Risk Management

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What is Risk and How Do I Manage It?

What is Risk?

Risk is the PROBABILITY that an accident will happen, multiplied by the SEVERITY if it does.

Probability: How likely is it that this event I am imagining will happen? Severity: How bad will it be if it does?

What is Risk Management?

Risk Management (for the purpose of this discussion) is the skill of determining with reasonable accuracy the probability and severity of future events, given a set of conditions; and then making our plans relative to the amount of risk we (or our program director) are willing to live with. In the outdoors and with groups of people, there are a lot of different controllable and uncontrollable factors at work, so the set of conditions is always changing.

Therefore a good leader can:

  • Visualize and mentally list both controllable and uncontrollable risk factors
  • Keep a mental running tally as risk factors change
  • Judge when too many risk factors are present at once
  • Accurately choose a way to change the situation and bring the risk down to an acceptable level again.

How does one do this?

  • Developing judgment and awareness through personal experience – Time in the field
  • Developing technical competency through training
  • Develop a sense of probability through staying current with trends in the field, published statistics, etc.
  • Developing judgment through studying others’ mistakes, using writeups and scenarios of accidents and close calls.
  • Acknowledge that hubris exists in all of us, and that it is not possible to know everything or to see all ends.

When planning or leading a trip, some ideas will occur to you of possible unfavorable outcomes. For example, you might want to hike the entire Presidential Range of the White Mountains in one day, commonly called a Presidential Traverse. Most people think of this as a pretty challenging hike. One of the risks is getting caught above treeline after dark. The probability of this happening is fairly high, but can be reduced by starting as early as possible, and planning to go when the days are longest. The severity of being above treeline after dark depends almost completely on weather conditions and what kind of supplies you are carrying. If you decide to carry a full complement of equipment – tent, stove, sleeping bag, etc, you reduce the possible severity, but you increase the probability because all that gear is going to slow you down. Likewise if you decide to go fast and light, probability is low but severity is high. There is no right answer except to think things through beforehand, plan the trip for your least-fit participant (or vice versa, choose only those participants whose fitness and experience level are appropriate to the trip), and leave as wide as possible a margin for error. Be willing to change the plan if things aren’t working out.

How can you tell if things are not working out? Generally, accidents don’t just “happen.” Various risk factors usually have to combine to produce an accident. Good instructors have a running mental tally of all risk factors affecting their group at a given point in time, as well as informed guesses as to how those risks will change over time. In short, good instructors practice being able to “see it coming.”

Risk Factors: Controllable and Uncontrollable

A risk factor is a condition that increases the likelihood of an accident. Usually one risk factor alone does not “cause” an accident. It takes several risk factors in combination for an accident to happen.

“Controllable” risk factors are things the trip leader has control over. Some examples are: the physical condition of individuals on the trip, the amount of windshield wiper fluid in the van’s reservoir, the route or location of the activity, and many more. Think of all the planning you do to get a trip out the door – all controllable risk factors. These can also be thought of as “human” risk factors.

“Uncontrollable” risk factors are conditions which simply exist, which we can choose to accept or avoid. Some examples are: temperature, humidity, slope angles, snow, snow’s age and condition, day length, wind direction, tides, etc etc. For this reason they are also referred to as “environmental” risk factors.

Human and environmental risk factors combine to produce an accident. Here is a simple example. Two imaginary hikers, let’s call them Ben and Rory, are descending the Falling Waters Trail after a long day of travel. Since they spent an hour arguing about who should wash the oatmeal pan this morning, they got out of camp late and darkness is starting to fall as they descend the trail. Unfortunately it’s also starting to rain. They start to hurry. Ben slips on a square root and down he goes, Rory falls on top of him, breaking his ankle.

Let’s plug these risk factors into Alan Hale’s simple and useful “Dynamics of Accidents Model.” Two overlapping circles represent the two broad categories of risks.

One of a leader’s many jobs is to keep an eye on the various risk factors and try to imagine how they might combine. The idea of the overlapping circles may work for you, or the image of probability vs. severity above. The point is to notice before it becomes a crisis, and to make appropriate changes to lower the amount of risk your group is exposed to. In the example above, it might have been useful to take a ten minute break, have a snack, put on headlamps, and mentally accept the darkness and rain, rather than trying to avoid it by hurrying. It might also have been useful to get a weather report, leave camp earlier, etc.

When Does Risk Management Start?

