Safety in the Outdoors: How to Manage Risk

Taking risk in the backcountry

*This guest post on managing risk in the outdoors is by John. Join the conversation 4pm MDT (6pm EDT) Thursday 10/31/13 with #STPLive.*

We often “take” risks to better ourselves. For example, you might take a risk and go on a hike with a group of people you don’t know. For those that are not outgoing we pride ourselves on taking this risk.

From a risk management perspective, risk is a function of the likelihood an event will occur and the impact if it does. It’s sometimes expressed in pseudo-math like this:

Risk = Likelihood * Impact

In this example, the most important event could be that we won’t like this new group of people and won’t enjoy the hike. I generally think people are good, especially hikers, so I think the likelihood is low that I won’t fit in. And if I don’t have a good time, the impact is that I’ll have missed the chance to do something more fun. To me, that’s a pretty low impact. Using our risk calculation we get a low risk.

Low risk = Low likelihood * low impact


taking risks with kids


My daughters cross a bridge in Mount Rainier National Park. Had they fallen they’d have been wet, but little else.

What if our destination wasn’t a six mile hike on a well-maintained trail, but a 20 mile mountaineering expedition up a glaciated peak like Mount Rainier? Now the event we should assess for risk isn’t that I won’t have a good time, but that I could fall in a crevasse and the team won’t be able to help me get out. The likelihood in this scenario is medium because the climbing routes on Mount Rainier traverse several glaciers and crevasse rescue is complicated. The average hiker won’t know how to effect a rescue. The impact is high because if they can’t get me out we’ll need to call for help and while we wait I’ll be getting colder and colder.

A medium likelihood and a high impact is a high risk. Why? Risk can be calculated according to a simple table like this:

Likelihood
ImpactLowMediumHigh
LowLowMediumMedium
MediumMediumMediumHigh
HighMediumHighHigh

So what? One risk is low and the other is high. Does that mean I should only hike with people I don’t know and stay off glaciers? Not exactly.

For any risk you have at least four options. You can accept, defer, transfer, or mitigate the risk.

Sunset
I have accepted the risk of hiking in the dark so I can see sunsets like this. I mitigate that risk by carrying everything I’d need for an unplanned bivy.

To accept the risk is to recognize that the event could come to pass, but we won’t do anything to prevent it or minimize the impact. A low-risk six mile hike? For most hikers this is a reasonable response.

Deferring is similar to accepting, but we commit to reviewing the risk later. We could defer the risk of the six mile hike and re-evaluate our decision later if it turns out most people aren’t fun to hike with.

Transferring risk is best thought of in terms of insurance. I can get an insurance policy that will pay for me to be rescued and cover my medical bills. This is a good solution if I’m concerned about financial risk. Not so good if I’m more concerned about my health than the cost of a rescue.

Finally, I can mitigate. Mitigation is the act of attempting to reduce the likelihood or impact of an event. I could reduce the likelihood I’m adventuring with an inexperienced party by checking the backgrounds of the other members. I could require a certified guide accompany us. I could also reduce the likelihood of a crevasse rescue by traveling only well-established routes when conditions imply strong snow bridges.

Managing Risk outdoors
My Glacier Peak team’s experience included four Mount Rainier summits, three Mt. Baker summits, and a glacier travel instructor.

However, none of these mitigations will completely eliminate the risk. Glaciers are unpredictable and accidents happen. What’s left is called the “residual risk” and we either need to apply additional mitigations or accept, defer, or transfer the leftover risk.

In the end, I might choose not to accept the residual risk and cancel the trip. Avoidance reduces the likelihood to zero and the risk disappears. Of course, so does the trip across the glaciers.

risk on Mount Hood
My summit on Mt. Hood was a few feet shy of the true summit because I couldn’t accept the risk of this crossing with 40 mph winds.

This may seem like an artificial process that works only on paper. Indeed, it works best when it’s part of the trip planning process and only works on the trail when you’re experienced enough to do the assessment without thinking through each step. After years of practice I’ve found I can subconsciously assess risk while on trail and make the choices that are right for me and my family.

How each of us responds to different kinds of risks depends on our individual risk tolerance. I have a fairly high tolerance for risk in the outdoors when it comes to me, but a very low tolerance when it comes to my kids. At work, I’m extremely risk adverse, though that might be because I work in risk management.

In the end, we must each come to understand the types of risk we will accept and those we won’t. It takes a strong person to stand up to a group and declare that you think the risk is too high for you to accept. The best partners and groups are the ones that will respect thresholds for risk and find solutions that work for everyone.

How do you assess risk in the outdoors? What types of risks are you willing to take for an adventure? Join the conversation 4pm MDT (6pm EDT) Thursday 10/31/13 by following Twitter #STPLive.

-John Solty is a husband, father and proud dog owner from Washington state. He shares his outdoor adventures on his site, moosefish.com.

10 comments on “Safety in the Outdoors: How to Manage Risk

  1. Jeff Hester

    Very well-written post, John. When we’re in the wilderness, risk is something that you need to consider with a methodology like this, because the stakes can be higher (like on Mt. Hood with the 40mph winds).

    When I was planning a JMT thru-hike, one of the risks I had to face was some health concerns for my girlfriend. She is mildly hypoglycemic, and asthmatic. Could she hike the 211+ miles? What impact would the altitude and physical stress have on her asthma?

    We mitigated those risks by preparing. Our training included strenuous, multi-day backpacking trips and hiking above 10,000 feet. She learned how to address both issues (hint: eating a little something on the hour for the hypoglycemia).

    In the end, she had no issues finishing the entire JMT without incident. And that was a successful risk mitigation.

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