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The 5 Wilderness Survival Skills Kids Need to Know

Because one can never be too prepared.

Most parents (regrettably not all) want their kids to be able to grow into independent, resourceful adults, able to fend for themselves and manage whatever life throws their way. Is it absolutely critical to this effort that kids know how to build a shelter out of twigs or a fire out of twigs or light fire to a shelter made of twigs? Probably not. But outdoor skills — specifically, learning outdoor skills — provides an entre into skill development more broadly. And skill development matters, even if kids are never stranded in the woods or on a desert island.

Fortunately, parents don’t have to sign kids up for an all-day survival course, or even make a big deal out of teaching certain lessons. The trick is to turn day-hikes and camping trips into classrooms. That not only allows your kids to glean necessary survival wisdom from you, but also gives them the opportunity to try it all first hand and enjoy themselves.

How to Get Clean Water

So, next time you find yourself out in nature with the kids on a hike, make sure you go somewhere with natural water sources. Don’t bring a water bottle, but do bring a filter (like the Sawyer Mini Filtration system, $20). Show kids how to use a filtration system, and explain that flowing water (rivers, creeks, and streams of snowmelt) are safer drinking options than puddles and lakes (stagnant water) because of lingering bacteria. This filtration system protects against and filters out all the nasty stuff (Protozoa, bacteria, cryptosporidium) that can make you sick and cause dehydration to be even worse.

How to Build a Shelter

It’s a good idea to build a shelter as well as pitch your tent when you go camping. Showing kids how to stay warm and safe even when they don’t have a roof over their heads is important. Have them make a pile of brush and leaves to lay down in to preserve body heat. Ask them to lay on the ground for five minutes, and then in the pile of leaves for five minutes and ask them which one was warmer and why. Then, teach them to find a way to stay safe from weather. “It’s probably best to teach them to first look for natural shelters and where to look for them in your area,” says Rob Allen, survival coach and founder of Sigma III Survival School. “Bluffs, overhangs, caves, and natural shelters like this will serve them best for short term survival.” Search out some options, and then give your kids the choice of staying in their natural shelter or in the tent for the night.

How to Start a Fire

Before you roast your hot dogs or start on your s’mores for during a weekend of camping, ask your kids to help you with the fire. Don’t bring any matches or fire-starters, just a flint and steel fire striker kit. Send the kids out on a hunt for tinder, kindling, and logs and see what they come back with. Then, build the fire together — discussing how you need the kindling to be fluffy so air can get to it, the kindling to burn bright and hot to be able to burn larger logs, and wood that is dry—no rotten or wet stuff!

How to Dress for the Weather

Letting your kids pick out their own hiking clothes may seem like a small chore, but it offers up a very big survival lesson. Tell them where you are going and what the weather is going to be like, and see what they choose. Make sure they always wear pants (to protect from bugs, sun, wind, water, and scratches), tuck in their pants to their socks to keep bugs out, and have a jacket—even if it’s just tied around their waist. Ask what their favorite clothes to hike are in and why they chose these items—and remind them that clothes are a tool when you’re in the backcountry! Oh, and bug spray and/or sunscreen are also part of a kit anytime you’re going outside—even if it’s winter. Teach kids to cover themselves.

How to Hunt and/or Gather

Anything you can do to further your kids’ knowledge about being outside can help with understanding survival — and more importantly, appreciating nature. Whether it’s planting seeds in the garden, talking about how often to water plants, fishing (and baiting their own hook!), going to a climbing gym for the first time as a family, going over how to tell which direction you’re going together (use the sun as a guide!), how to tell if food is spoiled, or following trails together and checking out animal footprints, it all adds up. Get excited about your child’s curiosity for the great outdoors and teach them how to be great out in it.