The Human Factor: Heuristic Traps In The Backcountry

The Human Factor: Heuristic Traps In The Backcountry


The Human Factor: Heuristic Traps In The Backcountry

HUMAN FACTORS and HEURISTIC TRAPS pose a serious challenge to backcountry travelers. Humans are emotional, ego driven creatures. We see what we want to see. We often do what we want to do. But in terrain of consequence, that’s a dangerous approach to staying alive in avalanche terrain.

Contributing Expert:



The backcountry is always telling us a story. The outside of the avalanche triangle presents us with three, focus areas - Weather, Terrain and Snowpack. 

These focus areas are objective and observable. When it’s snowing, we see it. When we find instabilities and weaknesses in the snowpack, we note them. We measure slope angles and recognize avalanche terrain via convexities, vegetative clues and likely trigger points. This is all very objective information.

So if we can see all these problems and objectively call them out, why are riders still getting into trouble in the backcountry?

Because at the center of this triangle is us, the Human. 


Humans are emotional, ego driven creatures. We see what we want to see. We often do what we want to do. But in terrain of consequence, that’s a dangerous approach to staying alive in avalanche terrain.

When we consider the Human Factor, we’re often talking about Heuristic Traps. 



In his influential 2002 paper, Evidence of Heuristic Traps in Recreational Avalanche Accidents, Ian McCammon looked at the impact of human behavior and heuristic traps in avalanche accidents.

“Even though people are capable of making decisions in a thorough and methodical way, it appears that most of the time they don't. A growing body of research suggests that people unconsciously use simple rules of thumb or heuristics, to navigate the routine complexities of modem life.” -McCammon, I. 2002. Evidence of Heuristic Traps in Recreational Avalanche Accidents, Int'l Snow Science Workshop, Penticton, B.C.

Imagine for a moment, if you had to think, be mindful and consciously choose every action and behavior you make over the course of a single day. It would be exhausting and you'd probably not accomplish nearly as much as you normally do. That’s where heuristics come in. Some actions and behaviors we just need to execute without thinking to make our lives more efficient and exact. 



Heuristics are subconscious behavioral pathways that humans utilize to make our complex, multi-dimensional lives more manageable.
 Ever since heuristics were introduced to the avalanche education world, they’ve gotten a bad rap. However, without heuristics, you wouldn’t be here!

No matter your race, creed, color or religion; we all derived from earlier peoples. And if your ancestors had to think about every behavioral choice and potential action to be performed, they wouldn’t have the opportunity to pass their DNA on to you.

Consider the following:


Wooly Mammoth enters cave, humans perceive danger, they group together, bend down, pick up large rocks, raise arms back, throw rocks at the incoming animal, they assess damage, reload rocks, search for spears, keep an eye on tribe mates, track mammoth, turn and flee, counter attack, hide, etc….until the encounter ends. 


The prehistoric elephant invades your space and you and your tribe react because there’s no time to think. Muscle memory and strong communal relationships fuel an unspoken, seemingly rehearsed and collaborative response to the threat. You learn from this encounter and cement new heuristic tools to better respond to predatory attack in the future.

If your ancestor’s behavioral pathways and heuristic programming when facing the mammoth was incorrect then you just wouldn’t be here. Fortunately, your people developed synergy and imprinted behaviors, habits and responses cultivated to ensure their very survival and your future existence!

Just like avalanches, heuristics are neither a good nor bad thing. They just are. It’s when we introduce humans into the mix that we judge these subconscious behavioral pathways as “BAD” or as “TRAPS” And since we’re in a human centric world, doing human centric things, we must consider the negative impact that unacknowledged heuristics can have when sorting out the complexities of the backcountry.

Humans are the problem. We do stupid things all the time. And statistically, we know we and our partners are the ones making mistakes off-piste. The root of these errors most often lies in the subjective part of our analysis- when we override objective inputs with ego, emotion and impulsivity.

what are the most common heuristic traps and what should you be on the lookout for?


McCammon provides us the easy to use FACETS acronym to consider in our assessment of potential Human Factors that may be in play when traveling in the backcountry. Tools like FACETS are valuable. They provide us the cognitive pedal upon which to pump the emotional brakes and slow down the Human Factor.

What subjective slices of reality are you sandwiching between your assessments of weather, terrain and snowpack? 

Understanding heuristic traps and incorporating tools and techniques to keep the Human Factor in check is fundamental to staying safe in avalanche terrain.

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I’ve been very impressed over the past decade by the way in which the backcountry skiing community has addressed the issue of avalanches. In particular, I commend the consideration of factors relevant to decision making. Although you could certainly place “complacency” under the heading of “familiarity”, I think it deserves a place of its own. Familiarity with a given situation, place, route, or activity is a good thing unless it leads to a complacent attitude. A brief glance at accident reports in general aviation serves up case after case in which complacency gets pilots with plenty of experience killed. It’s a state of mind that is regularly singled out as particularly dangerous, and it tends to affect those with more experience. Food for thought. I analyze paddlesports incidents as part of my work, and as you might expect, complacency plays a star role in many of them. Thank you for the work you do on behalf of safety.

Moulton Avery

I’d listen to a 10 part series of this. Thanks for this. It’s on a repeat cycle as I’m learning. Thanks again.


This is RAD!!!! Great work.


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