Saturday, September 18, 2010

Risk Management on a Bushwalk

The biggest risk on a bushwalk is a mismatch between the leader's skill level, the participant's past experience and the difficulty of the walk.

The leader's skill level must match closely the terrain, degree of isolation and the weather expected. That is why most leadership courses are tiered:
  • Day walk leader
  • Bushwalk leader
  • Advanced bushwalk leader
The Adventure Activity Standards [AAS] has a good outline of the differences in skill level required at each tier and distinguishes three levels of difficulty

1. Bushwalking Leader on Tracked or Easy Untracked (Easy)
Tracked or easy untracked areas are reliably marked on maps and are obvious on the
ground. Tracks are inspected on a regular basis and road or other safe catching features
are easily reached within 2 hours by applying elementary navigation principles.
2. Bushwalking Leader on Difficult and Trackless (Intermediate)
Difficult or trackless areas are where there are limited modifications to the natural
surface so that track alignment is indistinct in places; there is minimal clearance along
the track; signage is minimal and only for management purposes; there are terrain and
man-made hazards (such as cliff lines or dense forests); the possibility for changes in
weather and visibility exists.
3. Bushwalking Leader on Unmodified landscapes (Advanced)
Unmodified landscapes are those which are totally natural where there are no
modifications to the natural surface so that track alignment is indistinct and no clearance
along the track; there is no signage; the track is not managed for public risk and where
the onset of extreme environmental conditions has a significant adverse impact upon the
Few Clubs have a formal structure to match the difficulty of the walk with the skills of the leader. Often this "approval" is an ad hoc process which involves the Club's Walk's Secretary, but without a formal structure it can fail eg when a there is a changeover of personnel or when the Walks Secretary has not actually walked the area himself/herself. There is a vast difference in being able to lead a walk along the Heysen trail and leading one into untracked and isolated areas such as the Mawson Plateau in SA or the Western Arthurs in Tasmania

Matching the experience of the participants with the difficulty of the walk is usually much better handled. Usually Club walks are coded according to difficulty, duration, and terrain so in theory the participants should self-select for the walks and there should be no problem.

Problems arise when the intended participant has no experience in the area to be walked and does not appreciate the difference between walking with a day pack in sunny weather along a well marked trail and carrying a 25 kg pack through mountainous terrain with a howling wind and sleet or snow. If the leader does not know the intended walker then there is the potential for this mismatch to be overlooked until it is too late, hence the need for a vetting system.

One way this problem can be overcome is for all walks to logged on the walker's profile, along with the name of each leader, so that checks can easily be made of the walkers experience. Without a walker's log, it is difficult to either locate relevant leaders, or to determine walker's experience.

One alternative, is to take the group for a preparatory walk over some hilly terrain with a 25 kg bag of "lawn fertiliser" in each pack and satisfy yourself as leader that they are fit enough. Of course there is more than just physical fitness; mental fitness for a demanding walk is probably more important as is group compatibility.

Meet with your intended participants and chat about their past experience. Clubs which insist on face-to-face meeting between leaders and potential walkers as a pre-requisite for participation are "on the right track".

See also:

Outdoor Recreation Industry Training Package
A Risk Management Framework (download pdf) (The Confederation of Bushwalking Clubs NSW, 2004)
RISK MANAGEMENT GUIDELINES for BUSHWALKING CLUBS  Federation of Victorian Walking Clubs (VicWalk 2004) Inc. (pdf format)
Guidelines for Leaders and Coordinators (pdf format) Canberra Bushwalking Club (June 2009)
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This article by Bush Walker is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.

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