I was driving up to Soda Springs, Idaho this past week to present a risk management program. My wife was driving and at one point we were following several other slower vehicles while waiting for a chance to pass, when an oncoming eighteen wheeler drifted toward the double yellow line before returning his side of the road. I got to thinking about the thinness of the margin that keeps traffic flowing safely. When two vehicles pass on a two lane road the space between them can be as little as a few feet! As long as the vehicles stick to their side of the road everything works well but a moments inattention can result in catastrophe. The more I thought about it the more I realized that this concept could be applied to many other scenarios. The difference between surviving and dieing, especially in the outdoors, is indeed a thin one. In fact I believe that we are the thickness of a piece of paper away from a disaster at any given time!
As a society we have become so dependent on technology to keep us safe that we no longer think about the threats to our safety and what we would do in the event that our lives are placed at risk. We have come to depend on others to keep us free from harm. The Federal government, state governments, our employers, family members and others have a role in keeping us all safe but ultimately we each have to recognize that no one is more responsible for our safety than we are. That "buck" cannot be passed! Our safety is dependent on the preparation we accomplish before an event. Our safety is dependent on our ability to recognize danger and react quickly enough to ensure our safety.
Is it possible to guarantee personal safety in the outdoors? Of course not! But you can increase your knowledge, improve your survival skills, outfit yourself with reliable equipment, thoroughly evaluate the risks and then measure your skills against those risks before undertaking an activity in the outdoors. A comprehensive analysis of the threats to your safety must be followed by an honest, objective appraisal of your skill level and ability to cope with those threats.
It is easy to talk about the impact of weather, or terrain hazards or perhaps the threats posed by animals when you recreate in the outdoors but the part of risk management and accident prevention that is hard to come to grips with is what the academics call "human factors."
Here are a few "human factors" that you should think about:
Complacency - a product of boredom, distraction, lack of awareness, or failure to question old habits results in a belief that "I've done this before successfully therefore there won't be a problem the next time!" Not necessarily! Sometimes we are suckered into complacency by our past successes!
Risk perception - a situation that is familiar, controllable, pleasant, predictable and avoidable is perceived to be of less risk. Consequently when an activity becomes routine the likelihood of an accident increases. Also keep in mind that to be able to deal with a dangerous situation you must first be able to recognize a dangerous situation!
Overconfidence - an unrealistic belief in one's ability to cope with life threatening situations. Men are particularly prone to overestimating their ability to cope with a crisis. Sometimes brute strength isn't enough!
Goal setting - the inability to adjust goals as situations change often leads to accidents. You must get out of the "summit or die" mentality. Remember - it is never wrong to turn back!
Impatience - patience is a virtue, impatience can be disastrous. Continuing on in the face of bad weather, rough terrain, darkness or other hazards in an effort to "get-back-at-all-cost" can be fatal.
Commitments - do not allow previously made commitments to influence what you should do when you are in trouble. Do what is in your best interest and don't worry about what your spouse is thinking or your what employer is going to think when you don't show up for work. Their concerns are no longer important. Keeping yourself safe is.
Peer pressure. Don't concern yourself with what others may think. You can survive teasing, ridicule, and the comments of others but you may not survive the impact of the environment if you fail to protect yourself. Do what you have to to be alive to be teased!
Failing to test. Nothing gets people in trouble quicker than accepting, at face value, the advice of others, Test everything before your life's on the line. Practice your survival skills and experiment with your equipment before you need to use them in a crisis.
Experience can help you through a tough situation or it can betray you by setting you up to fail when your experience doesn't take into account a new situation. Put another way "people are often setup for a disaster not by their inexperience but by their experience."
While the tangible risks can usually be managed, the subjective, intangible issues, the human factors, are much more difficult to come to grips with. To be a survivor you must prepare for what you hope will never happen while accepting the possibility that a crisis can happen at any time. At some point you need to ask yourself "What do I want my newspaper headline to say?" "Survived in Style" or "Deceased?"