As I quickly approached the accident scene, I could see that my paddling partner was in considerable pain. I gathered that the overturned canoe, spilt pot of steaming spaghetti noodles and the string of choice expletives pouring out of his mouth added up to a cooking burn.

“How bad is it?” I asked. “The pot caught me on the back of my leg,” he responded, with a painful twinge in his voice. An examination revealed that the second-degree burn was severe, ending the trip and requiring an evacuation over the next two days.

I frequently use this story as my introduction for risk management seminars. What I’ve found interesting is how the discussions that follow have changed, over the years, from one paradigm to another—from lemons to systems.

In 1987, James Raffan introduced a risk management theory referred to as the Lemon Theory. The Lemon Theory’s premise is that during the course of an outdoor trip a sequence of events occurs, that if left unchecked, can lead to a crisis. Raffan uses the analogy of the slot machine that if too many lemons line up—jackpot, an incident occurs.

Counting Lemons

The genius of lemons is that they serve as an easy symbol to incorporate into day-to-day tripping activities. Canoeists, kayakers, mountaineers and skiers across North America spend their trips counting lemons—literally.

In our scenario above, it was late in the day, lighting was poor, equipment was new and unfamiliar and dehydration put pressure on my partner’s judgment. All these lemons would have been manageable, if the proper routines of setting up camp and creating the conditions to safely operate the stove had been established.

Today’s risk management paradigm recognizes that we no longer have to identify and pre-empt all those lemons and instead, we should work to establish a series of systems.

By focusing on systems, we don’t need to account for every interaction that could lead to a jackpot. Once implemented, these routines create the conditions to have safe and fun adventures.

Matt Cruchet is an educator, consultant and co-author of the new book Managing Risk, which is an exploration of systems planning, applied to outdoor adventure activities. 


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