6 Reasons Communication Matters in the Outdoors

Whether you’re going to the backcountry on an epic solo or leading a group of your peers on a weekend backpacking trip, communication can play an integral role to your success. Here are some unexpected ways that you may need to communicate while in the outdoors:

Establishing commands is the most obvious form of outdoor communication, but it often gets overlooked. Different institutions teach different commands, which can lead to all sorts of challenges if you don’t establish a common vocabulary. When your partner climbs out of sight, there shouldn’t be any guessing about whether he just asked for tension or more slack. It only takes a few minutes to agree on terminology, so be sure to figure it out before you tie in.

Your Plan
Does anyone know where you’re going? Or when you plan to get back? Rescues are rare, which makes it easy to overlook the importance of communicating your plan with someone. But when you do need help, chances are good that you need it badly (remember Aron Ralston?). Next time you head out, consider leaving a copy of your itinerary on the front seat of your car (upside down), or use Bugle, a new app that alerts authorities if you fail to sign in on-time. If you’re going deep in the backcountry, invest in a PLB (personal locator beacon).

Your Expectations
If you’re traveling with someone else, a lot of unnecessary arguments can be avoided by laying out your expectations for the trip. A few weeks ago I set out on an all-day paddle with a co-worker. I figured we’d have similar paddling styles, but when we first hit the water he began paddling hard–much harder than I wanted to work. Did he expect to go that fast all day? Rather than killing myself by matching his pace, I asked what he thought about pacing, which was a quick way to prevent a misunderstanding. With some people, you’re so in tune that the goals are implicit, but with a new partner, it’s good to touch base about your expectations.

Skill Level
No one wants to be left behind because their skills aren’t up to par, but lying about your ability level can have deadly results. If you’ve never taken an Avy class, let your backcountry partner know before you start skinning up the mountain. Several pitches up a difficult route probably isn’t a good time to mention that you’ve never built an anchor. Be honest about your abilities and communicate your weaknesses before heading out the door.

Perception Vs. Reality
Much of what we say gets lost in translation–tone, pitch, word choice–these can all mask the real message behind our words. This is true everywhere, but gets compounded in the outdoors by factors like hunger, lack of sleep, and cold temperatures. If your hiking/biking/climbing/skiing partner starts snapping, dig a little and find out what’s really going on. Maybe they’re mad at you, or maybe they just need a Snickers bar.

Uninvited Tag-Alongs
Imagine you’re hiking alone, enjoying the solitude, and you pass another solo hiker going the same direction. Rather than accepting your faster speed and dropping back, they strike up conversation. Before you know what’s happened, your solo hike has turned into a blind date. I thought this phenomenon was unique to long-distance hiking, but apparently it can strike during any outdoor activity. If you find this happening to you, don’t be afraid to communicate your desire for solitude.