Your guide to safely exploring the outdoors with kids

Avoiding wild hazards—from poison ivy to venomous snakes—will help your children become confident outdoor explorers.

When a rabid fox made a surprise appearance at the U.S. Capitol in April, the great outdoors suddenly seemed a little less great. The fox bit at least nine people before it was captured, reminding everyone that encountering wildlife always comes with a bit of caution.

Fortunately, rabies isn’t a common danger—only one to three human cases are reported annually in the U.S. And the benefits of being outdoors far outweigh the risks, especially for kids. According to the Child Mind Institute, playing outdoors can build confidence, improve focus, reduce anxiety, and promote happier moods.

"When we think about kids and especially their mood, we know that a sense of building mastery over a skill or their environment is powerful in terms of keeping mood higher,” says Heather Bernstein, a clinical psychologist at the Child Mind Institute. “You can’t control how fast the wind is blowing or how fast the stream is moving.” By adapting to their outdoor environment or overcoming a challenge, kids can build that sense of mastery.

Still, what makes “the wild” into a great learning lab also makes it potentially hazardous. And though rabid animals and murder hornets might grab headlines—and panic parents—other threats are much more likely. “That's why we emphasize planning ahead,” says National Park Service spokesperson and 15-year ranger Kathy Kupper.

The key is to arm kids with enough knowledge and know-how to explore independently while staying safe. Here’s what kids need to know to be confident outdoors, so they can build both skills and memories.

The hazard: wild mammals

What they could encounter: a rabid animalAlthough contracting rabies is rare, kids should alert an adult if they see an animal acting sick or strange: for instance, a normally shy animal trying to bite, or a critter snapping at the air, drooling, or having trouble moving. Animals to be especially aware of are bats, foxes, raccoons, and skunks.

What they'll more likely encounter: a cute animal they want to approach. Seeing a wild animal in person can be incredibly exciting for kids. But startled animals can charge, protective mamas can attack, and human-fed critters can lose their wariness of people—or even get sick.

What kids should do: “Not all animals with rabies are aggressive or drooling,” Kupper says. “So the rule of thumb is to keep your distance from any wildlife.” About two school bus lengths is a good amount for kids to keep between them and any wild animal they encounter.

That includes cute squirrels. “The number one reason for visits to the clinic at Grand Canyon is squirrel bites,” Kupper says. “An easy tip to remember is, ‘If I'm close enough to take a selfie, I'm too close.’”

Other tips from Kupper: “Store and dispose of food properly to avoid attracting wildlife, stay on marked trails, and watch where you step.”

The hazard: snakes

What they could encounter: a venomous snake. “Very few people are at risk of encountering a snake with enough venom to do serious harm,” Kupper says. But teaching kids what to be on the lookout for is key.

Three venomous snakes in the U.S.—copperheads, rattlesnakes, and cottonmouths (also called water moccasins)—have broad, diamond-shaped heads and catlike pupils. The fourth, the coral snake, has a black snout and red and yellow stripes that touch each other. The coral snake also has a helpful rhyme: “Red touch yellow, kill a fellow,” while the nonvenomous, similarly striped king snake’s rhyme is “Red touch black, friend of Jack.”

A northern copperhead camouflages itself against the New Jersey leaves.
A northern copperhead camouflages itself against the New Jersey leaves.
Photograph by David Kenny / Getty Images

What they'll more likely encounter: a nonvenomous snake that doesn't want to be disturbed. “In general, snakes are usually harmless,” Kupper says. But if they’re threatened or provoked, even nonvenomous snakes can strike very quickly with a painful bite. “Most bites happen when someone tries to touch or move a snake, and they’re much faster and can strike much further than people think they can,” she adds.

What kids should do: Teach kids that snakes like to hide—key spots include leaves, tall grass, fallen logs, and rodent burrows. So children should be extra careful around those places when exploring, and wear closed-toe shoes just in case.

Cold-blooded snakes might also be sunning themselves on trails or rocks to keep warm. Children might be inclined to throw rocks or poke at those reptiles, but experts advise to leave them alone and back away slowly. And because it’s really hard to tell the difference between venomous and nonvenomous slitherers without getting dangerously close, the smartest move is for kids to stay away from any snake.

The hazard: stinging insects

What they could encounter: murder hornets. These sound scary, but take heart: Even though two-inch-long “murder hornets” (officially known as Asian giant hornets) have more toxic stings than other wasps, these insects have been spotted only a handful of times in the U.S. and Canada

What they'll more likely encounter: regular bees or wasps

What kids should do: Rule number one is to play it cool. “Most bees and hornets are focused on gathering food," Kupper says. “They’re just trying to protect themselves, their food source, and their hive.”

Train kids to listen for a lot of buzzing that might indicate a nearby hive. Whether they encounter a single buzzer or a swarm, kids should cover their faces, walk away, and don't swat, which can agitate the insects. (Kupper also suggests that kids out in the woods wear long-sleeved clothing.)

The hazard: problem plants

What they could encounter: giant hogweed. Looking like a Godzilla-size bouquet, giant hogweed has made the news recently because its sprays of white flowers can release skin-burning sap. But the chances of a kid bumping into it are slim in most states.

What they'll more likely encounter: poison oak, poison sumac, or poison ivy

Kids might not be aware of poison sumac, which can be just as itchy as poison ivy and poison oak.
Kids might not be aware of poison sumac, which can be just as itchy as poison ivy and poison oak.
Photograph by Carol Dembinsky / Dembinsky Photo Associates / Alamy

What kids should do: The best advice is to tell kids to avoid touching any plant unless they know what it is. But that’s not likely going to happen. Instead, teach kids to recognize what these plants look like so they can stay away from them while outside.

Poison ivy can be recognized by the old rhyme “Leaves of three, let it be,” and it sometimes has green or white berries. Poison oak usually has leaves that grow in threes, but not always. Its leaves are lobed like real oak leaves (though it's not related), and has clusters of greenish or white berries.

Poison sumac—which can cause the same burns and blisters that poison ivy and oak does—can be recognized by its bright red stems; smooth-edged fall leaves that turn bright red, orange, or yellow; and tiny green or whitish berries.

If kids do touch a poisonous plant, Kupper urges them to wash their hands and clothes as soon as possible.

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