Grand Canyon





The Use of Intuition in the Outdoors




Ron Watters
Professor Emeritus of Outdoor Education
Former Director, Idaho State University Outdoor Program


Winter Backcountry Scene



Outdoor Stories & Articles

Outdoor Education Major at Idaho State University



Copyright & Revisions:  Original copyright © 2004.  Reformatted in 2013.  No changes made to text.


Publication History: Originally published in the Proceedings of the 18th Annual International Conference of Outdoor Recreation and Education.  Citation: Watters, R. (2004).  The use of intuition in the outdoors. In R. Poff, S. Guthrie, J. Kafsky-DeGarmo, T. Stenger, & W. Taylor (Eds.), Proceedings of the 16th International Conference on Outdoor Recreation and Education (pp. 29- 37). Bloomington, IL: Association of Outdoor Recreation and Education.


Reproduction Information:  You are welcome to provide links to this page or to use short quotations and paraphrases in other documents as long as they appropriately reference the source.  There is no charge for non-profit organizations to reproduce or publish extensive parts or all of this paper, but please obtain advanced permission from Ron Watters (  Photo credits:  Ron Watters. 


Social psychologists define intuition as an individual's capacity for direct knowledge, and for immediate insight without observation or reason.  Is it possible that intuition plays a role in outdoor decision making?  Its use certainly runs counter to the approach accepted as gospel in the field of outdoor education.  Outdoor educators are counseled to use a logical approach by looking at all the options, carefully weighing those options, and then making a decision.  But is it really gospel?  Do experienced outdoorsmen and women really make decisions that way?  If you spend a good deal of time in the outdoors, and if you really think about how you make decisions in tight situations, you might question that orthodoxy.  This paper looks at several key decisions made during a high water river trip.  It uses those decisions to explore the work of cognitive psychologist Gary Klein who for years has studied firefighters, military commanders, nurses and others in risky positions who make decisions in the face of limited time. 


