Camping on Gas! Should we teach young people to understand and control inherent risk?

Camping outside – not easy in challenging conditions

Working with young people it is important I believe that we give them the skills to make good decisions when the ‘adult’ is not around, in preparation for becoming adults themselves. Running a walking expedition in October 2019 it was raining and very cold.

What was most interesting was the young people were cooking outside struggling to cook and freezing, some potentially hypothermic.

Freezing morning after a freezing night!

Inquiring why not cook inside the tent when suggested the common mantra of, “we are not allowed” and “it’s too dangerous”. On the second night I suggested they do cook inside the flysheet of their tent – a new experience and amazing how it lifted spirits. It definitely got me thinking – should we be educating our young people to be able to cook inside the tent?

Tent cooking in the right conditions

As a scout growing up doing winter mountaineering and hikes (as young as 12) we regularly cooked inside the tent using paraffin primus stoves, and never had a problem. The constant roar was a welcome distraction from the howling gale outside and the extra few degrees warmed the soul. I suppose we were very well trained although I suspect we did not fully understand the risks or have any tools if there was a fire. Likewise, in the military we regularly cooked inside tents, snow holes and shelters. Acceptable risk.

Bivi out – ideal opportunities to cook

As a scout growing up doing winter mountaineering and hikes (as young as 12) we regularly cooked inside the tent using paraffin primus stoves, and never had a problem. The constant roar was a welcome distraction from the howling gale outside and the extra few degrees warmed the soul. I suppose we were very well trained although I suspect we did not fully understand the risks or have any tools if there was a fire. Likewise, in the military we regularly cooked inside tents, snow holes and shelters. Acceptable risk.

Seeking views and evidence

I was interested in finding out the current views on cooking inside a tent. Postings on facebook, seeking advice and ideas, “I’m looking at running an advanced expedition course for young people. One of the skills will be safely cooking in your tent, under the fly sheet. Any views on this?” raised many interesting perspectives.

A scary post of a tent burning down posted by a real critic. modern tents comply with ISO5912 and are incredibly difficult to burn.

Most critics could not go beyond, “don’t do it”, “they will burn to death”, “it’s not allowed”, One very vocal critic was from British Columbia had an interesting insight, “have to learn about bear caches, actually another reason we don’t have youth cook in tents”.

Some postings had major concerns about carbon monoxide poisoning. After exhaustive research this is only a major problem if you have a BBQ smouldering in your tent with no ventilation. Most modern gas stoves produce little CO gas, and with good ventilation minimal risk.

Tragedy in Knoydart

Cooking in the rain and extreme conditions

One post showed some incredibly interesting insight, “Many years ago a DofE Gold Expedition from school chose to cook in their tent as appalling weather conditions in Knoydart. Sadly their stove was knocked and one of the lads ended up with horrific 1st degree burns. They were quite a few miles from nearest inhabited houses and it was pre mobile phones, etc so whilst a couple looked after the injured party one of them made it through the terrible weather over rough ground in the dark to get help. Lad/s were awarded for bravery but goes back to the question as to whether or not this could have been avoided if they had been trained to safely use the flysheet entrance as shelter to cook under pre exped or if the accident would have happened anyway.

A hot drink while supervising tent cooking

The reality is that if camping wild and the weather is that bad the temptation will be to cook under the fly so if youngsters were trained how to do this safely perhaps better than not at all….however, the lack of experience remains an issue and if an accident happened and they had been shown how to cook in their tent would this be seen by a court as encouragement to do so? Some pretty strict parameters/rules would need to be stipulated when undertaking risk assessments. But on the whole I DO think youngsters need to learn about such skills and the inherent dangers, more for their own futures in the outdoors than for DofE”

Managing the inherent risks

I’m very passionate about Benefit and Risk Assessments (BRA’s) as it allows you to analyse a task or activity somewhat objectively and how you can control it and make it as afe as possible. So I carried out a BRA for “cooking inside the flysheet of a tent”.

My Benefit and Risk Assessment

From this process it became apparent that we could carefully teach young people to cook within a tent as long as,

BRA For tent cooking!

“Cooking in a tent should be seen as a ‘last resort’ and not a regular practice”

So to teach young people to cook inside their tent a number of key things have to be understood and in place to ensure it is as safe as possible.

  • Clear rational for doing it – training for last resort not as ‘encouragement’ to do so
  • A Clear Benefit and Risk Assessment – more importantly the young people needed to understand it
  • Manage Carbon Monoxide – understand the signs of CO poisoning and how to deal with it
  • Managing condensation – it could become a ‘rain forest’ in the tent with out proper ventilation
  • Clear tent routines – kit away (this is the greatest fire risk)
  • Choice of tent and stoves – no portable BBQs, cooking under the flysheet not in the inner tent
  • Actions on – what to do if it all goes horribly wrong

Expedition chef weekend

In February 2020 we ran an expedition chef weekend with the aim to improving the quality of food on expeditions. Using different cooking techniques, we made bread, vacuum packed meals, stews, snacks, and soups.

Homemade boil in the bag

As part of this training the young people cooked two meals inside the tent – under close supervision after they had written their own risk assessment, and each tent had a CO monitor.

