Well, summer is approaching and for Grand County Search and Rescue, that means lost hikers. Last year at this time I wrote a column on children lost in the backcountry and I thought it would be a good time to address this subject again.
Inspired by the search for a lost nine year old in 1981, the Hug-A Tree and Survival Program teaches children how to survive in the backcountry should they become lost. It was specifically designed for children between the ages of 7 and 11. This summer, GCSAR will be teaching the program to approximately 200 children in the county.
When a child is reported lost, GCSAR goes into full mobilization mode. It is all hands on deck and be prepared to be out all-night; longer if necessary. Our search protocols are designed to maximize the POD (Probability of Detection). Based on discussions with the RP (reporting person), we set up the search area, with the most likely areas searched first. Thanks to modern technology, we have topographical maps of Grand County in our team laptops that allow us to print maps of the search areas and assign teams to specific areas based on GPS coordinates. Once a team completes a grid search, their GPS’s are downloaded to the computer, and the IC (Incident Commander) gets a picture of the area that has been searched. Once an area is ‘cleared’, the team moves on to a new area, expanding the search area.
A problem we face is the possibility of the child moving from an uncleared search area to a cleared area. For this reason, we recommend that children be instructed that if they get lost, they should “hug a tree”. It is simple to remember and addresses several issues; it keeps them in one place, and if they pick a nice full pine tree, it can provide some warmth, and some protection from wind and rain.
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A second problem we sometimes encounter is that children today are indoctrinated not to speak to strangers. When we search, one of the techniques we rely on, particularly at night, is what we call ‘verbal attraction’. When searching, we will stop every few hundred yards and shout “ (child’s name), this is Grand County Search & Rescue”, and then listen for a response. Several years ago we had a child wander from her family’s campsite and get lost. We searched all night, finally finding her in the morning. It turned out that during the night we had passed within several yards of where she was hugging a sun-heated boulder for warmth. She heard us call her name, but did not respond because of what she had been taught. Parents need to decide when it is OK for their child to respond to a stranger, and teach them accordingly.
Another area where children can be better protected is by careful selection of clothing. While it may not be practical to expect a six year old to carry around a survival pack, given the extreme temperature variations between day and night in the backcountry, it is better to dress your child for the weather they may encounter rather than the weather they are encountering. This means long pants instead of shorts, wool or synthetics instead of cotton, and a windbreaker or rain jacket. A wet cotton hoodie is a fast track to hypothermia. As a minimum, for older children, take a large plastic garbage bag, cut holes for their face and arms, show them how to use it to protect themselves from rain, and stuff it in their pocket, along with a cheap plastic whistle.
Quiz your children on the above before every camping or hiking trip, until they give you that impatient “I KNOW MOM” response.
Last but not least, if a child becomes lost, call 911 immediately! The sooner we are called, the sooner we can start the search. Nothing pleases us more than to be called out and mobilized only to find that the child has been found before we can start the search. Most of us have children too.
Chris Laursen is a member of Grand County Search & Rescue and has been a mountain rescue volunteer for over six years. He can be reached by email at email@example.com.
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