In national parks, your family’s health and safety are your responsibility. The National Park Service (NPS) has two missions: minimizing mishaps for visitors and maintaining a pristine wilderness. All large parks have experts to monitor safety conditions. But the wilderness, by its very nature, has inherent dangers with wild animals roaming free and “land in the rough.” Planning ahead and common sense can virtually eliminate health and safety problems.
1. Go prepared. All parks have websites. Conditions in parks may be quite different from those where you live. And each park is different. Check climatic conditions, weather, altitude, pollen counts and whether pets are allowed, for example. Summertime temperatures at many parks in the Western US reach more than 100 degrees. The Grand Canyon (Arizona) is not only dry and hot but the rims are at elevations in excess of 6,000 feet (1,880m). Large parts of Yellowstone (Wyoming) are at 8,000 feet (2,440m). Altitude sickness is possible at higher elevations. See below. Insects are a big nuisance in the Everglades (Florida.). Covering up with clothing and insect repellents is essential.
2. Stop at Visitors’ Centers. Check the literature and bulletin boards for safety information and ask rangers about fun, age-appropriate, seasonal- and weather-permitting activities. Ask if cell phones are operative. The NPS has been slow in implementing service. There are ongoing, heated debates between powerful groups wanting to ban phones entirely, arguing that phones distract from the very concept of wilderness and that phone towers ruin the scenery. Others argue that phones are essential in case of emergencies and to stay in touch with relatives back home.
3. Know your family’s limitations. However far you walk, you must walk back. Leave more time for the return trip, due to heat, fatigue and other factors. Most four-year-olds can walk a mile or so, rest thirty minutes, and then walk back. Six-year-olds can walk two or three miles each way. In some places (at the Grand Canyon, for example), the outward hike is downhill into the Canyon, making the return uphill. How far can you carry your child?
4. Backpacks. Children’s backpacks should not exceed 10% of a child’s body weight for backpack beginners, going up and down hills, walking on tough terrain, and in hot weather. Backpacks that are too heavy or worn incorrectly can cause temporary aches and pains. Some backpacks, especially ones designed for small children, have long straps to fit children of various sizes. Long straps may cause tripping and become entangled in branches. Tuck them in.
5. Supervise children closely in sensitive areas. Obey signs. At higher altitudes, for example, snowfields persist all summer and are irresistible to children. However, the snow may conceal hidden cavities under the snow and collapse under the weight of a child. And falling off walkways over hot geothermal water may expose children to scalding water.
6. Keep your distance from large animals. Stay at least 100 yards (90 m) from bears and wolves and at least 25 yards (23 m) from all other large animals – bison, elk, bighorn sheep, deer, moose, and coyotes. Best to hold children’s hands. Discourage children from playfully flailing their arms at animals; animals may interpret flailing as aggressive moves.
7. But cars, not animals, are the chief cause of most serious mishaps. When driving, be prepared for a child in your car to shout, “I see a bear.” Roads are heavily traveled, hilly, often narrow and winding, and often there are families walking along the road. Expect cars in front of you to make sudden stops and children to dart into the road when they see a large animal.
8. Other mishaps involving children. Children fall (especially when walking on slippery rocks in streams), are bitten by small animals while feeding them, and drink water from lakes and streams. Feeding animals is prohibited. Report bites to park personnel. Persons bitten may require rabies vaccine. Untreated water from lakes and streams may contain organisms that cause diarrhea days or weeks later. In case of illness soon after all travel, tell health care personnel where you have been.
9. Take pictures from the distance. Many children have their own cameras and are overly zealous in taking pictures. Don’t open car windows to take pictures when animals are nearby. Leaning out is even worse. Camera-related accidents can also occur from going too close to thermal pools or cliffs to get better views.
10. Altitudes higher than 6,000 feet may cause altitude sickness. Symptoms include headaches, loss of appetite, nausea, inability to sleep, excessive shortness of breath with exercise, and, in young children, irritability. Generally, at the altitudes of National Parks, symptoms are mild and disappear after a day or two. Treatment is rarely necessary. However, young children with significant heart and lung problems should be medically cleared before traveling to higher elevations.
With your family’s health and safety in mind, find a park to visit at http://www.nps.gov.