For those of us who take the outdoors just as serious as we go to them for fun and adventure, some of the most frustrating and heartbreaking stories to read are the articles each year of people becoming lost, stranded, and ultimately a casualty of our great outdoors. Most often this is due to a lack of preparedness or an unrealistic grasp of one’s limitations. The second of those two becomes harder to fault when most adventurers continue to set more aggressive goals for themselves. This makes preparedness the true gatekeeper for a successful trek, particularly where the elements are challenging or extreme.
Being adequately prepared for the outdoors comes with experience. Most of us who frequent the wilderness have read many articles or books that have been extremely useful resources, but until you take that printed knowledge and turn it into practical application, it’s nothing more than unapplied data.Survival instincts are rooted in muscle memory, which comes from practicing and applying the techniques you read about or may otherwise have been trained in. Although sometimes great entertainment value, I don’t put much credence into many of the survival shows on television, as their tendency to script for climactic moments to woo an audience often leave viewers with tips that are very unrealistic or impractical for the typical weekend trekker who might find themselves in adverse circumstances.
Keep it simple, and stay calm. It really is that easy to stay alive. Practicing very basic survival skills can be a great way to enhance a hike with your child while also growing their confidence with the outdoors. It’s usually panic that leads to the downfall of stranded hikers. Coaching your children to develop a respect for the outdoors, but also the confidence to utilize
the outdoors to their advantage can help ensure that they become responsible (and safe) adult hikers. Furthermore, it’s a confidence boost that allows them to spend more time with the calming serenity of the outdoors and less time with the anxious worry of what surrounds them.
There are many ways to incorporate a variety of skills into hikes with your children, but one of the most basic skills is the ability to tell direction and time of day. In most instances, highways run east-west and north-south, and where there are highways there is help. Being able to establish direction and aiming points will often lead you to safety. Being able to understand the time of day can help you understand how much daylight you’re dealing with, so that you don’t pass up the availability of a viable spot to set up hasty camp if you need to find shelter for the evening.
About once each year, I review shadow tip navigation with my daughter. Shadow tip navigation uses the sun to determine direction and time of day. The origins of shadow clocks date back prior to the ancient Egyptians, and are a very reliable way to determine one’s bearing. Shadows typically fall north (in the Northern Hemisphere). You can use anything to locate the tip of a shadow, even a fully-grown tree if you have nothing else. Last winter while snowshoeing, I taught my daughter to do this while using trekking poles. Place a pole (or stick) directly into the ground and immediately mark the tip of the shadow. This will become the west point of your shadow compass. While keeping the pole in the ground, wait about 15 to 20 minutes for the sun to move an adequate distance across the sky, and then mark the tip again. This second mark becomes the east point of your shadow compass. You can now lay another trekking pole across those two points to make your east-west line.
Next, take another trekking pole and place it perpendicular at the intersection of the east-west pole. This obviously becomes your north-south line. You now have a basic shadow compass, which is remarkably accurate just about anywhere south of 60-degrees north latitude anywhere in North America. Give your child a standard lensatic compass after they have completed making the shadow compass so they can see that the cardinal directions are in fact very accurate. I’ll never forget the look on my daughter’s face when she realized how simple and accurate this was. It’s now become almost ritualistic for us to practice, particular on winter hikes.
As for telling time, consider the west point of the shadow compass to be roughly 6am, and the east point to be roughly 6 pm. While keeping a pole in the ground at the intersecting point of the east-west and north-south lines, again take note of the shadow. It is most accurate at noon, or the north point of the shadow compass. At all other hours of the day, it will give you a general but reliable idea of the hour of the day (it does not account for minutes). For example, if the shadow is just to the right of the north and of the compass, the time of day is somewhere around 1pm. You can verify this with a watch, just like the lensatic compass verified the directions.
Practicing applications like this not only promote survival confidence, but they are projects with instant results that can keep kids interested in the outdoors. It nurtures their independence and keeps the wilderness a relaxing place to spend the afternoon. They are a great way to break up hike time in the outdoors, and a great opportunity to bond. Most of all, they cost nothing but can save everything, including a life.
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