A good many experienced outdoor folks that I know — mountaineers, back-country skiers, whitewater boaters — speak of something called a sixth sense, an inner voice.  Something that tells them: don't ski across that slope … don't grab for that hold … don't run that rapid.  It's not something that can be easily explained in a rational manner.  It's all based on, well, shall I dare say it, intuition.
"Rubbish!" replies a friend of mine, a medical doctor with whom I've done many trips, a very judicious person who disparages the idea of intuition.  He's quite clear on the matter.  If you want to make good decisions then you need to use analytical methods whereby you select the best course of action from a range of options. 
But do people use analytical methods decision making when risk is high and decisions have to be made quickly?  Is decision making really that clear cut?
Decision Making on a River Trip
Decision making was very much on my mind recently while on an early season river trip with some old friends.  The trip was an opportunity to get together before the water came up and rivers got crowded. 
But just before our trip, the weather turned warm.  Quite warm actually.  The high country snow which had been melting at its usual rate suddenly was forced into overdrive, and the water began rising.  A few days before the trip, we checked the flow data on the U.S. Geological Survey Internet site and found the water level on the river we planned to run was still at a reasonable level.  It was going up, that was for sure, but it was still reasonable.  Even if the warm weather continued — which was unusual in the spring — and the run-off increased, it probably wouldn't be enough to send the water so high that it reached dangerous levels.
But once our small party of rafts and kayaks launched and started off down the river, something wasn't right. The river was higher and faster than what I had expected. Could it be that the river had risen substantially since we had checked the current flow? Certainly, it felt that way. I pulled on the oars, maneuvering the raft back and forth, dodging rocks and avoiding the brushy banks of the river. There was little let up, and the current seemed to accelerate and gain strength the farther we went.  Corners were sharp, and on the outside of bends, the river slammed into tangled masses of downed logs intermixed with chunks of snow from last winter's avalanches. 
Ahead a log slanted all the way across the river.  One end was under the water and the other end was about neck high.  I pulled back, slowing the boat, looking for an eddy, anticipating that our lead boat, oared by an experienced guide would stop and take a look, but there was no time, and the river drew him under.  Ducking, he passed through unscathed.  Then the next boat was under and through.  Then it was us.
I lined up, gave one last pull.  Kathy and I quickly ducked.  My oar jerked violently and I held fast.  This was no time to let go of an oar.  When we came out on the other side, I pulled with the oar to make a quick move to the right.  Nothing happened.  I pulled again . . . nothing happened.  I looked down at the oar.  It was broken near the oar blade. 
"Kath, I need an oar," I said calmly.
I don't know why I didn't scream it out.  Get my oar!   Perhaps I was just trying to keep myself calm as I looked at the chaos of the rapid below.  I repeated, a bit louder this time: "I need an oar!"
Kathy looked back, and seeing the broken stub of an oar in my hand, immediately went into action, leaping over my arm, and quickly unlashed my spare oar.  I was so proud of her, how fast she reacted and how efficiently she was able to loosen the oar.  Passing it to me at just the right angle, she positioned it so I could jam it into the oarlock allowing me to get one quick stroke.  I bounced on a boulder, swung free of several nasty rocks, and was home free.
I moved slightly to the right.  I'm not sure why.  It just felt like the right thing to do.  As the rapids eased, my heart rate slipped back a notch.  I was beginning to feel back in control.  For a fleeting moment. 
Downriver maybe 200 feet, was another party's boat blocking the middle of the river.  The grotesque bulge in the middle of the boat gave it away: it was wrapped around a midstream boulder.  If I didn't get off the river now we'd be plastered against it.  Fortunately, I was already on river right.  I pivoted and pulled hard the remaining distance to the small eddy where the other boats had pulled off. 
Thank God for our kayakers.  They knew that the rafts would have trouble pulling off in the small eddy.  They were waiting, standing waist deep in slushy water, and caught us by the stern.  The bow spun around into the eddy, rammed against the other two rafts and after a rebound, came finally to rest.  Without the kayakers I would not have been able to stop. 
I looked at the willows waving back and forth in the eddy currents.  Twisting in my seat and looking up and down the river, I could see that water was flowing well into the brush on either bank.  I could see no sign of a high water mark which was hidden somewhere under the water.  That and the water's speed told me that the river had risen dramatically over the last couple of days.  It was quickly becoming apparent that run-off from the surrounding mountains was coming off faster than any of us had expected, and the river had already reached high water stage.
I pulled back my hat and wiped my brow.  It was hot, the sort of temperature that you might get in late July or August, not May.  That meant that before we got off three days hence, the river was bound to get higher.  Much higher.
