Risk and Responsibility in Outdoor Recreation

Article excerpt


As the demand for leisure experiences in the outdoors increases, one of the challenges for both public and private organizations that manage these activities is to balance the desires of the individual with safety. However, endeavoring to effectively manage all situations and environments while anticipating the behavior of every individual is a complex task. It is therefore not uncommon for conflict to arise between an individual seeking a particular level of engagement in an activity and those who provide the experience and devise policy. In this article, the diverse motives, needs, and values of the increasing numbers of outdoor recreationists will be examined.


Physical settings range on a continuum from urban to primitive (wilderness) areas (Williams & Knopf, 1985). Urban settings are easily accessible and therefore attract high numbers of people eager to participate in a diverse range of recreation activities (e.g., bird watching, cycling, walking, kite flying).

A high population density, however, can cause a setting to lose its appeal as a recreation site (Devlin, 1993) and produce a negative rather than positive experience. This may result in remote settings becoming more appealing simply because they are less popular. However, activities in all physical settings, urban or wilderness, have different types and levels of risk.


A participant's level of engagement in an activity is related to the intrinsic or extrinsic motivations for participation. Ewert and Hollenhorst (1989) write that levels of engagement in an activity can be described as progressing through three stages: introduction, development, and commitment.

At the introductory stage, beginners are engaged in an activity at a basic skill level. They most likely participate in a group directed by a leader, often through structured programs or activities. In many cases they participate in activities such as sea kayaking and para-gliding as one-time experiences, and they usually rely on the leader for safety.

The development stage is more likely to consist of groups of peers in advanced courses or self-organized activities (e.g., rock climbing, heli-skiing). At this stage participants exercise some individual control of their activity, whether they are guided by leaders or in the presence of similarly experienced peers, and they will possibly sustain their participation.

At the highest level of engagement, commitment, experienced individuals typically participate at higher skill levels in more hazardous environments (Keyes, 1986). The experienced adventurer usually either pursues solo adventures or participates with small groups of similarly experienced individuals. These groups may be in a social context involving teamwork, but the physical setting and personal challenge are often more significant factors. The responsibility to avoid accidents lies with the individual (Ewert, 1994), who may believe the outcomes are more controllable than they really are (Lopez, 1987).


In relation to outdoor recreation, Farley (1986) defines risk seeking as "deliberately seeking out thrill or novel sensations" (p. 46). This construct is supported by others who study risk-seeking behavior (Ewert, 1989, 1994; Keyes, 1986; Priest, as cited in Miles & Priest, 1990).

Priest (1990) defines risk in outdoor recreational activities as "the potential to lose something of value. This loss may lead to physical, mental, social or financial harm" (p. 115). The presence of such risk allows individuals to make decisions which balance dangers and personal competence to achieve positive outcomes. Risk creates a feeling of discomfort, which largely arises from uncertainty about the outcome or consequences of involvement.

Experienced participants are better able to assess real risks more accurately. For a beginner, it is possible that the amount of risk which actually exists at a given time is misinterpreted or not recognized. …