Decisions, decisions, decisions, decisions …

This graphic, from “The Backcountry Classroom: Lesson Plans for Teaching in the Wilderness” by Jack Drury, shows steps in a decision-making process. (Photo provided)

I didn’t give decision making a lot of thought until I started leading wilderness trips and realized that quality decision making was the key to good outdoor leadership.

First, there are the decisions I make before I leave on a trip. What equipment should I bring? How many miles should I plan to hike? What am I going to do in case of an emergency? What should I bring in the way of food? What about the weather? Is the water safe to drink? And on and on.

Then there are all the decisions I make once outdoors. Is the weather favorable, should we go for the summit or turn back? If that’s lightning in the distance, should we get off the water, or is it safe to continue paddling? Where should we camp? When hiking off trail shall we go a little east or a little west?

The decisions seem endless.

A good decision-making process doesn’t always guarantee good outcomes, and good outcomes don’t always mean you made a good decision. For example, there’s the folks who don’t bring a flashlight on day hikes because they plan to be back before dark. (When I encounter them, I remind them that every day-hiker rescued after dark tells the ranger the same thing.) Or those who don’t bring rain gear because the forecast calls for sunny skies. In both cases their decision making is flawed, no matter what the results. Why? Because you bring those items, not because you will need them, but because you might need them.

When traveling in the backcountry — or preparing to — I like to be deliberate and mindful. I have a standard list of things to bring and make sure I bring them all. In 50 years of leading wilderness trips, there are numerous things in my pack that I’ve never used — my emergency fire starter and most of the items in my first-aid kit, for example.

Does that mean I shouldn’t bring them?

Not on your — or my — life.

Good decision-making means having lots of good options — to a point. For example, shopping for groceries.

In the Tri-Lakes, we have grocery stores ranging in size from relatively small, like Shaheen’s or Nori’s, to midsize like Grand Union and Aldi, to large like Price Chopper or Hannaford. Even the smallest of these is larger than the stores of the ’50s.

Before 1916 when Clarence Saunders opened his Piggly Wiggly, the first self-service grocery store, stores had a paltry 250 items. Saunders offered 1,000. By the ’50s and ’60s, shoppers became accustomed to strolling through aisles and hand-selecting items themselves, and stores had about 4,000 items to choose from. That has increased to 50,000 today. That means every time I walk into a supermarket I have 50,000 options encouraging me to make 50,000 decisions.

A while back Phyliss and I were in Syracuse and we can’t visit Syracuse without a visit to Wegman’s, the finest grocery chain in the state, if not the nation. I have a couple of problems, though, when I visit a large grocery store. And Wegman’s is certainly large. Actually huge.

First there are the crowds. I don’t do well with crowds. After about 10 minutes I’m looking for the nearest exit.

Then there are the options. I smell the bakery and see more types of bread than there are states in the union. I walk by a deli department that has more variety than Schwartz’s. The butcher must have a herd of cattle, a flock of chickens, and a drift of pigs at his disposal. The fish counter has more variety than the Boston Aquarium. And that doesn’t even take into account the flower shop, drug store, produce aisles, organic aisles, beer aisles, and health and beauty aisles. And don’t forget the coffee shop. After all, how can you expect to shop without an extra shot of caffeine?

While Phyliss reveled in the opportunity to choose between a Ugandan marinade or a Vietnamese chili garlic sauce, I came away overwhelmed.

I was hit with the realization that today we are bombarded with more decisions than at any time in history. In primitive society, decision making had life or death implications. But once the mastodon was killed and the meat cooked, life was pretty simple. Until you needed to kill the next one.

After visiting Wegman’s I figured out that I’m the hunter and Phyliss is the gatherer. I want to slay the sabretooth tiger and get home. Phyliss likes to examine every item in the store.

While today’s decision making rarely involves survival, it can be overwhelming. Not because of the difficulty, but because of the sheer number. A variety of internet sources state that an adult makes about 35,000 decisions each day. This number may sound ridiculous, but according to researchers at Cornell University, we make 200 decisions each day on food alone.

It’s clear, grocery shopping is just too overwhelming for me.

That’s why Phyliss does it all.


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