Tempted to delay your Friday afternoon departure because a few office friends are going to happy hour? You won't if another friend–or 20–is waiting at the trailhead. Peer pressure is undoubtedly part of the success behind meetup.com, a social networking site that's had astounding success at getting hikers out on the trail.
The premise of the website: help people create community groups that transcend cyberspace–they meet up. Among the 55,000 locally organized Meetup groups established around the world, you'll find gatherings focused on small businesses, vegan fare, and basset hounds. Meetup's hiking groups, which boast nearly 285,000 members in 452 cities, are one of the site's most popular categories. The groups' calendars are often filled with options from two-mile meanders to all-day adventures and overnights. "You use the internet to get off the internet," says Kelly Stewart, who organizes Tennessee's Nashville Hiking Meetup, which is one of the website's big success stories. Here's Stewart's social-networking guide for hikers.
Ease in For the uninitiated, Meetup hikes are like blind dates. "First choose low-risk events to get to know people," Stewart says. His own Meetup group offers regular social gatherings and short hikes in town. He also suggests contacting the Meetup organizer before attending your first event. Ask if someone can look out for you.
Go to hike (not hook up) Stewart says there are plenty of singles among his ranks. "But we're not a dating group. We're health-minded and love to hike," he says. "If someone is a bad egg, they soon realize that this isn't the place for them." Meetup pals also don't appreciate being blown off. "One of the few hikers I've kicked out was someone who repeatedly no-showed," says Stewart.
Reserve in advance Once you're comfortable with a Meetup group, plan ahead. Some groups are so large that event attendance is limited in order to respect trails and other people. Stewart's group, for instance, has 1,875 members. They can't all show up at once.
Start your own group No Meetup hiking groups in your area? It's easy to form a new one. Meetup's website provides step-by-step instructions, and will automatically alert others in your area that have expressed interest on the site for a hiking-specific group. Your $12 monthly fee includes toll-free customer service. Stewart's advice for new group leaders: Create a "Frequently Asked Questions" (FAQ) list for potential members. Look at backpacking groups in other cities on meetup.com for ideas on how to run your group. Get a sense of how meetings are run by attending other groups' events while you're away on business. And always have events planned and displayed on your Meetup group's online calendar. Stewart (who has a number of volunteer assistant group leaders) offers up to five activities per week.
Copy the idea Not crazy about strangers, but still want the peer pressure? Plan hikes with friends who will reliably hit the trail, and tell them to shut off their cell phones so you can't call each other and bail at the last minute.