Backcountry Safety and Communications Part 2: Mission Planning and Decision Making

Published 2024-01-23

Photo: Baffin Island SOF Training. © John Huston

by John Huston and Zach Reeves

Background: John is a polar explorer, cold weather expert, and a safety and logistics manager. Zach is a former Special Operations Forces (SOF) team member, Reconnaissance Marine, and military intelligence expert. We both run companies that train SOF personnel. From time to time, we work together on training events and on projects at MYSTERY RANCH. We also happen to be fellow Hamm’s beer aficionados.

In Part 1 of this two-part series on backcountry safety, we discussed the importance of making a basic trip plan and a communication contingency plan. Here we are going to get into mission planning and decision-making practices to keep your trip on track and in control even if things go awry.

Preparation is the Expedition

Fifteen years ago, John was in the midst of training and preparing to ski unsupported to the North Pole. He told a Norwegian polar explorer friend that he was nervous about the dangers of living on the Arctic Ocean for two months. “Preparation is a big part of the expedition, maybe the biggest part. You are going to do well because you’re good at that,” his friend replied.

Preparation is a time commitment, but it is also a commitment to the mission. Preparation and training bring the expedition into normal day-to-day life, which gives the actual expedition more depth. Safety planning is an essential aspect of readying for a backcountry trip.

John Huston on Ellesmere Island, Canadian Arctic. ©Hugh Dale-Harris

First, strategize the mission by walking through each step of the trip ahead of time. Start from the time you depart and think through each phase of your trip until completion. Take notes on the items you might require throughout, then add those items to your packing list. Make sure everyone on your team is on the same page as far as objectives and motivations for undertaking the trip.

Next, identify common safety obstacles or pitfalls and plan procedures aimed at preventing incidents and working efficiently. In the three years it took to prepare for their expedition to the North Pole, John and his expedition partner spent a lot of time researching previous North Pole expeditions. The majority of unsupported expeditions to the North Pole fail. So, John and his partner pinpointed the most common causes of failure and came up with solutions and routines aimed at sustaining themselves and increasing their chances of success.

Likewise, brainstorm “worst case” or ‘critical’ scenarios that may occur at any point throughout the trip. Discuss and/or rehearse what to do if something does go wrong. What is your protocol if a person becomes separated from the group or as we say ‘lost and alone’? What will you do if your stove malfunctions or starts on fire? Do you have a plan to handle a broken tent? When John fell through the ice on Day 47 of the North Pole expedition, he and his partner barely needed to speak to each other. They had expected that one of them would fall through the ice and they had rehearsed their ice rescue routine for years. Their swift decisive actions prevented John from getting frostbite and saved the expedition.

Pack the right equipment and food for the expedition. See Part 1 for information on safety communication devices. Basic medical training is always a good idea, along with carrying a small emergency medical kit that includes a tourniquet.

Day 4 of 55 on the way to the North Pole. Slow and steady to start out. ©Tyler Fish

Start in Control, Stay in Control

Speed, especially in the beginning, but at other points too, can kill the mission. The polar expedition world is full of stories of expeditions that failed or severely injured people by going too fast out of the gate. Give yourself time to get settled into the environment and then pick up the pace. Safety should always be the first priority, but it can be easily overlooked when other aspects of the agenda start to drive the ship. We look at safety and travel procedures as the means to achieve the agenda. On the North Pole expedition, we worked to sustain our bodies for 50 days so that we had enough capacity at the end for a 5-day sprint to the pole.

At crux decision points or when the variables you are working with change or magnify, take a step back, get perspective, and make a safe decision. There are times when quick action is needed, assisting a person thrown from a raft for example. But at times when swift action isn’t required, there is no need to rush.

Taking a breather on Baffin Island in 2019. ©John Huston

It’s the same when something goes wrong. Stabilize the situation and then patiently make the correct decision about what to do next. This also includes near misses, which are incidents that almost happened but didn’t. Discuss what caused the incident or near miss and make the necessary adjustments.

If the weather or other variables change, consider changing the route and mission to keep it realistic. A dump of snow can drastically slow the pace and backing off the route plan can take the stress off and keep your crew safe.

Lastly, bring lots of chocolate. A team that enjoys their food (and themselves) in the backcountry is going to make better decisions. It’s a fact.

Learn more about John here.

Learn more about Zach here.