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Risk management principles for trails and outdoor recreation

Outdoor, open lands pose inherent risks that can never be fully prevented. How can the risk be assessed and the user informed, to thereby reduce, but not eliminate, the risk?

From Hawaii Trail Analysis: Survey & Risk Management Data Profile: download complete document (95 pages, illustrations, tables; pdf format 4.0 mb)

Also see "The Design and Placement of Warning Signs on Improved Public Lands"

Hawaii Department of Land and Natural Resources, March, 2001

Photo: trail under big trees

Trail managers have the duty to promote public safety and to warn of known hazards

Natural hazards are ever-present, and in some circumstances, are an inescapable part of life (Smith, 1992). The spectrum of human response to natural hazards ranges from free will of public users having the ability to put themselves at risk, to closure of the attraction by the managing entity. Few would want all parks closed because of the risk of harm, yet at the same time, certain potential dangers must be acknowledged and addressed.

As the owner and manager of land on which the public is actively invited to recreate, the State of Hawaii Department of Land and Natural Resources has an obligation to promote public safety and a duty to warn. Whether this duty has been met depends upon many circumstances. However, reasonable care may include the following (Peterson & Hronek, 1992):

  • keeping the premises in safe repair
  • inspecting the premises to discover hidden hazards
  • removing hazards or warning of their presence
  • anticipating foreseeable uses and activities by users and taking reasonable precautions to protect users from foreseeable dangers
  • conducting operations on the premises with reasonable care for the safety of the user

The development of a risk management program can be used as a means to increase safety while demonstrating the exercise of reasonable care. The fundamental purpose for risk management is to prevent risks from occurring, or reduce exposure to hazard, and may include conducting analyses for system safety, feature safety, liability and third party assumption of risk. It encompasses all of the actions taken to affect, mitigate, and control risk. Prior to elaboration on the elements of a risk management program, it will be helpful to define some basic terms.


A hazard is a potential threat to humans or an undesirable event that may occur (Smith, 1992; Lave, 1986). A falling branch over a well-used trail is a hazard, as well as a particularly slippery trail. As the term is used here, a hazard is defined as a source of danger or adverse consequences.


Any discussion of risk requires a definition from all parties involved in the planning process. This is not to argue validity, but to provide a reference point to explain our risk paradigms. In the most simplistic terms, risk is the probability of a hazard occurrence (Smith, 1992). It can also be defined as the likelihood per unit time of a hazard developing into an actual adverse effect causing loss, death, injury or illness to people (Okrent, 1986). The concept can be expressed symbolically as:


This demonstrates that the risk might be diminished by increasing the safeguards, but may never, in theory, be reduced to zero unless the hazard itself or exposure to that hazard is eliminated. Risk may also be portrayed symbolically as


This expresses risk as a measure of uncertainty as to whether damage will occur and the severity of the adverse effect, if it does occur (Waterstone, 1989).


Risk analysis is a policy tool that uses a knowledge base consisting of scientific information to aid in resolving decisions. It is typically defined as including three related elements: risk identification, risk estimation, and risk evaluation. The identification of a risk may target a candidate problem, for instance lack of user preparedness.

Risk estimation focuses on the probability of the risk event. Evaluation reviews the social consequences associated with the various magnitudes of risk events. As a concept, risk is typically viewed as being a function of two major factors: the probability that an event will occur and the consequence on the event exposure area (Petak & Anderson, 1982).

Factors which may assist in calculating the degree of risk are the nature of the hazard, the exposure potential, the characteristics of the exposed population, the likelihood of occurrence, the magnitude of exposures and consequences, and public values (Kolluru, 1996). Limitations on the use of risk analysis include inadequate data that can result in misspent resources and costly mistakes to lives and credibility (Rowe, 1989).


Risk assessment goes one step further than risk analysis by judging the importance of the consequences of a risk event. Thus, risk assessment necessarily involves making value judgments. The process may include the quantification of risk consequence levels, the estimation of human judgments about risk, and methodologies to integrate the two to evaluate tradeoffs among alternatives to reduce risk (Zimmerman, 1986).


Where risk assessment is the estimation and evaluation of risk, risk management involves the reduction or control of risk to an acceptable level, whether or not that level can be explicitly set (Rowe, 1989). In reality, these processes are not separable because the uncertainty in one affects the judgments made about the other and vice versa.

An essential part of risk management is determining what is an acceptable risk and deciding who is qualified to make this judgment. Some frameworks for making this determination include

  • Risk-benefit analysis: allowing a particular population exposure level to a hazard is weighted against the benefits obtained from the existence of the recreational feature.

  • Risk-risk analysis (relative risk analysis): the risk of exposure is compared with other risks commonly encountered in the environment or to the risks of doing without any management program.

  • Risk-cost analysis: the cost of achieving a more stringent standard would be compared with the resultant reduction in risk.

A risk management plan is a proactive approach to managing risk. While it is virtually impossible to design a plan comprehensive enough to serve all purposes, there are significant benefits to developing a basic risk management program, including (Peterson & Hronek, 1992):

  • promotion and demonstration of concern for user safety
  • assurances that steps are being taken to maximize safety within the bounds of possibility
  • demonstration of intent to provide a reasonably safe environment
  • reduction in losses and/or injuries
  • more effective and efficient use of funds and resources
  • increased safety for users

People make decisions and take actions based on their personal perception of risk, rather than on some objectively derived measure of threat. The management of environmental risks requires an understanding that often the major part of the problem will result from a difference between perceived and actual risks. The scientific, engineering and business facts of a situation may have little to do with the concerned public's perception of risks. As a result, most risk management plans seek to increase public awareness to hazards as a major activity of the overall program (Petak & Anderson, 1982).

Many types of recreation include the user's perception of risk as a vital element. Climbing, surfing, scuba diving, and other, sometimes more passive, recreational pursuits have elements of risk that may make the recreation more stimulating. While the risk factor of each activity may be evident, it must also be manageable. Use (or non-use) of the proper equipment is one aspect of the total risk.

Because of the variety of users, risk perception has no single replicable outcome; risk means different things to different people because each person holds a unique view of the environment and of environmental risk. Individuals may have a strong but unjustified sense of immunity to hazards and activities and tend to minimize the probability of bad outcomes (Douglas, 1985).

To compound the issue, when risk is recognized, the response to risk is also highly individual (Smith, 1992).

Therefore, gathering information on the users of an area is useful in developing a risk management plan. The advance knowledge of the users about the condition of the park or trail, the safety equipment they bring, the level of experience they have, and the attentiveness to signs are all elements which can provide information on their risk perception. Moreover, reviewing the physical conditions of the park or trail gives context to the responses of the users.

From Hawaii Trail Analysis Survey & Risk Management Data Profile: download complete document (95 pages, illustrations, tables; pdf format 4.0 mb)

Also see "The Design and Placement of Warning Signs on Improved Public Lands" (pdf 256 kb): Legal definitions and standards for signs that limit public liability for trail-related hazards while warning users in a clear and consistent manner.

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