Tracking Free-Range Kids

They are 8 and 6 years old, my boys: bundles of mischief, of exploration, of desire for independence. They were fishing with their father on the banks of the Congaree River. The fish were not biting. They got bored. So they asked their dad if they could go up the trail a ways.

An urban trail, paved and wooden, with rail on the sides to keep them on it and strict instructions to stay away from the water and stay together. They can be trusted. He gave them his phone, which the 8-year-old knew how to use, and told them they could go as far as the bridge, about 100 yards away. They set out on an adultless adventure. The kind of adventure we had as kids. The kind of adventure every kid deserves. Some fishermen partly up the route had borrowed equipment from my husband; they knew the kids and knew to watch for them. Because of community.

One hundred feet up the twisted wooden trail, close enough for the kids to hear the fish alarms, a Baby Boomer jogged into sight. She wore lycra. A jacket wrapped around her waist against the warm day. “Where are your parents?” she demanded of my 8-year-old. No preliminaries. No hellos.

“Lady, I’m here with my dad,” my son snapped. Sometimes I rejoice in his rudeness to what he considers idiotic questions.

My younger son ran, and my older son followed him, because Daddy said to say together. Both boys told me later they were terrified.

The woman called the rangers. We know because she sheepishly told my husband that when she walked 100 feet and found my sons hanging out with him. “You can never be too careful … just look what happened to that kid out in California last week.”

“The only person who’s harassed my children out in this lovely park today has been you,” he said calmly. He gave her his best Willy Wonka “Good Day” and she huffed off in a tautness of spandex.

We’re free range parents. We trust our kids to go 100 yards to a bridge and back, to stay out of the water, to stay safe. To realize they can scream, and help will come (especially on a river full of men fishing). But since we let them roam, it would be nice to know where they are.

We originally thought we’d consider a GPS-enabled watch device to keep track of them. These work by pinging a satellite, using an existing 2G mobile network. They have various capabilities — everything from just letting you and your child call each other and giving you their location to games, fitness challenges, and the knowledge when the watch comes off their wrist. Except….

A recent study found that some of the most popular Smartwatches for kids — Tinitell, Gator 2, Viksfjord, and Xplora — have such serious security flaws that they may “allow hackers to track the devices, take a picture on a watch’s camera, eavesdrop on a child’s conversation, or even communicate with a child.” Um, that’s a gigantic No, thank you.

So we’re then onto personal GPS trackers. Here are several in the market we found which seem workable for keeping track of your child’s location:


PocketFinder3.0+ allows the user to view the target superimposed over Google Earth, with pings of up to every 10 seconds when it’s in track mode. Battery life was cited as anywhere from 4 days to 10 hours, depending mostly on the amount of movement of the target. It will alert you when the target enters or exits predetermined zones, allows an unlimited number of emergency contacts, and includes an SOS button. Like all the GPS trackers, you have to buy a monthly service plan, which in this case costs $13 in the U.S. The device itself will set you back $159.

Spark Nano

The Spark Nano 5.0 GPS Tracker gives you “real time location viewing from your computer, tablet, or smartphone.” It seems to have about 14 hours of battery time, and goes into sleep mode when the target isn’t moving (the Pocketfinder does the same). It utilizes the Verizon network (giving it the best coverage out of all of the trackers), but its monthly plan is steep: $25 when it’s set for a ping a minute. You can up this for more rapid tracking for an extra $5 a month. A cheaper plan allows for on-demand pings, but only with the $25 plan do you have the ability to make a geofence. Sound complicated? I had to talk it out with a customer service rep. The device itself costs $50, and that seems consistent across the internet.


The  STI_GL300 Real-Time GPS Tracker is small — just 2″ long — and like all the GPS trackers, you can follow your target’s movements via a phone, tablet, or computer through the SpyTec GPS Tracking website (rather than an app — a boon for those who aren’t running an Android or iPhone, which required by the Spark Nano). You can set up geofences and store up to a year of data; the battery lasts two weeks, and you can buy an extended pack that ups that to an unbelievable six months. It includes an SOS button. The basic plan, which updates every minute, will run you $25; they recommend the $35 plan as the “best value” and the best for tracking a preteen child (it updates every ten seconds).

Of course, if your kid isn’t going far — like my kids weren’t — consider using a Bluetooth tracker. The Tile Sport may be your best bet if you’re looking to use it to track your kid. With an effective Bluetooth range of 200 feet, it gives you some wiggle room in a crowd, and with a larger user base, the crowdsourced Tile network will help you find your kid faster. If that’s all you’re interested in, that’s probably the best option for you — at $35 as opposed to $100 and up.

[Check out our comprehensive Bluetooth Tracker reviews.] 

But you’re also relying, beyond that 200 feet, on other people running Tile or TrackR apps to help you find your kid, and that might be a dicey proposition in a less urban, less tech-savvy area. It might be worth to drop the cash for a Spark Nano instead.

I think that’s what we’ve decided to do. A GPS tracker will give our son the freedom to explore like he needs, while giving us the security we need as well. Of course, a tracker would have showed that he was one hundred feet up the trail when the lady accosted him — and surely she wouldn’t have been impressed that Daddy was watching him via smartphone. But in the future, it means he can roam farther and give us — if not the paranoid Baby Boomers of the world — peace of mind. And as his parents, we’re the ones that matter.

Elizabeth Broadbent

Elizabeth Broadbent

Elizabeth Broadbent lives in a medium-sized city in the South with her three children, three dogs, and patient husband. She works as a staff writer for Scary Mommy, and her writing has been featured in The Washington Post and on

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