I had not done this sort river trip in a while, the sort of trip where your heart is in your throat and your mouth is always dry; where the river is always in control and you are always on the edge; where you can never let down your guard, and where mistakes are very costly. 
I'd been doing mostly mid summer trips when the weather was warm, and rapids no longer had the uncomfortable push of high water.  But this kind of trip was one in which small mistakes can magnify and lead to serious consequences — like death.  This was the sort of trip where you depend upon your companions and their strength and experience, not only your own.  And yes, this is the sort of trip where intuition is essential. 
Intuition and Intuitive Decision Making
Intuition.  What exactly is it?  David Meyers, a social psychologist, in his well-researched book, Intuition: It's Powers and Perils, defines intuition as an individual's "capacity for direct knowledge, for immediate insight without observation or reason"  (Meyers, 2002, p. 1).  Thus, intuitive decision making is in direct contrast to the analytical approach advocated by my doctor friend whereby you look at all the options, carefully weigh the options and then make a decision.
The classical analytical approach is advocated for use in outdoor situations by Simon Priest, one of the top researchers in outdoor leadership.  Priest (1997, chap. 22) goes to great lengths in Effective Outdoor Leadership in Adventure Programming, the most authoritative text on outdoor leadership, to diagram analytical decision making processes using flow charts.
But when I think about the truly important decisions I've made in tight situations in the outdoors, the analytical process simply doesn't wash.  On a river in high water, decisions have to be made in seconds, sometimes in fractions of a second.  You simply do not have the time to weigh options.  Start imagining a flow chart in your head, and about the time you get to the first decision point, you and your boat will be plastered against a tangle of logs and snow.
It is my own experiences in outdoor decision making — and an attempt to make sense of them — that led me to the work of cognitive psychologist Gary Klein. 
Klein (2003, p. 13) defines intuition as the way individuals translate experience into action — and Klein believes that intuition is the way most decisions are made, particularly those that are made when risk is high.  What Klein has discovered is that often in the process of using intuition to make a decision, we are unaware of how we made it.  We just make them and we make it quickly without weighing options.
That struck a note with me.  My reactions in the rapid when the oar broke and my early decision to move right once I regained control — and the decision among our kayakers to stand in that miserable slushy eddy and pull boats in — were all decisions that were made with little or no thought.  Neither the kayakers nor I were aware of how we made the decisions.  It was simply the best thing to do at the time.
More than any researcher, Klein has a pretty good handle on how individuals in risky situations make decisions.  For years he has studied firefighters, military commanders, nurses and others who make decisions in the face of limited time.  Klein (2003, p. vii) has collected a database of more than a thousand "difficult and critical decisions."  From his work, he has found that intuitive decision making is critical to those involved in risky work. 
Interestingly enough, as his work progressed, he also found that intuition is equally important in decision making across the board, no matter what the profession.  There are times when classical analytical processes are useful, of course, but he has found that intuitive decision making is far more important and prevalent than anyone ever thought.
What Klein is talking about is not some kind of magical or clairvoyant power to make snap decisions, but rather an ability which is built on experience.  Instead of analyzing and weighing options which takes precious time, intuitive decision making utilizes the mind's ability to quickly recognize patterns.  For example, think of how you recognize someone's face.  Do you go through a process whereby you analyze the size and arrangement of facial features or do you simply and immediately recognize the face?
We find can examples everywhere.  This is the way the great outdoor photographer Ansel Adams described the connection between experience and intuition in his work:  "In my mind's eye, I visualize how a particular . . . sight and feeling will appear on a print.  If it excites me, there is a good chance it will make a good photograph.  It is an intuitive sense, an ability that comes from a lot of practice."  
In a similar manner, as we gain experience in the outdoors, we learn to recognize patterns and create compositions which are filed away in our mind.  A climber might look at several possible routes across a glacier and be able to recognize the most hazardous by the pattern and placement of seracs.  A whitewater rafter facing a new rapid may use familiar patterns from past rapids that she has run to determine the safest route in a new rapid.  
