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You don’t need Shackletonian heroics to take charge–only the proper mix of experience, effective communication, and risk-avoidance. Guiding a group is also a prime opportunity to expand your outdoor skills into management and logistics.
Before the Trip
- Gauge abilities Interview all participants about their previous experience before planning a demanding hike. Call them on the phone, as people find it easier to inflate their outdoors resumés over email. Requiring specific gear can help identify inexperienced hikers.
- Share details Let participants know exactly what the trip will entail in terms of mileage and challenging terrain, as well as payoffs like views and secluded campsites. Designate alternative routes and goals (a high lake instead of a summit) in case the weather turns bad.
- Check regulations Consult land managers about your destination. Large, non-commercial groups are sometimes subject to size limits or special permit rules.
- Be prepared Pack group first-aid supplies like bandages, wound cleansers, and painkillers, as well as repair tools like nylon patches and parachute cord. Attend a wilderness first-aid course, and consider getting Wilderness First Responder certification if you regularly lead groups.
- Train together Schedule shakedown hikes and skills clinics before ambitious trips. Pay special attention to footwear problems and blisters. Assign training partners with similar fitness levels so individuals can push each other to get in shape.
On the Trail
- Check in Assemble the group before leaving camp to inquire about injuries (especially hot spots and blisters), fatigue, and load weight. Discuss the day’s route, describing the mileage, challenging sections, key trail junctions, and goals.
- Share details Provide all participants with a trail map annotated with landmarks and potential retreat/escape routes. Share navigating responsibilities, and encourage everyone to ask questions.
- Monitor conditions Watch for hikers who aren’t drinking (dehydration), are irritable (low blood sugar), or are fatigued. Deal with these problems before they intensify.
- Use carrots Encourage results with incentives, like “Let’s keep this break to 10 minutes so we can reach the lake by noon.” Identify specialists for complicated tasks like routefinding and cooking, but rotate other jobs among all participants.
- Help others Rally the group to aid slower hikers, not resent them. Shift weight from fatigued members to fitter ones: The sherpas get status, and the stragglers get a break.
- Stay together Never split up a group, even when returning to the trailhead. Separated group syndrome is a common search-and-rescue scenario. Designate responsible lead and sweep hikers, but realize that people may still take wrong turns between the two.