Image of the February 2023 Wilderness Magazine Cover Read more from the
February 2023 Issue
Home / Articles / Skills

Avoiding over-commitment

Before commencing a trip, agree on decision points where you can consciously consider continuing. Photo: Ben Ng-Wai Shing

Commitment is a worthy attribute, but not if it becomes the only attribute. By Adam Smith

Heuristics help our brains make decisions faster and more efficiently. They’re mental shortcuts and are used every day.

Most of the time this is a good thing, but in a harsh and unforgiving environment, making decisions through mental shortcuts can be dangerous. 

Heuristic traps are key factors in many outdoor incidents. Never heard of them? In this series, the NZ Mountain Safety Council will break down some of the most common heuristic traps, how they arise on typical tramping trips and how to avoid them, so you make it home safely. 

Commitment is a heuristic that can be incredibly rewarding in everyday life, and even in the outdoors when applied correctly. It’s also known as being ‘goal oriented’ and is how we tend to keep the long-term goal in mind to overcome seemingly smaller obstacles along the way. Think about persisting with study when the going gets tough at university, or continuing to train over winter to maintain fitness for summer. Being ‘goal oriented’ or committed is often a valued trait. 

While commitment is worthy of celebration, it’s important to recognise that doing something just because we are committed can lead to red warning flags waving, especially in the outdoors.

One of the blessings, and curses, of New Zealand’s outdoors is that there are countless places to get off the beaten track. There’s less infrastructure, or noise, and more chances to experience being ‘out there’. But it also means ‘commitment’ is something we often have to face. Access to many favourite spots is often a slog, and time can be taken off work to drive a considerable distance to reach the destination. Such factors contribute to a commitment to achieve the objective.

Imagine you’ve taken a couple of days off work and driven three hours to your favourite national park. The trip has been planned for ages. The weather isn’t ideal, but you’re keen to push on. Halfway to the hut, the snow is getting much deeper than expected and the wind is strong. This wasn’t prepared for, but surely turning back would make it all a waste. You’re thinking about that long drive and the time off work, so you continue into worsening conditions.

This imagined story is similar to a real one that occurred to a pair of trampers in Nelson Lakes National Park where one of them died of hypothermia. Scenarios like this have played out countless times. In fact, it’s probably the most common heuristic trap seen in New Zealand outdoor incidents.

So, how do we find the balance between being positively committed and the ensuing traps that can occur? One good strategy is to set decision points for the trip before you leave. These could be specific locations or times where you will consciously stop and assess things like the weather, your pace, the remaining daylight, and then decide whether or not to continue. It’s important to set clear criteria that must be met to carry on, or hard deadlines that can be stuck to. These should be outlined before leaving so that everyone is aware of them. Setting these ahead of time means you’ll be far more likely to follow them in the field.

It’s also recommended to have a plan B. Having backup options makes it easier to change tack and not feel like the trip was all for nothing.

Can you recall a time when you carried on because so much had already been committed? What makes you feel committed to a trip: the time spent getting there, the financial cost, the physical effort? Knowing the answer can help to avoid over-commitment and ensure you make it home for the next adventure.

This article is part of a series on heuristic traps. There are six main heuristics that play a part in almost every outdoor incident. Knowing what they are and how to avoid them can help you stay safe. The six heuristic traps are: Familiarity, Conformity, Commitment, Expert Halo, Social Proof and Scarcity.