When the climber or rafter is experienced, there is often no comparison or weighting of the options.  Once a pattern is recognized, the decision — which route to follow across the glacier or which path to take through the rapids — is obvious.  This process takes place in areas of our brain (the amygdala is one area likely involved) which can process pattern recognition instantly, not the cortical areas of the brain associated with reason and which take far too much time.  Experience, however, is essential in the process.  The patterns must be learned first.  Like Ansel Adams, it's something that comes with practice.  Beginners and individuals new to an outdoor activity will need to use more analytical processes in arriving at decisions before they can use intuitive decision making processes.  But once an individual gains experience, intuitive decision making is incredibly important and powerful.
Could it be that my doctor friend — like other men and women of science — didn't want to acknowledge that intuition might be useful?  After all, to accept something which seems to occur without rational thought could be taking a step backwards.  "Man is dragged hither and thither," said the anthropologist Loren Eiseley (1971), "at one moment by the blind instincts of the forest, at the next by the strange intuitions of a higher self whose rationale he doubts and does not understand."
Return to the River
The stop was good for me.  It was now well into the afternoon and I hadn't had anything to eat since breakfast.  I needed water and I needed energy in the tank.  I stood half in the willows, which sloped like hair brush bristles from the snowy shore, and half in the slushy eddy, filtering water and chomping down on a power bar.  Eventually, the wrapped raft was freed and we were on our way again.
We quickly reached the confluence with another large stream, this one coming in swollen with ugly brown water.  Now I was in more familiar territory.  I've run this section of the river quite a number of times, and between strokes with the oars I kept trying to get my bearings.  But for the life of me I couldn't recognize landmarks and rapids.  The speed of the current and the bloated waters made everything look different.  I finally caught my bearings for a moment when we reached a rapid which boiled up in our path.  I recognized it as the one named rapid on this stretch of the river.  Plunging over the top of the rapid, the boat jerked, dropped abruptly, and then popped up quickly.  Groaning sounds rose up from underneath as the boat scrapped against huge boulders which in normal water levels are well above the surface of the water.
And so it went.  The river grew in size.  Its color took on a muted chocolate hue, the color of burnt earth.  The temperature climbed above 90 degrees, unbelievably hot that early in the year for this mountain river.  As the water rose, willows and dogwood, torn from the banks, spun in circles, and were carried away with pieces of bark, pine needles, leaves and other debris. 
By the second day, entire trees ravaged in recent fires flushed in from side creeks.  We sat at our camp that night and watched, like voyeurs of sadistic entertainment, log after log floating by on the river.  They were huge conifer logs, three feet, sometimes more, in diameter, rushing by in the turbid water, and as their dark, sodden trunks slowly rotated, a branch from underneath would rise, break the surface, hang obscenely like the arm of corpse and then plunge back under.
The Flip Side to Intuitive Decision Making
While I've come to believe that intuitive decision making is critical in the outdoors — and, life in general — there is a flip side to it.  Intuition can't solve all problems and doesn't work in all situations.  It doesn't, for example, work well when the situation is exceedingly complex with tens of thousands of variables.  For example, even someone who has worked the stock business all their life will not be able to predict what the stock market will do.  Nor does it work when an individual has little experience in an activity.  Experience is vital.  But, herein lies a caveat.  Experience can aid intuition — and hinder. 
As we gain more expertise from our experiences, we may become too inflexible in our thinking and be blinded to new approaches and patterns.  If we're not open to new ideas and cues, we may miss important pieces of the puzzle or novel approaches to a problem.  It's absolutely essential in the process of making good intuitive decisions that we keep an open mind and hunt for new cues and patterns. 
That's why, whenever possible, it's exceedingly important to involve members of outdoor groups in the decision making process.  For starters, it's good leadership.  It helps everyone share ownership of the trip and become working, contributing members of the group.  By involving the group, you make things safer and are able to tap resources that one person simply doesn't have.  And secondly, from a decision making perspective, it's extremely valuable, helping you evaluate and gain insights into your own use of intuition. 
The thoughts and ideas of the group may point out something you've missed and aid you in revising a plan of action.  Having reliable information is vital to making good intuitive decisions.  A group can help sort out what is reliable and what is not.  Once more, comparing your intuition to the intuition of other experienced members of the group provides a check to your own hunches.  Intuition doesn't mean that you come up with one plan of action and stick to it.  Good intuitive decisions are adapted and changed as more information becomes available.
A Key Decision
