Risk Management Strategies For Trail Runners

Risk Management For Trail Runners

Being Prepared For Whatever May Go Wrong

My professional background is in risk management. For more than a decade I worked for a bank, considering what could go wrong and how the risk could be minimized. It’s a good use of the more paranoid aspects of my nature: for any given situation, I can come up with at least 4 things that could go wrong. But importantly, I can also come up with 7 things that can be done to minimize that risk.

This is a useful skill set for trail running. More things can go wrong on a trail; you are generally out of cell range, and there are fewer people around if you need help.

When I’m heading out on the trail, my inner risk manager kicks in. My inner dialog is something along the lines of: ‘I’m heading out for 10 miles on the trail: I could get lost, get attacked, get injured out of cell range… so I’d better carry a map, learn self-defense, carry pepper spray, and brush up on my wilderness first aid.’

I occasionally feel a little silly loaded for bear prepared for 15 different eventualities, but I believe in Murphy’s Law. The one time I don’t bring the first aid kit is the one time I’ll need it.

So how can you develop and channel your inner risk manager?

Note: my focus here is trail running because that is the world I’m familiar with, but the thought process holds true for any activity: camping, hiking, stand-up paddle boarding, whatever.

Risk Management For Trail Runners

Mental Preparation

In most cases, I recommend thinking positively. Visualize success, visualize yourself succeeding beyond your wildest dreams.

This is the one very limited circumstance where I’ll suggest something different: consider potential negatives.

Risk management is all about planning ahead – preventing bad things from happening (if you can) and being aware of, and prepared for, the things you can’t prevent.

Be Honest

The #1 issue I faced as a professional risk manager is a lack of imagination on the part of whoever I’m working with.

Often, I would raise potential risks and they would refuse to believe the bad things were relevant to them. I’d hear: ‘That’s never been a problem before,’ That could never happen here,’ or ‘Our employees would never let that happen,’ even when it was something that had happened before. They wouldn’t even let themselves imagine that a bad thing could happen to them.

While it’s great to imagine nothing but great things, if you only think positively, you may be blindsided when something goes wrong. And if you do any activity long enough, things will go wrong.

Think about what you are doing. Think about what could go wrong.

Be honest with yourself about the risks. Don’t dismiss and ignore a potential problem as ‘something that won’t happen to me.’ I’d wager that every person who has ever had a bad thing happen to them thought it couldn’t happen to them.

Now, and this is the important part, what can you do to minimize (or ‘mitigate’ to use the lingo) those risks?

Prioritize your to-dos based on how likely and how severe the risk is.

Common risk mitigation steps for trail runners include learning about: basic first aid, self-defense, navigation (and carrying paper maps), and the dangerous/venomous plants and critters in your area.

Practice

It can be easier to imagine risks when thinking in terms of scenarios. Role-playing and imagining yourself in a scene.

  • Talk with other runners about what sticky situations they’ve gotten into
  • Read articles or fiction about runners or hikers who find themselves in a bad situation
  • Imagine your worst-case scenario

Now put yourself in the scene.

  • What skills do you have that would help you?
  • What skills do you wish you had that could help?
  • How can you learn the skills you wish you had?

When On The Trail

Preparation only gets you so far. At some point, you will find yourself in the midst of your own ‘oh crap’ moment.

You’ll be out on the trail and something will happen. Let’s say, totally hypothetically, you face plant on the run and blood is spewing from your nose (that would never happen to me… oh… wait…)

What then?

Expect The Unexpected

Start your run with the mindset and the expectation that something you didn’t plan for will happen. While you can’t (usually) predict the exact thing that may come to pass, I promise you, something can always go wrong.

Prevent what you can, but know that not every problem can be anticipated or avoided.

Never Plan On It Not Raining

Don’t think of them as problems, just as things that you will need manage and deal with.

Don’t ‘If Only’

Say you’ve face-planted on the trail (totally hypothetically). DO NOT use your brain power in that moment to ‘if only’ the situation.

‘If only’ is the most useless statement in the world. There is one very limited acceptable use of ‘if only’ (more on this later), but it has no place in dealing with a problem at the moment.

Dwelling on ‘if only I’d watched my footing better’ while bleeding profusely isn’t going to help.

Saying ‘if only I’d brought a map’ when lost without a map will not help you get less lost.

Stop. Breathe. Think.

There is always a solution, but if you are panicked and frantic, I guarantee you won’t be able to see it.

Breathe. Consider (calmly), where you are, what resources you have with you (avoiding ‘if only’ i had…), and what skills you have.

Focus on one problem at a time and on what your next step should be.

Focus on what you can do and what you have control over.

Channel your inner MacGyver.

Embrace the challenge.

Why Worry

After The Fact: Post-Mortem

When you are home safe and sound, review what happened – this is the one and only time ‘if only’ should enter your vocabulary.

With the benefit of hindsight, consider:

  • What, exactly, happened?
  • Why did it happen?
  • What could you have done to prevent it?
  • Did you have any ‘if only’ moments?
  • How can you change your behavior/resources/skill set to address those ‘if onlys’?
  • What did you do well?
  • How could things have been different (for better or worse) if the conditions were different?
  • Does this event make you think of other possible risks you hadn’t considered before?

Based on this post-mortem, change what you need to change to make sure you are ready for next time.

Learn and improve.

Stay Safe!

Risk Management For Trail Runners


While this post is based mostly on my personal experience with risk management, to give credit where credit is due it was inspired by an article from Outside Magazine: how to keep your cool, no matter what. It’s a good post and worth a read as well.

Sara is a runner, running coach, writer, blogger, and a lover of all things written.

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