How To: Screening Participants for Safety

We surveyed our Leaders to discover the best strategy to assure everyone on a particular trip was qualified and prepared to safely participate. What learned leaders use a a variety of methods and there is no single "best way!"
Chris Williams Chris Williams
August 28, 2014

Running a safe activity means making sure people are prepared for it

As a leader of any outdoor activity, you will find yourself in a position of telling people they may not be prepared for a particular climb, hike, paddle, sail, scramble, etc. You know the route, you know how much time you have to complete it, and you know how unpredictable the weather can be. Sometimes people want to go along with you but aren't quite ready. You want to be inclusive and share your love of the outdoors, but you also have an obligation not to lead anyone into a dangerous situation where there's a likelihood they may need rescuing (or have to help with dangerous rescue efforts). Mountaineers Leaders have a variety of ways they determine who should be allowed on a trip and, in general, we have to support them in exercising good discretion on this issue. 


At the same time, however, we are an organization dedicated to getting people outdoors safely. We have to make sure we are acting responsibly and that our volunteer leaders feel comfortable taking people with them. Sometimes a Leader has to say "no," but we we strive not to create the longstanding  resentments that can fester by by not responding to an email and explaining why someone cannot participate on your trip. Unfortunately, Member Services receives one to two comments per week from members having problems getting on activities because they cannot obtain a leader's permission. Some members report leaders haven't had the time to respond to their messages and they've missed out on other trips they would have gone on as a "next best thing." In other situations, the leaders have said "no" and the person disagrees with the reasoning. We recognize these are tough decisions and our Leaders have to be the ones making them. Our Leaders are volunteers and often have many other commitments that make it hard to respond to inquiries - we appreciate this. However, we hope that dialogue about this issue will help balance the different goals involved. 

We asked many of our Leaders (those who receive a private Leader Lines email) what the single best strategy was for screening participants? We noticed one big thread - there is no single best method. Leaders also offered a number of good ideas that make it easier to evaluate someone's readiness, which are listed below.   

Please offer your thoughts and suggestions in the comments section below! 

The Question

Asked Leaders how they screen participants

Leader Lines Survey: Best way to screen participants for safety

The Responses

  • No one said that "speaking to people at the trailhead/launching point" was a good method. Doing this is important and shouldn't be overlooked, but no one identified it as a method to rely on all by itself - probably because it is the last possible moment to spot preventable problems. 
  • Only 3.7% of leaders relied solely on the prerequisites ("If they meet the prerequisites then I know they are prepared") to trust that participants could safely participate. We didn't ask follow up questions, but the low number for this option could be related to the fact that many people might have met the prerequisites years ago without any recent practice. It also could have to do with the particular way in which a leader wants to approach his or her specific trip. Interesting nonetheless. 
  • 11.1% of leaders "only run activities for those I know well and do not need to interview beforehand." On the one hand, this can make it difficult for people we don't know to get involved and might lead to a feeling of being slighted. On the other hand, however, it will ensure that the leader is familiar with and can safely embark with everyone on the trip. It is certainly a delicate balance with important concerns on each side of the equation. 
  • 14.8% of leaders conduct "pre-trip interviews of each and every participant the night before (or earlier)." This obviously takes a good deal of time depending on the size of your group, so leaders who do this are highly invested in getting to know their participants. This is also a best practice touted by John Graham in his book, "Outdoor Leadership," but it is not the only thing you can do to ensure your group is prepared. 
  • 22.2% of leaders said that the single best method was to include "clear 'leader notes' that explain trip difficulty and rating" in the activity posting. Another best practice for everyone to use, which is recognized in the higher percentage of responses for this option. If you have to have a difficult discussion at the trail head or launching point with someone who is unprepared, you can at least point to the written notes and say that the requirements were there to read all along. Sometimes, people simply blow past those notes unfortunately, but they do a good job of effectively screening most people for your trip. 
  • Almost half of the leaders who responded rejected all options and inserted their own "other" answer (some of which emphasized the importance of one of the options above). Although this was only a snapshot into Leader opinions, it suggests that there is no single best method and that screening participants is an art as much as it is a skill. You have to tailor your approach to match your personality and the activity you are leading - but you also have to work at it. If you are interested in outdoor leadership (and if you're still reading this, you are) the "other" answers were fascinating to read. Here are some of them (emphasis of particular points is added):
  • Leader Notes AND a trail head discussion
  • Pre-trip interviews for all the people I don't know, early.
  • For short trips it is prerequisites. For Long/Strenuous trips -- I try to vet with interviews, and put out requirements for each to answer. I do long/difficult trips and People Lie even in the Mountaineers. I've had to turn away over 20 people for the Wonderland and Northern Loop trips as I did not have confidence they would be good for the trip or didn't meet basic conditioning.
  • If there is somebody I think might have trouble with, I'll talk to them beforehand to make sure they understand what they are getting into. After that, I'll take all comers. If we signed them up for the basic program, and they have met the prerequisites, I'll take them on a climb. They may or not be properly prepared, but we owe them the opportunity to try.
  • Screen them BEFORE you even put them on the list! Leader permission to participate means an email or phone conversation to assess. Then they make the list.
  • Clear leader notes explaining specific hazards, gear, or skills required [e.g. "don't come if you're afraid of heights - the trail is narrow in places"]
  • In general my trips are open to those who meet the prereqs. For trips with potential difficulties I explain those in the leader notes. In all cases I modify our use of the terrain if someone appears to be having difficulty. This increases our margin of safety.
  • Send pre-event route descriptions and numerous emails. If unknown person I ask additional questions.
  • Ask for references from other leaders
  • In your Leader Notes, tell people what information they should include for you to review when they ask for the Leader's permission. 
Updated results screenshot

