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Secure Your Own Oxygen Mask Before Helping Others

Secure Your Own Oxygen Mask Before Helping Others

This is the third in our summer series: Life Lessons Learned in the Woods. I realize this is mostly a story about flying, which isn’t exactly the wilderness, but wilderness guiding experience applies. You'll see, I promise. Enjoy!

When I fastened my safety belt at the beginning of the flight, I had no idea how different those words would sound at 30,000 feet.

We took off under clear skies. Almost a year prior I had experienced long delays and an unexpected overnight layover due to thunderstorms. I was considering myself grateful for the lack of extreme weather.

But it was not the weather that was the cause of the mid-flight drama this time. As we crossed over Kansas, I recall a fellow passenger, on his way back to his seat from the restroom at the front of the plane, smelling strongly of smoke.

Seriously? I thought. Didn’t you get the memo that smoking isn’t allowed on the plane?

That thought was soon followed by the flight attendant’s voice coming through the crackly loudspeaker. Her words were rushed: we would be making a diverted landing. I had trouble understanding. Diverted landing?

Without a moment to process what she had said, I felt the plane instantly begin a rapid descent. Mere seconds after that, I nearly jumped out of my seat as a loud “click” accompanied bright orange oxygen masks, bouncing down from their storage overhead. They dangled eerily, swaying in air. They had a strange surgical smell.

Time seemed to stand still. Was this really happening? I had to be dreaming. We all gawked at each other and at the oxygen masks hanging in front of us, frozen for a moment, trying to comprehend. Somewhere a voice crackled: put on your own mask before helping others.

I didn’t want to put on a mask and sit still. I wanted to know what was going on. I wanted to jump out of my seat and do something. I wanted to know if this was an emergency or a precaution. I wanted to know if we were going to die.

But in that moment, there was nothing I could do except put on my mask and wait. No amount of preparation, of worry, of wondering, or jumping to action could have changed my situation. All I could do was put on that mask, take the outstretched hand of the tearful stranger next to me, and wait. And breathe.


My mind flashed back to my wilderness guide training. There’s a thing called “Expedition Behavior” in guiding literature. Expedition Behavior (EB) is all the stuff that helps a trip go smoothly, no matter what you encounter. Good EB makes an ordinary trip amazing; bad EB can make everyone miserable. But where it really counts is in an emergency. It can be the difference between life and death.

The first three principles of EB go like this:

  1. Self-awareness
  2. Self-care
  3. Care of others

You’d think that when on a trip, if you’re the guide, that your primary concern should be taking care of your group.

Not so. In order to care for the group, you must first make sure you’re doing okay. Contrary to common knowledge, trying to be a “hero” can actually be dangerous. The same applies to being a positive member of any group. You must first take care of you.

Be aware of waht's going on with yourself: are you safe? Hungry? Cold? Thirsty? Excessively tired? You must pay attention - and take action on what you learn - before you can safely reach out and care for others.

When faced with an emergency, taking initiative to pause and pay attention is imperative. I think of it as taking one deep breath and asking myself: am I okay? What do I need to be okay?


The half hour between when the oxygen masks came down to when our plane’s wheels gracefully touched the ground were some of the longest in my life. As soon as we touched down, we passengers spontaneously burst into cheering.

Sometimes, helping others is not the role you need to play.

On that flight, the best thing we as passengers could do was to take care of ourselves. To be still, to breathe, and to stay calm. Our pilot handled the emergency and got us out of a situation alive. Because we remained calm, she was able to focus, deal with the mechanical failure effectively, and get us to safety.


There are many situations I’ve encountered, while guiding wilderness trips, traveling in remote areas, and even in life in general, where poor Expedition Behavior has gotten us into trouble and good EB has gotten us out.

I'll never forget my Wilderness First Responder instructor's advice: when you’re faced with an emergency, before doing anything else, stop and smoke a metaphorical cigarette. In other words, instead of immediately jumping into action, pause first. What’s going on? Will taking action put you in jeopardy? What is your role: is it taking leadership, offering support, or simply getting out of the way?


Have you seen or used good EB to get yourself out of bad situations? Or have you seen a lack of self-awareness and self-care get you into trouble!?

Share your experiences with us in the comments or on FB / IG @redbudsuds #thoughtfullyclean

Find all the stories in our summer series here.

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Thoughtfully yours,


filed under: #redbudroadtrip | #ThoughtfulThursday | Thoughtfully Clean Field Notes

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