Backpacking Risk and Emergency Planning: What You Need to Know

Educating Ourselves Around Planning and Preparedness

After you have gained a full picture of what risks you’ll be dealing with on your trip, you can then formulate your risk and emergency plan. In order to do that, educating ourselves around risk can build our confidence and mitigate the real risks we might face. For backpackers of all backgrounds and experience levels, the best thing you can do for your own safety is planning and preparedness.

Before diving into this post, read up on the basics of risk management and safety in our previous post, which will lay the groundwork for this discussion. In this post, we’ll get into more detail about specific concerns as well as creating your risk mitigation plan.

Assessing Risk: How Many Lemons Do You Have?

In our last blog post, we talked about how to identify risks and introduced the idea of each major risk as a (metaphorical) lemon. Consider creating a document with a list of risks and how severe the risk is (i.e., how many lemons). Then, review the list holistically and see just how many lemons you have. Reflect on your own reactions to your risk assessment: does it feel unmanageable, or is it within your comfort level? Have a conversation with other group members, if applicable, and discuss whether the risk assessment feels accurate or needs updating. Make sure everyone is aware of and comfortable with the level of risk on the trip.

Risk management always has a degree of subjectivity: each person will have a different level of risk they are personally willing to manage. There is no right answer or magic number for risk. Always be respectful of each other’s comfort level and never push group members into situations that make them feel unnecessarily stressed. Similarly, don’t be afraid to advocate for yourself if you have concerns–your safety is incredibly important and deserves consideration.

Risk Mitigation and Creating Your Emergency Plan

With the strategies above, you’ve learned about your lemons. That’s great! Next, let’s see if we can put some lemons back or shrink the size of the remaining lemons through risk mitigation. It’s invaluable to think through ways you can plan ahead to resolve problems so they don’t snowball into bigger problems.

Before you leave for your trip, share trip details and other helpful info with a trusted in-town contact so that you can get help if things don’t go to plan:

  • Provide information on your itinerary, including the route you are planning and when/how often they can expect to hear from you.
  • Tell your in-town contact exactly when to call for help if they have not heard from you. If using a mobile phone instead of a satellite communicator, be sure to factor in the extra time it may take for you to drive within phone service even after the wilderness portion of your trip ends.
  • If you will be parking at the trailhead, include information about the car such as make, model, and license plate number. This can help rangers and rescue professionals narrow down where they might find you.
  • Share the color of your most obvious gear, like tent and pack color. Imagine you are a rescue professional: if you know to look for a bright orange tent or a white backpack, this information can be very helpful!

Think through the areas you’ve identified as higher risk: where do you have the most and the biggest lemons? Then, think through what you’re doing to plan for potential problems and emergencies. This is a mindset (and safety!) strategy called Coping Ahead that we explore in more depth inside of Ski Babes & Summer Strong.

Here are some examples of risks and possible mitigation strategies:

  • There is a high probability of encountering bears along our route, so we will mitigate the risk by learning and adhering to bear-safe camping practices. We will move as a group as much as possible and carry bear spray. We will practice techniques of securing bear bags before the trip.
  • The area we will be traveling to has a high risk of flash flooding. We will reduce risk by canceling the trip in case of rain forecast in the area. We will ask our in-town contact for an updated weather report daily through our InReach. We will take note of and communicate as a group when we see a potential exit point or high ground.
  • This route involves a high mileage and significant elevation change every day over rough terrain, creating a risk of musculoskeletal injury and/or injuries from falling. We believe this risk is adequately mitigated because all group participants have a high degree of fitness and we will carry first aid supplies. In case of injury, we will assess the severity of the injury and attempt self-rescue by working together to help the injured person off the route using the nearest identified exit point. If self-rescue is not possible, our party will split up in groups where one group stays in place with the injured person while the other group seeks help.

Solo Backpacking Risk Management

Solo trips can be extremely rewarding, but they cost a lot of lemons! If you are planning your first solo trip, make the itinerary much easier than your most challenging group trip. Identify other areas of risk where you can reduce your lemon count to balance out the added risk of traveling solo. This way, you can focus on practicing the solo aspects of travel instead of overwhelming yourself with risk. For instance, if you’ve done numerous 5-7 day trips through a remote mountain range, consider a 2-3 day itinerary a bit closer to home for your first solo trip.

As the only member of your trip, you have a higher degree of responsibility to create a thorough risk management plan. Consider having a trusted friend or mentor review your risk plan before your trip to offer suggestions. 

Safety Considerations for Women, Female-Identifying, and Non-Binary Backpackers

One of the biggest sources of worry and anxiety with women, female-identifying, and non-binary outdoor adventurers is our personal safety. We receive so many societal messages and double standards questioning whether it’s safe for us to be outdoors that it can make us shy away from our goals or feel like we don’t belong outside. But we don’t want to shrink ourselves and live in fear, we want to live a life where we take up space and do amazing, courageous things!

All of the concepts in this post will help you plan safer trips, regardless of your gender. In addition, if your personal safety is a concern on your trip, consider adding this into your risk mitigation and emergency plan. Here’s an example of what that might look like:

  • I am a solo backpacker concerned with the threat of violence from humans on this trip. To mitigate this risk, I will obtain training to use my body to defend myself and carry pepper spray as a back-up measure. I will trust my intuition and calmly look for ways to escape a situation if I feel unsafe.

For more reading on solo backpacking safety with a focus on women and intersectional identities, check out these resources:

Putting Risk Management Into Practice

Risk management and safety can be a stressful, emotional topic, especially for female-identifying backpackers. If that’s true for you, that’s totally okay and common. Remember that like many things in outdoor recreation, risk management is a skill that you build. Like other skills, it takes practice.

After each trip, do a retrospective review with other trip members and/or a trusted mentor to discuss what went well that you would do again in the future. Consider what went wrong and what you would do differently to improve the outcome.

Be gentle with yourself if and when you make a mistake. Instead of spiraling in shame or guilt, acknowledge you are an imperfect human doing your best. Take mistakes as an opportunity to learn and be better next time.

For more resources on trip planning risk management in the outdoors, consider these options:

  • Luc Mehl’s online course Start and End at Home is a great resource for extensive trip planning tools and risk assessment as an integral part of planning. *Full disclosure Luc is my husband* 
  • Nicole Snell’s Outdoor Defense program is a great resource for safety threats that can be addressed through self-defense.
  • Our course, Summer Strong, includes strength and fitness training, while also including mindset elements like Coping Ahead for crisis preparedness. Fitness and physical resilience are a form of preparedness, and therefore a valuable part of risk mitigation.

It’s equally as important to celebrate your successes! Feel proud and let your confidence build when you do a great job with risk management and safety. Identify where you are growing as an outdoor adventurer and let your progress bring you joy and fulfillment!



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