Sound risk management starts as soon as you start to imagine the trip. Where you want to go, with whom, in what season, for how long, to accomplish what end, are all significant factors. In no particular order, some broad questions to consider are:

  • Where are you going? What environmental risk factors are likely to exist in that place at this time of the year? What resources are available to you to learn more about the area before you go? Do you have detailed, topographic maps or charts that show not only where you want to go but where alternative trails, trailheads, and roads are in case you change your itinerary mid-trip? Do you have good sources for accurate trail and weather conditions in the area?
  • How long is the trip, how many nights will you be out, what is the greatest distance from a road/trailhead/phone that you will be? A broken binding, sick person, or insufficient stove fuel is much more significant 12 miles from the road than it is ½ mile from the road.
  • What specific activities will you be pursuing? What is your own level of skill at these activities? Is it sufficient not only to conduct the activity, but to also teach it to others with confidence, and to correct mistakes if they happen? Do you have sufficient emergency medical and rescue skills, and would you benefit from refreshing these skills before you go out? How is your personal physical fitness level these days?
  • Who will your participants be? Will this be open to everyone, or only to people who can demonstrate a certain amount of skill already? How much of a “cushion” do you need to build in for possible inexperience or fatigue?
  • What equipment is available? Do participants have sufficient acceptable personal equipment? Have you seen it? What condition is it in? Is equipment that you rent or borrow in adequate repair, and do you know how to make simple field repairs to the equipment you have? Do you have a small repair kit with appropriate parts, tools, and most importantly, duct tape?
  • What are your goals? Do you have personal goals for the trip? Are these goals appropriate to the other choices you have made? How willing are you to change goals as the trip goes on and you acquire more information?
  • What alternatives do you have if the weather changes, there is a gear malfunction, or someone comes down sick on the trip? What is your plan B?

The Week Before the Trip

  • Hold a pre-trip meeting to gather more information about your participants, and give them more information about the trip. Plan ahead what information should be exchanged. Be prepared to answer their questions – there will be a lot.
  • Block out time in your schedule to buy and repackage trip food, gather group equipment, and pack your own equipment.
  • Catch up on rest and homework so that you can be focused on the trip when it’s ready to go out. One of the most common accident factors is leader fatigue.

Author’s Notes: I’ve written this article from my thoughts and experiences, but I didn’t just make this up. I must credit my heroes and luminaries in the field of outdoor education, among others: Pam McPhee, Keith King, Preston Cline, Michael Gass, Outward Bound USA (particularly Hurricane Island and North Carolina), Jed Willamson, and my colleagues here at Dartmouth. In addition this article is frequently updated with information from the many students who grace me with their feedback.

For more information on risk management in the outdoors, as well as accident analyses for you to learn from, here are some resources:


The DOC has a long tradition of handing down information, so ask upperclassmen and alumni for their advice on your trip, and listen to it.

Get a co-leader anytime you possibly can. There is nothing like feedback from someone whose judgment you respect, to help develop your own risk-management and leadership abilities.

The job of the Outdoor Programs Office is to help you get out on these trips. Rory, Brian, Dan, Kathy and the rest of the crew can help you with maps, guidebooks, equipment lists, club policies, skill development, and a wealth of personal experience and enthusiasm.


  • www.outdoored.com
  • www.outdoorsafety.org
  • Peter Steinmetz of the University of Minnesota has painstakingly graphed data from 46 years worth of “Accidents in North American Mountaineering”: www.bml.umn.edu/~peter/climbing/Climbing.html
  • www.americanwhitewater.org/safety has excellent accident reports and thoughtful articles on canoeing and kayaking risks.
  • www.biking.org/accidents


  • Accidents in North American Mountaineering, published yearly by the American Alpine Club, edited by Jed Williamson
  • Lessons Learned: A Guide to Accident Prevention and Crisis Response, by Deb Ajango
  • Effective Leadership in Adventure Programming, by Mike Gass and Simon Priest
  • Target Risk by Gerald Wilde. The entire text is available at http://psyc.queensu.ca/target/#contents.
  • There are far too many skills-specific books to list here. I recommend Googling, asking friends, or searching amazon.com for books on particular activities and skills. Browse the DOC Library in Room 13 as well. One popular series is the Falcon Guides, which can be browsed online at www.globepequot.com.

Thanks for your time. Please let me know of further useful resources or feedback that you have on this piece. Contact me at Rory.C.Gawler@dartmouth.edu. Thanks to Julie Clemons for putting together this document.