Many times, disaster just seems unrealistic. Bear attacks? That never really happens. Lightening storms above tree line? Come on — it’s Hollywood drama. To an extent, part of being outdoorsy is being ok with the inherent risks (calculated ones) involved in the activities you love to do. But then there are times when it’s wiser to just turn around. It’ll require a bit of pride-swallowing and maybe a wasted afternoon, but hey, it’s worth it to see another day.
You get a super late start
Being late on a trip not only makes you frustrated — it also leaves you with less sunlight. Everyone, no matter how proficient in orienteering, gets lost. If your estimated trip time doesn’t make it within the time that the sun goes down, it might just be wiser to turn back and wake up earlier the next morning. See, there’s a phenomenon known as the planning fallacy, which is a tendency to underestimate the time and takes to complete a task. Say you budget your time for a hike and it runs over twenty percent, but that last twenty percent is in the dark — this is when people get in trouble. Remember — Mother Nature doesn’t run on your time — you run on hers.
The terrain isn’t what you expected
There’s no greater disappointment than getting stoked for a trip, only to find out that the terrain is much different than expected or has changed. Maybe the river you were going to canoe is dangerously fast or maybe the trail you’ve decided to jaunt down is not as well marked as you remember. Take this as a sign — accidents don’t happen when anyone expects them. If the next few hours seems like it could be sketchy, you might be better off waiting a day.
One of the best things about the outdoors is that for most activities, you’re likely to find a group who will accept you into their fold (other than maybe surfing where you have to earn your stripes first. But at least you’re still with a group). Skiing or riding by yourself? Find a group and ask to squeeze in. Hiking? Most definitely a group will let you join. On top of just being good folks looking forward to meeting new people, it’s a survival tactic to ward off bears or have one more pair of eyes on the snow. When you’re alone, your chances of aid and rescue are immediately lowered. So yes, it may be more fun to break from a group of newbs and hit some side country by yourself, but you’re also abandoning the folks who could be at your rescue.
The weather isn’t looking good
Everyone knows this one but it’s always dumbfounding to see how many people will hold a fly fishing rod when there’s lightening or how many people will jump into a kayak right after a flood (I’ve done that once and will never again). Sure you want to summit, but even the pros like Conrad Anker and Max Lowe know when the weather won’t let them. Going out into dangerous conditions isn’t badass — it’s wreckless.
You just get that feeling
Your friends are getting ready to go and you just feel weird. It may be because of small combinations of the examples above, or it may just be a hunch. Your intuition in the outdoors is built from natural instinct as well as experience, and if you don’t use it, you’re wasting it. Don’t feel the need to be a hero—it might feel lame in the moment, but many times when you make judgment calls in the favor of safety, it reaps sweet rewards.