Quote by Robert Pursing
Your Subtitle text


Risk Management Principles Applied To Hiking


Picture of Elowah Falls Oregon

Risk is an important part of life. Testing limits fuels growth. Challenge has led humans to use fire, to traverse oceans and deserts, to climb the highest mountains, and to journey into space. The risk-free life may not be worth living, but those who take risks and expect to survive must plan ahead and prepare as well as possible.

—James A. Wilkerson, M.D., editor, Medicine For Mountaineering,

5th ed., page 348



We take risks, we know we take them. Therefore, when things come out against us, we have no cause for complaint.

—journal entry of Robert Falcon Scott of the 1912  Antarctic expedition, made at death camp after the return from the Pole



Central Issues Addressed in This Article

What is meant by “risk management” and how can its principles be applied to hiking and backpacking? What are the highest probability risks faced by experienced and inexperienced wilderness travelers? What can we learn by analyzing actual wilderness emergencies, accidents, illnesses, etc.? Should we approach risk management systematically?

Traditional Wisdom From Experienced Risk Managers

There are many “truths” that can be learned from competent risk managers and those who deal with emergencies on a regular basis. Here is a synthesis of many of these truths. How self-evident are they?

Becoming Risk Managers: There is no way to eliminate all risk. A life lived to the fullest is fraught with risks. However, unless we consciously choose a lifestyle full of danger and taking chances and gambling with the odds against us, the responsible approach is to become a risk manager rather than a risk taker. The first step in becoming a risk manager is to identify the risks by examining the possible outcomes of a situation. Even though a risk manager will usually end up taking some risks, the primary focus should be on understanding, preventing, minimizing and mitigating the risks.

Prevention Strategies and Emergency Avoidance: The most important risk management strategy is to avoid emergencies in the first place. The primary focus should be on prevention and only secondarily on how to deal with the possible emergencies that might happen in the wilderness. To avoid emergencies we need the right combination of skills, gear, knowledge, preparation and attitude. We can hike for a lifetime and still be adding to these elements. We also avoid emergencies by being both physically and mentally prepared. Being in good physical condition is a good preliminary to mental conditioning. Mental conditioning begins with an honest assessment of strengths and weaknesses. It also includes an ongoing “What if?” mindset. To avoid emergencies, we need to pick our hiking partners carefully. We need partners who complement our skills and experience. We need partners who are not selfish, and who have a similar level of risk tolerance. There should be no serious personality conflicts. As a starting point, we should ascertain the competency levels of those we go out with.

Broad Range of Risks to Manage: Even though it is natural to think of risk management primarily in terms of emergencies that might result in bodily harm, there are other types of risks to manage: economic, psychological, social and legal risks. For example, if you do not get the proper permits, there is a legal risk and an economic risk (if fined).  Another example of a risk that is not an emergency is that of getting sick a week after returning from a trip because of drinking bad water or practicing poor hygiene. This is a physical risk, but no immediate action is required; that is, it is usually not an emergency per se.

Assisting Those Less Experienced: To avoid getting caught up in emergency situations caused by others, we need to assist those with less experience. We need to freely share our own knowledge and experience. We need to get discussions going on the more controversial aspects of risk management. We need to get the less experienced to brainstorm risk prevention strategies. Everyone will benefit when we do these kinds of things.

Domino Impact of Large and Small Casual Events: Emergencies seldom have one cause. There is the obvious cause (injury caused by a slip on icy terrain on a steep slope) and more fundamental causes (being in a hurry  and not having practiced ice axe arrests for years). In analyzing an accident or emergency, many small things often contribute. For example, losing a glove in cold weather could result in preoccupation with keeping one’s bare hand warm resulting in not noticing a trail junction and taking the wrong fork. When suspicious about the direction of travel, discovering that one’s compass is not working properly and that you had put the wrong map into your pack. None of these unfortunate events by themselves causes this hypothetical person to get lost, but taken together become significant. Often the underlying fundamental causes and the small contributory causes combine to form a chain of events like a line of dominos falling over.

Selective Prevention Strategies
: To become a good risk manager, a “What if?” mind set should selectively focus on the most common problems experienced by wilderness travelers. We need to place our primary focus on the most probable events rather than on the worst things that can—but seldom do—happen. One exception to this would be focusing on those situations which could have very serious consequences, but which are relatively easy to control even though the actual risk might be fairly low. A good example would be packing a helmet and wearing it while scrambling with others in areas of loose rock. Even though probability should be the main criteria, other factors should be considered.

Habitual Safe Behavior: The safest individuals are those who make safety a habit. We need to habitually act in a safe and responsible manner by paying attention to details and not getting sloppy. Emergency situations often arise from a sequence of small mistakes and misjudgments. Examples of safe habits regarding backcountry travel: careful selection of gear taken, agreed turn-around times, checking weather forecasts, asking locals about known conditions, contingency exit plans, and a willingness to abort a trip that is not going well.

Perceptions vs. Realities: Sometimes the perception of risk is not the same as the reality. Inexperienced backcountry travelers often greatly exaggerate some risks (e.g., the risks from wild animals) and do not fully understand others (e.g., hypothermia and dehydration). Probably the best example of distorted perceptions involves loved ones who have little experience in the wilderness and who choose to stay at home.


  The above paragraphs and graphic provide a preview of the complete article (approximately 17 pages) available as a free download.  Click on the following to download in either a Microsoft Word or PDF format.

Risk Management Principles Applied to Hiking – Word Format

Risk Management Principles Applied to Hiking – PDF Format

The sub-topics listed below are developed in this complete article:

Traditional Wisdom From Experienced Risk Managers

Systematic Approaches to Risk Management For Hiking

Why Undertake Systematic Analyses of Risks?

What Can Actual Emergencies in the Mountains Tell Us?

Methodology and Generalizations from the Above Incidents

Highest Probability Risks for the Experienced Hiker

High Probability Risks for the Inexperienced

Reader Participation: Personal Assessment of Highest Risks

Some Final Thoughts

Additional Issues for Reflection

Picture of Mountain Landscape