The participants were far more confident in cooking using stoves and were very creative. Some were confident in cooking within a tent some not so – but as I explained when there is no adult to defer to or when they are adults they need to balance the benefit with the risk.

Lessons learnt:

Making stew on a trangia!

Risk aware or risk averse? A lot of people are very risk averse – would rather avoid risk altogether. However by considering the Benefits as well as the Risks I think you make people more risk aware and better able to control the risk or not to take the risk.

Sharing BRA’s. What was incredibly insightful was sharing and getting young people to write their own BRA, it took time and they needed guidance but it is important aspect of the learning process for them to understanding potential risk and being able to manage it. It is what is done now in schools.

Perceptions. Cooking in tents will always be seen as a very high-risk venture, for some a risk too far. In fact the BRA without control measures does emphasis this. But having the correct training and control measures in place does reduce these risks greatly to a manageable level.

Teaching – tent cooking. Some ‘professionals’ might see training for this as rather flippant and unnecessary but surely we need to prepare our young people for the time when we are not around and adulthood. As a trainer it again emphasises the need for the invisible safety bubble around trainees that we must have until we are confident they can cope. Simple things like CO monitors, close supervision, fire extinguishers, first aid etc. The additional BRA control measures

In conclusion

This has been an interesting process and journey. As I delved into greater depth there is a growing culture of risk aversion to avoid harm and litigation. But young people need to understand inherent danger and be able to manage it – even things like cooking in a tent. For you can guarantee in appalling weather conditions in Knoydart people will look at the comparative safety of their tent and think why not? I would and have!

So, “Should we teach young people to understand risk?” Yes, without a doubt, but only if you have the experience and understand the risks and able to create a safe learning environment!

“But on the whole I DO think youngsters need to learn about such skills and the inherent dangers, more for their own futures in the outdoors than for DofE”

Mastering your Cats, Dogs and Pets

I have loved paddling since I first went on the water at 11 years old as a scout. At university I spent a lot of time paddling – doing canoe polo, fun recreation – but most of all Whitewater paddling, the bigger the better.

As you get older and have breaks from a sport your skills do fade as well as your confidence. In 2015 I have set a goal to be a Whitewater coach again – something I did in the military years ago but with all the regulations etc now a must have if you want to take people on white water. Hence over the last 2-3 years I have been developing my white water skills to do the assessment this year. Having done the training my biggest barrier is getting time on the water to redevelop my own paddling skills so that I’m confident on grade III/IV water.

I therefore enrolled on a white-water course in January, in Devon. At the time, the Dart was in full flood and I had a real ‘epic’ having my canoe-roll fail me and then having to bail out and swim; Being held in the ‘dish-washer’ going round and round and only just managing to pull myself out; A bit scary. This really sapped my confidence to the point that on the following day I really did not want to go paddle – I did manage to coax myself back onto the water and had another go, on the same river, getting back on the horse so to speak, was not a comfortable experience.

Now I had already enrolled on to an advanced Whitewater paddling course at Plas-Y-Brenin over half-term (February), so there was no backing out. I arrived very demoralised and willing to quit, I know I had the skills to do advanced white water stuff but my confidence was very low.

On the first day after meeting Pete and Chris the coaches, both national coaches, and a great team of fellow paddlers, I decided to give it a go, take each day at a time.

The first day on the Dee (grade II water) was challenging but Pete, perceptively, introduced me to the concept of cats and dogs. The dog is your skills – you can train your dog, develop skills and learn new tricks – I was good at that. However, as Pete pointed out, your confidence was like a cat – if you scare it away it will not want to come back unless you do some serious coaxing. Clearly, I was good at developing the ‘dog’ but had tormented and scared off the cat with my ‘epic’ a few weeks previously, and it did not want to come back any time soon.

Obviously if I did not pamper, coax, and slowly nurture my ‘cat’ I was not going to be making progress, I would be surviving each day but not thriving. Over the next week we spent time doing a variety of things.


Skill development on a range of grade II-IV water (River Dee, chain bridge, serpents tale)



Steep Creeking down a 30 foot fall.

Loved this.



Upper Conwy grade III river run and the Afon Llugwy grade II-IV (Cobdens falls)



By the end of the week I had managed to coax my ‘cat’ to have some fun and developed my ‘dog’ tricks – I was definitely happy and smiling like a Cheshire cat. Interestingly the take away development point from Pete was to work on all my ‘pets’ as Pete called them – particularly my rolling skills in different situations, still a barrier to further development as a white water coach I think.

All in all, a great week with some exceptional coaches who were very supportive, perspective and encouraging. I’ll definitely be paying the extra for future courses at Plas-Y-Brenin

Once I do my whitewater coach in April I think I might look at developing my sea kayaking skills with a plan to paddle around Anglesea in 2019/20!

Want to join me?

Finally, we all have our own ‘epics’ that can create self-doubt and crash our confidence, even the best of us. What this has shown me is the power of a great coach who can make all the difference to helping you master your ‘dog’ and taming your ‘cat’. Ultimately Improving your performance.

