Risk Management for Overland Travelers

Editor’s note: This article is supplemental to “Risk Management,” featured in the Gear 2022 issue of Overland Journal

Those planning their first overland adventure often ask, “What do I absolutely need to go on an overland trip and stay safe?” Trip preparedness must be included as part of your pre-trip planning, so it’s a great question to ask. To answer this question, we first need to look into risk management. Risk management is about identifying the potential hazards involved in your planned activities and developing control measures and strategies to mitigate the risks. But first, it starts with a simple risk assessment.

There are many risk assessment models out there (see the Risk assessment template for overland travelers at the end of this article) ), but it doesn’t have to be complicated. As a security and emergency measures officer, how I look at risk management and conduct a risk assessment is outlined below. Note that I am only addressing the basics of risk assessment for a personal trip. If you lead a group as part of an organization, you need to conduct a more formal assessment and have the results available in writing. Moreover, an international trip will require much more planning and consideration than a domestic trip.

Step 1: Before departure, I conduct some research about the potential hazards associated with my planned activities and their possible consequences. It helps to write them down. As you create your list, ask yourself “what if” that hazard manifests itself.

Step 2: Determine the risk of each hazard identified; this is the likelihood that the harm from a particular hazard is realized. You can rate the risk in terms of probability (likely or unlikely), severity (minor injury, major injury, or death) or by level (low, medium, or high).

Step 3: Last is your risk mitigation strategy; these are the controls you will put in place to reduce or eliminate some of the risks.

Completing this simple assessment will give you a better idea about the training and equipment that you will require for your adventure, and the order of priority. The more experience you gain, the easier it will become, as you will have a better idea of what constitutes a real risk versus a perceived risk (and sometimes you’ll just do these risk assessments in your head). To get you started, I’ve listed a few generic hazards to take into consideration:

Potential hazards and the proposed controls:

  • Adverse weather conditions with the potential for hypothermia: Bring appropriate clothing to survive the worst kind of weather you can realistically expect on the trip. Monitor the weather forecasts via a smartphone app/satellite communication device.
  • Allergic reaction and other medical emergencies: Take first aid training prior to the departure date and bring a properly supplied first aid kit with extra medication.
  • Trip and fall while on a hike: Wear appropriate hiking shoes—no flip-flops!
  • No cell phone coverage in case of an emergency: Bring a satellite communication device with two-way messaging capability.
  • Someone gets lost at camp or on a hike: Each individual carries the 10 essentials (including a whistle).
  • Tire puncture: Bring a spare tire, a jack, a tire repair kit, and an air compressor.
  • Vehicle becomes stuck: Take 4WD recovery training prior to the departure date and bring recovery ramps and a recovery kit.
  • Battery failure: Bring booster cables/booster pack.
  • Other potential mechanical failures: Conduct a vehicle inspection prior to the departure date and bring a basic tool kit.
  • Vehicle catches fire (if you’re having a really bad day): Bring a fire extinguisher and a grab-bag supplied with appropriate survival gear.

If there’s only one vehicle on the trip, make sure to share your trip plan and additional documentation with someone reliable, so they will know where you are going and when to start worrying about you. Ideally, that person would be your trip coordinator and available to provide remote assistance during an emergency. You should both agree on check-in times with a safety buffer to prevent an unnecessary search and rescue call.

Once on your adventure, maintain situational awareness (be aware of your surroundings) and look at potentially hazardous situations objectively—ask yourself, “What are the risks?” “Are they manageable (can I mitigate them), or are they out of my control?” What is your risk tolerance, or how much risk is acceptable to you? This is your dynamic risk assessment. As you cannot possibly plan for all eventualities during your pre-trip planning stage, it is important to run a dynamic risk assessment as you go about your daily activities.

Your judgment is what will keep you safe, and your ability to keep a cool head if something goes wrong is critical. When confronted with a challenging situation, remember to STOP, which stands for Sit/Stop, Think, Observe, and Plan. This is not only the best advice to follow if you get lost, it is applicable to many situations. If you are on your own and there is nobody else to brainstorm ideas with, don’t forget that you are responsible for the consequences of your decisions. Take your time and think things through.

