The Objective Observer

Earlier this week I did a Reddit AMA at /r/Ultralight. Over the course of six hours I was asked a bunch of hiking related questions, one of which was, “Can you give me your best piece of advice for backpacking that does not involve gear?” My answer was as follows: “When challenging backcountry situations arise, try to process them as an objective observer, rather than a subjective participant.” In the following article, I expand on that response.

There are a multitude of reasons to go hiking. Relaxation, fun, peace, contemplation, the challenge, the opportunity to disconnect, the opportunity to reconnect, solitude, spend some time with friends; the list goes on and on. However, irrespective of what your motivation(s) may be, one thing we all have in common is the desire to come back from our respective journeys safe and sound. And that, in a nutshell, is why objective decision-making in the backcountry is so important.

If you spend enough time out in the boonies, eventually you will be faced with scenarios in which your welfare is potentially at risk (e.g. fording swollen rivers, negotiating avalanche terrain, arriving at an anticipated water source only to find it bone dry). The ability to process such situations objectively, rather than subjectively, can mean the difference between emerging safely out the other side, and finding yourself up poo creek with a rusty teaspoon for a paddle.

Swift Creek Blues

Let’s go from metaphorical watercourses to real ones. In July and August, 2011, I hiked eastbound on the Pacific Northwest Trail. It was the first hike in the 12 Long Walks series. An historically high snow year combined with a cool spring, meant that during the first two weeks of my journey, there was still a great deal of snow around in the mountainous areas of western Washington (i.e. Olympics, Mount Baker, Cascades).

Mid-July, 2011 | Mount Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest.

The snow combined with warmer summer temperatures, meant that the rivers were running particularly high. One such waterway was the aptly named Swift Creek in the Mount Baker – Snoqualmie National Forest. With bridge out and the glacial-fed waters raging, there was nothing for it but to look for a safe place to cross. So that’s what I did. And for the next two hours I ploughed up and down the densely vegetated bank (sometimes through unforgiving Devli’s Club), before eventually finding a place where I deemed it safe to ford.

Prior to discovering the desired location, I had previously spotted two other places where crossing would most likely have been possible. In both situations I was roughly 90 to 95% certain I’d be able to manage it without falling into the drink. However, in my book 90 to 95% is not good enough, when the alternative is getting swept down stream. Therefore, on both occasions, I resisted the temptation and kept bushwhacking in search of a better option.


Swift Creek

Scenarios such as the one mentioned above can test both novice and experienced hikers alike.  Emotions, distance objectives, fatigue, time goals and crappy alternatives (e.g. two hours of bushwhacking), can all play a part in clouding our judgement. Yet it is precisely the ability to remove these elements from the decision-making process, that has saved my hide in the backcountry more times than I can tell you over the past few decades (Note: During this time I haven’t been immune to the occasional ill-advised choice as well).

Informed and Objective

Next time you are faced with a potentially hazardous situation while hiking, try the following exercise. Start by taking a step back. Then breathe deeply and exhale. Repeat four or five times. The goal is to be as calm as possible and not rush your decision. Have a chocolate if you like. Now take yourself out of the equation, and imagine that you are a well informed witness, who understands not only the conditions, but also possesses an intimate knowledge of the skills, strength and ability of the protagonist (i.e. you). By following these steps, you help to remove pride and ego from the decision-making process, thereby increasing the likelihood of making sound choices.

Ok. I know what some of you are thinking. This all sounds great in theory, but when emotions are running high and you are giving all that you can, it isn’t always so easy to think clearly. That’s true. But remember the following – objectivity and passion aren’t mutually exclusive. It is possible to find a balance. And being able to manifest the equilibrium between drive and impartiality, can make all the difference in regards to your safety.

Copper Canyon Traverse, Mexico, 2013 | Largely off-trail and with a lot of bushwhacking and bouldering involved, by any criteria this was a tough hike. When you throw in the fact that it took place in one of the dodgier regions on the planet thanks to the drug cartel influence, the CCT was a hike in which objective decision-making was as important, if not more important, than our ability to negotiate the 6,000 ft deep canyons we were constantly climbing in and out of.

It is worth noting that making objective decisions in the wilderness becomes easier with experience. Hiking is no different to anything else. The more you do something, the better you become. And with improvement, comes a heightened level of comfort in a wider range of potential scenarios. This in turn enables you to make more informed decisions, with a cooler, calmer head.


