A child lost in the woods is the subject of fairy tales, horror movies, and parents’ worst nightmares. Some children who get lost in the wild manage to survive, while others are not so lucky. Here is a collection of both miraculous survival stories and mysterious disappearances that remain unsolved.
10 Yamato Tanooka
Seven-year-old Yamato Tanooka of Hokkaido, Japan, was throwing rocks at people during a family outing in summer 2016. His parents wanted to teach him a lesson. So they pulled over by the side of a road next to the woods, removed him from the car, and drove away. They returned five minutes later, hoping that their punishment had worked. But he was already gone.
Yamato remained missing for six days. The woods had tall grass and plants that the search party needed to comb through to be sure that they didn’t miss finding him, in case his body was lying on the ground. It was cold at night, and it also rained, which made it seem even more hopeless to find him alive.
Meanwhile, Yamato truly believed that his parents had abandoned him because of his bad behavior. He decided to go deeper into the woods to look for shelter. After walking for 5 kilometers (3 mi), Yamato came upon an empty military base with small huts. He opened the door of one and found a thin mattress on the floor. He was able to sleep comfortably. But aside from drinking rainwater, he had nothing to eat for six days.
When the search party finally found him, Yamato was taken to the hospital. Aside from hunger and mild hypothermia, he physically recovered. According to Dr. L. Alan Sroufe from the University of Minnesota’s Institute of Child Development, even simply threatening to leave your child behind anywhere when he is misbehaving is damaging and manifests into a fear of abandonment.
Since he was very literally left behind for so long, there is no telling how much Yamato Tanooka will be traumatized by this psychologically.
9 Jaryd Atadero
In October 1999, Allyn Atadero was part of a Christian singles group, and he became close friends with the members. The group organized a hiking trip at the Roosevelt National Forest in Colorado. Allyn decided not to go on the hiking trip that day, but his kids still wanted to go. So Allyn trusted his friends with the safety of his two children: three-year-old Jaryd and six-year-old Josallyn.
The group chose to hike Comanche Peak on a trail that goes deep into the heart of the massive 260-square-kilometer (100 mi2) wildlife reserve. Maybe the Christian singles did not have much experience with children. Toddlers are full of energy and notorious for running off at any given moment, and yet no one was paying attention to Jaryd’s whereabouts. Each member of the group gave The New York Times drastically different estimates as to how long they were hiking before anyone noticed that the toddler was gone—ranging from 20 minutes to an hour and a half.
A search party with over 50 people brought dogs to look for Jaryd for several days, but there was no trace of the boy. Despite the extensive search, none of Jaryd’s remains were found until 2003. A staggering 170 meters (550 ft) above the trail in a location that is difficult even for adults to climb, they found Jaryd’s sneakers (pictured above). They appeared to be brand-new, though he had been missing for years. They also found his sweatshirt, which was fully intact, and his pants, which were inside out.
Around 45 meters (150 ft) away from his clothing, they found one tooth and a piece of his skull. Some people have theorized that a mountain lion carried his body up the steep trail, but many others believe that he was murdered. If he had been attacked by a mountain lion or a bear, his clothing would have been torn to shreds.
There are so many elements of this case that do not make sense. To this day, Jaryd’s case remains unsolved. While local authorities have closed the case, Internet sleuths on reddit still search for the answer today.
8 Tserin Dopchut
For a three-year-old child, there are few things more appealing than a puppy. In September 2016, little Tserin Dopchut was visiting his great-grandmother in the small village of Khut in Siberia, one of the coldest places on Earth. It can drop well below freezing there, even in September.
Tserin was playing outside without wearing a coat. With chocolate in his pocket, the boy wandered after a puppy that went into the woods and became completely lost. The forest of Siberia is known for having bears and wolves. Combined with the brutal cold, it was unlikely that Tserin would survive.
He was missing for three days without anything to eat but his chocolate bar. Tserin had wandered 3 kilometers (2 mi) away from the village and had slept in between the roots of a tree to keep warm. His uncle was searching the forest, calling out for Tserin. When the boy heard his uncle’s voice, he called back.
