Final Gear Check

What to expect when guiding a trip

When it’s up to you to plan a trip, coordinate a group of people, and finally lead that group into the great unknown a lot of responsibility is on your shoulders – in fact all of it is.  The success or failure of a trip and the joy others get out of the experience depends on how well prepared you are.  Over the last year I’ve guided a group up Mt. Rainier, taken several groups kayaking through the San Juan islands, lead day trips up Mt. Adams, taken people on their first overnight backpacking trip and lead numerous backcountry ski trips.

Sometimes I’m asked by friends to lead a group – they might be somewhat knowledgeable about the outdoors but not have experience in a specific area and are looking to push their boundaries a bit or a complete novice that wants to see what this whole backpacking thing is like.  Other times, and more often than not, the reason I end up being tasked to guide is because I want to go do something awesome and most people are not motivated enough to do the work to make it happen. Going on adventures means not sitting back waiting for someone to invite you. If you are fed up waiting for other people to plan a trip or have been asked by your friends to help them plan an adventure here is a list of things to consider before, during and after the trip to ensure everything goes smoothly.

Pre-Trip: Before you step foot on the trail you have a lot of work to do.

  1. Figure out where you are going and who you are going with.
    • To effectively plan a trip this is the first step.  You need to make sure the trip you are planning is within the capabilities of the people you are going with.  If its not then you need to either change the trip, go with different people or make the people who are going to go train.
    • This is also a great time to pick a backup trip.  Many times, for a variety of reasons, a trip gets canceled days or even hours before its go time.  Pick a backup trip that takes roughly the same amount of time, has similar travel times to and from the location, but is located in the opposite direction.  Here in Washington State the weather on the west of the state is dramatically different than the eastern side.  I always pick a backup that is on the opposite side of the state to ensure that the bad weather that forces you to pick plan b doesn’t affect both locations.
  2. Monitor the weather non-stop.
    • Once you have the basic plan don’t stop watching the weather.  You need to understand what is considered normal weather and what is considered extreme.  If you don’t know the area you are going to intimately then this becomes even more important.  Without knowing what to expect and what falls outside the window of “safe” you wont be able to know when to hold’em and when to fold’em.
  3. Study maps like your life depends on it (because it just might… Queue ominous background music.)
    • Once you know where you are going you need to KNOW where you are going. If things go badly knowing specifically where you are and what your options are needs to be second nature.  Knowing where emergency camp sites are located, water sources, side trails, navigation points (peaks, deep rivers, cliffs, etc.), distances between locations and other location specific features is key.
  4. Put together your packing list.
    • You need to understand what you are going to bring before you start recommending gear to others.  When I put together my packing list I separate it into two sections: the first is what everyone should bring and the second is the extra stuff I’ll need to bring as leader of the group.  Sorry to burst your bubble but guiding a group means bringing extra gear that no one else brings.  This should include things like an extra pair of socks (people always burn a hole in their socks trying to dry them by the fire), repair gear, extra sunscreen, medical supplies, back up water filtration, etc.  Basically the emergency things that the people in your group will inevitably forget.  I’ve found extra AA and AAA batteries are the most important.  Too many times people bust out their headlamps for a summit attempt to discover the batteries are dead and they don’t have any replacements.
    • I send out the first section to the entire group and make sure they send me their completed gear lists back to verify that they are bringing what they need. Double check that they actually packed everything they said they would the day before you leave.  People seem to think that they can skimp on stuff last minute.  You don’t want any surprises like “Oh yeah, I meant to get fuel for my stove but I didn’t have time to go to the store.”.
  5. Figure out food and water.
    • Sometimes this is easy – tell people to get a couple freeze dried meals and oatmeal.  Other times its not so much.  Kayaking is one of those times – family style meals make kayaking way better so its up to you to make this happen.  That includes packing that big stove and pot that no one else wants to pack.  Remember that its up to you to make sure everyone else has a good time.  If you do your job and the group has fun then you will have fun too.
    • Its also important to make sure people are eating snacks and staying properly hydrated on the trail.  Backcountry novices inevitably don’t eat or drink enough and nothing slows a group down like dehydration or low blood sugar.  Pack extra snacks like gummy worms or some trail mix and be prepared to literally force feed water down the throats of your fellow adventurers.
  6. Check in on everyone periodically.
    • Get commitments from people that they are going and make them renew those commitments every so often leading up to the trip.  Its also good to check in on their training to make sure they are up to speed.  You don’t want one person causing the rest of the group to miss their summit bid because they neglected their pre-trip training. Getting a “deposit” to reserve campsites or secure climbing permits is a great way to force commitment.
  7. Kick people out!
    • After checking in with your group you need to assess the capabilities of everyone and if needed tell some people they are no longer welcome as part of the group.  I’ve had to do this several times and while it wasn’t fun it was the right thing to do.  The people I told can’t come are still my friends and I still go adventuring with them – just not that one time.
  8. Arrange transport.
    • If people are flying somewhere that is up to them to figure out but once its time to head to the trailhead its up to you to make sure someone has a car that fits everyone or maybe you rent a van.  Its easier to coordinate if everyone is traveling together.
  9. Plan on paying for everything then send out a bill.
    • Food, transport, hiking permits, gas, etc. All these things cost money and someone needs to pay for them.  I’ve found it easiest to just put everything on my credit card and send people a bill after the trip is over.  Consequently if you don’t trust the people you are going on a trip with you can send them a bill prior to leaving and if they don’t pay they don’t go. But, if you don’t trust these people to pay you back I’m not sure I would trust them not to get me killed on an adventure.

