How to Find a Loved One Who’s Missing

Chances are at some point in your life you’ve experienced the panic that comes when a loved one is missing.

toddlers in the woods on tree stump

Parents of young children almost always experience at least one incident of their child getting separated from them in the store or some other public place, whether accidentally or intentionally (i.e. your child plays hide and seek in the clothes racks). There’s nothing more heartbreaking than when a loved one isn’t where they are supposed to be.

I experienced this just last weekend when I drove to retrieve my daughter from an extracurricular activity and the entire parking lot was empty.

My call to her phone went unanswered the first two times. I had told her not to go anywhere else so I couldn’t imagine where she had gone. It had only been about an hour and the parking lot was full of cars and people when I dropped her off.

But now it was dark and not only was my daughter not where she should have been, she wasn’t answering her phone and there was no one in the parking lot for me to get any clue as to where she had gone.

Whether it’s for a few moments in a store or for a longer period of time, a missing loved one is serious and time is of the essence if you want a good outcome. With the rise in abductions and an increase in custody related parent abductions, a loved one missing even for a short period of time can be very stressful.

For me, knowing my daughter typically wasn’t one to rebel and just take off, my immediate thought was something unusual had happened.

Thankfully, within just a few moments, my daughter called to let me know that she had gotten a ride home with the friend’s older sister and we had simply crossed paths. She was supposed to call when the event was over (our standard communication plan) so she assumed she’d come home and I’d still be at the house.

And I had jumped the gun and gone to get her without waiting for her call. We didn’t follow our communication plan and it caused us to miss one another. This time, she was home and safe.

Not every situation has such a quick and positive resolution but there are some things you can do in advance to help ensure you can find a loved one who’s missing quickly and with minimal harm done.

Everyday Situations

There are tons of everyday situations like the one I described above where someone in your family or group can inadvertently become separated from the group or go missing. Below are just some examples of everyday situations where a loved one could become lost or separated:

  • While hiking or riding trails in the woods or mountains
  • When cross country skiing or snowboarding
  • Shopping at your local grocery or department store
  • Enjoying an amusement park or fair
  • Vacationing away from home
  • During a camping trip
  • Playing at a large park
  • On a field trip
  • Browsing the mall or outlet stores
  • Miscommunication about activities
  • While riding a subway or traveling through an airport

Although anytime someone you love is lost or separated from you can cause stress and panic until they found, most everyday situations have a good outcome after several minutes or a few hours.

But the stress of the moment is intense because you cannot predict whether your loved one is missing due to an accidental temporary incident or through something more intentional and sinister, such as an abduction. The amount of stress can also vary depending on the location, environment, and details surrounding a loved one who’s missing.

Preppint for Everyday Situations

While each of the above situations may be an activity you and your family members have done many times, there’s no way to predict when things will go awry or when someone will become separated from the group.

Advance planning can make sure everyone in your group is prepared to quickly find a loved one who’s missing because you have agreed on what will happen if you are separated. In today’s society, many people, especially those who are younger, have become dependent on their cell phones for information, communication, and navigation.

But would your teen know what to do if their cell phone died at the fair and they couldn’t locate you or other members of their group?

If you go hiking and your cell phone ends up in the creek, can you still find your way back? Could your teenager? Could you and your spouse find one another if separated at an amusement park if it was dark and one of your cell phones died?

Putting some advanced plans and agreed actions in place for different types of everyday situations can boost your ability to find a loved one who is lost sooner rather than later. It sounds cliché, but one of the best things you can do to prevent anyone getting lost is to use a “buddy” system. Pair up children with adults, elderly with teens, etc. Here are some additional suggested steps to increase your preparedness for everyday situations.

  • When planning for a family outing or group trip, make sure cell phones are fully charged, remember to bring along back up power banks, and pack an alternative communication method if feasible (pagers, walkie talkie, whistles, etc.)
  • Upon arrival at any public place, identify and agree upon a meeting spot if anyone become separated. Make sure it is a feature easily spotted from a distance. For children and teens, identify security personnel or staff that can be a resource for children lost and needing help.
  • Have members in your party carry a whistle or other audible signaling device as part of their EDC (everyday carry). When lost in the wilderness or without an identified meeting place, the lost member can stay put and use the whistle to signal to the rest of the group. The universal signal for distress is three signals one right after the other. Three blasts from a whistle or car horn for example, or three flashes of a mirror.
  • When traveling long distances with a group or family, have predetermined checkpoints identified on a map and make sure each group member has a map. Agree in advance what members should do if they find themselves separated. In some cases it’s better to backtrack to the last checkpoint and reunite as a group there. In the case of SHTF situation, agree to keep going to the next checkpoint for safety reasons.
  • When traveling with children, elderly, or any vulnerable group member, put them between you and another adult. If you are the only adult, put children in front of you on the path. This allows you to quickly see if anyone is missing and doesn’t allow for anyone to lag behind and become separated.

