Headlines related to outdoor recreation seem to be taking a grim turn as of late. From hikers falling off cliffs to rafters drowning in tragic accidents, it’s difficult to ignore the mortality rate that comes along with enjoying nature. In many instances, these deaths could be prevented had systematic safety measures been taken – an extra guardrail, additional signage, the removal of a certain rock. This begs an important question: Should nature be altered by humans to make enjoying it safer? And if so, how much?

The outdoor recreation industry seems to have two factors working to create a perfect storm of dangerous situations. First, a shocking number of people are taking up outdoor recreation for the first time, inexperienced in the basics and leaping into a world full of risk. Second, the internet and social media has created a sort of “FOMO” effect (fear-of-missing-out), in which people are able to see others in amazing spots, quick to find the easiest way to track down that same spot for themselves. This can create a boom in visitations to area that would generally be considered dangerous or too technical for the general public.

These two factors have made disseminating education about safely and responsibly enjoying the outdoors more crucial than ever before, but is an attempt at more thorough education enough? Should authorities take measures to protect the public when the public chooses to enter dangerous terrain? Or should the public be responsible for protecting themselves?

Keyhole Route signage Spencer McKee
Keyhole Route signage on Longs Peak. Photo Credit: Spencer McKee.

Recently, an article came across my desk about a 2010 drowning that occurred in Colorado’s stretch of the Arkansas River while the victim was white water rafting. In short, the victim fell out of the raft, soon-to-be pulled under a rock formation well-known and notorious for being hazardous. This sparked a debate at the time over whether or not the river flow around that rock formation, or even the rock itself, should be altered to prevent the same thing from happening in the future. By this point, it was the fourth death resulting from the placement and shape of the rock in less than a decade. Ultimately, the decision was made to leave that spot on the river unchanged, adding to existing signage about the dangers lurking beneath the rapids.

This decision to keep the river flow unaltered came due to the unknown consequences of making a change. Though similar changes have been made along rafting routes in the past to diminish risk, authorities felt that any change in this situation could go either way – potentially making the rapid safer or making it more dangerous. The final decision was made to hand-out brochures with a warning and to add additional messaging around the area in lieu of major alterations.

Looking over newspaper articles from the time, there were two clear camps in this debate. The first seemed to feel that while outdoor recreation activities do carry inherent risks, exceptional risks should be removed when possible by local authorities, even if it means changing the experience or nature itself. The second camp felt as if any alteration to nature could go against the guidelines and policies that work to protect nature from damage caused by humans.

Here’s a list of a few instances that may beg the question of whether or not human interference should take place. As you read through the list, consider how you feel about each, as well as where you feel the limit of interference is.

  • Maps and safety notices at a trailhead, informing passersby of risks associated with the terrain.
  • Mid-trail signage at certain key points of risk and danger.
  • Low-impact safety assistance tools, such as ropes to prevent slips.
  • Low-visibility additions to nature, such as bolts securing rocks in place.
  • High-visibility additions to nature, such as wire-netting to prevent rockslides
  • High-impact safety assistance tools, such as guardrails
  • Minimal altering of nature itself, such as changing the shape of a rock to prevent a dangerous rapid
  • High-impact altering of nature itself, such as removing trees and rocks from terrain to create a safe path.
  • Reshaping the terrain to form a trail, often most visible when unnatural steps are encountered while hiking

As you worked your way through that list, you probably realized that there’s quite a bit of grey area. Sometimes, diminishing the risks of nature can seem essential, even when highly intrusive – preventing rockslides, for instance. Other times, diminishing the risks of nature can make one feel guilty – adding a handrail that gets caught in the views of an otherwise unaltered spot.

Unfortunately, there might not be a silver bullet that solves this issue. As someone who enjoys exploring extreme terrain in a variety of ways, I can tell you that I’m torn. On one hand, coming across a sign in the middle of a wilderness area listing safety concerns can seem to break the serenity of the moment, while on the other hand, I’m thankful I encounter these signs – they do remind me of the risks at a crucial moment.

Of course, the best safety advice for outdoor recreation is to always be prepared. Know what you’re getting yourself into and know how to get yourself out of it. If everyone came prepared, we’d probably see a lot fewer signs and alterations. Unfortunately, that’s not the world we live in and public safety in the great outdoors will always be a concern.

Let us know what you think: Should nature be altered to promote safety in wild terrain? If so, how much?

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We are driven by our deep respect for our environment, and our passionate commitment to sustainable tourism and conservation. We believe in the right for everyone - from all backgrounds and cultures - to enjoy our natural world, and we believe that we must all do so responsibly. Learn More