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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)

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4) Slow the pace

Putting the slowest hikers at the front of the group is another tactic to keep everyone together. Compared to reducing pack loads, people are less likely to resist this move. Just be careful, however, that the lead group includes a good navigator. You don’t want them leading the rest of you down a game path instead of the trail, or making a wrong turn. Also, because front-loading the slowpokes will reduce the pace of the group, you might need to recalculate your daily mileage expectations, and even the group’s turn-around time.

5) Boost morale
A hiker’s pace isn’t all muscles and energy. It’s also attitude. A discouraged hiker will naturally slow down. Dehydration can fuel pessimistic thoughts, but so can the idea of being left behind. Several years ago I lagged behind the main group during a climb of Colorado’s Longs Peak. Each time I finally arrived to the rest stops, the whole group would stand up and resume hiking to leave me alone again. After several hours of hiking solo, my confidence was flat and I ended up not finishing the climb. Of course, if my slower pace had endangered the group (afternoon lightning strikes are a constant threat on Western peaks), their behavior and my decision to turn around would have been appropriate. But racing the clock wasn’t an issue on that climb. My failure to summit was partially the result of hiking in a group, but not feeling like I belonged to the group. So besides redistributing weight and slowing the pace, try to boost a struggling hiker’s morale. A good attitude can easily increase any person’s pace.

If you want more trail leadership tips, check out the Appalachian Mountain Club’s Mountain Leadership Handbook. This is the same textbook used by the AMC’s Mountain Leadership School, a five-day backcountry training program. Other non-medical training classes are offered by NOLS, The MountaineersREI storesEMS stores, and your local hiking clubs and outdoor retail stores.

What are your tactics to herd hikers? Leave a comment, or send an email to

—Jason Stevenson

idiot's guide to backpacking and hikingJason Stevenson is the author of The Complete Idiot's Guide to Backpacking and Hiking

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Reader Rating: -


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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