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Backpacker Magazine – Online Exclusive

Prof. Hike: Prevent Civil War on the Trail

Don't let different hiking speeds tear your group apart.

by: Jason Stevenson, author of The Complete Idiot's Guide to Backpacking and Hiking

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Groups who hike together, finish together. (Jason Stevenson)
Groups who hike together, finish together. (Jason Stevenson)
Groups who hike together, finish together. (Jason Stevenson)
Groups who hike together, finish together. (Jason Stevenson)

professor hike
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Here’s a common problem. You’re on a group hike when some people want to hike faster and others are struggling to keep up. What’s the solution?

Split up? Not recommended, especially if you’re dealing with novice hikers and confusing trail junctions. Dividing a group skyrockets the chance that someone will end up lost or injured. Don’t believe me? Type the query lost hikers "split up" into Google and start reading the tragic results.

So if breaking up isn’t an option, how do you keep the racers and stragglers together?

Trust me—herding feral cats with social anxiety disorders is often easier.

Nonetheless, here are five steps that often work.

 1) Notice the problem
Unless you’re marching in formation, a line of hikers will naturally spread out. In most cases they will separate into distinctive “conversation clumps.” This isn’t a problem as long as everyone remains in contact. That means maintaining visual or audible contact with the person or groups ahead and behind you. Occasional lapses are fine, as long as the gaps between segments don’t get too big. Individual stragglers, however, as well as extended periods of no contact, are a cause for worry. Rules like stopping at all trail junctions and signposts can highlight these problems before someone gets confused, hurt, or lost.

2) Identify the source
Slow-moving hikers are the most frequent cause of pace problems. But sometimes the flashpoint is someone sprinting to the finish line. I encountered that scenario while leading a dayhike outside Santa Fe, New Mexico.  After this individual complained about how slow the group was moving, I recommended that he finish the hike independently. Yes, that violated the “Don’t divide the group” rule. But given the ease and popularity of the trail, and his experience and fitness, I felt this solution was better than continued complaints. He duly ran to the top of the mountain and back down before the rest of us, moving at an easier clip, made it to the summit.

3) Reduce pack weight
Redistributing gear from slow hikers to faster ones is the best way to boost the overall speed of a group. Unfortunately, most people, including those exhausted and in pain, will resist lightening their packs. Face it: They don’t want to be singled out as the weakest link. But reducing their pack by several pounds will help the entire group remain together. To get resistant hikers to comply, suggest that you can pack their gear more comfortably and efficiently. Once you get access to their gear, remove heavy items like food, cooking gear, fuel, and tent parts, and give them to faster hikers. Once their pack is open and disgorged, there’s little a disgruntled hiker can do to stop you from cutting weight.

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the buckaroo
Mar 22, 2011

...I found that hiking in groups destroys morale. Slackers are just a fact of life, usually clueless & get left at home second time around.

After a few treks, one choses companions wisely. My 9 year old boy & the dogs are my idea of a manageable herd. Guess I'm getting ornery in my old age.

Steve Cash
Mar 07, 2011

Prof, you did a good job describing the discouragement caused when the tired hiker catches up to the group and the group takes off...again. This one thing can hurt what could be a great group experience. I've found that placing the slowest hiker at the front will usually give then a psychological boost and their speed will pick up. Rotating the lead can also be helpful. Sometimes, singing can also help keep up spirits and provide a good walking cadence. (Their is a reason why armies had marching bands).

Steve Cash
Mar 07, 2011

Here is what I do when leading a group.
1. Monitor what the newbies are carrying. The suggestion to "get access to their gear" is great. If you have newbies and this is a fairly long trek, I suggest doing that before you start out. If people are sharing gear (tents, cook gear, etc.) meet together at someones house with your loaded packs a day or two before the trip, eat dinner together, and spread out your gear on the living room floor. This leads to great discussions about what is/is not needed. When people shoulder their packs for the first time - fully loaded - they begin see the value of reducing weight and they unpack the heavy items. I've found that too often, this unloading of weight occurs at the trailhead. Sometimes this is necessary, but it gets you started on the trail later that you wanted.

Mar 06, 2011

I found that using 2-way radios (one at point, a couple staggered in the middle, and one at sweep) really remedies the problem.

Mar 04, 2011

I have used all of the suggestions mentioned in your article. I've led many diverse groups and one or more of these tips helps. Thanks.

Colorado Pete
Mar 04, 2011

The suggestions and comments are good and wise IMHO. I have been hiking in mountains and deserts for many years. I find that, with my advanced age, my pace has slowed considerably, this due to my taking frequent rest stops. I hike with folks who are of the same relative age group and have the same limitations that I experience. That said, I still do not like to hike in a "tight or close" group. Knowing that a person is too close and about to step on my heel makes me nervous. And trying to not step on their heel is also uncomfortable for me. So I encourage faster hikers to go forward and don't worry about me, but to stop at junctions or points on the trail which may be confusing---such advice given in the above article.
Finally, applying common sense while hiking in a group has always worked for us. We have never experienced injury nor a person getting lost while on the trail.

Mar 04, 2011

I've led lots of group hikes, usually with a co-leader. I'm often the "sweep". As the author here mentions, the rule is that the first group to an intersection, pass, or confusing section must stop and wait for the next group and so on. We will gather all together for lunch at the very least to assess how people are doing.
One big rule is no macho BS. If someone is exhausted or ill then we find a place to stop for a long rest or we stop for the night.
We aren't on a death march. We're out for enjoyment. Otherwise go off on your own at another time.

Mar 04, 2011

When I was in the scouts, we did a lot of backpacking. Our Scoutmaster was very aware that the youngsters could hike circles around the chaperones. Even though the adults were fit, they were no match for our youth. When the group started to get spread out, we could hear the distinctive call for a "Kodak moment!" Everyone in the fast group would have to backtrack to the prime photo location the Scoutmaster managed to find.


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