Risk Management in the Outdoors

As an individual who has spent much of my life recreating in and living near natural areas, risk management has been an [almost] invisible component of my whole life. Before, during, and after an outdoor experience, I am constantly assessing, and re-assessing my level of risk. These small, but necessary assessments have allowed me to have enjoyable and relatively safe experiences. It wasn’t until I turned my love for the outdoors into a career, that I realized I needed to re-examine how I think about risk. The small decisions I am constantly making, from which base layers to wear, to evaluating snowpack for potential avalanches, are all important for managing risks outdoors. But as a guide, not only do I make risk-assessments for myself, but I am also making decisions for the safety of my clients.

In order to make sound decisions about risk management when leading others, I can provide some insight into which three types of risks I prioritize the most when I am out in the field. There are many different kinds of risks we take in our everyday lives, but the level of risk is dependent on our individual experiences, perceptions and our worldviews. I define risk as: an either real or perceived threat, or exposure to, potential harm, injury, loss, or otherwise undesirable outcome. However, as I mentioned, it is relative; something which may be reasonably safe for me, may be incredibly risky for someone else Risk perception is affected not only by the characteristics of a situation (i.e., some situations are more dangerous than others), but it also is influenced by a person’s assessment of his or her own abilities. Risks can be physical, environmental, emotional, psychological, social, and medical. Each of these risk categories should be weighed equally when making decisions in the wilderness, not only for oneself, but for the overall wellbeing of the group. For me, the first and foremost risk mitigation assessment I prioritize is the actual environmental risks.

My top priority around risk has always been assessing the actual environmental risks. Environmental risks can impact both the physical and emotional wellbeing of the group, and mitigating these risks are incredibly important. For me, this is always the first step when planning a trip or even a simple hike. This look can look like: assessing for hazardous weather events, or researching the area I am going into for common area-specific dangers (i.e. rock fall, flooding, fires, animal activity, etc.). By ensuring that I am well educated about the area, I am going to be either recreating or working in, I can mitigate the effects of environmental dangers. Environmental risks should be constantly assessed. A sunny day can swiftly turn overcast during a quickly moving storm, or a route you’ve climbed hundreds of time may now have loose rock at the top. The assumption of safety, security and predictability can be a costly one.

The second form of risk management I usually prioritize when taking clients into wilderness areas, is their medical history or current medical concerns. This one can be fairly simple for us guides to navigate and work with, by getting a thorough medical history from my client. This can be one of the easiest ways to ensure a smooth wilderness experience.

Finally, managing emotional risks in the backcountry is something I highly prioritize. Backcountry experiences can elicit many emotions, such as vulnerability, stress, or the emotional hardship of getting through physical discomfort. Much of my role as a guide is helping my clients mitigate perceived risk. Perceived risk is how humans interpret the actual risks that they are presented with. Perceived risk can fluctuate because humans often assume that there is more or less actual risk based on previous experience, confidence level, or fatigue. For example, despite professional guides setting a secure anchor, and all climbing safety protocol being followed, clients may experience a high level of “perceived threat” while rappelling, despite there being little to no “actual risk.” Managing both actual and perceived forms of physical, environmental, medical and emotional risks, lays the groundwork for profound wilderness experiences, and is something Colorado Wilderness Rides and Guides is committed to.

  • Written by Jessica Bailey. Adventurer and Guide for Colorado Wilderness Rides and Guides.