Risk perception and risk management

  • Risk management
  • Identifying risks
  • Risk management and planning
  • Matching groups to trips
  • Ongoing monitoring and strategic planning
  • School groups

Risk is the potential to lose something of value, which could be physical (such as mobility from broken bones); mental (such as psychological stability); social (such as confidence through embarassment or disgrace; or financial (such as loss of or damage to possessions). The presence of risk creates uncertainty - taking a risk involves the possibility of negative outcomes. Outdoor activities described as 'adventure' activities are usually considered so because information concerning conditions to be encountered may be missing, vague or unknown. Participants take a risk, because they do not know for certain that they will end the adventure safe and unharmed, with all their possessions and confidence intact.

There are several types of risk worth thinking about:

  • Perceived risk is the individual’s subjective assessment of the risk present. This perceived risk will vary between individuals undertaking the same activity, and may be much lower or higher than the real risk. For example, the parents of a teenager on a youth-group trip may have a quite different perception of the risk to that of the teenager, which may be different again from the trip leader’s perception. As leader, you should help the individuals in your care arrive at a realistic perception of the risk for the activity you are leading. However, you must also realise that their perception of the risk may be quite different from yours.
  • Absolute risk is another category of risk, which for a given point in time and activity specified, is constant. It is the uppermost level of risk which could be present, before the impact of any safety measures or controls are considered. (Haddock 1993; Priest 1990b).
  • Real risk is the absolute risk adjusted by the effect of safety controls and measures. In outdoor situations, real and perceived risk are generally of greater importance than absolute risk in assisting with the management of risk.

Risk management

Risk management is a strategic approach to planning which aims to focus attention and action where it is most needed. Key aims are to evaluate and prioritise where things are most likely to go wrong, what the consequences of such events might be, and what should be done before, during and after incidents to minimise those consequences.

Leaders of any outdoor trips should consider risk management strategies, and trips for specific groups such as schools, clubs or other organisations generally should have a formal, written strategy. There are a number of references available which outline how to develop such a strategy (e.g. Haddock 1993; Jack 1994; Priest & Dixon 1990; Safety Guidelines: Camping and Bush Activities 1998).

Identifying risks

To deal with risk in an activity, you must first identify the hazards. Having identified the hazards, you must then identify the causal factors which lead to those risks becoming a reality. Causal factors are dangers, and can be grouped into three key areas: people, equipment and environment. Some of the factors in these three areas which you as a leader need to consider include:

  • People—skills, knowledge, level of confidence, fitness, moods, fears, tiredness, experience.
  • Equipment—clothing, tents, skis, communication devices, ropes, vehicles.
  • Environment—weather, terrain, remoteness, snow conditions, shelter.

Accidents are possible from dangers in just one of these three areas, but an accident becomes much more likely when hazards from the three areas interact. As an example, consider a ski tour in steep terrain. A peril (or possible negative outcome) is a person falling unchecked into trees or rocks, and an assessment of some of the causal factors is shown in Table 6.1.

Table 6.1 Some causal factors for risk assessment on a ski tour in steep terrain
People hazardsEquipment hazardsEnvironment hazards
No experience in steep terrainSkis without metal edgesSteep icy slope
Unskilled in self arrestNo rope among party membersRocks, a cliff and a gorge below

As leader, if you are aware of all these hazards, you are in a position to assess the real risk present in this activity. You need to use your judgement, weighing all the factors. You must then decide whether to proceed (i.e. retain the risk); reduce the risk

(e.g. implement appropriate safety procedures); avoid the risk (e.g. change the routeor cancel the activity), or transfer the risk (e.g. effect insurance cover, have additional experienced guides involved on the trip) (Haddock 1993).

Most people who participate in outdoor activities do so to seek the positive experiences, although they generally also know there is some risk involved. As a leader, you have to find a balance between the difficulty of the activity, the skills and competence of both the individuals and the group as a whole, and the support services and facilities available to assist if something does go wrong.

Risk management and planning

Good risk management depends upon good planning. Planning needs to be well established in the following three areas.

Personal preparation
The outdoor leader needs to have the appropriate experience, skills and fitness for the planned trip. The activity should be well within the capabilities of the leader (unless leading an experienced group on an exploratory-type trip). Personal planning refers to the need for the leader to have the appropriate level of experience and skills. These skills include navigation, campcraft, group leadership skills, first aid, environmental awareness, and understanding of possible hazards. Ski tour leaders must have skiing skills sufficient to cope with the terrain and conditions likely to be encountered. They must also be capable of assisting party members who may get into difficulties.

