No BS – 5 Tips for Safe Exploration with your Kids

We are not expert hikers. Growing up in the plains of Kansas City, Missouri, I honestly did no much exploration. Maybe because there weren’t mountainous trails luring me to them with their breathtaking views. Maybe because I grew up in the suburbs so any “exploration” I was doing was within the confines of a shopping mall or the groomed trails of a city park. For whatever reason it was, “exploring” just wasn’t something I really did with my kids…

…until we moved to Montrose, Colorado in 2013. Suddenly I found myself in the mecca of outdoor exploration and BOY was there a lot to see and a lot to learn! I had all kinds of adventures, good and bad, in some very remote parts of the Western Slope. A few years later, after meeting my now husband on a remote mountaintop outside of Montrose, I found myself on another adventure moving me and my children to Fairlie, New Zealand to begin our lives over, again, again.

The past six years have led me to all kinds of explorations. I’ve driven on remote and isolated roads, trekked into caverns and caves, and headed into all kinds of unfamiliar territories with my kids in multiple countries now and here are some of my TOP TIPS to going out and safely exploring with your family.

  1. Always tell someone of your plans.
    Before you depart on your journey, email or text someone an idea of where you’ll be, how long you think you’ll be gone, and an idea of the route you’ll take. That way if something does happen and you find yourself lost or hurt, they’ll know where to begin looking for you and, hopefully, what direction you went. If you go off trail, leave a marker or indicator where you branch off. Tie strings to tree branches as you journey off trail so that you can find your way back or others can find you easier if you get hurt along your route.

    Going off trail and hiking to the top to see what the view is like.

  2. Always plan for the worst, hope for the best.
    I believe the saying goes, “It’s better to have it and not need it, than to need it and not have it.” When we head out for an adventure, I make sure that I have myself, my car and my kids packed for any unexpected event, within reason of course. Depending on the season and weather, I’ll pack up items into a box for ROADSIDE EMERGENCIES to place in the trunk of my car. Items like a small hand shovel, kitty litter, extra blankets, bottles of water, roadside reflectors, a headlamp, and an air compressor are packed in case we ever get stuck or get a flat tire. I’ll pack each child with extra snacks, rain ponchos, a dry pair of socks inside a sealed baggie, bandages, ointments, disinfectants, allergy medicine and aspirin. Sunscreen, lip balm, sunglasses, snacks and water bottles are packed no matter what season it is. Inside the car we have books, magazines, more snacks, drinks, pillows, blankets and other forms of entertainment depending on the length of the drive. Basically, we only plan on being gone for one afternoon but we are packed like we are going to get stuck on a deserted island for four weeks. Or at least that’s how it seems.
  3. Study up before you go.
    I once went on a driving excursion thru Escalante Canyon with my best friend and our sons for the first time. I had a general idea of the area but had never fully driven thru the canyon, rather always turning around at the same particular spot and driving out the way I drove in. On this fateful day I decided to drive all the way thru the canyon but hadn’t taken the time to research my route and familiarize myself with the layout of the dirt road. To make a long story short, I took a wrong turn and our intended three-hour excursion lasted for six hours and we were praying to every God, spiritual entity and deceased individual we had ever known that we’d make it out on our one tank of gas. Luckily, we made it out without losing our wits (but we were freaking out quite a bit) and without running out of gas. Had I looked up Google Maps and actually studied the route of the dirt road I needed to take I would have had a visual image in my head telling me to go right, not left at the fork in the road. If available, bring a printed map with you to pack in your day pack of where you are going. Cell phones don’t always have reliable service to access your GPS and a printed map doesn’t need battery life for you to read it. Trail maps are available at most Information and Visitor’s Centers along with road maps and other very helpful pamphlets. Generally, they are free to take. Also handy is a reference book of the plants and animals you may come into contact with. It’s always nice to know if there are particular poisonous snakes or spiders to avoid or if there are interesting birds or animals to look at for. Knowing or having access to poisonous and edible plants can be helpful as well.

    Exploring the colors and textures around us. Knowing what to touch and what to avoid is helpful.

  4. Talk about First Aid and Safety before you need to use it.
    It’s always best to have discussions about first aid and safety before an accident or emergency situation happens. It’s easier to stay calm in emergency situations if it’s something you’ve at least gone over before. An example would be practicing how to make a finger/ankle splint with sticks and bandages before ever needing to set a real broken ankle or finger out on a trail. Another good safety talk is what to do in case you are separated. Maybe you designate one person to be the “finder” and their job is to retrace their steps after you discover you’ve been separated and everyone else knows to “stay put” until they have been found. Talking about methods to be easily seen is a fun brainstorming idea. Ask you kids, “If you were lost in the woods, what would you do to make sure people could easily find you?” and discuss their answers offering your suggestions as well. If it ever happens, they immediately have a stockpile of several ideas to make themselves as visible as possible to a search party or helicopter. Have random items that you can easily pack into a day pack that can be used in multiple situations. Neon rope can be used as a “visual marker” to be found along with its 100 other practical purposes. A small mirror can reflect the sun to signal for help or be used to start a campfire without matches. Just talking about the steps to take and the things you can use in an emergency will help prepare you and your kids to think logically and stay calm in scary or stressful situations.
  5. Always leave on a full tank.
    Not only should you fill up your tank when you depart for your adventure, make sure you never have less than a half of a tank of gas before turning off into any unknown road. Depending on how far you have to drive, your tank could be down to half before you actually turn off the main road and onto your adventure. This is especially true in foreign countries. It’s typical to pass through multiple towns without seeing a gas station or grocery store. If you are uncertain how far until the next gas station, and you are on a half a tank, stop and fill up before you continue. Not all country roads will tell you how many miles until the next gas station. I’ve been known to fill up extra gas containers to put in the truck “just in case”. Nothing worse than to see the gas light come on and have no idea how far away the closest gas station is. I’ve had many white-knuckle drives due to this. Again, it’s better to have it and not need it than to need it and not have it.

    We don’t always have a specific destination in mind, rather a feeling of yearning to explore in our heart… and that is why we go off the trail.

Depending on where you live, what season it is, and what kinds of adventures you are going on, you’ll need to pack any number of items for any “just in case” situations. Sometimes we are going somewhere very familiar. I let my guard down and do not prepare as thoroughly because I know where the gas stations are, how far off road we’ll be going, and know before-hand if we’ll be doing any hiking, swimming, or exploring away from the truck; all of which changes what I need to bring. But in all situations, no matter what, I make sure that I’ve adequately prepared my car, myself, and my kids for the adventure, that we have a game plan for emergency situations and that someone always knows about our plans and can round up help if ever needed. Even the simplest of hikes and trails can lead you to being lost, hurt or stranded so never take for granted even the smallest safety measures because they can end up being a really big help.  Stay safe and enjoy your adventures!