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OA Guide to Building Program Protocols

by Rick Curtis Director, Outdoor Action Program, Princeton University


When developing or documenting an activity, it is important to look at a broad range of issues. There are a number of excellent sources available in outdoor education literature that establish basic protocols for different activities, so reinventing the wheel is not necessary. Staff must understand that the purpose of protocols is to help define a set of operating boundaries that help to provide both a safe and productive educational environment. The best way of doing this is for leadership staff to be integrally involved in both the development, implementation, and ongoing review of protocols. These are the fundamental areas that you should examine in the development of a protocol.

What are Protocols?

Whenever we talk about protocols, it’s important to recognize that there is a continuum between a rule and a guideline or practice. Here’s how Webster’s dictionary defines some of these terms.

For the purposes of our discussion, I will define the word Protocol to refer to the continuum between a policy and a guideline or practice. Here are the basic three levels we’ll look at.

Why do We Need Them?

Paul Petzoldt, the founder of the National Outdoor Leadership School (NOLS) and the Wilderness Education Association (WEA) once said, "Rules are for fools." He meant that you can’t categorize situations into a simple rule to handle each scenario. Each situation is unique so backcountry travelers need to assess the situation and make your best determination on the best response.

Even so, there are some situations where rules are appropriate and necessary (and I am sure that Paul would agree). Paddling on a whitewater river without a life jacket is far more foolish than the rule that all paddlers are required to wear life jackets. So how do we determine when to have a rule, a protocol, a guideline or a practice?

As I see it, the fundamental reason for having any protocol is to provide a structure for safe practice. In cases where staff have years of experience leading wilderness activities, it is the person’s accumulated experience and judgment that s/he relies on to determine safe practice rather than needing a book of rules. However, I deal with University students, who are volunteers, rather than permanent hired and paid staff, I have to see protocols differently than Paul Petzoldt. When there is high turnover in staff, and lower experience levels, then "the system" is always spinning towards entropy and chaos. Those who ascribe to "chaos theories" in nature will appreciate the analogy. For me, protocols provide the structure to say, "this is how we do things and we won’t accept any lesser standard than that." So here are some of the factors that I think create the continuum of how much or how little protocol you need.

What other parameters can you think of that define the continuum for protocols?

High Need for Protocols Medium Need for Protocols Low Need for Protocols
Low Experience Medium Experience High Experience
Low Supervision Medium Supervision High Supervision
Low # Field Days Medium # Field Days High # Field Days
Low External Support Medium External Support High External Support
Children as Participants   Adults as Participants

So What’s the Bad News?

Well, the bad news about protocols is, if you make ‘em, you’ve got to keep ‘em. More important in some ways than developing a protocol is seeing to it’s implementation. Protocols without the necessary structure behind them to see that they are carried through with are only words on paper. From a Risk Management point of view poorly implemented protocols can create greater liability for an organization than not having a specific protocol. Having a protocol says "we believe that this is the best way to operate." Ignoring that protocol may leave you more vulnerable for a charge of negligence or even gross negligence.

Protocol Development

In order to develop a series of protocols for a program or activity, it’s essential to do a thorough analysis of the activity. The outline below provides on structure for analysing activities and building protocols.

Goals of the Activity

Evaluation of Activity

Leader Skills & Training Required

Activity Difficulty Assessment

Environmental Hazards & Accidents

Participant Screening

First Aid, Emergencies & Rescue

Permits & Regulations

Trip Leader Procedures And Responsibilities

Activity Protocols

Leave No Trace Practices

Group Dynamics


Teaching Plan

Participant Notes

Site Information


Manual of Accreditation Standards for Adventure Programs

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This material may be distributed for nonprofit educational use as long as attributions must are to the author and no content changes are made. Commercial use of this material is prohibited without express written permission from the author. Copyright 1999, all rights reserved, Rick Curtis, Outdoor Action Program, Princeton University.