Solo is safer

First, let us define our terms: solo mean alone, and safer means less likely to die.

Most discussions of safety in backcountry activities are based on a naively passive and fundamentally flawed understanding of how accidents happen.  Show me 10, or 20, backcountry accidents and 9, or 19, times I’ll show you situations where bad or casual decisions got the whole mess started.  Backcountry is by definition a bad place to get hurt, and while there are any number of hypothetical injuries which might only delay ones schedule, even something like a sprained ankle makes the likelihood of further problems greater.

Safety discussions must therefore focus almost exclusively on prevention.  To stereotype, less experienced backcountry travelers spend their time researching and buying an 80 dollar pre-packaged first aid kit.  More experienced travelers practice being outside so they’ll have the physical and mental abilities to not need first aid.  A simple example would be tailoring macro and mezzo route choices to your abilities.  A micro example would be not panicking and recovering when you loose your feet on a stream crossing, and knowing how to fall so that the inevitable slip doesn’t result in a stick impaled in your leg.  The particulars of this difference are almost unquantifiable, so let us look at some examples.

Griz country: There are no statistics which I’ve seen that suggest hiking with two, or even three, people is safer than hiking solo.  Hiking with four or more does seem to be statistically safer.  My interpretation of this is that only with four people is the visual and aural footprint of the group so big that situational awareness can be discarded.  Solo or with a partner the need to evaluate the situation before and while on the trail is the same; look for sign, determine if you’re in problematic terrain, and if you get too close to a bear act deliberately.  Most people would be safer solo because they’d either be more aware in the moment, or not go into high-risk areas in the first place.  Indeed, it would be easy to make a case that for most people hiking in Griz country in groups of two is less safe than being alone.

Climbing: Here we must make a distinction and restrict the discussion to true backcountry conditions, which is rather different than taking whippers on a well-cleaned crag a 2 mile hike from the road.  10 miles back, the last 2 miles of which were likely nasty talus, you should think about falling a lot differently.  Even if the rock is bullet and your gear good, the consequences of breaking a hold while running out easy terrain are a lot bigger.  In other words, your style should be a lot closer to that of a free soloist.  This is even more the case when ice or alpine climbing.  The rope team and the gear you place is more of a psychological aid than a physical one, as it serves mostly to let you climb comfortably and closer to your abilities on terrain you could theoretically solo 99 times in 100.  In this respect a partner is safer.  A partner is not safer insofar as being tied in might encourage you to treat the outing like a cragging session and pick a route too close to your limits.

Avalanche terrain: The more I learn about backcountry skiing safety the more I wonder if we think about it all wrong.  On many occasions I’ve skied things while wearing a beacon and having partners nearby when I wouldn’t even have been in the same neighborhood without them.  Given the many ways avalanches kill and main folks which beacons do nothing to prevent, I wonder how much validity this safety gear has, and if we should all be skiing things as if we were alone, with technology as a mere bonus.  The most potent consideration here is of course the extent to which social factors influence decision making and put people in places they wouldn’t otherwise go.  For full discussion see this.  In my mind the jury is very much out of whether partners make most skiers safer most of the time.

Whitewater: Another ambiguous situation.  In theory partners will help you scout things more efficiently, collect your gear if you swim, and haul you out of a strainer if you swim in a bad spot.  The first can certainly be true, but is a convenience only, as is the second.  You shouldn’t drop your paddle anyway, though eventually you will.  The third case is desperate at best, and one no one should ever be in.  As I’m to chicken to be much of a whitewater person, I’ll defer to Doug Ammons, the first person to run the Stikine solo: “The Stikine condenses the sport’s full range of experiences and challenges into a single day. It’s a gut-wrenching, threatening place — you have to have the mindset that you want to be in there alone. It’s is every bit the equivalent of soloing a major Himalayan peak.”  Read the linked-to interview and decide for yourself.

Mountain biking: Does having someone to ride out and fetch a helicopter to evac you with your broker back make you safer?  If it does that’s a kind of safety I can do without.  Ride conservative when help is more than a cell phone call and 30 minute wait away.  If you don’t having a friend to pull spinal traction will be little comfort.

In summary, there are many cases in the backcountry when being with a partner or group makes you safer.  However, they are far fewer than most people think, and when other people do lend added safety it is often for reasons different than those usually considered.  Most backcountry travelers have a disturbingly passive understanding of their own safety, and would benefit from a more rigorous consideration of short and long range safety factors.


