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Defining risk.

How often have concerned parents asked you about the risks involved in camp activities? You would like to reassure the parent, but you also need to give them an honest appraisal of the risks involved in your camp program. By having a clear understanding of the various types of risk and how to assess the risks involved, you will be able to give concerned parents a well-thought-out answer, and possibly prevent injuries to your staff and campers.

Definition of Risk

Risk has been defined as the potential to lose something of value. People must decide for themselves what they are willing to risk. They may risk the loss of health, money, self-esteem, and even life. The risks involved in camp activities include:

* risk of minor injuries: abrasions or sprains

* risk of major injuries: fractures or internal injuries

* risk of environmental injuries: lightning or hypothermia

* risk of emotional injuries: embarrassment or loss of self-esteem

People must carefully examine any activity in which they choose to participate to understand the types of risks involved. Only then can they decide whether to participate in the activity or look for safer ways to spend their leisure time.

Risk/Benefit Analysis

With all the risks involved in camp activities, why do people choose to participate? Obviously, there are a number of benefits derived from the camp experience. Camps provide a certain amount of excitement and thrill; they offer fresh air and exercise; and campers may enjoy the company of friends or the chance to meet new people. Also, staff members have the opportunity to use their skills to help others enjoy the camp experience. It's important to understand these benefits of camp in order to weigh them against the risks of certain activities.

Whether people realize it or not, they do this type of risk/benefit analysis every day when making decisions about risk. If an analysis of the risks and benefits tells them that the risks are greater than the benefits, they may not do the activity or they may do the activity and accept the risk of being injured.

Types of Risk

Objective risk

In order to make informed decisions about risk, you need to understand the different types of risk. One of the most difficult types of risk to understand and prevent is objective risk. Objective risks are risks that are beyond a person's control. For example, say a camper is walking back to his cabin at night and a branch from a tree falls on him causing an injury. The camp had followed their annual plan of inspecting trees and removing dangerous limbs. So, neither the camp nor the camper could have foreseen this accident happening and could not have prevented it, other than by cutting down all the trees. Other types of objective risks may include acts of nature such as strong winds or lightning strikes.

Calculated risk

A second type of risk is a calculated risk. A calculated risk is a risk in which a person very carefully weighs the positives and negatives of the situation prior to making a decision. For example, a camper is attempting to decide whether to take part in a rock climbing activity or to stay on the ground and belay other climbers. A number of factors must be considered in order to make this important decision. For example, the camper may think: How do I feel today? Is the weather a factor? What is my competence level? Who will be watching? What happened to me the last time I climbed? Do I feel comfortable with the instructors? After considering all these questions, usually in a matter of minutes, a decision is made and the camper decides whether or not to take this calculated risk.

Perceived risk

A third type of risk is perceived risk. A perceived risk is a type of activity that looks very dangerous but, on closer examination, may in fact be very safe. Many camp activities fall into the perceived risk category. High ropes course activities would be considered a perceived risk because they appear to be dangerous. However, if all the safety measures are carefully followed, the activity can be conducted with very little risk, and accident statistics show that your chance of being injured during ropes course activities are very low.

There is always a certain amount of risk in any activity, and that's what makes the activity exciting. However, a well-trained staff that follows well-established safety guidelines can create an exciting perceived risk activity with little actual risk to campers.

Reckless risk

A final type of risk is a reckless risk. A reckless risk is just what it sounds like: an unnecessary, foolish risk that should not be taken. Anyone who has instructed outdoor activities will have stories about people who took reckless risks. Unfortunately, reckless risks are very frustrating because they could be prevented if forethought and common sense were used.

Campers to Watch

Reckless risk-takers may belong to the group of people who consider themselves "immortals." Immortals are usually young, healthy males who are full of life and do not think they will be hurt. They don't have the experience and judgement skills necessary to do an accurate risk/benefit analysis and probably wouldn't take the time to consider the risks involved anyway. An immortal usually goes straight from a thought to an action without considering the consequences. This is why staff members sometimes need to step in and help the immortals understand what could happen as a result of taking reckless risks. Staff members can be trained to recognize the immortals in the group and watch them carefully to keep a perceived risk from becoming a reckless risk.

In addition to immortals, another type of camper that needs to be mentioned and watched closely by staff members is the abdicator. Abdicators are campers who may not want to be at camp; their parents may have urged them to attend because camp will be fun. Abdicators may say things like, "I didn't want to come here, my parents made me do this" or "I will probably get hurt." This sounds like an accident waiting to happen and unfortunately sometimes an accident does occur. Abdicators put their care completely in the hands of the staff and make it the staff members' responsibility to watch out for them. Luckily, abdicators usually do not suffer serious injuries. They are usually looking for care and sympathy and may require extra time and effort from staff.

Treatment of Risk

An examination of risk would not be complete without taking time to examine the various ways to treat the risks mentioned above. A common treatment for risk is to simply avoid any activities that may contain a risk. Many camp administrators may decide that the risks involved in certain activities outweigh the benefits. If this is the case, the risky activity may be canceled and other less risky activities will be substituted.

A second treatment for risk is to reduce the possibility of injury to staff and campers. A well-trained staff can go along way toward lessening the risk involved in adventure activities. Regular safety classes can inform staff and campers about the importance of safe actions and accident prevention. Use of proper safety equipment and following well-documented accident procedures can reduce the risk of serious injury.

A final treatment of risk is the camp's decision to transfer some of the burden of the risk to others. The most common "other" is the camp's insurance carrier. The camp will do everything it can to reduce and avoid risks, but in the event that an accident does occur, having adequate insurance cove.rage to help during a difficult situation is important.

A portion of the risk can also be transferred to the campers by providing them with a clear risk-awareness statement and asking them to accept responsibility for their actions. Risk awareness means that prior to an activity, campers should be made aware of potential problems that could occur. A discussion of the risks involved should be a standard part of all activities, and campers should be permitted to decide whether they agree to accept the risks or whether they wish to participate in another activity (challenge by choice).

People who work in the camp setting need to clearly understand the risks involved - risks to staff as well as the risks taken by campers. By understanding these risks, you can make staff more aware of the potential risks taken by others and prevent many accidents from happening.


Bowman, W.D. Outdoor Emergency Care. Lakewood, CO: National Ski Patrol Systems, Inc., 1993.

Keyes, R. Chancing It: Why We Take Risks. Boston: Little, Brown, and Company, 1985.

Hunt, J.S. Ethical Issues in Experiential Education. Boulder, CO: Association for Experiential Education, 1986.

Spact, R.J. and J. Hirsch. "Adventure Programming: Keeping It Safe," Camping Magazine, July/August 1995, 20-23.


* For Their Sake: Recognizing, Responding to, and Reporting Child Abuse by Becca Cowen Johnson (American Camping Association, 1992)

* Camp White Cloud Goes to Court video and handbook (American Camping Association, 1994)

* Management of Risks and Emergencies (Camp Fire, Inc., 1983)

* The Complete Ropes Course Manual, second edition, by Karl Rohnke, Catherine Tait, and Jim Wall (American Camping Association, 1994)

* Legal Liability in Recreation and Sports by Bruce R. Hronek and J.O. Spengler (Sagamore Publishing, 1997)

Ben F. Tholkes, Ph.D. is an assistant professor at Western Carolina University, Cullowhee, North Carolina. He teaches a variety of outdoor adventure courses and has supervised student interns at a number of camps in western North Carolina.
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Article Details
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Title Annotation:camps and risk management
Author:Tholkes, Ben F.
Publication:Camping Magazine
Date:Sep 1, 1998
Previous Article:10 commandments of risk management.
Next Article:Train away risk.

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