Practical planning considerations

  • Information sheets
  • Trip gradings
  • Emergency contact system
  • Pre-trip meetings
  • Telephone bookings
  • Legal liability considerations
  • Planning for permits
  • How to obtain permits

The best methods for communicating trip plans will be largely determined by the nature of the group, and whether it is being recruited through some organisation, such as a school, bushwalking or outdoors club, a youth group or similar. Most of these organisations have procedures or standard practices. These should be followed to ensure that all potential group members are aware of the necessary information, that any necessary approval from parents or guardians is obtained, and that any specific requirements of the organisation's risk management practices, public liability insurance and similar issues are attended to.

Information sheets

It is generally agreed that the best way of setting out information for group members is through a written information sheet. This ensures that all group members have the same information, and it minimises difficulties from incorrect or inadequate recording of verbal messages.

The format and amount of information required will depend on the type of group, and their previous experience in the activity planned. As a rule, too much information is usually better than too little.

The key items of information normally provided on trip information sheets are:

  • the meeting date and time
  • the exact meeting location
  • a specific cut-off time, after which the group will leave the meeting point
  • travel arrangements, including detailed directions and a marked-up map if travelling by private cars
  • emergency contact details
  • maps to be used, stating whether group members are expected to provide their own copies
  • equipment list
  • an overview of the trip plans, including highlights, campsites, and general route
  • leader contact details (a mobile phone number is useful if available for notification of last minute cancellations)
  • an alternative rendezvous or other contact arrangements if people cannot reach the planned location at the planned time.

Trip gradings

Many outdoor clubs have a system of trip gradings, which can provide potential group members with an idea of how challenging the trip is likely to be. However, bear in mind that many members do not properly read the grading definitions, and may come expecting something quite different from what has been planned. What may be ‘medium’ to you as a leader may be very challenging indeed to an unfit or inexperienced member.

Emergency contact system

Most clubs, schools and other organisations with an outdoor activity program usually have an emergency contact system, which is a formalised approach to the common outdoor education call to ‘Let someone know before you go’. If you are organising a trip with any potential for delays or requirement for external assistance of any kind, the use of an emergency contact is very strongly recommended. This person’s role is to:

  • contact emergency response assistance in the event of the leader not notifying the contact person of a safe return by the nominated time
  • contact police or other emergency assistance if the leader rings seeking assistance
  • act as the initial contact point for concerned people seeking information on a group’s whereabouts.

In order for the emergency contact to perform this role, they will need the following information:

  • the starting and finishing points and details of the intended route
  • the leader’s name, address, telephone number and car registration number
  • the names, addresses and phone numbers of all group members
  • the general level of experience of the group, plus an indication of how well equipped it is
  • the expected time of finishing
  • the date and time at which contact should be made with emergency authorities if the leader fails to notify safe return
  • contact details for office bearers or others within the school or club, if not already known.

It is recommended practice that the emergency contact first attempts to telephone the leader before ringing for assistance, just in case the leader has forgotten to ring.

If the leader rings the emergency contact seeking external assistance, the contact must obtain:

  • the exact location (including map name and grid reference)
  • the nature of the problem
  • the weather and track conditions in the area
  • the number of affected and unaffected group members
  • details of any means of contacting the group.

This information will be critical for the police or other emergency services in planning an appropriate response.

Telephone bookings

For many trips, organising meetings prior to departure proves impossible or apparently not worth the effort. In these circumstances, the leader has the difficult task of assessing the potential abilities of those wanting to come on the trip by telephone. Just about everyone who has done this will tell you it is not easy to determine who is likely to cope, and who isn't. However, the following questions may help:

  • What walks or ski trips have you done recently or ever?
  • Who led that trip? (that person's opinion may be useful)
  • What gear do you have?
  • What do you do to maintain fitness?
  • Do you have any allergies or other medical conditions I should know about?
  • Can you read a map and use a compass?

Legal liability considerations

When accepting people on your trip, especially if the person is unknown to you, or you have doubts about their ability to cope, it is strongly suggested from a legal liability point of view that the leader should describe the trip, including potential difficulties and dangers as fully as possible. This might include river crossings, ledge walking, icy snow, camping in snow, blizzards, hot dry conditions and so on. It is strongly suggested that leaders should not accept someone for a trip if they have doubts about the person’s ability to cope. Not only will the person potentially endanger themselves and the rest of the group, they will make the leader’s job harder, and in any case, the person concerned will probably have a horrible time.

If the person is an adult, and is participating as a volunteer (not under some arrangement with payment for the leader’s services) and the leader decides to accept them, the leader could say something like ‘From what you say, it appears you would probably be OK, but I don’t know you, and you must decide if you can cope. You are coming on this trip as a volunteer, and as such, you are taking the responsibility for the decision to participate.’

There is more discussion of legal issues in Part 8.

Planning for permits

Planning for outdoor recreation trips into the Australian bush should always consider the issue of permits, and leaders must ensure that adequate time is included in their planning to obtain the necessary permits if required. For example, bookings often open (and close) in June/July for summer campsites at Australia’s most popular national parks, and bookings must be made a month or so before the date of the proposed trip at many locations. In any case, the earlier you book, the more likely you are to get the permit you seek.

Permits also usually limit the number of people permitted at any one time and it is good advice to check limits on group size before organising a major expedition or group outing. While there is usually little trouble with groups of eight or less, some wilderness areas have limits less than this. For example, the regulations for all Queensland national parks have a group size limit of six people at any campsite.

Good trip planning will have matched the size and expectations of the group with the conditions of use and permits required for visiting a proposed area. Organised leaders make sure that necessary approvals and permits have been obtained well before the trip.

When you obtain permits and make bookings for park use, it is also a good time to lodge information about the trip itinerary and your group with park management. This will assist if your group is delayed or overdue, or if a bushfire or cyclone in the region might be a threat to the group.

How to obtain permits

The best way to check if permits are required is to contact the ranger office of the state or territory land management department closest to the area you wish to visit. Usually a phone call is all that is required to verify if a permit is required and if so how it is obtained. While permits and similar controls may appear to be the antithesis of the freedom enjoyed in the outdoors, without such permits and rationing systems, natural areas could quickly become overcrowded and degraded to a level where we may no longer want to visit them.