How to Run an Outdoors Club: Liability

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How to Run an Outdoors Club is the ultimate guide for student leaders. Check out the full series here.

In April of 2018, The Penn State Outing Club was shut down after university officials deemed the club’s activities as “too risky.” Though PSOC’s safety procedures were effective in preventing incidents and injury, they were not enough to win over administrators concerned about legal issues. Developing protective liability practices is the first step to safeguarding your club from a similar fate, and ensuring safe adventuring for years to come.

It is important to understand that recreating with an organization under the influence of an institution (the university) is not the same as going outside alone or with some friends. Student run clubs with little university oversight often get away with sketchy practices; but while freedom from supervision can feel liberating, disregarding the issue of liability puts student leaders at serious risk of being held legally responsible in the case of an incident on a club trip. Further, a strong liability framework can help your club convince a university to allow you to participate in activities the institution deems risky.

To get started, let’s define the terms “risk” and “liability.”

Risk is the possibility that something bad might happen. Liability, on the other hand, is the legal responsibility that a person or organization must shoulder when incidents occur. Though risk and liability are related, they occupy two very different conversations. For more information on how to manage risk, check out How to Run an Outdoors Club: Risk Management.  It is important to understand the concept of institutional liability, where a school or organization may be held accountable if something goes wrong. Chances are, your university doesn’t want to be sued by an outdoors club participant who breaks her arm on a hiking trip. The goal of this article is to ensure that both your school and your club leaders are protected against such allegation.

Disclaimer: Precise topics of liability are beyond the scope of this article. Laws and the legal responsibility of student organizations differ between states and universities. As suggested in this article, meeting with university officials is the best way to understand matters of liability specific to your club’s situation.

A Simple Path to Sound Liability Practices

In consideration with the risks that your club exposes participants to (see How to Run an Outdoors Club: Risk Management), the following steps can protect your club from the scrutiny of university risk assessors and ensure safe practices and successful outings. Follow these guidelines to ensure that your leaders are not liable for anything that happens on a trip (and prove your legitimacy to the university).

Step 1: Conduct a comprehensive analysis of club operations

Evaluate current practices to determine where your club is strong, and where it is vulnerable to liability issues. List the risks associated with every activity your club facilitates and consider current policies and trip protocols. Understanding the full spectrum of risks associated with your club is the first step to avoiding incident, and avoiding incident is the number one way to protect against liability. If your club is facing an institutional risk assessment by university officials, beat them to the punch by compiling a report based on your own assessment of the club. An institutional perspective will view risks of outdoor recreation in more extreme terms than your club might, so consider liability from the standpoint of the university.

 Step 2: Meet with university administrative officials to discuss liability

The best thing you can do for your club is to form relationships with the right people. Not only will official personnel have valuable insight into your university’s specific policies, but building personal relationships can only benefit your club in the long run. Specifically, reach out to your school’s legal counsel, risk management team or insurance office, and transportation office at the start of every school year. In addition, a faculty or staff member who is knowledgeable about the outdoors and eager to support your club can act as an advocate and a liaison between you and the administration. Consulting with advisors does not necessarily mean giving up the freedom of being a student-run club. Establishing the right relationships shows the university that you are legit, and in a sticky situation they may provide the support you need.

 Step 3: Draft and enforce specific club policies, procedures, and guidelines

Based on risk analysis and conversations with administration, draft explicit policies for leaders and participants to follow on trips. Your policies should take into account how to mitigate risk, as well as lay out plans for reacting in the case of an incident. Enforcing rules doesn’t have to kill the fun, but it can keep your club alive.

For more in-depth definitions of policies, procedures, and guidelines, check out this Guide to Designing a Safety Management Program for an Outdoor Organization by Princeton Outdoor Action director Rick Curtis.

For examples of policies, procedures, and guidelines from a real program, see excerpts from Brown Outdoor Leadership Training’s Leader Handbook.