Coaching outdoors – how things have changed!

“You get the best effort from others not by lighting a fire beneath them but by building a fire within them”

climb coaching

I have always had a passion for being outdoors – as a young person doing the DofE and scouting and later in the military. This has taken many forms – climbing, mountaineering and paddling, basically anything outdoory. For me it has always been about the freedom and fun, the risk and the challenge.

In the military I became an outdoor instructor in paddling, climbing and mountaineering – mainly so I could do stuff but increasingly so I could share my love of being outdoors. This led to expeditions  all over the world. The underlying ethos was to instruct techniques  – survival, climbing, walking paddling strokes. And I became quite good at it.

paddle coachAfter having a family and a bit of a break  I got back into paddling, largely due to my kids doing scouting and being asked to help. I then embarked on ‘retraining’ becoming a paddle and climbing coach. I was really surprised to find that the landscape had changed greatly. We were no longer instructors but coaches. No longer focusing on perfecting strokes but more about skills, fun and enjoyment . This has of course generated a new industry of qualifications and requirements, mostly sensible I think.

As well as paddling I have also updated my climbing and hillwalking qualifications and think that the move towards a coaching culture is welcome. For example climbing has moved from telling how to make a move to a more holistic view and approach of coaching movement, balance, forces. Even mountaineering is moving in this direction with the focus on the client experience – flora and fauna (never my strength).

MWE coachingI think you can teach an old instructor new tricks! I have recently undertaken the Moderate Water Endorsement programme for paddling with I was so impressed by my coach, really talented, experience and supportive, a real role model. Again exemplifying a changing way of working with young people.

2016-01-15 train the trainer courseAnother area I have been developing working outdoors, having gained my Mountain Leader qualification recently I undertook the ‘train the trainer’ course at Plas y Brenin. Led by a former geography teacher this was very much about supportive learning, not being judgmental and discovery learning, not dissimilar to my style of teaching in the classroom.

Reflecting on the developments in the outdoor industry there has I think been a massive change, largely for the better, towards a coaching model that is supportive and inclusive that should see a greater uptake in people of all ages taking on adventures outdoors.

For me coaching is like teaching, making a difference to people,

“Each person holds so much power within themselves that needs to be let out. Sometimes they just need a little nudge, a little direction, a little support, a little coaching, and the greatest things can happen”

Unlike instructing, coaching is a dynamic two way process, before the session not just about the skills but the needs of the coachees, during the session a intricate dialogue (supporting, motivating, encouraging) and afterwards a reflection on the experience, what has been learnt and what I have learnt too. Always thinking of new ways of doing similar sessions in a different way so that it will engage, motivate and inspire!

 It reminds me of my first years of teaching, I had a colleague who had been a classroom teacher for over 30 years, he was far from past it. He kept his enthusiasm and motivation by focussing on the people and the learning and the fun of the whole experience, living in the moment day by day. I swear he was the biggest child in the class with bounds of enthusiasm and curiosity.

 But I don’t think coaching is quite teaching like instructing is neither coaching or teaching. A discussion for another time I think! Thoughts appreciated!

 “A coach is someone who tells you what you don’t want to hear, who has you see what you don’t want to see, so that you can be who you have always known you could be”

My summer project – develop a new company “Oxford Canoe Tours”

canoe oxford 02

Having paddled on the Thames and Cherwell for many years I was struck by how little commercialisation has gone on in terms of canoes and kayaks in Oxford.

Having recently done some paddling on the River Wye I was surprised how much business was going on in terms of canoeing and kayaking  – similar to that found in France. Putting people and groups up stream and collecting them at the end of the day – little instruction but reasonably safe and enjoyable. And some incredible views!

Having done a workshop on marketing and commercial practices as part of my MBA we studied tour operations in Oxford and it was obvious that there is a real lack of divergent opportunities for visitors to our great city. I really liked the idea we presented of different alternative trips – hence my thoughts for a tour of Oxford on the river by canoe. No one is doing it!

So with a friend, Richard, we have put together our embryonic business for the summer “Oxford Canoe Tours” to see how viable it could be.

Some of the details of our new business venture:

We will take you on an exploration of this ancient city by in canoes so that you can find out about how the river has made an essential contribution to the history of this famous city.

Our aim is to deliver a friendly, fun, informed and unique experience of Oxford for all participants.

Why? We want visitors to Oxford to experience an amazing journey through time and the city that informs and celebrates the world renowned heritage of Oxford as a fun, challenging memorable adventure, a lasting  memory.

How? Through a unique tour with friendly and knowledge tour guides along the waterways of Oxford.

What? we are Oxford Canoe Tours, want to experience an adventure with us?

We will be operating in collaboration with the Oxford Canoe and Kayak Club ( and running tours from:

Riverside Centre, Donnington Bridge, Oxford OX4 4AZ

We will be running tours on Monday, Tuesday and Thursday mornings, other days by arrangement. So if you are in Oxford why not experience Oxford in a unique and different way!

Further information,   Book your tour

Looking forward to meeting you over the summer!

So lets see how it develops and perhaps we might see a second season?