The next day, the third on the river, we covered an incredible 45 miles in 5 hours.  At one point, the rafters and the kayakers pulled off on the right for a stop.  Since they were hidden around a corner, I didn't see them until a few feet away.  Since I was on the other side of the river, it was way too late to pull over and stop.  I looked for an eddy, but it wasn't until two miles later that I found a small lapse in the current, slow enough to allow me to stop and wait for the party to catch me.
Late that day, we ran one last major rapid.  Two thirds of the way through was a Volkswagen sized boulder with a large pile of logs on top.  As I entered the rapid, I could see it 100 meters downstream, but it was just one of many obstacles that were occupying my mind.  Nearer to me were plenty of boulders and holes which demanded my immediate attention.  Yet, even early in the rapid, I began a slight movement toward river right.  Whenever possible, whenever I would pass a hole or a boulder, and if it could be done safely, I passed it on its right. 
I was now 50 meters away and the current's intent was becoming clear.  It was heading directly toward the boulder and its spiny cap of logs.  One log hung out over the river for 10 feet.  We broke clear of the rock garden and the river formed in a series of rising haystacks.  Now I was pulling with everything I had to the right. 
Ten meters.   We were still on a course directly for the boulder and its log jam.  Five meters.  I pulled slightly right of it. 
One meter.  Kathy ducked and we were safely past.
Analytical and Intuitive Processes
Thinking back on it, I now realize that my decision to move to the right early in that rapid was one of the key decisions I made that trip.  Had I not started 100 meters away, Kathy and I would have been slammed into the log jam.  It was a terrible place for a broach and flip.  If we managed to survive the impact and somehow escaped becoming entangled in the logs, we still would have had to swim the rest of the rapid and a mile or more of huge rolling waves before the kayakers could get us to shore. 
Did I use analytical decision making to begin my move 100 meters away?  Did I calculate the odds of the dozen or more options available to me in the rapid?  There simply wasn't time.  I did what intuitively felt right.  Something didn't look right ahead.  Something told me to start making the move early and to move to the right.
Klein (1998) found a similar modus operandi in his studies of firefighters and how they make decisions under pressure.  In one instance, he accompanied an EMS crew on a call which involved a man who had put his arm through a plate glass window.  At 3:24 pm, the captain of the EMS crew jumped out of the response vehicle and moved toward the man laying face down on the lawn.  The captain immediately sized up the situation:  the man on the ground and the pool of blood.  It triggered a pattern in the captain's mind, and without thinking, he immediately knew that an artery had been cut and estimated two units of blood had been lost.
The captain reached the man in moments and immediately applied pressure to the victim's arm.  If the captain was to follow emergency medical protocols, he would have checked for other injuries.  Additionally, inflatable pants which help stabilize blood pressure would have also put on the victim.  But in a split second, the leader chose not to follow those procedures, calling instead for the others on his team to help get the victim in the response vehicle immediately.  
That decision likely saved the man's life.  The ambulance arrived at the hospital at 3:31 pm, seven minutes after the captain first saw the victim.  The captain diverted from established procedures, but he gained precious time by conducting the rest of the field examination and applying the inflatable pants while in the ambulance. 
After Klein interviewed the captain and looked closely at how the decision was made, he found that none of the elements of classic analytical decision were involved.  There was no consideration or weighing of options.  The decision of what to do came immediately to the captain. 
That's not what Klein had expected.  When Klein first started doing research into decision making, he hypothesized that an individual under time pressure would quickly compare a couple of options and then chose the best (sort of a mini analytical approach).  What he found was that often experts never compared options, that, amazingly, there was only one course of action that came to them  "I don't remember when I've ever made a decision," one commander told them about the way he fought fires (Klein, 1998, p. 11).   
It is revealing that there isn't much evidence to show that classic analytical decision actually produces good decisions.  Certainly, it does have its uses:  it's helpful while someone is gaining experience; it's particularly helpful for those decisions which lend themselves well to numerical calculations such as buying a house, for an example.  While it can be utilized, "the reality," Klein (2003, p. 10) tells us after years of study, "is that the classical model of decision making doesn't work very well in practice.  It works tolerably well in the research labs which use undergraduate test subjects making trivial decisions, but it doesn't do so well in the real world where decisions are more challenging, situations are more confusing and complex, information is scarce or inconclusive, time is short, and stakes are high."
When it comes down it, most decisions — whether they are decisions of major importance — or whether they are the little decisions that we all need to make to get through the day — are made intuitively.  Even Bill Gates who rules over the empire built on logic and reason admits that "often you just have to rely on your intuition."  
