You just can’t put safety first

I’m driving down the only major highway in the Roaring Fork Valley, and I find myself behind a properly badass truck house. A bumper sticker, garnishing the back door of the truck house, says “Safety Third.” 

In my head, I think, “dang dude, you reckless!” I smile, chuckle out loud, and take a blurry picture. The conversation in my head keeps going like this: 

Kyle sometimes says “safety second,” but he is only joking! 

Wait…we were only joking, right? That was a joke and we didn’t mean it…you have to put safety first so that you don’t die! It’s dangerous out there! This guy is crazy, what even comes first and second? 

Pause. Pause. Pause. 

Oh gees, people are funny. He’s just joking, though, I’m sure.

In the morning, I went through the pictures I had taken the night before. I pulled up the Safety Third picture and I thought, hm…wait a second, safety really isn’t first.

Hear me out: 

If you were to put safety first, what would you ever do? Would you drive down a highway at 75 mph? Would you travel on an airplane? Would you visit a foreign country? Would you have children? Would you attend a protest for Black Lives Matter in the middle of a global pandemic? WOULD ANYONE EVER LEAVE THE HOUSE? 

The answer is, no! In these instances, curiosity, adventure, enjoyment, and I don’t know, BASIC HUMAN RIGHTS, come before safety. 

There is inherent danger in EVERYTHING you do. Forget about hiking, biking or running in the mountains. Forget exploring a new trail or wilderness. You can not guarantee that you won’t get lost, or be attacked by an animal, or get in the way of a falling tree or rock. Sure, you can check the weather, but you can not guarantee that the forecast will be correct. If you stayed home every time there was a 30% chance of rain, you’d never go anywhere or do anything. Sometimes, a 30% chance of rain is a torrential downpour, and sometimes it’s nothing. That’s a risk you’re going to have to take. 

After thinking about Safety Third for a long time, the self-conscious part of me realized that it might be one of those things that everyone (except me) already knows about. If it’s a bumper sticker, it must be a thing. Google to the rescue. 

Urban Dictionary tells me that “Safety Third” is commonly used by adventure enthusiasts who want to be safe, but not at the expense of having fun. The term is used ironically, but in my mind, it doesn’t feel funny, it feels reckless.

Originally, Mike Rowe, the famous American television host, coined the term “safety third” on his show Dirty Jobs. If you’ve never seen the show, Mike Rowe showcases a wide variety of difficult, messy, dangerous or disgusting jobs. He does a lot of dangerous stuff on this TV show, and it sounds like he accumulated a whole slew of injuries along the way. 

Mike Rowe and his staff started saying “Safety Third,” because everywhere he looked, he saw Safety First signs, but he thought that, like any other sign or wall decor, you eventually look right through it. It becomes background noise, easily ignored. It’s pretty typical to develop a false sense of security when you complete the same task over and over again. 

He also learned that no one else is going to look after you–they are busy doing their job and keeping themselves safe. You need to be in charge of your own well-being. 

According to Mike Rowe, safety third really means that safety comes first, second, third, fourth and so on. 

In this way, safety doesn’t come in any place, it comes alongside EVERY place.


Kyle and I once traveled 9 hours to the White Mountains in New Hampshire to hike the Pemigewasset Loop (The Pemi for short). The loop is 31 miles. In the summer, with good weather, we could easily do it in 2 days. If we wanted to hike fast, I bet we could finish it in one really long day. We don’t usually do things the normal way though, so we waited until it was the dead of winter. Additionally, there had recently been a blizzard that dumped more than a foot of snow and brought down a ton of trees. Since we were breaking trail the entire time, and the trail was difficult to follow, we were behind schedule. We needed to hike along the ridge and over some peaks so that we could scoot back down to make camp for the night, but it was getting dark and it started to storm. 

The calm before the storm.

We were walking in a white out, falling into snow drifts, and we couldn’t figure out which way the trail went. Behind us, our tracks were disappearing in the wind. I was just about ready to FREAK OUT, but Kyle had a plan. About a quarter of a mile back, there was a group of bushes, and he had spotted a big enough opening for our tent. 

That night, we camped on top of a ridge in 40 mph winds. If we hadn’t turned around when we did, we could have died. Kyle later said that all he could think about was how mad our parents would be if we didn’t make it home. 

This was the first time that I thought my life was actually in danger. I had previously been in situations where I thought I might lose some fingers or toes, but never had I been scared for my life. If Kyle hadn’t been on the look out for a place to camp and purchased an all season tent that can withstand all the things, who knows what would have happened. The next day we hiked out and slept in a cozy motel–it felt a little anticlimactic. Nothing bad actually happened.

Nothing bad actually happened BECAUSE Kyle is always thinking about our safety.

Last year, I hiked on the Colorado Trail for twelve days. I did the first 7 days alone, and for the first time I had to make all of the decisions on my own. I couldn’t just blindly follow someone through the woods. I had to navigate the trail, the weather, and my own safety. It was for the first time that I realized how stressful it was to be in charge of all the things, but I was forced to do it and because I took that risk, I’m a safer outdoors person than I was before.

I am a big fan of the saying: “Live to (hike, bike, climb, etc) another day.” Sometimes the right thing is to stop what you’re doing and turn around, but if you ONLY think about safety, you’ll never accomplish anything.

Safety is important, but it doesn’t come first. Safety rides alongside adventure, excitement, risk, and a little bit of suffering. 

One comment

  1. Yes…..I would have been very mad and so, so sad. Glad you two made it out. Safety third!

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