Are You Prepared to Handle Crisis’ As You Lead Others in the Outdoors?

It was one of the first backpacking trips I ever guided. We were halfway into our first day, the group was doing well as we plodded up some moderately steep terrain. I was in the back of the group, having some great conversation with a kid, trying to take our minds off of the physical challenge, when all of a sudden things turned south. A girl who was hiking in the middle of the group started gasping for breath, screaming out in panic. Her legs gave out and she crashed to the ground. Kids all around her were freaking out. “What’s wrong, Kaila*?” “Help her, she’s losing it!”

handling a crisisI quickly dropped my pack and came to Kaila’s side to assess the situation as she frantically gasped for air and curled up in a ball. It was obvious to me that she was hyperventilating so I grabbed a stuff sack for her to breathe into to try to slow down her breathing. Then her wrists started to curl up in an odd position and she continued to cry and groan in agony. We eventually got her to settle down, gave her some water and a snack, and talked her out of her panic. We distributed her weight throughout the group and let her hike without a pack to where we would camp that night. As I walked along with her I began to ask her about what caused her fears and what made her lose control. It was a wonderful opportunity to help her understand God’s love for her and to point out that maybe God had something to show her this week about trusting him with her fears. This is a mild example of what faith-based adventure therapy or relational therapy looks like in the field. From that experience I learned that there are at least three ways to prepare to handle crisis’ well as you lead others in the outdoors.

1. RECOGNIZE THAT PEOPLE WILL PANIC

The Israelites felt similarly when they had followed Moses out into the wilderness seeking “freedom” to worship God and be released from their oppressors. Yet early on this journey, Moses led them to the edge of the Red Sea where they were apparently trapped with Pharaoh’s army pressing in towards them.  From a human perspective they had every reason to panic. But God was their leader, and he was going to take care of them. And Moses did a good job of settling them down and instilling confidence that they were going to be okay. Listen to the reassuring words Moses spoke to them as they began to lose it:

Moses answered the people, “Do not be afraid. Stand firm and you will see the deliverance the LORD will bring you today. The Egyptians you see today you will never see again.  The LORD will fight for you; you need only to be still.” (Exodus 14:13-14)

In many other times of crisis, the Lord taught Israel the same lesson:
“So do not fear, for I am with you; do not be dismayed, for I am your God. I will strengthen you and help you; I will uphold you with my righteous right hand.” (Isaiah 41:10)
“Do not be afraid of the king of Babylon, whom you now fear. Do not be afraid of him, declares the LORD, for I am with you and will save you and deliver you from his hands.” (Jeremiah 42:11)

2. MAKE PANIC A PRODUCTIVE GROWTH OPPORTUNITY BY BRINGING GOD INTO THE SITUATION

If I had not had wilderness medicine training, I would have probably felt more stressed than I did in this situation with Kaila. People around her thought she was dying, but in actually she was just overcome with fatigue and fear and started to panic which led her to hyperventilation which is not life-threatening at all. As an outdoor leader in those situations  you don’t have much  time to react, and people are looking to you to handle the crisis. There is no one else to take that responsibility. It’s all you.

I was remembering this experience with great nostalgia when a friend, Philip asked me about how we train outdoor leaders around the world to lead in the midst of crisis. Philip was a guide at a top-notch wilderness ministry organization and was trying to evaluate ways Christian outdoor leaders can improve in handling crisis’ with artful skill, but to also help people connect with God and lean on him in the midst of those intense crisis points in the wilderness. He asked, “What kind of leadership are we showing as the participants see us responding to a crisis without intentionally bringing God into it?” This is one of the unique aspects of faith-based outdoor leadership. We want the journey to communicate the same message, that God is with you and for you in the good times and the bad. It is often easier to facilitate this when sitting in a beautiful meadow on a sunny day. But how do we communicate this same message in times of crisis? This is a really good question, which leads me to suggestion #3.

3. PREPARE FOR THE UNEXPECTED

If you ever take people out into the wilderness you are going to experience crisis points. You may have participants who do not know how to handle their emotions or are feeling terrified.  The question is how will we react and handle situations when stuff happens that we don’t expect? These could be crisis’ related to the terrain (like crossing a river), weather (running for cover in a lightning storm), interpersonal conflict (between members in your group), or relational crisis (where people are beginning to deal with the brokenness of their lives.) By being ready for the unexpected you can have the presence of mind to look for ways to connect the fearful emotions of your group with the unchanging bedrock of God’s promises and love for them. And by connecting biblical truth to the outdoor setting and their fearful circumstance, learning is heightened and they may never forget what you taught them.

Action Steps

  • What are 3 things you can do in the next month to better prepare for handling crisis as you lead people on wilderness trips or camps this next season?
  • Please comment below what your take away is from this post and/or any thoughts you would like to add?

*Name changed

Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic.

10 thoughts on “Are You Prepared to Handle Crisis’ As You Lead Others in the Outdoors?

  1. Some good insights here! We were taught in wildereness first aid training that ‘there’s always time for a smoke break’–which is a kind of weird way to say that you always have time to stop and be thoughtful in your response. I learned a lot from one of the guides I was training last year when we had a crisis together as a staff. With two canoes stuck in the middle of a set of rapids and night closing in, he reminded us that “if we have time for a smoke break, we have time to pray.” The break for prayer brought us together as a group, focused our minds, and got us ready to tackle the crisis in a way I was really proud of. What a great learning experience for us all!

    • Thanks so much for your personal application and story… I couldn’t agree more. Thanks for interacting with some of my posts. I really appreciate that and it benefits lots of folks to have personal interaction. Blessings, Ashley

  2. Great to hear from you Amy!  And thanks for your word on that… yeah, there are so many applications to what we learn in the bush… I’m continually amazed at what God teaches me through a wilderness experience and then as I take time to really think about how to apply that lesson, God shows me all sorts of ways to apply it to relationships, family, work, etc… No wonder Jesus used analogies from Creation so much to teach about the Kingdom of God… its a living book of illustrations!

  3. Thanks for this one, Ash. As you know I am not able to guide at the moment, but can see the truth in this tip. Its such a skill to be able to bring God into a situation of crisis. I will be sharing it around!

  4. Does anyone have an example of an outdoor leader you’ve worked with who seems to be really prepared for wilderness surprises? What have you learned from them about being prepared for the unexpected?

Comments are closed.