Traveling through a high-risk area?

If you ask around, you’ll find that risk is very subjective. This is because we all have a different risk appetite and view of the world. When asking people about the risk involved regarding a particular destination, make sure to ask those who have traveled or are currently traveling in the area. Armchair travelers may discourage you from leaving as they could be biased due to many reasons. Just keep that in mind.

Consult reliable official sources. As a Canadian, I’d rely on the Government of Canada travel information to create my risk assessment. Global Affairs Canada continually monitors world events, and collects and analyses information to inform Canadians of any security issues abroad. While travel advice and advisories usually err on the side of caution, they are objective and identify the high-risk areas. Consulting these reports is critical as they provide a detailed risk profile of the area. They also include specific information about safety and security, entry/exit requirements, health, laws, and culture, natural disasters and climate, and how to receive assistance during your travels. Ultimately, the decision to travel is your choice, and you are responsible for your personal safety when traveling. If you are a Canadian citizen, registering with their notification service before your departure is highly recommended. Once registered, you will receive notifications in case of an emergency abroad or at home, as well as provided with critical information in case of a natural disaster or civil unrest. The US Department of State offers similar services. Verify with your government.

Once you get to your destination, keep a low profile and try to blend in as much as possible. The last thing you want is to stand out as a “rich tourist.” Without being paranoid, maintain situational awareness, especially in busy areas. Always keep an eye on your valuables and try not to make them too visible. When traveling on foot, project confidence and show that you know where you’re going (even if you’re lost). Essentially, you don’t want to show vulnerabilities. But remember to smile and be kind; it’s not like all the bad guys in the area are on a mission to get you. Pre-plan your route as much as possible with contingency plans. If you have to consult a map, try to be as discreet as possible. Always try to park in a way that would allow for an easy escape.

To mitigate the risk of theft, there are some great anti-theft clothing items that resist the most determined pickpockets. Skip the neck passport holder as it stands out too much. I prefer travel pants with zippered side pockets. I can put my passport in one of them, put my wallet in the other, and secure the zippers with safety pins. I’d like to think that if I struggle to get them open myself, it would likely deter a pickpocket. I’d also wear a wristwatch that I wouldn’t mind giving away if held at knife/gunpoint. It may be a good idea to keep a “decoy wallet” that you can throw at a criminal instead of giving away your real wallet. But remember that no valuable is worth your life. In some instances, just give it away and get off the “X” (the danger zone).

Carjacking may be a threat in the area where you travel. Again, by consulting official and credible sources prior to your departure, you will have the most up-to-date information. Do remember that situations can change rapidly. Research petty crime, carjacking, and express kidnapping trends for the area before your departure; it will give you a better idea of the different tactics used by the bad guys in the area. Other security threats may be an issue as well, but my government or yours likely provide all of that information as mentioned previously. When driving in a populated area, drive defensively. Keep the doors locked and the windows up. If you must stop in traffic or at a red light or stop sign, keep enough distance between your vehicle and the one in front so you can still see its rear tires—this will give you enough room to quickly drive around during a possible carjacking. Driving at night must be avoided.

Try to always be proactive and keep a “what if” attitude. When entering a building, always locate at least two exits in case of an emergency. People tend to use the same entry point they used to enter a building when exiting due to an emergency; casualties have occurred because of crowding at one exit. Being proactive instead of reactive will allow you to respond more quickly when faced with an active threat, enabling you to get off the “X” instead of freezing in place like a deer in the headlights. If you see someone acting suspicious, or something about them just doesn’t feel right, always keep an eye on their hands. Are they carrying a weapon, or reaching out to get one? Get off the “X!”

