Mental Shortcuts

Heuristics play a critical role in our lives every day, providing mental shortcuts that help our brains make decisions faster and more efficiently. Most of the time this is a good thing, but in a harsh and unforgiving environment, making decisions through mental shortcuts can lead to a dangerous trap. 

Mental shortcuts play a role in a significant number of outdoor incidents. Learning what these traps are and how to avoid them can help keep yourself and others safer in the outdoors. Never heard of them? We highlight some of the most common mental shortcuts, how they arise on typical tramping trips and how to avoid them, so you make it home safely. 

While there are a few different ways in which the six main mental shortcuts can be identified and explained, we’re going to use the following:


Making decisions based on past experiences.

Think about those times when you leave home to drive to the supermarket, work, or drop the kids at school. Do you consciously think about the route you’re going to take? Chances are you jump in the car and off you go because you know it so well. That familiarity means you know the route is the most suitable; thinking about alternatives becomes unnecessary. Clearly, in many everyday situations this mental shortcut can be useful as it saves you time and mental processing.

However, in the backcountry, succumbing to familiarity is a common mistake. It can easily lead to complacency, overlooking hazards and taking unnecessary risks that can make all the difference to your safety.


Also known as acceptance, is all about doing something to ensure you fit in.

As humans, we don’t really like to stand out from the bunch. ‘Going with the flow’ and ‘not making a fuss’ are often lauded characteristics in everyday life. While many of us would like to think we don’t ‘show-off’, we’d be lying if we said we’d never done something just to impress others or avoid saying something because it might create conflict. This desire to fit in or get approval from others is called ‘conformity’ or ‘acceptance’. 

Acting a certain way to impress others can lead to some very bold and risky calls in the outdoors. Imagine this: you’re out tramping with someone new or someone you look up to.. You’re trying to impress them, so you don’t get too flustered when the weather starts deteriorating. As things continue to get worse, you dare not turn around now for fear of having been wrong.

Conversely, you might be tramping with a group and be feeling very uncomfortable with the exposure on an alpine section that others are breezing through, but because you don’t want to make a fuss, you carry on without mentioning anything. Sometimes the whole group feels the same way without anyone showing or mentioning it! 

This mental shortcut tends to show up in very specific circumstances. It’s a common whenever there are men and women in a group and it tends to occur more often when there are new or less experienced members of the group, or when there are group members not familiar with each other.

Read a real-life example here.


Fixated on the goal or objective.

Commitment is a trap that can be incredibly rewarding in everyday life, and even in the outdoors when applied correctly. Also known as ‘goal oriented’, it’s the way we tend to keep the long-term goal in mind to overcome seemingly smaller obstacles along the way. Think about persisting with study when the going gets tough at university or continuing to train over winter to keep your fitness up for summer adventures. Being goal orientated or committed is often a valued trait.  

But while there are plenty of reasons to celebrate commitment, in the context of outdoor adventures, especially in the backcountry, it’s important to recognise when we are doing something just because we are committed, when red warning flags are waving.

Imagine you’ve taken a couple of days off work and driven 3 hours to get to your favourite national park. You’ve been planning this trip for months, and while the weather isn’t ideal, you’re keen to push on. You’re halfway to the hut for the night, and the snow is getting much deeper than you expected, and the wind is getting worse. You weren’t prepared for this, but surely turning back now would make it all a waste, you’re thinking about that long drive and the time you’ve taken off work, so you continue to push on into worsening conditions.

You’re committed, but at what point is that commitment creating a dangerous situation?

Read a real-life example here.

Expert Halo

Deferring decision-making to the perceived expert.

Have you ever let someone else make the decisions because they’re the expert? No doubt we’ve all been out tramping in a group that has a perceived leader who, if not calling the shots, is certainly influencing them. Why are they the perceived leader? Is it because they think they know it all, perhaps they’re overly confident in their opinion, or they’re just the loudest person in the group? Or is it that they’re more experienced than you so you automatically feel like they’re in a better position to call the shots? None of those examples are great reasons to let them make all the decisions.


Knowing something doesn’t happen very often can change the way you approach the risks.

Have you ever had a dose of FOMO? The fear of missing out can be compelling, especially if that thing is a great trip outdoors. For most of us, we don’t get out enough, so when the opportunity comes along, we don’t want to miss it, it’s scarce enough.  We tend to feel under more pressure to get a hold of something if we aren’t sure there will be another opportunity. Who can forget the mad rush on toilet paper following the first COVID lockdown announcements in 2020? Was everyone grabbing more because they needed more than normal, or was it fear that if they waited, there might not be the option to get more in the future?

Scarcity can drive us to push on when we should really be turning around, or cross a river when it’s not safe to do so, it can blind us from making sensible decisions because we’re motivated by the lack of regular opportunity.

Read a real-life example here.

Social Proof

Evidence that others have been there means it’s safe to go.

Sometimes called ‘tracks’, this trap is all about being influenced by the presence (or prior presence) of others. Are you more likely to do something you aren’t sure about if you see others doing it, or see evidence that others have done it? A common everyday example is jaywalking. If you’re alone at the pedestrian crossing and the crossing light is red, you’re probably less likely to race across the street without looking than if others around you were dashing over already. Social proof becomes a trap when we start thinking a route, decision, or an action is safe because others are doing it (or you can see evidence they have done it) and aren’t getting into trouble. They may know something you don’t, have better fitness or skills, or ultimately, they may have just been lucky. It’s quite possible they are making a bad call and just haven’t faced the consequences of it yet.

Image you’re on an alpine tramp in late October, you approach a slope covered in snow, you feel a little uneasy because it looks like it would be the right angle for an avalanche. However, you see some footsteps through the snow and out the other side. You think to yourself ‘they made it, so can I’, and off you go… The problem with this is you’ve made that decision entirely based on social proof rather than an assessment of the conditions yourself.

Read a real-life example here.