Oh Shit! I’m Canoeing in Four Foot Waves!

Photo under CC by Morten F

I had my first ‘Oh Shit!’ moment in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness in Northern Minnesota. Despite a prior night’s storm our morning started out relatively calm paddling in my two person canoe. However, as the day went on and the lakes became larger the wind would overpower our human-powering steering. Repeatedly it diverted us away from our prospective camp sites, separated our group and forcing us towards rocks. Several times we had to communicate across islands to regroup, strategize our next campsite attempt and push our physically abilities and technical skills.

I call these emotionally driven situations ‘Oh Shit!’ moments where your group is forced to make quick decisions deviating from the original plan. They happen due to unexpected hazards (weather), human error (becoming lost) or just bad luck (injury). They are experience altering and often scary at the time, but make great stories and valuable experience later. I’ve had a number of these moments so I wanted to share my strategies for making the best decision when you realize, ‘Oh Shit!’

Step 1: Figure Out What You Know

over  look
Yep, thats a sheer cliff.

The first thing I do in this situation is ask myself a series of questions:

Where am I?

I find myself on as many maps as possible: detailed trail map, expanded area map, GPS, Google Maps, etc.

How did I get here?

I remember what the terrain looked like that brought me here. What was the technicality, distance and exertion required.

What can I see?

I know what the route was like behind me, but there is always a level of uncertainty regarding the trail ahead. When looking around for potential routes I use my map and knowledge of the conditions to verify my assumptions.

What gear do I have?

I catalogue what tools I have at my disposal. This influences how hazards can be overcome by applying an climbing anchor, navigating at night via headlamp or waiting it out in a tent.

After answering these questions, I have a good assessment of the situation and I can next use that knowledge to formulate several options. Typically these alternatives come in the form of: turn around, press forwards or bushwhack.

Step 2: Gather More Data

Scouting to see if our route looks good on other side.

Any next step I think up is going to have some level of unknown. To help reduce these unknowns as much as possible I use a technique called scouting which involves either a short test of a route or traveling a short distance to gather more data. Some scouting examples are: hiking a short distance to see around a ridge line, bushwhacking one hundred feet through forest to determine the difficulty or increasing elevation to gather more visual information.

When scouting I re-assess the attributes of each route to confirm / deny / add to its list of hazards. Such hazards include:

  • Terrain – Snow, ice, loose rock, cliffs
  • Technicality – The skills required to traverse the terrain
  • Worst Case Scenario – If the shit hits the fan am I going to break an ankle or plummet down a sheer cliff?
  • Group – Does everyone in my group have the skill, gear and mental stability to complete this route?
  • Unknowns – Which of the above are truly known and which are predictions

Step 3: Planning the Next Move


The right route isn’t the quickest or shortest. Its the safest one my group has the ability and energy to accomplish. In an ‘Oh Shit!’ moment I want to minimize hazards and unknowns. Going further, when evaluating each route I must think through all the steps that get me to my next camp or trailhead instead of just how to solve my current challenge. Otherwise, I risk being faced with yet another ‘Oh Shit!’ moment.

As mentioned before, the next step options are typically some variation of turn around, press forwards or bushwhack. Each comes with some additional consideration: 

Turning Around

Turning Around is typically the best option because it has the fewest unknowns since I’ve been there before. Exploring is all about moving forward so it can be easy to undervalue it. Don’t.

Pressing Forward

This wouldn’t be a ‘Oh Shit!’ moment if this option didn’t come with increased or unexpected risk. There are cases where turning around is riskier than moving forward, but it is important not to get caught up in achieving the original goal.



When the shit hits the fan on a mountain its easy to just feel like bailing. “Lets get down as fast as possible” my head might say. WARNING. No matter how good this option looks it comes with significantly more unknowns than either options above and you almost always overestimate how easy this is for several reasons:

  • The higher you are, the more options you have. Divots between ridge lines turn into steep gullies below. After descending its very difficult to change direction after you’ve chosen a ridge line.
  • You cannot predict terrain beyond what is visible. Several times have I tried to bushwhack up and downhill through what looked like navigable terrain. Its often I end up turning around due to impassible brush density. Additionally, its much more difficult to see hazards like sheer drops when descending through brush. One way I found of mitigating terrain unpredictability is to remember what the brush looked like my way up.
  • Navigating is incredibly difficult in brush. Once I enter the tree line and ridges begin to flatten I start to loose my point of reference. It is hard to head reliably in a straight line without superb orienteering, reference points combined with a map and / or GPS. Additionally, when bushwhacking its difficult to backtrack if I need to because its hard to visually tell or remember how I got where I am.

Finally, I try not to dwell too much on this decision because time is also a resource I’m optimizing for. Lay out the options, decide as a group and commit.

Hope this was informational and good luck on your next adventure!