What to teach kids when they get lost

Do your kids know what they should do if they are lost or separated from you? Basic contact information is critical for them to carry on them in written form.

It’s a good idea to include at least one relative or trusted friend who lives outside your own town or area. As soon as kids are old enough, make sure they know their street address, town, and state as well as where they live (north, east, west, etc.) in relation to other parts of your town.

One of the things that can help minimize the amount of time a child is lost is if the family has a plan of action.

For example, for my children, we always agree on a meeting place if we become separated at a fair, festival, amusement park, etc. Upon entering, we pick out the tallest ride or feature, something that can be seen from a distance.

At the grocery store or department store, they have been taught to go up to a cashier working behind the counter, not someone in the aisles that looks like an employee.

We have a family password that anyone who says they have been sent by me must use or the kids know not to go with them if someone shows up at school trying to pick them up.

If lost in the woods, do your kids know what to do? Will they wander aimlessly or sit down and stay in one spot waiting for you to find them? If your kids spend a lot of time in the woods, it’s a good idea to teach them how to navigate using a compass or at least the sun to gain their bearings and depending on their age, also how to find or make a simple shelter and make a fire.

Talk about safe places to wait for help. Make sure to include a high quality whistle and fire starter as part of their EDC (everyday carry). In a SHTF situation, it’s also important to know what to do when you are lost depending on the situation you find yourself in.

What to do if someone’s missing

The steps you take when someone is missing will depend somewhat on the age of the person and the situation. When children go missing in a public place, it’s a good idea to notify a store manager or security personnel as quickly as possible.

Continue looking for the child, but ask security personnel to cover any exits and check any areas that are not open for customers or the public.  If you cannot locate the child within a few moments or have any reason to suspect they were taken, contact local authorities immediately.

If it’s a teenager or older person who is missing, it’s probably a good idea to contact their closest friends or relatives first, just to make sure they are missing and didn’t just lose track of time or forget to check in. If you don’t suspect foul play, you can give it some time for the person to communicate their whereabouts on their own.

When an elderly loved one goes missing, you can make a couple phone calls to friends first in most cases. If you suspect that your loved one may have been in a confused or altered state when they went missing, it’s important to notify police as quickly as possible.

Be prepared to provide their description or a photo as well as the make and model of their vehicle and a license plate number.


A kidnapping situation is completely different from a loved one who has accidentally or temporarily gone missing due to miscommunication or some unpredictable change of plans.

If you suspect a kidnapping or other foul play, it’s important to involve authorities in the search as quickly as possible. As far as advanced planning, make sure that everyone in your group knows how to react to increase their chances of surviving a kidnapping or hostage situation.

How to Find a Loved One Who’s Missing When SHTF

One of the most difficult things you may experience will be when a loved one goes missing during a SHTF event or other natural disaster.

As parents, we often want to protect our children from having to know about the dangers that are lurking in this world. But if you have children and don’t share your SHTF evacuation or bug out planning with them, it could actually put their lives in danger when SHTF.

During a SHTF situation, if anyone in your group becomes separated, knowing where the rest of the group is headed could help them reunited with the group more quickly.

Remember this acronym to keep yourself calm if you are the one lost:  STOP

S = Stay Stationary if you believe people are in fact nearby and looking for you. Look for a place that is free of hazards and wait for your group.

But if you know the bug out plan, continue to the next checkpoint or whatever was agreed in your planning and wait there for your group. It’s easier for your group to find you if you stay in one place.

T = Think about the resources you have to get you through until your group arrives. Make sure you have water and the ability to make fire and build a shelter. Search nearby for anything you don’t have before it gets dark.

Observe = be alert to your surroundings as you travel to the next checkpoint and once you arrive. Look for clues that your group has passed through or changed directions. Pay attention to anything that could be hazardous to you such as changing weather or increased sounds of rioting or other activity nearby.

Plan = Once you arrive at the agreed meeting spot, do what you can to stay calm and plan what you will do. Do an inventory of your supplies and find anything you may need and then stay alert and calm. If you will need to signal to your group or rescuers, get things ready so you can signal quickly (i.e. reflective surface, whistle, pre-build signal fire, etc.)

Have you ever experienced a missing loved one? Did you utilize any of the tips and suggestions we’ve listed here? Do you have some additional tips or suggestions that helped you to find a loved one who went missing?  Share your experience with us in the comments below.

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