Are You Ready for That New Outdoors Adventure? 5 Questions to Ask Yourself
We heard the young girl crying from a distance, even through the howling wind and mid-July snowstorm on Besseggen Ridge, in Norway’s mountainous Jotunheimen National Park. As we caught up with the family of five, I saw that she was maybe eight or nine years old—about the age of my daughter—crying inconsolably and repeating one word over and over: “Cold! Cold!”
We stopped to ask if they were all right. I looked them over. The parents and two teenage boys were dressed for the extreme weather in good boots, enough insulation, and shells. The young girl, inexplicably, wore open-top rubber boots, tights, and the kind of winter jacket you’d buy in Wal-Mart, with a hood that would not even stay on her head in the wind. (See my reviews of kids’ outdoor gear and clothing.) She walked very slowly, stopping frequently even as her parents tried to coax her along. It was easy to see she was hypothermic and only getting colder.
The father peppered us with questions about the route ahead and the distance to the next hut, Memurubu—which was several miles farther. But bizarrely, he seemed to decide that his family should press on based on the fact that my companions and I intended to hike through the storm—three adults fully prepared for the conditions and moving at a pace that would get us there by late afternoon.
A hundred yards beyond the family, still within earshot of the girl’s cries, I told my companions we couldn’t let them continue. We walked back and urged them to turn around and walk downhill to the Gjendesheim hut, just a few miles behind us. There, they could actually take a ferry across a lake to the Memurubu hut. (In fact, my wife and kids had taken that ferry instead of hiking through the storm that day.) And by backtracking, they would descend to lower elevation and escape the worst of the storm much sooner. They took our advice. (The wife looked relieved.) We saw them that evening at the hut, warm and happy.
There’s an old saying that “good experience comes from bad experiences.” We learn through mistakes—hopefully. The key to keeping everyone safe—whether it’s a blend of adults and kids, experts and beginners, or even a small party of very fit and experienced people—is to avoid putting ourselves in situations where mistakes become large, with severe consequences. To fall back on another old pearl of wisdom: “Don’t bite off more than you can chew.”
We make ourselves safer outdoors through acquiring new skills and experience, and that necessitates trying new things. It’s also fun and rewarding to pursue new challenges. Don’t be afraid to do that. But the outdoors can be unforgiving.
Whether you are new to hiking, an experienced backpacker looking to visit a new environment (the desert, Alaska, maybe a Third World country), trying a new activity like kayaking, climbing, or backcountry skiing, or a parent thinking about taking her family on an adventure that will be new for them in some way, consider the five broad questions below when deciding whether you are ready for some new adventure.
Most of all: Make conservative decisions. The small regret of abandoning some exciting plans, or postponing until another time, is far preferable to the very large regret of making a decision that goes badly awry.
1. Have You Done Anything Like This Before?
Is the activity itself, the difficulty level, the environment you will enter, the season and weather conditions you expect, the remoteness, or another factor new to you? Is there anything about the situation you will enter that is unfamiliar?
If so, do your homework. Learn all you can in advance about the activity or destination. Ask yourself honestly whether your experience base prepares you for any and all new circumstances you will likely face on this trip. Reduce your risk level by increasing the challenge, difficulty, and degree of unfamiliarity in small increments, or recruiting companions (or a guide) who have the skills and familiarity you lack.
An example: When I wanted to take my family (my kids were age nine and seven) sea kayaking in Glacier Bay, Alaska, my wife and I decided to take a guided trip—even though I was told that beginners often rent kayaks and guide themselves there—because we’d never been there and didn’t know how difficult it would be to navigate or deal with tides, finding campsites, etc. Since that trip, I would feel comfortable repeating it with a group of families who are ready for it; but I still believe we made the right decision in hiring a guide the first time.
2. Do You Understand Everything That Can Go Wrong?
What could happen and what are the consequences? People fall off ledges and cliffs, get swept away by fast-moving water, get hit by rockfall, and suffer frostbite or worse in severe cold not because they’re stupid, but because they did not understand the hazards of the environment they were in. That may be the most common reason behind accidents in the backcountry, and those incidents usually involve people just out for a hike.
If you’re new to an environment, talk to someone who’s more experienced to learn what the hazards are. If you are taking less-experienced adults or kids out, don’t assume they know everything that you have learned over the years: Explain to them about the hazards that they need to be aware of.
3. Is Everyone In Your Group Good With the Plan?
In almost any group, a classic dynamic can easily develop in which the most experienced person makes the plans and decisions and everyone else follows like sheep, trusting the leader without fully comprehending what they’re getting into. That can be a formula for trouble, for a couple of reasons: The leader is human and capable of flawed judgment; and she may not always appreciate the skill, fitness, and mental-comfort level of everyone else.
As a de facto leader in a group, even of friends or in a family, always talk about your plans with everyone to get their buy-in; at the least, that will be far preferable to hearing everyone grouse later if the trip does not go as they had expected. As a beginner or anyone following a more-experienced person, make sure you understand and are comfortable with the plan. Most of all, don’t hesitate to ask questions or object to anything you are not comfortable with.
4. Are You All Prepared For Every Possible Scenario?
“Every possible scenario” does not necessarily mean that you have to carry clothing for a snowstorm when the forecast promises summer-like weather, just because snow has fallen in those mountains at that time of year sometime in the past. But “every possible scenario” does include having clothing to handle weather worse than predicted, or being ready physically if you discover that the trail is rougher (and slower) than expected.
Like the family on Besseggen Ridge in my story above, your group will only do as well as the least-able and least-prepared member. So make sure everyone is prepared for whatever you’re doing.
5. What’s Your Backup Plan?
There are a couple of reasons for having at least one backup or bailout plan and agreeing on it with everyone. First of all, it makes you safer by preparing you to respond to problems that arise.
Secondly—and arguably most importantly—it inserts into everyone’s thinking process that Plan A may not unfold as expected and you may choose to abandon it. Too often, accidents result from people continuing to blindly follow their original plan, despite the warning signs, simply because they are focused on getting through it—their brains are simply not considering alternatives. When things go wrong, stress and chaos can make it very difficult to think clearly. Knowing in advance what you’ll do in that event will help you choose the smarter course.