Cole's Climb
Trail Talk
How Parents Can Prepare their Kids for Survival, and Safe Summer Hiking with Hannah Gallagher — Ep. 21

How Parents Can Prepare their Kids for Survival, and Safe Summer Hiking with Hannah Gallagher — Ep. 21

Getting yourself ready for adventure is one thing. But how can you be sure your group, and your children are up for the challenge too? Today's guest has some great tips for parents and crew leaders:

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Show Notes:

1:15 — Hannah’s outdoor background
5:00 — The basics: predicting your unpredictable weather
9:00 — Seeing from the rescuer’s point of view
12:15 — Surviving with the ten essentials
14:00 — How you can crowd rescue
16:00 — Wilderness survival skills for children
23:00 — Dressing kids for hiking trips
27:45 — The benefits of learning safety skills young
31:00 — Why you should take your kids hiking
38:00 — The enormous value in staying calm

Resources We Referenced:

“The Ten Essentials” Packing List

If you’ve just come upon this post, welcome to Cole’s Climb! There’s a written resource guide in the article below. But first, I’m curious:


8-year-old Nante Niemi has quite the survival story to share. After getting separated from his family while gathering firewood, the boy survived two cold nights alone in an area rescuers described as “rough terrain.”

Rescuers found him about two miles away from his family’s campsite.

The second grader says the experience won’t stop him from going camping again in the future.

This kid clearly had some great coaching from his parents on what to do in an emergency. But how do you teach a child about something this serious without scaring the pants off them, dooming them to stay indoors on an iPad for the rest of their days?

To get answers, I brought in an expert:

“I sometimes joke: search and rescue and motherhood, they really do align a lot. because in both realms, you’re proactively thinking about the needs of another person.”

Hannah Gallagher is the Vice President of Lake County Search and Rescue, and mother of two young children. She’s joining me to give you a crash course in summer hiking safety — especially for parents bringing their kids into the great outdoors.

This advice is also applicable to those of you who are crew leaders, or perhaps more casually bringing your friends along for their first summit.

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“Maybe just also have in Your back Pocket, some real Respect for what You’re Doing.”

I mentioned in an extremely early essay on Cole’s Climb — too early for most of you to have even read it — that I received a sobering warning about venturing into the outdoors, early in my career: The mountains are beautiful. But they’ll kill you if you let them.

Nature is so tangible, especially in places like the Rockies. But we shouldn’t confuse proximity or accessibility with ease. Hannah hits at the heart of this perception problem:

“Because they’re nearby, because lots of people do them, that it doesn’t take a lot of prep. You don’t really need to worry about it. it’s pretty safe. You know. But it is the backcountry. So when people need our help, they can expect to wait hours for us to get there.”

This is something I’m sure most of you know by now. But if you’re the leader of a group — or an adult responsible for a child — the respect, care, and planning you need to have become far more important. You’re not just planning for yourself. You’re planning for the group (or family) members who are less experienced, and less knowledgeable about what to bring and how to proceed.

“I’d Stop and I’d Find a Tree, and I’d Scream as loud as I could.”

This is the response Hannah has trained with her own kids ahead of their wilderness adventures. Maybe you found this article on a web search and don’t have time to listen to the full discussion before heading out. First off: welcome! I hope if you find this information useful, you’ll consider subscribing for more resources like it.

Second: I’ve distilled Hannah’s advice into three big skills and lessons that are reasonable to go over with a young child. They aren’t liable to scare them out of enjoying their time outside, and they’re simple enough that they can be recalled in an emergency.

“You start finding small chunks of things you can start repeating and drilling into their head until it’s second nature. And your hope is in a panicked moment, it would bubble to the top.”

1: Staying Put

One of the most important rules of survival: when in doubt, stay put. One of the only real missteps the boy made in his ordeal, was continuing to wander. According to the reporting I’ve seen: rescuers found him more than two miles from camp, which is quite a distance for a child.

He was also found in an area they had already searched, meaning he could have been rescued much earlier. Luckily, he was still okay. But the point stands.

2: Develop Situational Awareness, and Sense of Direction

This can be done by stopping on your trips often to ask your child: how did we get here? How would you get back? This doesn’t just apply in the woods. You can do this while running errands around town, too.

By the way, this isn’t just a tip for children. Adults can also get a lot out of this exercise. We’ve gotten quite comfortable with constant access to GPS technology. But in a crisis in a dead zone, or with a dead battery, it pays to have a general idea of where you are.

3: Dressing for Success (and Survival)

Obviously as a parent to a young child, you will be the ultimate arbiter of what they wear into the great outdoors. But that doesn’t mean they shouldn’t be involved in the process, and thinking ahead about the weather.

Involving them in the packing process teaches a range of different lessons, largely dependent on their age. A younger child will start to understand the basics about regulating their own comfort. Older ones will start to grasp the importance of considering weather conditions, and eventually, the finer points of advanced layering.

Bonus Point for You to Consider

Whether you’re leading a child, or a less experienced friend, that other person is putting their trust in you. Good decision making becomes even more important. There are more scenarios that can cause things to spiral out of control for your group.

“This other person will follow you someplace, even if you’re making a bad choice. And so there’s a big responsibility there for any parent who’s taking a child into the woods to think about… is this a good choice for all the people who are with me?”

All of this isn’t to say you should leave the kids at home. After all, there is serious value in getting them accustomed to the outdoors from a young age. And if your end goal is to raise a child who has a profound love and respect for the outdoors, it really can’t be avoided.

You just need to plan with realistic expectations for what the members of your group can accomplish, and celebrate the little wins. You may find yourself having a greater appreciation for tiny details along your journey.

“We have a Mantra in our Household, where we say: "‘We can do Hard Things.’”

At the end of the day, it’s not bad for your children — or your friends — to experience a little adversity. Overcoming something tough to stand on top of a mountain can be an extremely rewarding experience that builds their confidence.

You have to take on extra responsibility, but when done right, you’re inspiring others to love and respect the outdoors the way you do.

“It’s hard — It’s extra hard, but it’s also got this whole extra beautiful sweetness to it that maybe you wouldn’t have experienced without them along for the ride.”

Thank you for listening to this episode of Trail Talk. If you’re new here and you aren’t signed up yet, consider supporting my work in the outdoors by subscribing!

If you enjoyed the episode, sharing with others does a lot to help me out. And you could wind up sharing really useful advice with a parent planning a family trip!


Also: I’m currently conducting a survey for an upcoming story called “Grass Stain Conspiracy.” It’s about how children spending less time outside is actually negatively impacting the economy.

If that sounds interesting, take a moment to fill out this survey!

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Cole's Climb
Trail Talk
Conversations in, and about the outdoors and the incredible adventures you can find there. Topics range from conservation, to tackling tough challenges that push our limits.