How to Run an Outdoors Club: Risk Management

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

We go outside because it’s fun. But any experienced outdoors-person knows that outdoor adventures can turn from delightful to disastrous in the blink of an eye. As a club leader, you are responsible for acknowledging the risks associated with outdoor recreation, and protecting your participants and yourself from the fallout of an emergency situation. This discussion of risk management is a supplement to How to Run an Outdoors Club: Liability

Managing risks takes two forms. First, certain preventative measures reduce the risk of an incident occurring while outside, like carrying waterproof layers to prevent hypothermia in bad weather. Other procedures work to respond to incidents, mitigating the consequences of a risky encounter. An example of this would be carrying an Epi-Pen to use in case of an allergic reaction while on the trail.

Unless your club is brand new, you hopefully already have some form of risk management practices in place. This article does not serve to present concrete tools or skills to manage risk, and is in no way intended to replace formal trainings or certifications. Rather, this article is meant to provide a jumping off point for discussions of risk management that should take place regularly among your club’s leadership. See below for more information on risk management gathered from industry experts and seasoned program leaders.

Risk Factors

Below are just a few of the major risk factors your club should consider at the start of every school year and before every trip. This list is in no way comprehensive, but is designed to get you thinking about the specific risks your club might face, and how to avoid them. We recommend that you follow this list and discuss the ways your club is going to address each risk factor. See How to Run an Outdoors Club: Liability, in which we suggest conducting a risk analysis based on these factors, to read about how managing risk is crucial to protecting your club from legal issues.

  • Transportation
    • For many organizations, driving to the crag or trailhead is the most dangerous part of any trip. Be sure to comply with any university policies regarding student drivers.
  • Location of activity
    • Risk levels increase when people are unfamiliar with their surroundings. Keeping and passing along information about trails and areas where your club often recreates can be useful. When adventuring to a new location, reach out to rangers or online forums for information on trail conditions, etc. Sending leaders to scope out an area before sending a group of inexperienced participants is a good idea.
  • Participant experience level
    • Are you catering to experienced outdoorspeople or newbies? Understanding what skills your participants have and where their knowledge is lacking is crucial to keeping them safe.
  • Leader competence level
    • What trainings, certifications, or past experience do you require of your leaders? Never enlist a leader to run an activity that is beyond the scope of their expertise. A thorough leader vetting process is crucial, and remember that applicants may overstate their experience levels. Conducting comprehensive leader training is ideal (stay tuned for an upcoming installment, How to Run an Outdoors Club: Leader Training).
  • Environmental factors
    • Weather, terrain, altitude, wildlife, and water currents are just a few hazards you may face in the backcountry. Nature is unpredictable, but considering such risks in advance allows you to avoid dangerous situations.
  • Equipment
    • Unpreparedness in terms of equipment is a major cause of illness and injury in the wilderness. Ensure that not only are leaders outfitted with the proper gear for a trip, but that participants come wearing appropriate clothing, etc. Leaders may want to carry extra supplies like dry wool socks, water bottles, or fleece layers to share with underprepared participants.
  • Human-related risk
    • Things go south when a person’s physical or emotional well-being deteriorates. Constant monitoring of factors like hydration and stress levels in a group is important to ensure that members of your group remain sharp and able to make good decisions. Don’t forget that the emotional safety of your participants is just as important as physical safety.
  • Inherent risks of activity
    • Rock climbing, for example, has its own unique set of risk factors compared to rafting, hiking, or skiing. A full analysis of each activity that your club offers is important for understanding the different types of incidents that could occur on specific trips.
Don’t forget your common sense

Nature is unpredictable, and some scenarios just can’t be planned for. When it comes to staying safe outside, the best thing you can do is remain calm and use your noggin. Keep in mind the following bits of advice while leading a trip, and everyone will come home safe.

  • Everything is higher-stakes outside. Cooking dinner on a camp stove isn’t the same as whipping up a meal in your kitchen. Remember that even if a task seems easy, extra caution should be demonstrated at all times.
  • Overconfidence will get you into sticky situations. It’s always best to be conservative outside. Underestimate how many miles you can travel before dark, how many layers you’ll need to keep warm, and how much water you’ll need to stay hydrated.
  • Communicate! Checking in often with your trip participants and other leaders is crucial to keeping everyone safe and happy.
  • Pause. Think. Go. If things take a turn for the worse, don’t panic. Take the time to address any immediate threats to yours and the group’s safety, then make a plan to evacuate. Communicate the plan to the group, then take action.
Overwhelmed by the idea of risk management? The following resources were created by leaders of various organizations, and are at your disposal as resources on the topic.

Brown Outdoor Leadership Training: Risk Management

 OutdoorEd.com Risk Management resources

NOLS Risk Management training courses

Princeton Outdoor Action’s Guide to Developing a Safety Management Program to Designing a Safety Management Program for an Outdoor Organization

TOP TIPS 

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

“The mindset for managing risk for a student organization or university trip is completely different from organizing a personal trip with friends. Use resources on campus and from other organizations  to guide your risk management thinking.” –Rachael Wise, Director, Brown Outdoor Leadership Training

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 zoe.gates@collegeoutside.com 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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