In terms of kidnapping threat, generally speaking, the risk is low. Best practice dictates that you must try your best not to get inside a vehicle with an attacker(s). This means fighting back (although it’s not always a good idea) and drawing attention to yourself and the attacker(s). If you do get kidnapped and pulled inside a vehicle, you may be moved to a safe house. If you suspect you have been kidnapped for ransom (K&R), at that point, stop resisting and cooperate with the kidnapper(s), as you want the least possible security. Be submissive and act like you’re no trouble and need the least amount of restraint. Try to remember as many details as possible about where you were taken and your kidnapper(s).

If you’re about to get duct-taped or zip-tied, press your forearms together in front of you for a tight seal. If an opening for an escape presents itself, raise your arm as high as you can, and with a quick downward movement, pull your arms down as if you were going to punch yourself in the stomach, but past each hip. This should break the tape. Zip ties won’t be that easy—you’ll have to get it as tight as possible before you attempt to break it (use your teeth to tighten it up, and make sure the lock mechanism is on top between your hands). If you’re restrained at the ankles with duct tape, there’s a method to break free of them as well. Stand up and form a “V” with your feet, then squat down as quickly as possible aiming your bum to your heels. Again, this should break the tape. For zip-tied ankles, it will require a bit more work. Unless you have an object to release the lock mechanism, you can use your shoelaces (paracord would be ideal) by making a loop at both ends, and with a sawing motion, move your hands back and forth to generate enough heat to melt the zip ties.

Trying to escape once kidnapped has to be a personal decision, though. In a K&R situation, your life shouldn’t be in immediate danger as you are of value to your kidnapper(s). If K&R is really a concern for you during your trip, you can buy specific insurance coverage before your departure. If you suspect you have been kidnapped by a sexual predator or for political reasons, however, escape should be a priority. In this instance, your life is particularly at risk. If you see an opening to escape, go for it, even if you’re not 100 percent sure that it will work.

If evasion is not possible, hopefully you will be rescued eventually, but this is also when you will be at additional risk. Your rescuers might not know who the kidnappees are and who the kidnappers are. So, drop to the floor, spread your fingers to show that you’re not armed, and don’t make any sudden movement.

Unfortunately, when faced with a threat, there is no cookie-cutter type of response. Your response has to be a personal decision based on the information available to you. To initiate a proper response and put all odds in your favor, it helps to know the types of threats you may encounter and the best response protocols. If you decide to travel in a hazardous area, I’d encourage you to take on some awareness training provided by consultants who specialize in travel security in high-risk environments. Develop a “playbook” with your trip partners with guidelines for specific situations. Keep copies of your essential documentation and contact information for your nearest consulate or embassy in the area.

Conclusion

If you’re a new overland enthusiast (or a seasoned one ) with questions about preparedness and risk management, know that you are on the right track. Risk is inherent to vehicle-supported adventure travel and outdoor activities. I hope this information was useful to you, so you can leave better prepared for your next overland adventure. However, remember that it’s all about being prepared to face the unexpected as travelers first. Preparing to face the unexpected with your vehicle in terms of obstacles (installing a suspension lift, for example) comes after—ideally, after you have attended some sort of 4WD driving or recovery training and possess the proper recovery equipment.

Risk assessment:Identification of hazards/threats and an assessment of the risks posed by these hazards/threats.

Hazard:Something with the potential to cause harm.

Threat:Human-caused incident resulting from the intentional actions of an adversary.

Risk:Likelihood that the harm from a particular hazard/threat is realized.

Control measure:Steps taken to reduce the risk or its effect.

Government travel information

Government of Canada:travel.gc.ca

US Department of State:travel.state.gov

Risk Assessment Template

Risk assessment template for overland travelers:Page 1 | Page 2

Our No Compromise Clause: We carefully screen all contributors to make sure they are independent and impartial. We never have and never will accept advertorial, and we do not allow advertising to influence our product or destination reviews.

Born and raised on the east coast of New Brunswick and now located in Ottawa, Mathieu got his first taste for vehicle-based adventure travel when he was a teenager exploring on his ATV. With eastern Canada as his usual playground, he is adept at slow travel and prefers to explore one area at a time. You can follow his adventures on Instagram @math_godin.