 Step 4: Clarify the role and responsibility of trip leaders, and consider establishing or improving a leader training program [How to Run an Outdoors Club: Leader Training coming soon]

Based on your club’s constitution (see How to Run an Outdoors Club: The Basics), does a leader exist on a trip simply to facilitate an activity for a group of competent and knowledgeable participants, or is the leader present to educate and care for participants? An organization that provides opportunities for beginners should assume the responsibility of providing a safe and educational experience. Establishing a clear expectation between leaders and participants is crucial to avoiding liability issues. Discuss with a faculty advisor or administrator the explicit responsibilities of a trip leader, and ensure that all leaders are fully aware of their obligations. Well-trained leaders are more likely to respond well in an emergency situation. Having a comprehensive training program also protects your club from scrutiny by university officials and gives you legitimacy and credibility in the eyes of the university (stay tuned for more info on leader training in an upcoming installment, How to Run an Outdoors Club: Leader Training). 

Step 5: Standardize trip planning and emergency practices

Just as the Boy Scouts instruct, BE PREPARED. Pre-trip checklists and emergency plans will help things run smoothly. Emergency management plans should include information on the closest hospitals, clinics and pharmacies, as well as useful phone numbers and resources. Pack it in your med kit so leaders can immediately access all of the information needed in an emergency, saving valuable time.

For examples of trip planning and emergency planning, check out Drexel Weekend Warriors’ Hiking Standard Operating Procedure, Drexel Weekend Warriors Emergency Action Plan, and excerpts from Iowa State University Outdoor Recreations trip packet.

 Step 6: Use professional guides when possible

While more expensive, running technical trips like rock climbing and caving through professional outfitters takes liability off of your club. If something bad happens, the liability is on the guiding service, and not on you. Any activity for which your leaders are not properly trained or certified to teach is best run through an outfitter.

 Step 7: Provide documentation and keep records

With the guidance of university legal counsel or a faculty advisor, obtain liability waivers for every trip participant to fill out. A waiver should never be created by students themselves; if you can’t directly access your school’s legal counsel, find an advocate in the student activities or campus recreation office who can. Failing to have participants fill out liability waivers puts personal liability on leaders themselves, meaning a student leader could be personally sued in the case of an incident. Keep records of waivers, as well as accident reports. Collecting information on accidents and near misses is important for future analysis of risk management and safety improvement.

For examples of liability waivers, see the UConn Outing Club Waiver and the Iowa State Outdoor Recreation Waiver.

The real trouble for student-run outdoors clubs comes when universities refuse to accept the inherent risks as worth the endless benefits of outdoor recreation, as in the case of Penn State, no matter what measures the club takes. If you follow the preceding steps and still strike out with your administration, consider calling in backup. Faculty members or professional outdoor educators such as guides and program directors at other schools can be spokespersons for your club if a university just won’t take a students’ word that an activity is safe. Or, consider showing the administration first-hand just how safe you are. Offering to take administrators outside is a bold move that could pay off in a newfound understanding between both parties.

Ensuring your club is prepared to defend against potential litigation is crucial to guarantee the longevity of your organization, and the continued access to the outdoors for students. By committing to minimizing risk and dialing your understanding of liability, you can continue to share the joys of going outside with your college community.


Student and administration leaders reveal wisdom they’ve acquired from years of managing their own clubs

“My biggest advice would be to build good relationships with the players involved.  Related to liability, those players are the Risk Management Department, Legal Counsel and, in our case, Transpiration Services, as we rent all of our vehicles from them.  Driving is the number one most dangerous thing we do, and making sure we have good vehicles is paramount to having a safe trip.  We also do driver training through our Transportation Services Department.” –Jerry Rupert, Assistant Director, Iowa State University Outdoor Recreation Program

Zoe Gates has served as President and Vice President of Brown Outing Club, redrafting a constitution, aiding in a club structure overhaul, renting out gear and leading trips. As an intern at College Outside, she’s discussed the nitty-gritty of running an outdoors club with hundreds of student leaders and advisors from across the country.

Got advice to share with other student leaders? Email or post on our  Collegiate Outdoor Leadership Forum Facebook page

Want more tips on making your club awesome? Read more:

How to Run an Outdoors Club: The Basics


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