Scouting disasters in the wild loom when things start to get sketchy, the hairs on the back of your neck stand up, you get that feeling that something is not quite right. It’s time to stop, sit down and think. Bravely pushing ahead against all obstacles, having the grit and determination to keep on going, not giving in are all qualities we’d like to see in our Scouts.
But there are times those qualities will get you killed.
Read that last sentence again.
It’s not intended to be gratuitously shocking or dramatic, it’s the absolute truth. We ought to be prepared to withstand some discomfort, but we don’t want to put ourselves or our Scouts in danger needlessly. Sometimes the smartest thing to do is stop, turn around, or go back.
In my experience when things go bad they go bad in one of two ways:
Things go bad in seconds – an injury, an overturned canoe, a failed piece of gear.
Things go bad slowly – A series of decisions cascades into a bad situation.
When I look back at the times I have encountered these situations I can almost always point to two types of causes:
Factors beyond our control – Changes in the weather and similar unanticipated conditions.
Factors we can control – Preparedness, knowledge and reactions to problem situation.
I’ve had some close calls in the wild, almost all of them caused by a series of poor decisions, few were sudden events. Some of the close calls were caused or complicated by factors beyond my control. In the end I have learned that it’s our response to situations that matter. Sometimes that means stopping, sometimes it means turning around, sometimes it means getting out and going back.
Here are ten reasons to stop and think (Almost all the italicized scenarios are situations I have experienced personally, a couple are ones I read in the news):
1. Rain or Snow
A bit of rain or snow should not shut down every outdoor adventure, but it should change what you are doing. Inexperienced trekkers underestimate the seriousness of getting wet and cold even in the middle of summertime.
A group encountered rain on a winter trip. Cold, wet conditions render their handheld flashlights useless. A series of bad decisions requires hiking in rough terrain at night with one working headlamp for a group of eight who must spend hours covering a couple of miles.
High wind conditions can spell serious danger, they can shred tents and tarps, topple trees, blow you off your feet and sink watercraft.
The group set out on a windy lake in canoes and several of them upset within minutes. Despite this they try to tough things out and narrowly avoided loosing someone in the confusion, their gear and clothing was soaked through and they ultimately abandoned the trip.
Taking precautions against lightning will interrupt your progress – how long you are delayed may even require a change to your plans. This ‘inconvenience’ makes some of us reluctant to take proper precautions; these are the folks who get struck.
Scouts close to a shelter are told to keep on going to their campsite several hundred yards away. One is struck by lightning and killed and another is injured.
4. The terrain is not what you’d expected.
When the going is tougher than you anticipated (the trail is steeper, rockier or more challenging, the river is high, the lake is windy) you’ll be tempted to push harder in the hope conditions will improve. In these instances it takes more fortitude and foresight to stop and consider changing your route, your destination or turning around and going back.
A group set’s out on a day-long river float trip. They are unfamiliar with the river and soon encounter rapids, they have to abandon the float trip and spend an arduous day hiking out.
The physical and mental pressures of any extended trip are fatiguing and fatigue leads to poor judgement. Because fatigue affects judgement the real danger is that a fatigued person will not know they are making poor decisions. When the going is tough the group should stop and assess each other’s condition periodically. When rest, food and water are needed stop and take the time required.
The group is tired after a full day of hiking, but the leader presses them to continue to the planned goal. It begins to rain and some of the group show symptoms of hypothermia . A long slog follows and the trip is shortened because some group members simply can’t continue.
A late start, unanticipated challenges; anything that causes your travel to extend past daylight should be taken seriously. Traveling at night is inherently dangerous – learn to know how much daylight you have and adjust plans accordingly.
A later than anticipated start causes a group to canoe past sunset, they become separated and, after some tense hours finally reunite at the planned campsite.
If you’ve underestimated the time it takes to travel, set up camp, strike camp, prepare meals, and get a proper amount of rest consider changing your plans. Pushing a group to keep an unreasonable schedule can lead to real problems.
The group reaches the foot of a mountain pass late in the day. They decide to press on and encounter difficult terrain that slows them down and hike through many hours of darkness before they reach their goal. They spend a day recovering from an all-night ordeal and ultimately abandon the trip days early.
8. Water and Food
Conditions may make water sources you counted on unavailable, you may have underestimated the amount of food required to keep everyone going. If either of these situations occur they must be addressed, pushing on in spite of them is almost never a good option.
A bear manages to get a group’s bear bag and destroy’s all but a few of their provisions. After inventorying what remains the decision is made to cut the trip short.
9. Poor Morale
We expect and welcome challenge, challenge involves a level of discomfort, but when conditions conspire to crush morale we’d better stop and think. A dispirited, fatigued, group can be driven past the point of safety by an overzealous leader. Continuously assess the morale of individuals and the group and make changes when needed.
A group arrives late to their intended campsite to find it has been taken, they press on and find a place to camp hours later. Dispirited and fatigued they gather round a campfire discuss changing their plans to account for this unanticipated problem. The result is a the next morning’s start time and goal for the day is adjusted to allow more rest and offset the extra energy expended.
10. Gear Problems
A clogged water filter, broken stove, torn tent or lost headlamp can seem insignificant. Gear that fails, doesn’t work as expected, or get’s lost can be a serious matter.
After a long day of hiking the group arrives at a spring that has run dry. One adult and two Scouts volunteer to hike to the next water source, fill everyone’s water bottles. The rest of the group set’s up camp and has a meal waiting when they return