Avoid Outdoor Risks: Win the Mental Game

Even expert hikers can take foolish risks. Stay smart–and safe–with these tips.
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Even expert hikers can take foolish risks. Stay smart–and safe–with these tips.

Your brain is an amazing survival tool, capable of using mental shortcuts to process hundreds of external clues at lightning speed. These shortcuts (behavioral scientists call them "heuristics") can help you make critical decisions when seconds count. But ignoring real-world warning signs because you're relying too heavily on shortcuts–known as "falling into a heuristic trap"–can lead to disaster. Here's how to identify and avoid five of the most common mental pitfalls that strike backcountry travelers.

Trap: Familiarity

I hike here all the time and I've never seen a bear, so I'm not going to waste any time hanging my food.

Fix Look at every hike with fresh eyes. When you find yourself tempted to skimp on safety, ask yourself: "What's the worst thing that could happen?" Then weigh the consequence (losing all of your food, provoking a bear encounter) against the prevention (taking an extra five minutes to hang a bear bag).

Trap: Commitment

Looks like a storm is coming–but I told everyone I would summit this fourteener today! I can't turn around now.

Fix There's nothing wrong with sticking to the plan, just make safety a part of it. Decide ahead of time what you'll do if conditions change unexpectedly: "If dark clouds roll in, I'll turn back–even if I'm nearly there." Thwart summit fever by setting a firm turnaround time; remind yourself that the mountain will be there on a better day.

Trap: Expert halo

I'm not sure we're going the right way, but he's much better at
navigation than I am. I won't check the map–he's probably right.


Fix Remember that even experts can make mistakes. Discuss potential challenges with your hiking partner beforehand and be honest about your strengths and weaknesses. Commit to making decisions together. Unsure about your partner's reasoning? Ask for a clear explanation and don't be afraid to suggest alternate plans.

Trap: Conformity

Everyone else is okay with fording this raging creek, so I should be, too.

Fix If you feel uncomfortable, there's probably a valid reason; psychologists call intuition "unconscious intelligence." Speak up–chances are that somebody else has reservations, too. Seek opinions from everyone in your group when questions of safety arise, and always trust your gut.

Trap: Scarcity

The forecast calls for a blizzard, but this is my only backpacking
vacation time all year. I'll take my chances.


Fix Prepare a plan B ahead of time. Research alternative trails, consider two shorter trips instead of one long one, or replace a summit bid with a lower-elevation hike. There's always a better choice than hiking into danger or going home.