The Accident Prone Outdoorsman

It is quite clear to me that man in particular, but some women too, have a tendency to hold optimistic opinions of their ability to handle an emergency. Men and women who recreate or work in the outdoors are not immune from this optimistic bias. We would like to believe that we are less likely than the average person to find ourselves in a survival situation and more able to cope should one occur. This tendency to hold optimistic opinions of our ability seems to be a part of human nature. No one wants to be “average,” we want to believe that we are “better than average.” Clearly, not everyone can be better than average and it would seem that an overly optimistic opinion of our outdoor skills might lead us to take risks that are unwise and sometimes even dangerous!. Where does this optimism come from? I believe one source of the myth of our invincibility is our unwillingness to admit that we might not be as “able” as we think we are. The belief that “I will never find myself in a survival situation” compounds the problem

We are led to believe that men and women who experience emergencies in the outdoors are the kind of people who make frequent mistakes, display bad judgment on a regular basis or are risk takers. Survival stories often seem to support this myth, since the reports often detail exactly what the person did or failed to do, that led to the situation they found themselves in. In hindsight, it is easy to spot the errors that others have made and from point of view that gain a great deal of confidence that, placed in the same situation, we would never be so foolish or incompetent. So we read the reports, see the mistakes, and increasingly believe that accidents only happen to the foolhardy, the incompetent, and the accident prone – the other guy!

Is it possible that all of those that people who get in trouble in the outdoors are fool hardy, incompetent and accident prone? I think not! The fundamental error we make when we read the stories of those that have found themselves in survival situations, especially those that die, is that we attribute the mistakes they made to the personality of the person committing them. We don’t try to understand the situation from the perspective of the victim who was experiencing the events as they unfolded. When we read the reports we already know the outcome and we judge the individual’s actions from that perspective. The question we should be asking is “Why did this make sense from the victim’s perspective at that time?”

Every one of us has made mistakes. At the very moment we were doing these things, they made sense to us, perhaps because we didn’t understand the situation, perhaps because we were distracted or perhaps because we failed to see the warning signs. To the outside observer, the mistakes would have been obvious. There are two points that must be recognized. The first is that we need to recognize our optimistic bias for what it is; a false sense of confidence created by the way we tend to view other people’s mistakes. The cold hard reality is that we all make mistakes and anyone of us could find ourselves in a survival situation at any time especially if we approach our outdoor activities with arrogant over-confidence.

When we start to recognize this, we will take seriously the second point – accidents are a result of situations. When we read accident reports we should focus less on the specific mistakes that the individual made, and focus more on the situations that produced the error. This would help us to identify the kinds of scenarios that produced the errors in judgment, and then we could try to avoid those situations. What kinds of situations am I talking about that produce most mistakes? There are many but they generally involve some combination of the following ingredients: a tired cold, dehydrated person, a desire to continue when continuing on is ill advised, inclement weather, inadequate clothing, inexperience, lack of training and the overwhelming desire to be reunited with family members and other loved ones. Look for these ingredients as they creep into your activities and be aware that they can dramatically impact your ability to function safely in the outdoors.

When the Search and Rescue team found him on the side of the creek in north central Washington much of his clothing was missing, his shoes were gone and he had used his rifle to end his life. What had begun two days earlier, with the hunter full of high expectations after seeing a mule deer buck on a nearby hillside, ended in tragedy. The man was new to hunting and excited by the activities leading up to his arriving in camp and excited with the thoughts of what was to follow. Early the next morning he rose quickly from his sleeping bag, dressed and, taking his rifle, set off after the big buck he had seen the previous day. The weather was cool and the forecast for the day was not good – snow and dropping temperatures! When the hunter didn’t return at midday for lunch or later that night for dinner his partner became very worried and after a restless night, called the local sheriff. A search for the overdue hunter began quickly and late that afternoon the missing man’s body was found.

What lessons can be learned from this tragic experience? In the exhilaration of planning a trip into the outdoors you must pause for a moment and ask the difficult questions “What could go wrong? “Am I prepared to cope?” and then answer the questions honestly. It is easy to get caught up in the excitement of the moment and forget what might happen. No one sets out on any given day with the thought “Today I’m going to die in the outdoors!” Quite the opposite. Mistakes are made. Somewhere along the way clues are missed and decisions are made that result in the situation worsening rather than improving. Seldom do people die from one catastrophic. More commonly they die from a series of smaller mistakes that accumulate over time and result in a situation in which the victim is no longer in control.

From a purely medical point of view it would be true to say that the man in the incident above died from hypothermia but the real question is why did he allow the situation to deteriorate to the degree that his life was placed in jeopardy? How did he reach the point from which there was no return? What happened? We can only speculate since additional information is not available. In his enthusiasm to find the deer he had seen the day before did he pay attention to his route? Did he have a compass or GPS receiver to help him get back to camp? Did he get lost and if he did, did he let the terror of the moment overwhelm him and start running through the woods in a blind panic shedding his clothes as he went? Did he allow himself to get wet and then, needing a fire, lack the skills and the equipment to build one? Did he drink enough water to prevent dehydration? As the sun set and the weather conditions got worse, lacking the clothing he needed to keep himself warm through the night did he continue moving in a vain attempt to get back to camp at all costs? Did he let the desire to be back with his friend override what would have been a better course of action to hole-up for the night? Questions for which there will never be answers!

This is not just a hypothetical exercise. Any one of us could be the victim mentioned above. Some of us have been in similar circumstances and have lived to tell others of our adventures – our near misses! We can often learn a lot from our “near misses” if we stop and analyze the situation we found ourselves in and review the events leading up to the circumstances that placed our life in danger. Someone once said that “Surviving a near miss does not make you a survivor. It just makes you damn lucky!” Sometimes we live in spite of what we did! Surviving a crisis begins with the realization and acceptance of the fact that “somewhere, sometime you might end up spending an unplanned night out” and if you accept that premise then it follows that you would want to make that night out as comfortable as possible. You must prepare. You must consider a worst-case scenario. You must evaluate the risks and ask yourself if you are sufficiently prepared to cope with those risks. Play the “what if game” as in “What if I get lost and have to spend a night or two out?” Preparation does not guarantee that you will survive but it won’t hurt your chances of surviving a life threatening event.

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