Education for outdoor dangers can be learned in multiple ways; probably the least effective is from personal experience. The problem with learning by experience is that the test comes before the lesson. Unfortunately, at times that kind of education can be deadly. Learning from others’ experiences, otherwise known as “training,” presents a much safer alternative.
To understand the hazards of the outdoors it is first necessary to understand what is meant by hazards. There are two types of outdoor hazards to anticipate when planning high adventure activities. The first is the objective hazard, which includes risks that are usually apparent or obvious (sometimes called inherent risks). Objective hazards can happen to anyone and are unaffected by one’s personal abilities. They would exist whether you were there or not. Examples include lightning, cliffs, fast moving water, and snow in winter (at least in non-temperate zones).
Subjective hazards, on the other hand, are more difficult to identify and are hard to quantify. They are typically human-caused occurrences and can usually be controlled or at least minimized. The focus of this article will be on subjective hazards. Many of the basic principles discussed below come from a wonderful book by Dave Anderson, Outdoor Hazards—Avoiding Trouble in the Backcountry (Backpacker Magazine Series, Falcon Guides, 2012).
The first subjective hazard refers to the concept of preparation, more commonly referred to as planning, or the lack thereof, actually. For example, “no planning” is what happens on Wednesday when the decision to go camping is for Friday. Planning is critical to hazard reduction; there will be more specific guidance on proper planning in future articles. However, for our purpose there are two parts of planning. The first part is planning for the activity itself, including discussions about where we are going, what the actual activity is, who the drivers are, what food we need, and what equipment is necessary. Unfortunately the second aspect of planning is far too often overlooked—are we properly prepared for the activity?
Lack of proper preparation is the first, and often the most critical, link in the causal chain that can lead to serious injuries or even death in an activity. Proper preparation is especially crucial in the backcountry, where rescue might be delayed or even impossible. In the context of this article, lack of preparation can be simply stated as “getting in over your head.” Examples include doing something where there is a lack of the requisite technical skills, improper equipment or not understanding how to use the equipment, failing to understand the weather, inadequate or improper food and water, little or no shelter, improper clothing or footwear (remember those nasty blisters from the new boots?), or even something as simple as the overweight pack (remember that Scout who thought the six pack of Mountain Dew was a necessity on the 50 miler?). The Church has produced an informative video titled Safety Through Planning and Relying on the Spirit (accessible at the Church’s Safety and Health website, where you will find a great deal of additional information about safety issues).
Being properly prepared for the activity means asking your Scouts and yourself many questions.
- Do my boys and I have the requisite skills to actually do the activity?
- Do we have the right equipment and, more importantly, do we know how to use it?
- Do we have too much or too little equipment and is the equipment in good condition?
- Do we have proper navigation skills? It’s amazing how easy it is to get lost, even a quarter mile from camp.
- Are we (both adults and youth) in proper physical condition for the activity (see the Safety and Health website)? A 50 miler requires a much different level of conditioning than a video game contest.
- Am I aware of any pre-existing medical conditions for anyone in my group? Have the individuals with medical issues properly managed those pre-existing medical conditions?
- Have the participants taken the time to acclimate themselves to be ready for extreme temperatures or changes in altitude?
- Am I aware of the fears or phobias of my leaders or youth?
- Who is the expedition (yes, think of it that way) leader? Who makes the decisions? Is this a democracy or a dictatorship?
- Have we submitted a Tour and Activity Plan (required if the outing includes aquatics, shooting, climbing, etc.)?
These are just some of the important subjective questions which should go into a proper activity plan.
I remember the first time (and only time) I drove a car in Manhattan; hey, I had driven in California! I thought I was well prepared—I barely survived the experience! A whole new skill set was required, a skill set I did not have; and I was fortunate to have come out of it intact. Dave Anderson describes those headed to the outdoors as falling into one of five categories: “novice, beginner, proficient, expert, and master” (Outdoor Hazards, 8). Mr. Anderson goes on to define each category, beginning with the novice.
- The novice does not know what he does not know.
- In contrast, beginners at least recognize they lack the proper skills and knowledge to engage in the activity.
- Someone who is proficient, on the other hand, possesses the necessary skills, but the application of those skills must be consciously applied (“I have to think about it; does the rope go over or under?”).
- The expert possesses skills which are so well developed that they become automatic.
- The master maintains his automatic competence by reflecting back on his skills in order to make improvements.
One other thing that makes the novices and beginners so vulnerable to accidents is they often lack a basic understanding of the safety principles necessary to complete the activity safely. Most of our youth and many of our adult leaders fall into these first two categories.
The chain of causation for accidents also includes not having the right equipment or knowing how to use it; sometimes having too much equipment can be just as bad as not having enough. Having the most up to date GPS is worthless unless you are competent in its use; otherwise it is just dead weight.
We in Church Risk Management have witnessed far too many situations where boys and leaders became lost, in many instances due to lack of proper navigation skills. Learn how to read a map and compass, and yes, you can use your GPS! But if you don’t bring these tools with you, even if you think the trail is well marked, the risk of getting lost grows exponentially. Never, never get separated from your group and especially from your buddy!
Church Risk Management has made a delightful video (Get in Shape) that unfortunately may strike too close to home for many of us. One of the leading causes of death in the Boy Scouts is from heart attack; and no, 14-year-olds do not pose a significant risk in this regard, but the adults reading this article are more likely to be the culprits. Get in shape for the activity in which you are about to engage, and if you don’t feel up to it, get someone to take your place. There is no shame in that.
Do you know your own pre-existing medical conditions? When was the last time you had a complete physical? What limitations did the doctor impose? Back and knee weaknesses are common, often the result of previous injuries, such as that crushing tackle on senior day in high school that never completely healed. Do you know of any pre-existing medical conditions of your boys? Do you know what medications they are taking and how those medications should be administered? By knowing your own pre-existing medical conditions and those of your boys, you can properly plan your outdoor activities to minimize aggravation of those conditions and ensure everyone has a great time.
A related area that is often overlooked in activity planning is phobias or fears. You may not want to plan a swimming activity for one of your boys who is afraid of water; or at least it would help to know that in advance, so proper attention can be given. Protecting the living and not redeeming the dead is the charge to Church Risk Management!
Clear communication is vital, prior to and during the activity. Does your bishop know your plans? Do the parents know in detail what you are doing with their sons? Mom might be alright allowing her son to go on a hike to the local canyon, but perhaps a side trip to the lake or to go shooting could be another matter. I continue to be amazed at the number of times when something goes wrong that Mom and Dad, and even sometimes the bishop, did not know that a particular activity was part of the plan.
One aspect of effective communication is leadership. The larger the group, the less experienced the group, or the younger the group, the greater the need for proper communication, including knowing who makes the final decision. At times improper communication could lead to disaster. All it takes is two people to have a misunderstanding. There should be a designated leader, hopefully someone who is experienced. When I river raft with a group of my good river-running buddies, our decision making is more collaborative. But when dealing with Scouts, I need to be more directive. In Scouting, we need to communicate effectively at all levels.
You can help avoid getting in over your head if you know what you are going to do—in detail. You need to know what equipment is needed, how much to bring, and how to use it. If you are not an “expert” in the activity, consider getting an expert to come along as the expedition leader. (Youth Protection training for this person is a prerequisite, and being registered as an adult Scouter is desirable). Make sure everyone is as prepared as possible for the activity, physically and emotionally. Get in shape, not just generally but for your specific activity. Know your limits and stay within them. Learn basic navigation skills. Communicate with others. While clearly this is not a complete list, it is a great place to start and will help reduce the threat of injury while helping to make your activity a success.