You’re Doing it Wrong: Social Situations

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You try to carry the whole group.

Shannon Rochelle, research manager and field instructor for the National Outdoor Leadership School, has a few theories about why no one wants to follow you anymore.

You fail to define the trip and get everyone’s buy-in.

In your exhilaration over the pending assault on Peak X, you might have left questions about key priorities unanswered, such as:

Is this trip only about bagging the peak?

Is it also about having a great time outdoors?

What’s the group’s ability and tolerance for risk?

Successful leaders get the group to answer—and agree on—these key questions. Next job: Sticking with the answers.

You make group decisions by yourself.

A good leader insists that, before any big decisions are made, everyone’s opinion is heard.

You let the group make “leader” decisions.

Exception to the previous rule: When somebody sprains an ankle and thunder is rumbling overhead, democracy means you’re doing it wrong. Time for benevolent dictatorship. “Mary, you help Dan walk. Tony, you make sure we stay on the trail. I’ll carry Dan’s pack. We’ll stop at timberline.”

You try to solve all your hiking companion’s problems.

She’s hurting. He’s worried. Shelve the solutions, and encourage her to vent. Explore his fears. Sometimes being heard is all they need. You can strategize later.

You’re a cheerleader instead of a hike leader.

Cut the mindless rah-rah and offer a hot drink, a snack, and a mental break to the hikers who need it.

You tell them what to do rather than doing it.

A good example is always more powerful than a lecture.

You’re a selfish partner.

We get it. Backpacking can be exhausting—more so if you’re busy resenting your trip buddy because the group gear division is unequal or inefficient. Solve it by divvying up the group gear thoughtfully. For example, if you’re carrying the tent and your partner is carrying the cook kit, use the water filter as an equalizer.

You’re a jerk.

  1. You pass like a rolling stone. If you’re going downhill with gravity assist, yield to the exhausted strivers schlepping up.
  2. You don’t say “hi.” We love wilderness solitude, too, but other hikers are great for trail intel. Plus, don’t be rude.
  3. You don’t yield the right of way. Bikers yield to hikers; hikers yield to horses; horses are still king.

Debatable: Solo vs. Group

Either way, you could be doing it wrong. Pick your priorities depending on your social style and your distaste for the downsides.

Party of one: Mark Jenkins, a frequent solo adventurer, cites John Muir and Henry David Thoreau, who never waited up for anybody, used their alone time to reflect, and then turned it into tomes that still resonate today. Not a thinker? More practically, you’ll be open to meeting more people once you get sick of yourself; and you’ll never have an argument over pace, what time to wake up, who’s carrying more group gear, or when/where to camp. Bonus: You’ll get all the leftovers.

Let’s have a party: Travelling with a group or a trail family lets you balance skills, says serial thru-hiker Liz “Snorkel” Thomas. If you’re good with navigation, recruit a cook and a pack mule to make a solid team. Having friends to share the experience with makes memories stronger, and dividing group gear makes everyone feel stronger. And if and when your group starts to grate on you, look to the lessons of history for reasons to stay together: Aron Ralston liked to go it alone, too.

I led a death march.

Few spots in Colorado come into their own around Memorial Day quite like Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve . It’s a place that’s easy to get excited about, which meant it was easy to rally a big group to join me for a birthday hike.

As the most experienced person—and the birthday boy—I became the leader, planning the route, helping people with their gear, selling the trip as a fun two-nighter. I maybe—maybe—forgot to mention that hiking in deep sand is, well, hard.

About 3 miles into the second day, we crested a small berm onto the dunefield proper, and the wind was blowing hard enough to depilate our legs down to baby skin. I was alone in my awe—and alone in packing the bandana that I put on everyone’s list. Soon moist sand was gathering around mouths. For whatever reason, wind dredges up emotions more than any other type of weather. Might be the way it robs you of a moment’s peace, all the while isolating you when it’s blowing too hard to yell over.

So perhaps it was no surprise that the group disintegrated into couples and spread out. Over the last mile to camp, I watched as one person would stagger a few feet and kneel. At least it was easy to blame the tears on blowing sand.

At some point, I sped to camp so I could backtrack and offer to porter. No one would even look at me. Who could blame them? My list of bad moves was long: I trusted novices to understand what they were getting into, thought stoke trumped truth, and, when it came down to it, abandoned the weak.

You never heard a more morose rendition of “Happy Birthday” in a more beautiful place.

–Casey Lyons

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