When training for a swimrun, or any outdoor adventure event, you may want to plan interesting routes across challenging terrain, rivers, lakes and ocean. It looks good on paper, but will it be good when you’re actually out there? Are you equipped to recognise hazards, dynamically assess risk, and ultimately make good decisions in the moment?
A recurring theme in accidents in the outdoor adventure world is desire over-ruling judgment. Heuristic traps often contribute to this.
During my time working for The Outward Bound Trust we often discussed heuristics when leading groups in the wild. Heuristics are simple rules that people use to make decisions about complex events and situations, such as a safe spot for a river crossing. We tend to apply these rules frequently and subconsciously. In the outdoors, the rules must be relevant to the actual hazards and risks for them to be effective. If they are not, accidents will eventually result.
Heuristic traps occur when the simple rules we use are influenced by factors not relevant to the actual hazards. Being aware of these traps may reduce the likelihood of this. Some of the more common heuristic traps are (from Decision Making for Wilderness Leaders by Ian McCammon, PhD):
An approach I use when plotting my own swimrun route is running the planned route first for a full reccie (no swimming). For example if your eventual route is to swim across a lake simply run around the lake first. During your run observe easy get out points, and hazards such as other water users. Also note river flows into the lake, these areas are likely to be the coldest.
Who Are You With?
Swimrun is best when done with a partner, this is how it all started on the Swedish archipelago back in 2002, mirroring the team approach from adventure racing. Of course whether racing or training compatibility with your partner/team is crucial.
How many times have you been told “never swim alone” or “safety in numbers”? Often this is very good advice, but not always. This standard advice can become an heuristic trap in itself. On some rare occasions you may be better alone than with others depending on who the others are and what the situation is.
Skill Up, or Hire a Guide
Can you interpret contours? How’s your tidal planning? Do you know the catchment area of a river? What’s your interpretation of synoptic charts like? There’s plenty of course providers out there, or hire a Mountain Leader, Sea Kayak Leader or similar to either help with your planning or support on a particularly challenging route.