by Martin J. Trout

“Heuristic or heuristics (from the Greek for ‘find’ or ‘discover’) refers to experience- based techniques for problem solving, learning, and discovery.

Heuristic methods are used to identify an optimal solution as rapidly as possible. Examples of this method include using a “rule of thumb”, an educated guess, an intuitive judgment, or common sense.”

Every winter, and often in summer as well, we hear or read about this or that skier killed by an avalanche, a climber swept off a mountain, a group of hikers trapped out overnight and even the occasional mushroom hunter or casual dog walker who has fallen into a hole or down a slope. The mountains and wild places in general which we have chosen as our preferred playground are beautiful but they are also unpredictable and dangerous, potentially mortally so. Yet very few, if any of us, think about these dangers when we set out on a trail run whether alone or in company.

The mountains and wild places in general which we have chosen as our preferred playground are beautiful but they are also unpredictable
The mountains and wild places in general which we have chosen as our preferred playground are beautiful but they are also unpredictable.

Heuristics, as defined above, are simple rules that people use to make decisions about complex events and situations. We tend to apply these rules frequently and subconsciously. This can be anything from the simple operation of getting into a car and putting on the seatbelt to a pilot deciding how to deal with a difficult landing situation. They are mental shortcuts that enable us to make rapid decisions that could potentially help us to avoid difficult or dangerous occurrences or simply make sure that we get things done. This is an evolutionary trait that has been developed for good reasons and is one of the reasons why the human race has survived and proliferated. They do allow us to make satisfactory judgements but these are not necessarily perfect judgements, and, if we are making snap decisions in a dangerous environment they could become what are known asheuristic trapswith tragic consequences.

Within the mountain environment much work has been done on this subject by those involved in Ski Mountaineering (avalanche danger), Mountain Rescue and Mountain Leadership Courses.

Their aim has been to identify the principal heuristic traps and to develop ways of identifying and avoiding these traps. But these traps do not exist only in mountainous terrain. White water canoeing, rafting and big wave surfing are other sports where similar dangers and traps can exist. They are inherent to natural environment based activities.

As mountain and trail running, and in particular with the proliferation of FKT (fastest known times) and fast-packing, become popular activities and are extended to winter and snow environments it is unfortunately probable that we shall hear and read of more accidents in which runners are involved. By understanding and recognising these heuristic traps we can give ourselves a better chance of not being part of these statistics.

Let us examine these traps within the context of trail and mountain running.

Familiarity is probably the number one trap

This trap relies on our past actions and experiences to guide our future decisions. “If I’ve done it before it’s what I should do now”. This is most common when we find ourselves in known and familiar surroundings. Our local trail run, the mountain that we have summited N number of times. But conditions change – winter vs. summer, good vs. bad weather, late vs. early in the day etc.

Conditions can change - Familiarity is probably the number one trap
Conditions can change – Familiarity is probably the number one trap

Authority (also known as Expert Halo)

This depends on abdicating decisions to someone whom you may consider an expert or leader, who may or may not even be present (a guide book, someone who advised on the route). It is so easy to “follow the leader” but we need to make personal decisions based on our observation of the environment, our “gut” feelings and knowledge.

Social Proof

The behaviour of people similar to ourselves is often irresistible. We have evolved as social animals and still respond to ‘herding’ instincts. We assume that if ‘everybody’ else is doing it then it must be right. We look at what other people have done and think if they can do it then so can I. Today, with the proliferation of social media, we are more at risk from this kind of trap than ever before.


In many ways this is similar to the familiarity trap. I’ve climbed this mountain or run the route on previous occasions so the decisions I make will lead to the same results. This heuristic often works in other life scenarios and it means our minds don’t have to go through a complicated risk assessment each time. The location and decisions may be the same but the surrounding conditions may not.


As humans we judge anything that is scarce or hard to obtain as having more value. This most probably developed as an important evolutionary trait for example as a stimulus to hoarding food and water, or preserving fire. But within our modern world the stimulus to go for that mountaintop or beautiful long run because it took me a long time to drive here, or this is the last chance I’ll have during this holiday, despite the bad weather forecast or approaching thunderstorm, is a bad decision. Associated with this is the tendency to “Overcommit to a goal”. Knowing when to turn back in the face of changing weather conditions, deteriorating physical conditions of a member of the group or under estimation of the required time for a route can mean the difference between an uneventful return and the necessity of making a rescue call.


Understanding and recognising the changing conditions in mountainous terrain is vital to making the correct decisions. In addition the ability to make good, effective decisons based upon evidence and rationality is paramount. A flexible approach to the intended programme and objectives serves as a further defence mechanism.

You may also be interested to read Adaptability on the trails


1. “Decision making for wilderness leaders: strategies, traps and teaching methods.”Ian McCammon, Ph.D. National Outdoor Leadership School, Lander, WY

2. “How to Make Decisions for the Right Reasons in Avalanche Terrain.”Tim Blakemore. Mountain Leader Training Association.

3. “Human Factors in White Water Kayaking.” Tom Parker Coaching.

4.“Il rischio di valanghe” Werner Munter.


Martin John Trout
Martin Trout is an all round Adventurer, an accomplished ultra runner, mountaineer, ski mountaineering instructor and trail running coach at Endurance Training in Progress. He’s been living in Italy since the 1990’s.