Hitting the trail with a group of people is a fantastic way to strengthen friendships or get to know completely new people.
While you’re putting in the miles, the person at the front has a very important role in keeping the group together, safe and in high spirits.
It’s important to switch up the hiking order every few hours, to give everyone a chance to hike up front. But whenever someone new takes the lead, I always make sure they know the responsibilities of a good trail leader.
1. Keep an Eye Out for Trail Markers
Most trails in the US are marked with blazes or cairns to help hikers stay on the trail, as well as avoid trampling vegetation and getting lost.
Blazes are usually colored shapes painted on to trees, or else small reflectors nailed into the bark. Cairns are carefully places rock pyramids used to mark trails when there are no trees.
Every trail has a distinctive color or shape for its blazes – which is sometimes noted on a trail map of the area. A good hiking leader knows what trail markers to look for and keeps a mental note of when they saw the last one.
If the trail starts to get sketchy or it’s unclear where it leads next, the leader should stop and think back to when they saw the last trail marker.
If you can see another marker ahead, try to head straight towards it. It’s also possible you missed a turn and might need to head back to the last marker you saw to find the trail again.
Keeping track of the trail markers you pass may seem like a mundane task, but it’s one of the most important tasks the hiking leader has.
Often, people walking behind you will just follow in your footsteps, without looking up or really having much sense of where they’re going.
If the leader isn’t 100% confident that he or she is on the trail at all times, they might lead the group astray for quite a while before anyone else notices or says something.
2. Stop at River Crossings and Trail Junctions
Any time the trail forks or presents multiple paths, it’s very important that you wait for everyone in your group to catch up before continuing on down the trail.
The most common way that groups get split up and hikers end up lost is when they’re too spread out to see each other and end up taking different paths at the same junction.
If you find yourself with time to kill while you wait for the last members of your group to catch up, junctions and river crossings present a great opportunity to locate yourself on your map, since they’re usually well marked.
Confirm you’re on the right path, and see what’s up ahead so you can inform the group.
3. Know What Challenges Lie Ahead
A good trail leader knows what lies ahead, and keeps the group well-informed so everyone knows what to expect. Does it get steeper? How far is it to the next water source? When will we reach the campsite or parking lot?
Even if you’ve never hiked this trail before, you can answer a lot of those questions by simply reading the map closely.
It’s also a good idea to consult guidebooks or websites ahead of time to see what people have said about the trail in general. Is it rugged? Muddy? Isolated?
Knowing what challenges lie ahead – and keeping the group well-informed about those challenges – goes a long way to managing everyone’s expectations and keeping morale up.
4. Manage the Group's Pace
There’s a common saying among hikers that you should “hike your own hike” (HYOH). Part of that means setting a pace you are comfortable with and sticking with it.
But when you’re at the front of the group, it’s important to recognize how your pace impacts everyone else’s pace, and in turn, affects how they all feel about the hike.
If you’re going fast, some people will try to keep up with you, pushing their heart rate up higher than they’d like, which will wear them down more quickly. They’ll struggle more over steep terrain and need to take longer breaks to feel comfortable.
Other people will see you getting further ahead and get discouraged. As you start to disappear down the trail ahead of them, they’ll start to check out and their pace may slow even more as they feel left behind.
Alternatively, hiking too slowly can cause people to get jammed up behind you and frustrated. It also makes the hike take longer, which can have an impact on morale if you’re not making good progress towards your group’s goal.
As the trail leader, it’s important to recognize then even slight differences in speed between hikers can have a big impact over the course of several hours, and can potentially create lots of frustration in the process.
Whenever the group stops to take breaks, be proactive and ask how everyone’s feeling with the pace so far.
Check with the person in the back to see how they’re feeling. Some people enjoy the solitude of being the caboose, but others might feel like they’re slowing the group down and get discouraged.
Be willing to adjust your pace and hike towards the middle or rear of the group if you sense that the pace is causing people’s enthusiasm for the hike to wane.
5. Set Everyone's Expectations When Taking Breaks
Inevitably, people will need to take a break to change layers, grab a snack or use the bathroom.
Whenever the group agrees to stop, it’s a great idea to quickly establish how long the break will be so that everyone is on the same page.
I usually try to establish whether the break will be:
- 2 Minutes - For grabbing a snack or water, or switching layers
- 5 Minutes - Bathroom breaks, checking the map, enjoying a quick view
- 30 Minutes - Making a meal, enjoying a summit, tending to first aid
If you don’t set expectations, people end up sitting around not knowing if they have time to take care of something, and then getting cold and anxious.
Someone assumes it’s a 2-minute break and leaves their pack on, but after a minute, someone else decides they need to run off to use the bathroom. After they’ve been gone for a few minutes, the first person decides to sit down, take their pack off and air their feet out, just as the bathroom person is coming back, and then someone else decides to start making a sandwich…
For longer breaks, I also like to give a “2-minute warning” before we start hiking again, so that people know that now’s the time to grab that last handful of trail mix and start packing their bag back up.
Make sure you stop for enough time that the person in the back has all the time they need to rest and take care of issues as well.
6. Be Proactive About Keeping Everyone Comfortable
Every group – especially if it has newer hikers – runs into the same common issues:
- People start out chilly and put on too many layers, but after 15 minutes of hiking they’re sweating profusely and haven’t taken anything off.
- Warm and sweaty feet start to turn into hot spots which rub the skin until a painful blister ruins the trip.
- Even if they have a water bladder or bottle close at hand, people don’t realize how much they sweat while hiking and get dehydrated.
As a trail leader, it’s good to periodically remind the group about certain issues and see if anyone wants to stop and address them.
On chilly days, after 15 minutes of hiking I’ll ask if anyone has started sweating in their jacket and wants to stop to drop a layer.
On warm days, I’ll ask people if their feet feel warm or sweaty, or if there are any problem spots forming.
By mid-day, I’ll make sure everyone had peed within the last 3-4 hours or ask how much water they’ve gone through, to see if they’re staying properly hydrated.
If someone mentions discomfort or a sore spot in their legs, shoulders or back, I’ll make a mental note to follow up in a little while to see if they’re really suffering in silence or if they’ve started to feel better.
Being proactive can help you avoid a lot of common trail issues, and following up with people who aren’t feeling great can go a long way to making them feel more looked after and boost their confidence levels.
It's Not About Being the Fastest Hiker
Ultimately, anyone in the group can perform most of these responsibilities. But if you’re up front, it’s especially important to know how your decision making can impact the rest of the group.
Stepping up and taking ownership of the group can go a long way to make new hikers more at ease, and calm the nerves of those who might be struggling a bit.