Once Tserin returned to Khut, the entire village held a celebration in his honor. The villagers were impressed by his stamina for surviving in the wilderness and believe that he will grow up to be a strong and brave man.
7 Dennis Martin
It was a Saturday in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park in June 1969. Dennis Martin was a seven-year-old boy on a camping trip with his family. He was developmentally disabled, so his mental age was behind other children of his chronological age. His older brother, Douglas, and two other boys were playing together in an open field that was surrounded by a forest. The adults were sitting several yards away from the kids, but the adults did not let the children out of their sight.
Nine-year-old Douglas told Dennis and their friends that it would be funny to prank the adults by going into the woods and sneaking up behind their parents. So the children split up. Three of the boys went in one direction, but Dennis ran off on his own in the opposite direction.
Dennis’s father, William, could see everything from where he sat. After the three other boys pranked their parents, Dennis did not reemerge from the woods with them. Only five minutes had passed, but William got up and began running to the spot where he had last seen Dennis. He screamed his son’s name and ran into the woods for 3 kilometers (2 mi) without seeing any trace of the boy.
In the full 30-page report by the National Parks Service on Dennis’s disappearance, we know that park rangers and the Martin family spent the rest of the night looking for the boy. Although it rained that night and the next morning, a huge group of people formed a search party, including military special forces. The press released the story, and by June 21, there were 1,400 people looking for Dennis. Despite the extensive search, Dennis was never seen again. His remains were never found.
As the unsolved mystery had been discussed for years, the Knoxville News Sentinel followed up on Dennis Martin’s case in 2009. They interviewed a man named Harold Key, who was near the Martin family’s campsite that same day. He reported hearing a horrible scream, followed by a rough-looking wild mountain man emerging from the woods. The FBI decided that there was not enough evidence that this unkempt man did anything wrong, so they did not pursue it any further.
6 Brennan Hawkins
In 2005, 11-year-old Brennan Hawkins was on a Boy Scout Jamboree camping trip at the Bear River Boy Scout Reservation near Salt Lake City, Utah. A Jamboree is an annual camping event for Scout troops in their state to earn multiple merit badges together and make new friends. That year, there were 1,400 Boy Scouts camping together at the reservation. Bear Lake, which sits inside the Scout reservation, is 17,000 acres wide. The surrounding forest is even larger.
Though these boys are in the middle of the wilderness during camp, they are usually given a schedule of activities, use a “buddy system,” and are almost always supervised. One afternoon, Brennan was having trouble figuring out how to remove his harness at the rock climbing wall. His “buddy” partner was losing patience. The partner didn’t think a “buddy” would be necessary since the mess hall was close by. He told Brennan to catch up with him later and left. Once Brennan unhooked himself from the harness, he decided to skip dinner and wandered into the forest instead.
A massive search team of over 3,000 people began looking for him. Brennan actually hid from some of the people searching for him, claiming that he thought they might be “scary people.” Rather than reaching out to anyone he saw for help, he purposely remained lost in the woods for four days, walking deeper into the wilderness. Brennan was finally found and returned to his parents.
Brennan thought he was only gone for one day instead of four. His parents said that he is “a little slow” but claim that he was never officially diagnosed with any developmental disability. During an interview, the parents blame themselves for not instructing the search party to use their safe word, “BYU,” so that he knew to trust the strangers.
5 Amber Rose Smith
Newaygo County, Michigan, is surrounded by a dense forest. In 2013, resident Dale Smith was at home with his two-year-old daughter, Amber Rose. She was playing, so her father decided to go into the next room. When he walked back to check on Amber Rose, she was gone. Apparently, she had decided to let herself outside and walk into the woods.
Thankfully, she was found within 24 hours. It was the middle of October, so nighttime temperatures dipped down to 7 degrees Celsius (45 °F). When the Michigan conservation officer found her, she was 3 kilometers (2 mi) away from her house. She was only wearing a tank top and a diaper. Everyone was shocked that she had managed to survive the night. The officer cried tears of joy, saying that finding her was the highlight of his career.
Before Amber was found, the local police had become suspicious of her father’s claim that she simply disappeared without a trace. They found it hard to believe that the toddler really wandered into the woods. Even after finding her unharmed, they grilled her father with more questions as to why she was left alone.