14 responses to “Solo is safer”

  1. Thanks. Seakayakers and canoers also seem to like to go out in groups and in dicey conditions. The risks can be similar to your description of Whitewater, but often their conditions can seem more benign, especially here in the Midwest, and group sizes here can also get a bit bigger. At the same time there are still hazards (probably mainly entrapment for rivers and exposure for seakayaking). I have a friend who awhile ago gave up going out with groups. I don’t know what his cut-off size is, but he said there was invariably someone who wasn’t honest about their health or readiness who would put themselves (and thus him and the group) at risk. (Maybe the outing had been planned a long while, with others counting on a ride, and a person feels queasy in the morning but doesn’t bail out, thinking they’ll feel better. Peer relations can be a factor. Most often they just misrepresent/misjudge their readiness.) Specifically, because my pal is competent the incompetent group member(s) would end up wrecking both of their days when a challenge comes up or conditions deteriorate. It can be easy to neglect that a rescue is a big stress on both a victim and on a rescuer. I recently had a similar experience and now can appreciate my pal’s position. It’s sobering. I’m not sure how much it argues for your solo theory, but certainly for smaller and more familiar groups. In our situations a partner still seems handy. Seakayaking has a rule of 3 (teammates), with arguable (and often-argued) benefits. Even there your solo points have merit. It’s certainly worth considering that group dynamics even among the experienced by no means always increase safety. Thinking about what are we doing and why is helpful. The peer pressure alone is a huge factor, but of course our own ego can get us into trouble as easily. Your thoughts are always provoking and inspiring! The outdoor world is full of “how” and “what,” while the “why” seems neglected. Thanks for your service there! You also contribute helpful “how” and “what,” and your “who” is good, too — thinking of the report on the old park ranger and his poacher nemesis — so kudos for covering all the bases!

    1. I don’t go on group float trips anymore unless it’s understood my role is as a chaperone. There’s inevitably one or two yahoos who need constant looking after, and I got tired of being an unofficial nanny. I can derive satisfaction from that role so long as that’s what I’m expecting. So I gave up expecting to focus on my own fun and cut back on the number of trips I agreed to go on.

  2. The idea that it’s safer to be alone in grizzly country is interesting but unlikely. The reason for group hiking is to make noise and alert the bear of your presence. If two people are chatting and the bear hears you it hopefully will run off. No level of presence and awareness is going to help you when you turn a corner in the brush and startle a grizzly bear.

    1. I think D’s point, as to Grizzly country, is that it is just as easy for one person to be aware of where they are in spots, like rounding bends, thick foliage, etc where they are likely to surprise a bear, and call out or clap or make noise, as it is for two or three people to be hiking along and not be talking and because they are in a group, not think “oh, I’m rounding a bend I should start singing here”. If you do surprise a bear, only groups of 4, though I would argue 5, appears to increase the chance that the bear will run as opposed to charge, and evidence would show that is only if all 4 or 5 of you are near each other, if you are strung out there have been instances of bears still attacking.

      Being aware and making noise when you need to is just as easy solo, as it is in groups of 2 or 3, if you pay attention.

    2. As M said, there is no statistical evidence to suggest that 2 is better than 1 here. Yellowstone has kept and published enough longitudinal data to make this clear: hiking in groups of less than 4 puts you more at risk, and hiking in September puts you more at risk (again, in terms of statistically significant probabilities). If Glacier has comparable data they haven’t made it public. Steve Herrero’s work is less explicit, but endorses comparable conclusions.

      2 could be better if you’re less likely to panic and act rashly when you jump that Griz, but that is the only coherent reason why a partner might be safer.

  3. In general I agree with with you (insofar as my experience allows). However, I think that under specific circumstances, a group size of two can be the safest. My personal experience is with scuba.* Scuba is by definition a buddy and group thing, unless you are certified to go solo, which few people do. My ex was my diving buddy, and since we broke up I haven’t been in the water. Even in the relatively low objective risk diving I do, I’m uncomfortable with the usual arrangement of getting paired with another random person who happens to be on your trip. I don’t know them; I don’t know their skills or experience or temperament beyond what chatting we did topside. I’ve certainly done it this way before–many times, without incident–but it still strikes me as an inherent risk that many divers take as a matter of course, but that is avoidable. Granted, I’m avoiding it by avoiding diving, but if getting in the water were a higher priority, I’d be actively seeking a buddy I felt comfortable with.

    To that end, I put a lot of thought into why I was so comfortable with my ex as a buddy, and no, it was not b/c we were romantically involved. That’s actually a terrible indicator of activity partner compatibility, in my opinion. I came up with the following criteria for safe activity partners:
    1. Know them outside the activity, well enough to predict and discuss potential risks and conflicting opinions on a situation and to be able to anticipate their reaction to a crisis.
    2. Know their skill level and weaknesses intimately, and vice versa. **
    3. Have evenly matched personalities to be able to call out each other’s shit.

    Basically, it has to be someone who knows you so well that they know when to discourage you instead of encourage you, and someone who can handle you doing the same to them. That this requires a certain level of self-awareness and mutual emotional vulnerability makes it a difficult thing to get right and nearly impossible with a casual buddy. Consequently, I do a lot of stuff alone. It feels safer only having to worry about myself and not add to it concern over all the known and unknown unknowns of a partner I found on or whatever.

