Embrace the outdoors, but don’t farm out your own safety to others

More people than ever are flocking to wild places – but you need more than a mobile phone to avoid danger.

Last year I spent five days walking across the Peak District National Park in the UK during a wonderful week of searing heat. Along the way, I ran into one tired-looking older gentleman who had no map and a scrounged bottle of water, a group of ‘lads’ with an insufficient tourist map and no plan, a lady who couldn’t read a map, and another who had donated water to two women who barely had a bottle between them.

More than ever before we’re flocking to mountains, rivers, and wild places. That is a great thing of course, but the price of entry doesn’t come without risk. Last year the remains of two hikers were found in the mountains of Scotland and the Pyrenees.

Instead of sneering at my brief trail friends in the Peak District, I advised where I could and cheered them on their way. The outdoors has enough know-it-all gatekeepers as it is. But had I been able to sit down with them for a day of adventure planning, I’d focus as much on nurturing the right mindset as I would on the mechanics of kit lists, contours, and compasses.

Read a typical press statement from a mountain rescue team and you’ll often see mention of self-reliance and taking responsibility for your own safety. Usually, this follows the latest incident of a lost walker being plucked from Snowdon’s slopes late on a summer’s evening. 

A typical view of the Peak District, UK.

Self-reliance is not about being able to crawl alone to safety with a broken leg like climber Joe Simpson of Touching the Void fameIt’s making sure you have the basic skills, equipment and plan to be able to paddle that river, or take on that hike without needing to bump into a friendly soul to ask for directions, or worse, call the cavalry in. It’s knowing what to do when the weather changes. It’s being able to fix a collapsed tent when a pole snaps. It’s knowing where you are on a map. Being self-reliant means taking ownership of your safety and not assuming there will be someone to bail you out when things take a turn for the worse.

It’s not just farming out your safety to others that can be an issue, but also a reliance on technology. Online guidebooks and apps have caused problems on popular long-distance trails in the United States, with hikers depending on their phones for details on where to eat, sleep, and even walk – according to amusing cases of people walking five feet from the trail because their GPS said that’s where the path is. Less amusing are reports of walkers following Google Maps along potentially fatal terrain in Scotland.

But don’t let all that put you off. The great thing about learning how to be more self-reliant is that it increases your enjoyment. There’s nothing better than being under canvas on a remote summit at sunset, and knowing you got there under your own steam, and have everything in hand to enjoy a good night’s sleep far from the madding crowd.

A wild camp in the British mountains.

Self-reliance doesn’t come overnight though and often we need a mentor to help us along the way. When travel restrictions hit in March 2020, I was due to fly to Canada to spend nearly two months trekking along the Arctic coastline of Baffin Island. Before that, I’d been on a polar training course and two subsequent solo treks in Arctic Norway, walked over 600km across a frozen lake in Siberia and had been hiking and camping since I was a child. But I knew Baffin would be a step up. That much colder and more remote, with the added spice of polar bears. So rather than push beyond my current level of experience, I planned to go with a friend who had spent decades adventuring in the Canadian Arctic.

Of course, we can’t all have grizzled mentors on speed dial, but there are now so many excellent training courses and guided experiences for most popular outdoor activities, as well as charities and social media groups to support outdoor lovers of all abilities. No need to go it alone or take on too much too soon.

Training for bigger adventures, Sarek National Park, Sweden.

Sometimes though it’s hard to resist the urge to bite off more than you can chew. Social media doesn’t help. In 2017 the Instagram famous Capitol Peak in Colorado saw five deaths in six weeks. One of the casualties Jake Lord had persuaded a friend who was afraid of heights, Peter Doro, to tackle Capitol’s knife-edge ridge. The dizzying YouTube videos Doro pored over proved too alluring. Before the fateful climb, Doro messaged his friends, “This is what I’m about to do, It’s going to be sick.”

There is also an unhelpful societal discourse on the power of positive thinking. Think Nike’s Just Do It slogan. Problem is that sort of mentality doesn’t work well in the outdoors. Last summer on a short rocky section known as the ‘bad step’ on England’s highest peak Scafell Pike, a man in front of me jumped down the final meter back to the flat path, stumbled forward, and just about found his feet at the edge of a large drop. I don’t think he quite appreciated how close he was to a fatal fall. Hoping for a good outcome isn’t enough. Thinking ‘negatively’ about what could go wrong is a good mantra if you want to stay safe. The positive power of negative thinking, world-class ice climber Will Gadd calls it.

Adventure in the outdoors in all its forms can be humbling, inspiring, life-enhancing, and a powerful force for good. It’s just that we all need to adopt the mindset that safety is no one else’s responsibility but our own. 
Words and images by Ash Routen

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