Think about day to day decisions.  For some important ones, no doubt, you do utilize a logical approach — researching the available options, weighing them, even applying some mathematical comparisons — but is it possible to use this approach for all decisions?  Realistically, it would take too much time.  Days are long enough without adding the complexities of classical analytical decision making.  Moreover, are analytical methods always used for big decisions?  Think about the decision that goes into selecting a mate.  That's one of the most important decisions you'll ever make; a decision that effects the rest of your life.  Do you sit down and draw up a list of prospective mates listing the good points and bad points, run mathematical calculations on each and chose the one with the top score?  More likely, such decisions are based on intuition — what feels best. 
Klein, Meyers, and other researchers, however, do draw a sharp line between intuitive decision making which comes from experience, and that of ESP, the occult or clairvoyance.  Meyers (2002), after looking at the research — as others have — concludes that there is absolutely no evidence for the existence of ESP.  All strange happenings when examined at close range can be explained.  What about an inner voice?  That's experience speaking. 
Since we are often not aware of intuitive decision making, it may seem to us that it is ESP.  Klein points to a fireman who claimed that some decisions he had made — particularly one in which he pulled men out of a burning building and saved them from an eventual floor collapse — was because he had ESP.  But when Klein delved deeper, he found that fireman had noticed something different about that fire.  The pattern didn't quite fit that of a normal fire, particularly the noise of the fire and the temperature of the floor.  Since the pattern didn't fit a familiar pattern, the commander felt uneasy.  An inner voice, it seemed, was speaking to him — and listening to that inner voice, the fireman pulled this men out.  Later the commander, after explaining the details of the fire to Klein, realized that his decision was indeed based on his past experience.  The floor was too hot.  He didn't think it.  He just felt it.  But, for many years until his conversions with Klein, he attributed it to a sixth sense, to ESP (Breen, 2000).
It's the same for outdoor decisions.  There doesn't seem to be any conscious analysis, but rather an inner voice saying: this works and that won't. 
Consequences of Decisions
Nature likes to pull surprises.  For several years in a row, before my high water trip, we had been having fairly predictable run-off patterns.  The snow would melt at an even rate, driving up the rivers to a peak and then coming back down to normal running levels.  But every so often, something changes:  a large late season accumulation of snow, warm spring rains — or sudden hot weather.  Boaters get used to a pattern and assume that the next year will be the same as last.  When the next year is not the same, it often results in tragedy. 
And, indeed, that's what happened.  It was a terrible beginning to the boating season.  While we were on the river, two rafters died, one in the rapid where I had broken an oar and another several miles below.  Their deaths were just another reminder that decisions made on rivers and in the mountains do have serious consequences.  They can't be taken lightly.
Because decisions in the outdoors have serious consequences, we need to look realistically at how they are made.  By suggesting that decisions should be made strictly in an analytical manner — and to discount intuition — can result in inaction or a slow response when action is needed immediately, and it can result in bad decisions altogether.  At the same time we need to understand the limitations of intuitive decision making.  Such decisions can not be made reliably if you have no experience.  And even those who are experienced can never sit still.  To develop our intuition, we must keep gaining experience, continually keeping ourselves open to new ideas and methods, and continually assessing and reflecting upon past experiences.  Moreover, it's vital to involve those who are with us and draw from their resources. 
My guess is that my doctor friend uses intuition often.  It would be essential in his line of work.  Certainly, some of the most rational and deeply analytical thinkers of all time haven't been afraid to admit its importance.  "The only real valuable thing is intuition," said Albert Einstein.  Indeed, by cultivating it, using it, while at the same time recognizing its drawbacks, we can tap into its power — and make a difference in our decisions.
Breen, B. (2000, September 38).  What's your intuition?  [Electronic Version]  Fast Company, 38, 290. 
Eiseley, L. (1971).  The night country.New York: Charles Scribner's Sons.
Klein, G.  (1998)  Sources of power:  how people make decisions.  Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press.
Klein, G.  (2003).  Intuition at work: why developing your gut instincts will make you better at what you do.  New York: Random House.
Meyers, D. (2002).  Intuition: its power and perils.  New Haven: Yale University Press.
Priest, S. & Gass M. S. (1997).  Effective leadership in adventure programming.  Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics.





Links to Other Outdoor Education Papers 





Top of Page