Specific trip planning
For any specific trip, the leader needs to identify the specific risks relevant to that trip. Once identified, the leader should develop a plan or strategy to enable the identified risks to be managed, in order to reduce the potential for loss to an acceptable level. One way to do this is to use a tool such as the ‘Risk Analysis and Management System’ advocated by Haddock (1993). This system provides a structure to identify the risks and causal factors in the key areas of people, resources and equipment, and environment. Once risks and causal factors are identified, strategies can then be developed to manage the risk associated with each causal factor. Areas worth considering include:

  • Party. Is the makeup of the party suitable for the planned trip (fitness, experience, age, party size, aims, cohesion)? Are there any known medical conditions that may be relevant, e.g. allergies, diabetes, prior joint problems, psychological conditions? Is there another party member capable to assist the leader if the leader is in trouble? Is there a second party member with group management skills?
  • Weather. Is it an appropriate time of year to visit? Is the area likely to be subject to blizzard, heavy rain, extreme wind, lack of water? Have you examined the most up-to-date forecast available? See Chapters 18 and 19.
  • Terrain. Are there scree slopes, cliffs, or old mining shafts in the area? Is the terrain too steep and rocky?
  • Vegetation. Is it appropriate to walk through the area (e.g. sphagnum bogs, scientific reference areas, pristine forest)? Are there large blackberry thickets? Are there flowering wattles or other plants that may provide allergens for people prone to asthma?
  • Environmental hazards. Are there specific hazardous creatures in the area (e.g. poisonous snakes and spiders, wasps, bees, ticks, crocodiles or blue-ringedoctopus in some coastal areas)? Are steep valleys prone to sudden flooding? What is the fire risk in the area? Is the water supply in the area known to be infected with giardia, contaminated by cattle or have potential for blue-green algal blooms?

    The aim of risk assessment before the trip is to enable the leader and party to prepare for and hence deal more capably with the consequences of any incident.

    The competence–difficulty model
    The competence–difficulty model is a theoretical model which leaders have found useful for planning the best course of action when assessing and managing risks in outdoor activities. Competence is the ability of individuals to deal effectively with the circumstances confronting them, and comes from their skills and experiences. In addition, there is also a level of group competence, which can sometimes compensate for a lack of individual competence in some areas. This requires a supportive group and an appropriate attitude.

    A participant with a low level of skill and or experience will find easy activities quite interesting, but will probably feel fear or even terror when confronted with activities of high difficulty. On the other hand, a highly skilled or experienced participant may be bored by easy activities, but may find difficult activities highy adventurous. A direct result of this is that a group with highly diverse skill and experience levels will be very difficult to match to an appropriate degree of difficulty in a trip. Either some participants will be over-taxed, or others bored, or if the divergence is great, possibly both at once.

    It is important that leaders develop good judgement of the experience and skill level of their participants. It is easy for an inexperienced participant to have an incorrect perception of the risk, in either direction. A fearful or timid person may overestimate the risks; fearless or confident people may well underestimate the risks. In particular, fearless people may not be aware of the absolute risk, because they may not detect some or all of the likely hazards.

    The competence–difficulty model shown in Figure 6.1 defines a number of experiences that participants may feel during a trip, depending upon the degree of challenge and their perceived ability to meet those challenges. These are:

    • Boredom—where the level of challenge fails to excite even the lowest level of interest;
    • Interest—a low but noticeable level of interest;
    • Adventure—a very satisfactory outcome, balancing demand and coping ability very well;
    • Peak adventure—the highest level of satisfaction with a trip;
    • Fear—where an individual is moderately concerned by potential risk and has doubts about his/her ability to cope; Figure 6.1 Model of the relationship
    • Terror—where an individual’s between experience and perceived concern about ability to survive risk. the activity is so great that it inhibits his/her ability to act appropriately, and places the person in some danger of ongoing psychological problems after the ordeal is finished.

Matchng groups to trips

Correct matching of participant experience and activity difficulty will ensure maximum satisfaction and safety for the participants. Mismatching the participants and or the leader to the difficulty of the activity can lead a group into fear, terror, or worse, into real risk.

For matching groups to trips consider the example of a club ski tour. An overnight trip was planned and advertised for intermediate to experienced ski tourers. The planned route was a round trip from Guthega village in New South Wales, up Pound’s Creek to the Main Range, along the range, down via Blue Lake to the suspension bridge over the Snowy River and back to Guthega. In good weather with firm but not icy snow, this would be a challenging trip. If conditions are icy, the difficulty increases; if the weather is poor, this further increases the difficulty. The skills and experience required by all participants in the group include good pack-carrying technique, experience in snow camping, good fitness and enough general experience to believe in their own ability to do the trip.

As shown in Figure 6.2, a good match between all participants and the actual trip in favourable snow and weather conditions (Situation 1) results in all members of the group feeling that it was an adventure or a peak adventure.

Situation 2 shows another possible outcome where the mismatch of the group to the trip due to terrible snow and weather conditions, leads most of the group into fear and some into terror. Another possible outcome is Situation 3, where a mismatch within the group, stemming from lack of experience and skill by some members leads some of the group to feel fear or terror, while others feel bored or have only a low level of interest.

Figure 6.2 Interaction of perceived risk, experience of the group and trip outcome.

