Safety first - in camping experience, too

It is cause for rejoicing that two young boys have come through unharmed after four days of being lost in the South Dakota woods. But it also is cause for parents everywhere to redouble their vigilance about safety when considering whether to permit their children to go on camping expeditions, such as the one to South Dakota - or to attend formal camps for that matter.

In both cases similar principles apply. Parents should ask leaders of the expedition, or the camp, some pointed questions. And they should talk with children who attended previous sessions, and with their parents.

In the case of formal summer camps the parents have it easier. They can ask whether the camp recently has been accredited by the respected American Camping Association, which holds camps to very high standards in several areas - including safety. If the camp is ACA-approved, parents can feel confident it meets stringent safety standards.

But if it is not, they should find out from camp directors why it is not, and make their own careful assessments of safety. In that case - and in the case of camping expeditions not related to summer camps - parents should ask the ratio of leaders (or counselors) to campers, and the age of the leaders (they should not be in young or middle teens).

Parents also should ask precisely what provisions exist for adults to supervise children on overnight or survival expeditions, and should make sure these campers are properly equipped with compass, maps, sufficient food and water, and knowledge of the area. Credentials of expedition leaders or camp directors should be checked; so should the amount of time they actually spend with the expedition, or at the camp.

Parents need to make sure that when children swim they are carefully watched by qualified waterfront instructors, including persons who have passed courses to be senior life-saving or waterfront safety instructors.

After taking these steps and being satisfied with the results, parents can more confidently send their children off to a summer camp, or on a camping expedition, knowing that they will have an experience that will be safe as well as rewarding.

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