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September 2023 Issue
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How risky is it?

The bridge is sound and you are not afraid to cross. Great!

Many outdoor adventures involve a degree of risk. But how do you gauge the level of risk in a plan?

Imagine that you are walking along a track and come to a bridge. Consider the following situations:

  • The bridge is sound, and you are not afraid. This is a good situation. You can cross the bridge safely and continue your walk. The lack of danger is matched by your feeling of security.
  • The bridge is unsound, and you are afraid to cross. This is also a good situation because you can decide not to cross, or take precautions that relate to the danger. The danger is matched by your fear.
  • The bridge is unsound, but you don’t know this and are not afraid. You are likely to cross and, in doing so, put yourself at risk. You might cross safely and incorrectly learn that a bridge in that condition is safe. The danger is not matched by sufficient caution.
  • The bridge is sound, but you are afraid of heights or bridges and are afraid to cross. You might turn back and miss an opportunity to enjoy the rest of the trip. If you’re in a group, others may miss out too. It could also result in you taking another risk that you are not afraid of: you could drown by crossing an unsafe river to avoid crossing a sound bridge. The lack of danger is not matched by a feeling of security.

When the level of danger is correctly matched by the level of caution, the right precautions can be taken to minimise the risk. What can be done to ensure a correct match?

Investigate the intended route. The Department of Conservation (DOC) website is a good starting point, or ask at the local DOC office. Look for recent trip reports or blogs from people who have been there, or talk to people who have travelled the route, especially recently.

Check the map and take it with you. Look for hills, steepness, rivers to cross, bridges and how exposed the route is. Note alternative routes.

Check the weather. Ensure weather conditions are suitable for your experience, clothing, equipment and the route you are taking.

Know your limits. Consider your ability, experience, clothing and equipment, things that you enjoy or don’t enjoy and fears you have. For example, if you are afraid of heights, find out about the bridges on your route: are they swing bridges or solid? Can you manage the types of bridge you will encounter, and if not, then what? Find out how wide the track is, especially near high points or cliffs.

Once you have good information, consider other things that might go wrong on the trip. For each situation, think about what you can do to make the trip safer while still enjoying its challenges. For example, where would be a good place to turn back or camp to avoid being caught in the dark?

With good planning, you are more likely to match any danger with the right amount of caution.

Heather Grady is an instructor with Outdoor Training New Zealand