Walking Distance #04 | Backcountry Safety ft. Dr. Elizabeth Andre and Molly Herber

In this episode of Walking Distance presented by The Trek and hosted by Blissful Hiker (Alison Young), we are joined by Dr. Elizabeth Andre, an associate professor of nature and culture at Northland College, and Molly Herber, a project manager for NOLS. Dr. Elizabeth Andre has instructed white water canoeing, mountaineering, and dog sledding at Outward Bound, joined a National Geographic dog sled expedition across the Canadian Arctic in 2007, and teaches a course on outdoor safety. Molly Herber is the Creative Project Manager at NOLS in Wyoming.

Blissful Hiker covers the basics of human psychology geared towards safety, the theories of risk homeostasis and heuristics, and how to practice “negative thinking” to be more safe on the trail.


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Interview with Dr. Elizabeth Andre

3:00 – Introduction to outdoor safety in psychological theory

3:47 – How does our limbic system inform our decisions?

6:20 – What does risk homeostasis mean?

7:34 – It’s important to take courses on wilderness first aid and anything that will help you be safe. But you have to balance that with the right attitude towards safety on the trail as well.

8:36 – Alison recalls her scariest outdoor scenario. How much of feeling in control or having control is just an illusion?

10:02 – Recognizing that we have a natural propensity for optimism that might help us in the frontcountry, but hurt us in the backcountry, is important.

10:45 – Can you explain heuristics? 

12:40 – This past winter, two teams of Nepali climbers submitted K2, and it was an incredible feat. But they were incredibly prepared, having many plans. Do you have a list of simple things that we can do that are simple back up plans?

14:24 – What’s a way we can reshape our thinking to be a bit more negative, or realistic?

15:48 – There’s one phrase I repeat for how to be successful in the backcountry, which is “be deliberate.” Do you have a phrase?

Interview with Molly Herber

20:30 – Where do you start with basic safety concerning animals on trail?

22:06 – What about inclement weather, especially concerning thru-hikers who might not be able to check the weather forecast while on trail?

24:00 – What other kinds of weather should hikers be aware of as a possibility?

25:30 – Every NOLS instructor must be certified as a wilderness first responder. What guidance did that course give you?

26:20 – Can you speak about having a level head and how to make safety decisions on trail?

Mentioned in this episode:

About Dr. Elizabeth Andre

Dr. Elizabeth Andre’s Outdoor Safety course

Molly Herber’s blogs for NOLS

NOLS wilderness first responder course

Get all of the Walking Distance Podcast episodes.

About Alison Young

Alison Young, aka Blissful Hiker, is a former host and producer at American Public Media and professional flutist. She’s thru-hiked New Zealand’s Te Araroa and the Pacific Crest Trail, as well as long trails in South America, South Africa, Europe, Pakistan and all over the US. In her podcast The Pee Rag she shares personal essays from the trail along with collected sound. Her goal in life is to hike until she drops.

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