Becoming an Outdoor Leader – How to Learn Good Judgement


Becoming an outdoor leader, one of the skills you will need to foster with care is decision making. You will face a plethora of decisions both before and during trips, and your main task is to ensure a safe, pleasant experience for everyone involved

Kristiina Desroches, Jasu Korhonen and Siiri Pirjamo, 2nd year bachelor’s degree students in the Adventure and Outdoor Education programme

Like all leadership skills, good judgment requires training and a lot of valuable information can be found in books. However, it is crucial to go outdoors and expose yourself to real life leadership situations (Graham 2002, 14). Furthermore, you will have to accept there is no perfection when it comes to making decisions. Merely, there are endless possibilities to learn both from success and failure and be better prepared for the next tricky dilemma. (Graham 2002, 53).

Good judgement, an unknown matter?

Then, what is this good judgement? Graham (2002, 53) suggests that combining systematic thinking, common sense and intuition results in good decisions. Systematic thinking means your strategy for collecting information of a situation and comparing options, even unconventional ones. It requires situational awareness at its fullest: you must consider the groups’ skills, resources and conditions, environmental conditions, as well as your limits. By always observing the group, you can make small decisions before they build up. Flexibility and adjusting the plan show good judgement, likewise they add up to the odds of having a successful outdoor program.

A clear strategy helps you to stay calm and decrease fear or stress caused by the situation. Intuition, on the other hand, is unconscious information you have collected from you experience. It is the feeling in your guts that warns or encourages, even when there is no rational knowledge to base this hunch on. Learn to trust it and learn how to balance it with intellect. See, for example, how other leaders utilise their instincts. Amid choosing from your options, step back and consult your common sense. Have you dismissed the most obvious solution? Have your premises gone astray to begin with? (Graham 2002, 63-64).

Finally, fear not to look back and reflect on your decisions. Review what worked and what did not, recover from the emotional experience and let go. Like in the following example, a novice guide is basing her decision on the skills, knowledge and resources she has. Perhaps later working in similar situations it serves as one significant reminder of good judgment.

Difficult decisions

I was working in Lapland as a guide. At times I would be the lead guide so I would have to make the decisions. I started out by observing and shadowing my coworkers lead, the safety procedures they would take and how they would observe and interact with the guests, etc. By observing first, it allows you to learn and recognize your role. You can learn from how the guests react to the guides, mistakes that were made, good things to do, tips, etc. If I hadn’t first observed this from the guides, it could have led to errors, due to the lack of experience.

On my first time bringing out a group of French tourists for snowshoeing I had to decide where to take them. Before taking them, I would take the time to observe the group (ages, difficulty walking, injuries). I would also ask if they have ever snowshoed before in order to carry out an initial overall assessment of what I could expect from them.

Then I would start to think of a good path that I could bring the group on. If there were many elderly people or small children, people who have trouble walking, or people who never snowshoed before I would try to adjust the trail to their abilities. I would go at a slower pace and make more breaks if required. Sometimes I found it difficult when there was a mix of very active young people and beginners, children or elderly people. I wanted everyone to have a good experience, but you can’t please everyone, especially in a large group.

Once while snowshoeing with a French group, one of the elderly men got very exhausted and kept falling down and had to get a lot of assistance from me and some other guests to get him back up. He said he could just walk back alone but I knew that wasn’t safe and he even had trouble just walking normally.  He was new to the area, not even from somewhere with these conditions. I couldn’t just bring the whole group of 30 people back because they were an active group and eager to keep going.

Luckily, I wasn’t alone and asked one of the other guides who was with me if he could take the rest of the group snowshoeing and I’d wait with the man until a snowmobile could come pick him up. So, I called my manager and she sent one of my coworkers on a snowmobile to pick us both up. Staying calm and making people feel mentally safe is just as important as keeping the guests physically safe.

If I had made the elderly man continue, it could’ve resulted in physical injury which does not lead to a mentally or emotionally safe situation. It would have also made it hard for the other guests because they wanted to continue and were able to walk at a faster pace than him. Difficult decisions must be made at times and I believe this is an example of good judgement.


Good judgement in decision making comes from the past experiences, observations and reflecting it. The previous example shows how it was implemented in a working life situation and with it risks could be limited and the trips adjusted by the group. It is important to gain those experiences. Most of the learning comes from the poor judgment that needs to be reflected to make better decisions in the future (Gookin & Leach, 2009).

Good judgement helps while planning the trips, but more importantly it is a tool that a leader needs during the trips. It will help you to be intuitive in decision making, because you may have had similar experiences before, and it decreases the uncertainty so you can focus on what is happening around you. Then you can adjust the trip while outdoors according to the group and to the weather conditions that you may not know beforehand.

Maybe the situation with the elderly man during snowshoeing could have been completely avoided with good judgment even before we were already too far to turn back and needed help from the other guides. If you don’t reflect and learn from these experiences, you may end up making the same mistakes again and again.

There is lots of information in almost every trip you make, and it will help you if you learn to be good at processing them. These experiences cannot be learned from the book, so it is better to get outdoors and gain your own experiences and share experiences of others and gather as much information as possible to learn a good judgment (Priest & Gass, 2005, p. 268).

All photos: Kristiina Desroches


Gookin, J., & Leach, S. 2009. NOLS leadership educator notebook: a toolbox for leadership educators. Lander, WY, National Outdoor Leadership School.

Graham, J. 2002. Outdoor leadership: Technique, common sence & self-confidence. 4th ed. Seattle: Mountaineers.

Priest, S. & Gass, M. 2005. Effective leadership in adventure programming. 2. p. Champaign, Ill. ; Leeds: Human Kinetics.

Last modified: December 2, 2019