4 Dennis Johnson
Eight-year-old Dennis Johnson was visiting California’s Yellowstone National Park with his family in 1966. The parents began setting up a picnic, and they told their two kids to go play. Dennis ran to his parents a few minutes later, telling them that his younger sister was lost in the woods.
According to Dennis’s father, his son had been taught some basic wilderness survival skills and had a good head on his shoulders. So he trusted the boy to continue searching for his sister and meet them back at the picnic area. They split up, and the parents recovered their missing daughter. But Dennis never returned.
The National Park Service searched for him for weeks, putting thousands of hours into finding him. The parents were so desperate for answers about what happened to their son that they visited a psychic, who claimed to have a vision of their son drowning in a shallow ditch.
The mystery of what actually happened to Dennis is still unknown. Remains have never been found, and theories that he was abducted continue to be a possibility.
3 Garrett Bardsley
It was 8:00 AM on August 20, 2004, at the Uinta Mountains in Summit County, Utah. Garrett Bardsley and his father, Kevin, got up early on their father-son Boy Scout camping trip and went fishing on the edge of a nearby lake. Garrett got a little too close to the water, completely soaking his shoes and socks. He decided to walk back to the campsite to change.
The Scout troop tents were a mere 140 meters (450 ft) away, so Garrett’s father allowed his 12-year-old son to go back alone. There was no need to worry because they had walked that trail several times before and Garrett had also completed wilderness survival training. Kevin kept his eyes on Garrett as he walked around the lake and even shouted directions, reminding Garrett which path would lead him straight back to camp.
After 20 minutes, Kevin wondered what was taking his son so long. He returned to the camp, and Garrett was nowhere to be seen.
The only evidence that searchers found was the boy’s Nike sock 0.8 kilometers (0.5 mi) away from the spot where he disappeared. The local police decided that there was not enough evidence pointing to a kidnapping. They believe that he got lost and died of exposure. In 2006, Kevin Bardsley was interviewed and gave vivid details about the day his son disappeared. He says that he will never give up hope of finding his son.
2 Malachi Bradley
In 2015, 10-year-old Malachi Bradley was on a camping trip with his family. They were hiking in the woods of the Uinta Mountains of Utah. He wanted to find some mushrooms, so he wandered off on his own. By the time he realized that he had gone too far, he could no longer find his parents. Malachi knew to look for a road and flag down a car, but they were in such a remote location that he could not find one.
He avoided dehydration by drinking water from a lake, but he could not find any food. When it was getting dark, Malachi found some rocks that felt warm from baking in the sun all day. Before he fell asleep, he removed his T-shirt so that he could wrap it around his legs for warmth. He zipped up his jacket and curled into the fetal position on the rocks. Though the nighttime temperature had dipped below freezing, he managed to stay warm enough to survive.
In the morning, Malachi awoke to the sound of helicopters flying above him. He knew that they would not see him underneath trees, so he found the nearest clearing and stayed there until the rescue team found him.
1 Alfred Beilhartz
In 1938, camping in the woods was far more rustic than it is today. After the Beilhartz family awoke with their 11 children in their tents at the Rocky Mountain National Park, they needed to walk to a nearby stream to wash themselves and drink water. When returning to camp, they noticed that one of the youngest children, five-year-old Alfred, was missing.
The family ran to park rangers as soon as they could. A group called the Civilian Conservation Corps brought 100 members to look for the boy. Although shortwave radios had recently been invented, they were so massive that they had to be carried like a heavy backpack to communicate with other members of the search party.
After 10 days of searching, the group dwindled to only 12 dedicated members and their bloodhounds. The FBI even got involved when they suspected that there might be a kidnapping.
The only evidence they were able to gather was a statement from a married couple who had spotted a young boy matching Alfred’s description. He was standing at the edge of a cliff, staring into the wilderness. He did not ask the couple for help to find his family, so they assumed that the family was nearby. Alfred simply walked back into the forest, and no one ever saw him again.
Shannon Quinn is a writer and entrepreneur from the Philadelphia area.