    *I’m almost certain I’ve commented here on how risk evaluation and determination of acceptable risk is an explicit part of scuba training, but not of most other risky outdoor activities. It probably has something to do with infrastructure and access issues that would take a long time to tease apart.

    **This doesn’t have to be equal, but at a certain point of mismatch it changes from a peer activity to a teaching situation and different rules apply.

    1. Interesting stuff. I know nothing about scuba and never will, my underwater claustrophobia is not something I care to overcome. This is one reason I don’t push it in whitewater, it scares me and I know that I don’t think as clearly as a result.

      1. It’s a relatively common fear. I’ve seen people who were fine in a pool get into open water for their cert dives and find it’s a problem. Usually at that point, they (wisely) quit. The ones who don’t are usually taking the course with their SO and it’s apparent to an observer that they feel pressured to go on so they can “dive together.” A couple times, I’ve seen it with a child not wanting to disappoint or anger a parent, and that’s even worse. The emotional dynamics affecting judgement wrt risk can be so strong. You’re right to be talking about it from this angle. I hope the discussion moves to wider circles.

  4. John St. Laurent Avatar
    John St. Laurent

    Maybe it’s more specific to say that a solo traveler is more aware and therefore safer as an extension of that awareness. If awareness fails and misadventure ensues, the soloist is then less safe that he might otherwise have been, having nobody to assist him.

    In project management risk can be dealt with four ways: mitigate, avoid, accept, or transfer (in business risk transfer usually takes the form of insurance, a system of pooled risk). As an unsupported individual, only the first three are options for me, requiring decision making. It might be argued that what is actually happening in group settings is that at least some of the decision making is being abrogated, at least unconsciously, to the rest of the group – a form of transfer.

    Because 90% of my activities are solo, things occur to me that don’t seem to occur to people in a group. Consider even mundane risks at a remote trailhead: what if my battery is dead? I high-center my car? There is a tree across the road? I can count on no support to remedy these situations, and therefore have risk mitigation plans for each.

    On the rare occasions I scramble with others it is commonly noted how deliberate I am in my movements (which is just a polite way of noting how slow I am). How can I not be? I simply can’t afford a mishap. And that mindset contrasts itself with that of scramblers who have never climbed outside of a social setting and are mentally emboldened as a result.

    Now, if I were to miscalculate (or just have bad luck) I would certainly wish someone were around. I game this a bit when I can: a fair number of solo undertakings have been done with other parties in proximity, giving me a fallback option while retaining complete control over decision making.

    It’s funny that this topic arises at the same time I’m actively trying to decrease the number of activities I do solo. Already I see that one of two things will have to happen: I’ll need to undergo the difficult process of vetting someone with similar ambitions, skill, and temperament or undertake less ambitious projects with friends who I teach myself.

  5. The whitewater comparison is too diverse to categorize in one clean swoop. We leave for the Grand in a week and I have long dreamed of doing a 30 day solo in the winter down there. Going with a group in 2010 was a lesson in how to manage such an issue. Being separated from a raft when alone is a major issue as the eddies are huge and the current can be fast. Re-flipping a raft can be a herculean effort with a full group, nonetheless alone. Just to name a few.

    But it seems you are hinting at the metaskills and choices that affect decision making and situational awareness in the backcountry. That is such an important topic that is mostly ignored in our modern outdoor culture (not sure about the past and I want to avoid romanticizing what I only vaguely understand). Understanding how group dynamics affect outcomes is a fun form of speculation that unfortunately has limited research (tempted some of students with no luck at SUU).

    Whitewater rafting for me has been an happy medium for pursuing a form of risk that I believe I mitigate well. Its one of the few pursuits that I am rather confident at (most times). I have found a group of people that I relate to well and synergize with in most situations. That is partly an outcome of my participation in the Pyscho Damage incident so many years ago. I learned we do not normally discuss our divergent concepts of risks with our partners nearly as much as we focus on our similar passions for ____ (inset powder, rapids, distance, etc). That creates a noticeable quality of outcome and decision making. After spending hours looking for my friends bodies in flotsam I inevitably changed that tendency. I spend alot of time being vulnerable to the conversations inherent, though often ignored, in what I consider to be effective risk management. This past week that meant accepting a false summit instead of the real deal. Other times, it means managing the skill sets in your group in what is often an overly intentional manner but when shit hits the fan, and it will even with the best people, then your hand is ready to played in the best possible way.

    As for the solo idea……I don’t believe any form analysis will ever make such decisions clear. Its a game of tradeoffs whose outcomes will be different every time we go into the backcountry. There are just far too many variables to analyze. No matter the case, questioning the dominant paradigm of any endeavor on a regular basis seems like it can only help in the long run…..I just wonder if its something those who are prone to accidents are willing to do????

    1. sorry for the confusing name on the post, long story and now changed. Good to read your posts again Dave.

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