    In 2016, Dave Shema, the Chair of the Safety Committee, a former firefighter/EMT and Chair of the Seattle Climbing Committee, added the following insights to some nuances that can occur in these instances: 

    • Many participants that may have relevant medical history or fitness deficient begin a trip fully expecting to successfully complete it, especially if a physician has cleared the patient to resume normal activities. No one expects to have a problem.
    • People in general seem to be much more private with their medical history.  A stigma can develop for a number of issues that patients fear more than the illness. And with a physician’s ok, a participant may consider the issue is behind them, irrelevant, and no one else’s business.  
    • Asking for personal medical information at the trailhead is much too late, especially if the participant carpooled.  Few people will take kindly to being removed from a trip and unable to return home.  
    • Everyone has the right to refuse medical treatment in most circumstances.  Persistent attempts to impose unwanted treated usually make things much, much worse.  

    Keep the discussion going

    All leaders have tips and techniques for leading safe trips. Please share some of yours here! Your advice may really help someone else out in the future. 

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    Shari Hogshead
    Shari Hogshead says:
    Wed, Sep 3, 2014 12:31 PM

    When I explain the difficulties and pre-requisites of the trip, I encourage potential participants to ask questions. I can generally get an idea from the questions they ask if this is a trip that would be appropriate for them and whether or not they might be a good match for the trip and other participants on the trip.

    Chris Williams
    Chris Williams says:
    Thu, Sep 18, 2014 11:13 AM

    Thanks Shari!

    Fred Bumstead
    Fred Bumstead says:
    Thu, Oct 29, 2015 8:45 AM

    I edit the required gear list for each specific trip and ask all to read via the initial email. The gear list for a Basic Climb is a compilation for any basic climb and most basic students will not read it before a trip.

    Doug Sanders
    Doug Sanders says:
    Sun, Nov 8, 2015 6:09 AM

    As activities become more difficult the margin of safety decreases. One unprepared person can jeopardize the activity and safety of participants; the stressful and distasteful experience can dissuade the leader from leading.

    While easier said than done, it maybe useful to find some objective measures, probably by branch. For example, for the Seattle branch, the hiking and backpacking leader might classify a trip in terms of time it takes to hike, say, Mt. Si or Granite Mountain with a certain weight. The hike would be close enough to be convenient and a reality check for the applicant.