The ability to process challenging backcountry situations in an objective manner, is something you rarely hear talked about in hiking circles. People seem more interested in tangible barometers such as mileage, speed, gear weight and “name” hikes finished.

I get it. Hikers are no different to everyone else. We love our metrics. But as is often the case in other aspects of life, it’s the intangible things that really matter when the shit hits the fan. Because while the heart and spirit may be the catalysts for many of us heading out into the wilderness, when worst-case scenarios occur, usually it is what goes on between our ears that dictates whether or not we return home safely.




The Objective Observer — 13 Comments

  1. Great article Cam,
    Keeping our ego & pride in check, as you mentioned, is tough when the heart & lungs are pumping, and we begin to let our minds race. Ed Viesturs, (one of the best mountaineers around), has this moto: “The mountain decides whether you climb or not. The art of mountaineering is knowing when to go, when to stay, and when to retreat.”

    I have also made my share of bad decisions, and have learned, (hopefully, ha!), that taking the time & effort to make the best decision to do the right, safe thing is so worth it. It only takes a couple skew-ups, costing hours, lost gear, pain, danger etc. to follow your advise much more easily!
    Happy trekking, Scott

  2. Right on the Nail!
    We all make mistakes in the back blocks from time to time and this is a timely reminder to us all. Having led many trips and instructed in courses over my life time you would think that the objective approach would be second nature but it is not. Even after 50 years backpacking round the world I am not immune to making mistakes especially if alone.
    Now for a coincidence. Last year having to cross the Swift River in Canterbury NZ I was confronted with the very same situation as were you. Early spring and snow melt from Mt Hutt barreling through, it took an hour to find a crossing and I reached Tribulation Hut safely just on dark.

  3. I loved reading this, thank you, and the photo at the end is stunning! I sometimes like to imagine that I’m reading a newspaper article or book report of what I’m doing after things have gone wrong, to develop the objectivity you are talking about. “Despite the threatening clouds and failing light, the hiker made the decision to continue towards the pass, where she was caught in a storm and succumbed to hypothermia. SAR commented that it would have been better for her to have retreated and pitched her tent.” or “Describing her ordeal, the hiker muttered, shamefacedly that rather than backtrack to find the missed trail-junction, she decided to take a “short cut” across a canyon choked with boulders and scrub, where she broke her ankle and was stranded.” Verbalizing my potential decisions and their possible negative outcomes as others would describe them really helps a lot!

    • Thanks for the comment, Donna. “Short cuts gone wrong” are a great example of when hikers can lose their objectivity. Even when their instincts are telling them that they have made a poor decision and it’s time to turn back, some will continue to push on rather than swallow their pride, accept their mistake and backtrack.

  4. Cam, thank you once again for a very wise post. You have obviously read “Deep Survival” by Laurence Gonzales for that is the theme of the book. For anyone who has not read it, I highly recommend it.

    • Thanks for the kind words, Gerry. I can’t say I’ve read that book, but after having a quick glance at some of the reviews, I may have to check it out.

      • Cam, with your experience, there will be nothing in there that you don’t already know but nevertheless I think it is an excellent read which you would enjoy.

  5. Excellent post, and a very good reminder to keep yer head on straight when plans and reality don’t align. My husband and I just returned from the High Sierra, where conditions are still very different this year given the high volumes of lingering snow and runoff. We saw hikers who could’ve used your post!

    By the way, I enjoyed your contributions to the new book Wanderlust: Hiking on Legendary Trails (Gestalten Publishing). My husband and I contributed to the chapter on the John Muir Trail, and I just realized today that you’re the same Cam that occasionally lands in my inbox!

  6. Thank you! We follow the same guidelines in SCUBA: stop, breathe, think, act. Furthermore, I am an elementary school teacher in a progressive-education style private school that teaches social-emotional skills– I teach that guideline in school, so I use it at work, as well as on land and underwater! Thank you for all the wisdom that you share with us!

  7. Thanks for this post. I hike with my two teen boys and I want them to read this article. To many times have they plunged in without thinking first. This is a tough lesson for boys to learn, especial when they have the freedom of exploration. The ideas that you explain like taking a step back and evaluating the situation is the same techniques that they teach in Boy Scouts. When camping with my boys from now on, I’m going to adopt your breath deeply and have a piece of chocolate, it will hopefully get me through ANY situation…lol

  8. Thank you for an insightful post. Erring on the side of caution isn’t always exciting but certainly a wise approach to take in the backcountry. You explain the process very well.

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