When I taught backpacking to University students, the majority of the content came down to decision-making. How we go about making decisions in the backcountry can be the difference between a safe experience and a harrowing one.


Decisions in the backcountry balance risk and reward. Underlying that balance are the values we hold. So one of the starting points in my class would always be an exercise where we identified the reasons we go out. If your reason to go out is to see beautiful things, your decisions will be very different than if your reason is to bag peaks. There is no point ascending a mountain in a whiteout if your goal is the former; you won’t see anything when you do.

The first step to determining what rewards you are getting out of your outdoor adventures is identifying what you value. I have 3 values when it comes to the backcountry: taking beautiful photos, escaping the “busy” life of schedules and quick response technology, and connecting on a spiritual level with nature. These goals inform what I’m willing to do. The physical activity is a secondary benefit, and in fact, when I am working out, it’s with the goal of being able to get to more beautiful things out in the wilderness.

Before your next trip, ask yourself why you go out? What values drive your excursions into the wild? Then decide what risks are worth taking for those rewards. Once you understand your baseline for risk, then you can begin to think about risk management and mitigation.

Risk Management and Mitigation

Two women feeling a snow pit for layers of instabilityGoing into the backcountry is inherently unsafe. For that matter, everything you do from the point you are born (and perhaps even before that) has inherent risk. At a young age, our parents manage and mitigate those risks, until our brains have matured enough to do it on your own. You are already managing and mitigating risk without even realizing it.

Take driving as an example. Driving is likely the most dangerous thing most of us do (from a statistical perspective). Each time we drive, we do so with some purpose, usually to get to a destination. Your values during that drive may well impact your decisions (get there quickly, maximize productivity, be comfortable, or get there in one piece). From there, we make decisions that mitigate or manage our risk: whether to put on a seatbelt, how fast to drive, whether to use our turn signals. The problem is, most of us are making those decisions unconsciously or simply because a law told us so. Our motivation may no longer be aligned with why that law was made.

Conditions, Judgements, and Practices

A group of snowshoers checking the mapIn my class, we spent a little time each day talking about a case or two where something went wrong in a wilderness setting. We would break each event into 3 areas: conditions, judgments, and practices. (An activity I inherited from the instructor before me, Loren Willson.)

Conditions are what exists already in the environment, whether humans entered the picture or not: the weather, temperature, terrain, time of day, time of year, etc. Conditions are what is there, regardless of our presence.

Judgments are our evaluation of the conditions and the activity we are doing. Judgments are what we think about the situation.

Practices are the behaviors we have developed through training and experience to respond to those conditions and do our activity. Practices are what we do.

We can’t change the conditions, be we can change how we think and what we do with them. Accidents tend to happen when something goes wrong in two more of these areas. So if we are thoughtful in our judgments and our practices, many backcountry accidents can be avoided. Can they all? Probably not. Sometimes there are simply catastrophic situations that we can’t predict and can’t escape.

Risk for Risk’s Sake

However, when we bring back our values and what risk is worth the reward, a deeper question arises. What happens when someone’s Value is the risk? They choose to dare impossible tasks because they want to face adversity. Or more subtly, they find the rewards of conquering a challenge to far outweigh even the direst of risks. There are adventurers out there who feel that way. Is that wrong? Are their values misaligned? I’m not sure I can be the judge of that. If that person were someone I’d care about, I think I’d likely have strong feelings about their values. But from a distance, I see this as our explorers and pioneers. People who discovered new lands, who took us to outer space, who may bring us to the next stage of our development. Sometimes overcoming risk may be a reward in itself. I’m not sure I understand it, but I respect the decision.

The Destination Does Matter

Two women sitting around a map on a sandy beachBut for those of us to whom the reward is not worth losing our lives over, there is an adage that will help guide your decisions. Remember that on any adventure, your true destination is home. When you make decisions with that in mind, you will steer away from single-minded purpose to get to the top of a mountain, because you will always remember, you also have to get back down it.


Huge credit to Loren Wilson, Justin Canny, Scott Andrews, Pat Wischmann, and Cindy Wittebort, all of whom taught me a great deal about how to approach outdoor experiences.