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Outward Bound
Risk, Safety, & Challenge

Is Outward Bound
Becoming Too Safe?

James Neill
Last updated:
15 August 2004

Originally published in the Outward Bound International Newsletter, July, 2002


Two roads  diverged in a wood,
and I -- I took the one
less traveled by,

And that has made
all the difference.

- Robert Frost


Outward Bound has been known for its cutting-edge programs in terms of innovation in exploring new adventure activities, new types of programs, and new geographical areas.  However, with Western society becoming more and more litigious, there is now a serious threat to the ambitious, adventuresome nature of Outward Bound programs.  More than ever before, we carry large amounts of safety, communication, and first aid equipment, place greater restrictions on types of adventure activity, have more supervision of participants, and require more explanation and preparation before participants get experientially involved in learning activities.

Many of the changes in risk management and safety practices may well be desirable if one operates purely from a physical risk minimization point of view, but risk prevention is not the primary business of outdoor education.  The primary purpose of Outward Bound usually revolves around personal development via engagement in challenging adventure- and wilderness-based activities. 

If Outward Bound truly seeks to be at the cutting edge of adventure education, then it needs to continue its tradition of frontier work in making genuine adventure accessible to participants.  In the 21st century, this demands more creative programming and belief in Outward Bound philosophy than ever before.  Programmers and instructors need to be driven by educational goals, and to not succumb in a passive way to litigiously-driven programming decisions.  I have become aware of several educationally strong activities and program components in various schools which have fallen by the wayside out of litigious fear rather than a strong focus on Outward Bound philosophy.

            This disturbing trend in outdoor education towards putting aside effective activities and reverting to the ‘safe’ option, rather than being driven by educational philosophy to create challenging adventure-based experiences looks likely to continue.  However, this also represents an opportunity for Outward Bound to strengthen its tradition as a leader in outdoor education programming.  It is my hope that both stalwarts and newcomers in Outward Bound schools buck this dangerous educational trend of too easily going the ‘safe route’.  We must continue to bravely, but wisely seek out the edges of Outward Bound’s learning possibilities.  In the famous words of Robert Frost:

Two roads diverged in a wood, and I--
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.

May Outward Bound long continue its efforts to take the road less traveled!