Ongoing monitoring and strategic planning

The risks identified in the specific trip planning will not necessarily remain constant during the trip. The leader should be constantly monitoring the group and the total environment to detect any potential problems, as discussed further in Chapter 17. Management strategies in response to changing or newly identified risks can then be developed during the trip. Undoubtedly, risk management is not a static, one-off strategy. It should be flexible and evolve during the trip as circumstances dictate.

School groups

Keeping in mind the principles of in loco parentis and ‘duty of care’, outdoor leaders need to be especially diligent in the preparation of a risk management strategy when leading school groups. With the increasing risk of litigation, leaders of school groups need to be very well prepared.

In addition to normal risk management strategies, there are specific requirements which need to be followed. Each of the states and territories of Australia has publications which outline the requirements which apply in government schools, available from the relevant state or territory government education department. As an example, the guidelines for Victoria are found in Safety Guidelines: Camping and Bush Activities (1998) and Safety in Outdoor Adventure Activities (1992). It would be prudent for leaders of many other groups (e.g. Duke of Edinburgh’s Award expeditions, Scouts, youth groups, etc.) to follow these requirements. The Duke of Edinburgh’s Award scheme is very commonly conducted within schools, and so it must comply with the relevant guidelines.

Table 6.2 summarises some of the main guidelines for the states and territories. Some common requirements throughout Australia include:

  • approval from principal (plus school council in Victoria, and operational superintendent in Northern Territory)
  • signed parental consent required (after detailed briefing)
  • medical information and medical alert (summary) required
  • emergency contact person/procedure required
  • minimal impact bushwalking practices outlined (except in Queensland)
  • preparation of students
  • risk management plans and or strategies in place (in Victoria, the Emergency and Security Management Branch must be notified for government schools)
  • notification of local authorities (e.g. national parks, police, fire authorities).

As with most things, requirements change over time. All leaders of school or other groups are urged to check information with the relevant education authority section responsible for these matters.

Table 6.2 Summary of some guidelines for bushwalks in remote or semi-remote areas for school students in Australia
 Staff:Student ratio day walksStaff:Student ratio overnight walksGender balance for staff required for co-ed groupsOther staffing requirementsQualifications required for staff
ACT1:101:8Not specifiedNot specifiedRAFC1 recommended.
NSW1:151:10RecommendedAt least two staff and at least one a teacher.First aid.
NTNot specifiedNot specifiedMandatoryAt least two teachers or staff recomended.First aid, BLC6.
QldNot specifiedNot specifiedNot specifiedAt least two staff, at least one registered teacher.First aid.
SA1:10 to 1:1521:103 1:54RecommendedMinimum of two staff.First aid. One with BLC6 from SA.
Tas1:101:7.5 (Max group=17)RecommendedAt least two staff, usually at least one teacher.TAS BLC7 recommended for teacher in charge. First aid, RAFC1 recommended.
Vic1:101:6Recommended for overnight walks.At least two staff. One must be a teacher employed by the Education Department or the school council.Appropriate first aid and experience for activity. RAFC1 recommended.
WA1:222:118 1:119RecommendedAt least one teacher.First aid.

1: RAFC remote area first aid qualification is recommended or highly recommended. 2: Day walk ratio changes with year level in SA. Years 1-3=1:10, Years 4-5=1:12, Years 6-12=1:15. 3: SA ratio is 1:10 for walks of up to three days in easy terrain on predominantly marked trails. 4: SA ratio is 1:5 for remote or isolated areas. 5: BMLC - Bushwalking and Mountaincraft Leadership Certificate. 6: BLC - Bushwalking Leader Certificate (SA). 7: BLC - Bushwalking Leader Certificate (Tas). 8: WA ratio is 2:11 for Years 1-7. 9: WA ratio is 1:11 for Years 8-12.


1992. Safety in Outdoor Adventure Activities. Department of School Education, Melbourne, Victoria, Australia.

1998. Safety Guidelines: Camping and Bush Activities. Department of Education, Melbourne, Victoria, Australia.

Csikszentmihalyi M. and I. 1990. Adventure and the flow experience. In: Miles J. & Priest S. eds. Adventure Education, Venture Press, State College, PA.

Haddock C. 1993. Managing Risks in Outdoor Activities. New Zealand Mountain Safety Council Inc., Wellington, New Zealand.

Jack M. 1994. Strategies for Risk Management in Outdoor and Experiential Learning. The Outdoor Recreation Industry Council of New South Wales, Sydney, Australia.

Mortlock C. 1984. The Adventure Alternative. Cicerone Press, Milnthorpe, Cumbria, UK.

Priest S. 1990a. The adventure experience paradigm. In: Miles J. & Priest S. eds. Adventure Education, Venture Press, State College, PA.

Priest S. 1990b. The semantics of adventure education. In: Miles J. & Priest S. eds. Adventure Education, Venture Press, State College, PA.

Priest S, and Dixon T 1990 Safety practices in adventure programming. Association for Experiential Education, Boulder, CO.