handle being alone in the wilderness for any length of time.
Here are some tips to help you teach your kids the basics of wilderness survival.
Involve and Educate
Discuss survival needs with your kids and make them a part of the preparation before you go. Talk about:
Have your child put together his or her own kit. You can find the list of Boy Scout supplies here.
Turn it Into a Game
Take every opportunity to talk about survival scenarios on your next camping trip. Discuss what the best actions are for your child should he ever get separated from the group. That includes staying put, making yourself visible, and preparing to hunker down for the night if it's starting to get dark.
Like the Scouts, you could make a game of it and do a test run under controlled environment. Pick a night with nice weather, construct a shelter near camp, and spend the night in your shelter just to see what it's like.
The experience will prove invaluable should your child ever find himself in a similar situation.
The 7 Priorities
The Boy Scouts teach seven priorities for survival in a wilderness environment. You should discuss each of them with your child to help prepare them for almost anything nature throws their way. They are:
1. Positive mental attitude: Panic can lead to bad decisions. While it's not easy to teach kids to keep their fears in check, they should know that fear is a natural reaction to an emergency situation. Enable them to relax and make smart judgments by giving them knowledge about how to handle themselves. This usually means staying put to aid potential rescuers in their search.
2. First aid: Knowing how to both avoid and treat common health problems such as blisters, insect stings, hypothermia and dehydration, as well as larger issues such as broken bones and snake bites, is a critical wilderness survival skill. The Red Cross is a great resource. Many chapters offer a wilderness first aid course, and while participants must be at least 14 years old, you can teach your younger children the lessons you learn. You can also download their 128-page "Wilderness and Remote First Aid" reference guide for free.
3. Shelter: Another critical survival skill is being able to protect yourself from the elements—whether it's cold, rain, wind or heat. Discuss shelter options with your kids during your next outdoor adventure: Where would you build one, and what materials could you use to protect yourself from the elements?
4. Fire: Fires not only can be used for warmth, to cook food and boil water, but they can also be used as a signaling device and even to boost morale. Show your kids how, where and when to build a fire safely.
5. Signaling: When you're lost in the woods, the natural inclination is to yell for help, but that's generally not effective and uses up precious energy. Instead, kids should always carry a whistle—three blows indicates you need help—and a small mirror or reflective object to signal passing planes or helicopters. Under the right conditions, a fire can also be an effective way to attract attention.
6. Water: The general rule is you can survive three weeks without food, but only three days without water. Teach them about finding a clean water source, and experiment with building a still to draw moisture from the ground.
7. Food: It's generally not wise to eat plants or animals you find in the wild unless you're certain they're safe.
If you're interested in more advanced wilderness survival techniques, the four branches of the U.S. military conduct SERE training—Survival, Evasion, Resistance and Escape—for their personnel. Some SERE schools provide an abbreviated version of their training to public groups.
Chuck Scott is an avid backpacker and camper with 30 years of experience in journalism. He is a contributing writer to ReserveAmerica.com.