Managing Risk in the Field

The degree of risk in a situation depends on a host of factors that can change from one moment to the next. Take, for example, a log that, a few feet above a stream, offers an inviting route for hikers to reach the far bank. On a warm day in a BSA local council camp, the risk involved in walking across the log might be very low. Even if you fall, it's not far to the water. If you get wet, you can go to your tent and change clothes. If you sprain your ankle, you are close to medical assistance. Do you walk over the log? Probably.

During a backpacking trip, you come upon a similar log lying across a stream, but this one is located miles up a trail and the day is windy and cold. If you slip off the log, you have only the clothing you are carrying to replace wet garments. If your pack is submerged, the clothes, food, and gear stowed in it could become soaked. If you hurt your ankle, you might be stranded miles from a road. Do you use the log to cross the stream? Perhaps, but you might decide to lessen the risk by straddling the log and scooting across in a sitting position, or you might wade if the stream is calm and shallow, or you might seek out a better place to cross. Each option will take longer than walking the log, but not nearly as long as dealing with the possible results of a fall.

Managing risk often is a matter of considering the "what if" of a situation. What if I fall? What if I lose my pack? What if I sprain my ankle? Other considerations that might be factors are the time of day, your group's level of fatigue, hunger, or anxiety, and the amount of experience you've had with similar situations.

Put lots of faith in your gut feeling about a situation. If it doesn't seem right but you're not sure why, your instincts might be telling you something you need to know, but have not yet fully understood. Take plenty of time to consider your options.

Anyone in a group should feel empowered to call a halt to group activities whenever he or she perceives a risk that should be addressed. In turn, group leaders and other members must respect those concerns and give them full consideration.

While the tone of a group is best when it is upbeat and members strive to see the positive in every situation, it's good to be a pessimist about hazards, erring on the side of too much caution rather than not enough. The risk management portion of your brain should be focused on what could go wrong so that you can act in ways that increase the likelihood of things going right.