Having Empathy when a Hiker Makes the News

Having Empathy when a Hiker Makes the News

It is inevitable: After someone dies or is maimed in an outdoor accident, online hiking forums are filled with conversations about all the mistakes that person made. Someone goes on about how inexperienced people shouldn’t be out there. Someone goes on about how they shouldn’t have been alone. And so forth.

Though of course we can learn from these tragedies, it makes me uncomfortable to talk about those who have died in a way that implies it was their fault. Accidents happen. I speak from experience: Even when I’ve been well-prepared, I’ve found myself in sticky situations. I am sure we all have. Many of the tragic accidents that make the news are, in fact, highly relatable for those of us who hike, climb, and run. So why the lack of empathy?

I think denial is at play when we blame those who die in outdoor accidents. We are afraid that it could be us next time, and therefore we try to distance ourselves from the situation. When we criticize the specific hiker, and emphasize the mistakes he made, we try to make it feel less likely that it will happen to us. We argue that we are smarter, more skilled, more invincible.

That is cruel, obviously, and it also puts us at risk. Explaining why we’re better and safer isn’t going to change the fact that outdoor recreation is inherently dangerous. This is another reason that empathy is important: Tragedy breaks down our sense of invincibility. It personalizes the problem, and, ideally, forces us to pay attention to what we could do better.

Which brings me to the next reason that some people discuss hikers that make the news: Learning from their misfortune. These conversations are important, but some can make me squirm a little due to their callousness. Looking at a tragedy with empathy is not only the right thing to do, but it also makes it easier to learn more from a situation.

After all, the basis of both empathy and of learning is humility. When we are willing to learn something, that means we were humble enough to recognize that we were deficient in that area. When we ask for instruction, we are acknowledging that the teacher knows something we do not. When we realize that we could just as easily have made the same mistake as that guy, we can start to see the complexities of what happened and why. This is the gateway to a more complete understanding of how to stay safe in the wilderness.

So let’s discuss what we can learn. Obviously, each situation is different, and I encourage you to delve deeper into specific scenarios to learn as much as possible. I also want to repeat that my intention is not to criticize anyone. Rather, I think that the following points are worth mentioning for the purpose of making ourselves safer:

  1. Leave an itinerary and always check in with someone when you return. Communicating your plan makes it more likely that you will be found. Simple as that. It is also important to be thorough. What if you told someone where you were going, but not when to expect you back? They may not notice as quickly as they ought to that something is wrong. What if you said you were going to Mt. Hood, but didn’t say where exactly? It takes hours to search one river bed properly. How on Earth could you expect search and rescue to comb an entire mountain? SAR is primarily conducted by volunteers, and is often tied up in multiple rescues. They’ll do their best for you, but you should also try to make it easy for them. It is critical to be clear about your plans – and to place your trust in people who are responsible enough to take action if you go missing.
  2. Bring the 10 essentials and know how to use them. There are many different lists of ten must-have items out there, and the specifics are not important to me. You probably know better than I do what you need for the types of outings you do, after all. That is why I recommend the systems approach. It is a conceptual list rather than a concrete list, which allows room for adjustment based on the type of trip and the expected conditions. Regardless of your specific gear preferences, you need: Layers/shelter (exposure can kill you in a matter of hours), a means of obtaining clean drinking water (dehydration can kill you in 3 or fewer days), a means of obtaining food (starvation will kill you in about 2 weeks), a means of addressing any injuries, and a means of finding your way home (e.g. a map and compass). And don’t assume that you are going to magically learn how to use your gear in an emergency. Take it out of the packaging, experiment with it, and know how to use it.
  3. Last but certainly not least, you need knowledge! I highly recommend becoming a Wilderness First Responder. Take a survival class. Get avalanche certified. Do your research. Know your intended route and the terrain. Read books like Mountain Rescue Doctor. Be thorough and be smart.

I’m not trying to imply that those who die in the wilderness are stupid – though arguably those who try to take selfies with bison aren’t the brightest. I’m not trying to imply that those who die are inexperienced – although in some cases that is a factor. A huge component of survival comes down to luck – and thus we should exercise humility and empathy when it comes to addressing how others have fallen prey to the elements. Don’t be proud that you have survived; be thankful. Don’t condemn others for failing; learn from them. Don’t be afraid to get out there, but do be aware of the risks and prepare accordingly.

Good luck out there, and happy hiking!

Learn more survival tips on the Nitty Gritty page.

Read more human interest stories on the Moments page.

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