Friday, May 12, 2017

How (and how not) to plan a successful group hike

A well planned and well executed group hike can be a ton of fun, but a poorly planned or poorly run group hike can be anywhere from frustrating or stressful to outright deadly. Some of these tips apply to hikes with your usual hiking group as well, but in this post I'm focusing on hikes with more than 3-4 people (sometimes a lot more) in a group which is made up of people who don't usually hike together, who have different experience levels, and which is planned by 1-3 core people.

Alex, Nienke, and I have planned several very successful group hikes, and the three of us have also, individually and together, participated in various group hikes organized by other people, some of which were less successful. There are a few defining characteristics that really make a group hike successful: planning, expectations, and group cohesion.

The first step, before even issuing the invitation, is planning. If you're planning a group hike, you must make a plan and communicate that plan.

DO have a core group or primary planner who is responsible for the hike plan.
DO NOT suggest or invite people to a group hike and hope the planning happens, somehow.

Somebody has to do the planning. If you don't want to do it, then don't suggest the activity. If you want to do the activity, then step up and do the planning. Sure, you might have an invitee who is good at hike planning, and who will ultimately make sure things go reasonably well, but they will probably not be happy about it and will probably choose to not hike with you again. This happened to us. We're not hiking with that group again, although we might invite some of the members on one of our group hikes in the future.

DO choose a specific trail and route.
DO NOT tell the group "we'll figure out which trail to take when we get there."
DO NOT poll people about which trail they want to do.

There are a couple of reasons for this, and the first and most important one is safety. Keep in mind that some of the best hiking has some of the worst phone service, especially in a mountainous region like BC. If you haven't chosen which trail and route you're going to take before you go, how can you tell your responsible person your itinerary before you head out, and therefore how can SAR know where to look for you if something bad happens and you don't come back at the end of the day? We've done many hikes where we lost cel phone service long before we reach the trailhead, and those are in popular parks.

The second reason is because different trails have different lengths and difficulty levels, and different people have different fitness and skill levels, and trying to negotiate all that at the trailhead is a bad idea. Some people might get railroaded into doing hikes that are beyond their ability, which can be dangerous and is no fun at all for the struggling hiker. Some people get really hung up on their first choice and spend the entire hike at some level of grumpy if their choice, which is obviously better, wasn't the one the group chose, and they don't have fun either (and neither do the people around them, even if it's a quiet level of grumpy). Polling people beforehand just moves that negotiation, and there's no way to tell if somebody you try to accommodate is even going to show up. Pick a trail right from the start and announce it when you invite people.

There will be people who don't like the trail you have chosen. That's fine! They can go on a different hike, or plan their own. Before one very successful group hike we planned, one invitee told us the trail we had chosen was no good and terrible and we wouldn't have fun. He didn't go; we had a great time.

DO choose a date.
DO NOT poll people about the date to try and find one that works for everybody.

This applies to all kinds of group activity planning, actually. It takes forever to narrow down dates, and the people causing the most trouble with settling on a date don't even come half the time anyway. Pick a date that works for you and stands a good chance of working for a reasonable number of people in the group you're planning to invite and that is preferably no less than two weeks after you invite them, and announce it when you invite people.

DO choose a specific, well defined meeting place.
DO NOT name an entire park or large general area as a meeting place.

In a group hike there are often people who only know the one person who invited them. Make it as easy as possible for them to find the group by naming a landmark or other really obvious specific thing that people can gather around. This could be the map board at the trailhead, a specific corner of a specific parking lot, or anything easily identifiable to somebody not familiar with the area.

DO research the trail; its length, elevation gain, estimated completion time, and difficulty level in particular.
DO NOT go only by the name of a popular trail that people are talking about all the time or that you saw in a list of great hikes.

The Grouse Grind is one of the worst for this in the Vancouver area: it's very popular, it seems short, and it's a lot more difficult than people who haven't hiked it realize. Sure, it's under 3km long and some fit people do it in less than an hour. But it is steep enough that most of it is effectively a staircase, and the terrain isn't exactly beginner friendly. On top of that, because there's a resort at the top, many people head up with no food or water and end up in trouble half way up because it's actually a very strenuous hike. SAR helps people off that 3km long, transit accessible trail all the time.

Likewise, make sure the trail descriptions you're using for planning have all four stats listed above, plus a detailed description. Some trails show up on "hikes to do in [region]" lists together when they are extremely, dangerously different, with only a passing comment about how much they differ from the easy hikes on the list. For example, this article starts with 5 hikes in the 2-hr range then drops in Hanes Valley right after them. Hanes Valley is a long, hard, full day (on the order of 10 hours) in very challenging terrain, is only open in summer and early autumn, is a one-way uphill hike because it's not really safe to go down the steep boulder field, and people get lost there regularly. The article simply says "scenic, but extremely difficult."

DO have a map for the hike area and a compass.
DO NOT assume the trail is so well-marked that you won't need a map.

The trail may well be well-marked. There may also be trail junctions, and if you take a wrong turn you may end up doing a much different well-marked hike than you had planned.

Best is to have a 1:50,000 or 1:20,000 scale topographic map with hiking trails marked. If one of those is not available for your hike area, government topo maps are always available but do not have hiking trails marked. Parks will often have trail maps on their pamphlets, but those may or may not have topographic information and their usefulness varies widely. The pamphlet holder attached to the trailhead map board may or may not be empty, if it exists at all, so you can't count on picking up a map when you get there.

So that's planning. The second factor in a successful group hike is expectation. This means that the hikers should know in advance what they've signed up for.

DO be specific in your invitation, especially about the length and difficulty of the trail.
DO NOT assume everybody in the group is familiar with the trail you're planning.
DO NOT surprise people on hike day by not telling them what the trail is ahead of time.

This is where you give people enough information to opt in or out, for schedule, interest, travel, or ability reasons. In order to do this, you can use the packing list and introduction we wrote for one of our group hikes. Feel free to copy this document, fill in your hike details, and share it with your group.

Hike organizers should pay special attention to the things the document says they will do during the hike, and make sure they do those things.

One of those things is the third factor in a successful group hike: group cohesion.

DO take steps to make sure the group stays together or regroups frequently.
DO NOT assume somebody lagging will catch up when you take a break.
DO NOT assume somebody hurrying on ahead will be at the lunch spot waiting for you.
DO NOT take an optional side trip or extension that is beyond the skill level of one of the members of the group, and leave that one person alone.

This means actively monitoring how spread out the group is, and calling on the fastest members of the group to stop periodically and let the slower members catch up and have a rest before moving on. This means regularly making sure the entire group is present and accounted for. This might mean that one of the organizers hikes at the very back of the group to make sure the slowest person isn't left behind—without rushing them beyond their ability or shaming them for being slow. This means even if a person says they'll be ok alone, you still keep the group together. Your group is only as fast as its slowest member.

This is about the safety of each person in your hiking group.

In the news article linked at the top of this post (and from other articles about the same search), a group hike had split into a faster and slower group. Fine so far, if not ideal. One member of the faster group was unable to keep up, and they left her behind, assuming she would meet the slower group and rejoin them at the top. She was never found. Either the faster group should have slowed down so they could stay together, or the faster group should have split into two safe size groups, so that nobody was left hiking alone. Splitting a group isn't fundamentally unsafe provided each group has enough experienced hikers committed to keeping those groups together. However, since group hikes are often social events, keeping the entire group together is the best option. If you want a faster group hike, invite people who you know have a faster pace so the entire group can do a faster hike.

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