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Managing Risk

An injury that doesn't happen needs no treatment. An emergency that doesn't occur requires no response. An illness that doesn't develop demands no remedy. The best way to stay safe in the outdoors is to avoid getting into trouble in the first place. That requires planning, training, leadership, good judgment, and accepting responsibility—in short, risk management.

We manage risk in almost every aspect of our lives. There is risk involved in stepping out of our homes in the morning, but we go anyway. There are risks in crossing a street, catching a bus, and taking part in sports, but we find ways to minimize these risks and maximize our safety and well-being.

Risk management is so much a part of outdoor adventures that often we hardly notice we are doing it. When we fill bottles with water from streams and lakes, we deal with the risk of parasites by treating the water with a filter or chemicals, or by boiling it. When we share the outdoors with bears, we protect them and ourselves by hanging our food out of their reach, eliminating odors from our sleeping areas, and keeping campsites spotless. When foul weather blows in, routes become uncomfortably exposed, streams swell, or snow loads make avalanches a possibility, we consider all the available information and then make decisions that keep risks at acceptable levels.

Perceived risk can energize outdoor activities by bringing to them an immediacy that is sharper than what we normally experience. The actual risk on a well-managed ropes course, for example, is relatively low, but participants experiencing the events of the course might perceive that the risk is much higher than it actually is. That heightened awareness can take them beyond their usual comfort levels and encourage them to accept challenges that will stretch their abilities and build their confidence.

The only way to eliminate risk completely in the out-of-doors is to give up the pleasures, challenges, and satisfaction of taking part in an adventure. Rather than attempting to do away with it, group members and leaders can manage risk by identifying its sources, understanding its boundaries, and tailoring their behavior to minimize exposure to danger.

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