During the trip: Its still lots of work.

  1. Make sure no one forgot anything.
    • Before you leave the house make sure everyone has everything.  Do this again before you are out of sight of the car.  Inevitably people will forgot crucial items like trekking poles because the excitement of doing something awesome makes them forget everything else.
  2. Pick someone else to lead the way so you can pay attention to how people are doing.
    • I don’t like hiking in the front of the group (or kayaking or skiing).  A good rule of thumb is to pick the 2nd most skilled person in the group and put them in front.  They can set the pace and hopefully know enough to watch out for obstacles.  I like to hike in the rear to make sure I can keep an eye on everyone.  Noticing that someone has started to slightly limp and asking them about it can make the difference between success and failure.  People will try to suck it up and deal with issues that should be treated rather than dealt with.  Blisters are a great example of this.
  3. Take regular breaks.
    • Insist on this.  Just like people not wanting to admit they have a blister or have pulled a muscle they will also not admit that they are tired and need a break.  Taking a quick 30 seconds for everyone to catch their breath will actually increase your overall pace verses pushing the pack into a death march that becomes so slow you start going backward.
    • This is when you make sure people are eating and drinking.
    • This is also when you do your navigation.  Its up to you to make sure the group doesn’t get lost. Check, double check, and check again. Having to turn around and backtrack because you missed where the trail splits is extremely demoralizing for members of your group that are already feeling the strain of hiking.
  4. Keep an eye on the clock.
    • Just because you are ok hiking for 12 hours in the dark without stopping to make it to your planned camp doesn’t mean other people will enjoy this.  Sometimes you need to force people to hike faster.  Other times you can ease up and take extra breaks.  If it looks like you won’t make it try and figure out a backup camp spot.  Use your breaks to look at the map and wonder “what if we can’t make it – where could we stop?”.
    • This is a good place to point out that sometimes your plans don’t pan out.  If it looks like you won’t reach your day’s goal don’t get bummed out or try and force your group into a situation they won’t enjoy (ie the we need to get to camp now death march). Your goal is to make sure the rest of the group has fun.  Don’t let your personal expectations for the trip interfere with this. Know when to let some things slide.
  5. Share knowledge.
    • Too many leaders don’t explain their decisions. People like understanding why the group is doing something.  You are leading the group because you have the knowledge and its your responsibility to impart that knowledge to the rest of the group. This means explaining why you need to hike faster, why you always put your cliff bars in your upper right pocket, why that tree is cool, why this rock is more slippery than it looks and you should be careful.  The more knowledge the group has the less they will rely on you for every little decision.
  6. Ask for opinions but stick to your guns.
    • Sharing knowledge is great.  Asking for the group’s opinion is also awesome – people want to feel like they are contributing.  A great example is when you are selecting a campsite.  Saying “I like this campsite because its sheltered from the wind by that large group of trees that is blowing down from the north east and has easy access to water – what do you guys think? Are their any campsites that catch your eye?” can make a huge difference.  Not only does it help the group members understand what makes a good campsite but it also allows them to feel included.  99% of the time no one will have any other suggestions and the group will “decide” to camp where you say.  That other 1% of the time someone spots an awesome campsite you hadn’t seen and they feel super special.
    • Just because you are asking for the group’s opinion doesn’t mean you need to listen.  Many times people will want to take the more direct route to a location or think that something is easier or that you can cut a corner here or there.  Stick to your gut and don’t let the group bully you into a decision.  You are leading for a reason so act like it and if your gut tells you something is a bad idea then screw popular opinion and go with your gut.
  7. Share your gear.
    • Your gear will become group property but others gear will be closely guarded and not shared.  I don’t know why this happens but I’ve always found that the person leading the group is expected to share all their gear as needed.  What is mine is yours.  But for some reason what is yours for sure isn’t mine.  People will borrow your gear without asking or a second thought but will look at you like you are requesting them to sacrifice their first born child if you want to borrow something of theirs.  Don’t try to understand this just know its the way the world works.
  8. Expect less sleep and more work.
    • There are lots of little things that need to be done that no one else will think about.  You will notice that when everyone has gone to bed there will be gear scattered about.  Stay up an extra 10 minutes and pick it up.  You might have told everyone to make sure their stuff is packed up before going to bed so that rodents don’t chew up someone’s shoes but not everyone will listen.  Be a nice person and help people out.  It will, in the long run, make your life easier.  It’s better to be slightly irritated that someone left their hiking boots out and curse at them under your breath as you toss them into your tent (you can enjoy the few minutes of freaking out the next morning when they can’t find them) then it is to wake up the next morning and find a raccoon has shredded those boots and now one member of your party doesn’t have any shoes…
  9. Wake up early and make coffee.
    • This the one thing I make sure I do no matter what when I’m on a trip.  I wake up about 15 minutes early and start making coffee.  Not only do I enjoy the small moment of personal time this allows while I sip my first cup of joe and listen to the birds chirp but it also gives me a chance to wake up and get caffeinated so I’m not irritable when the flood of questions come your way once everyone else is awake and wondering what to do (I am not a morning person).  I’ve also found that its easier to get people out of a warm sleeping bag in the cold morning if you can promise them coffee and everyone in the group will be in a better mood if people can wake up and get some caffeine.
    • They also make caffeinated hot coco.  I bring this with me for the people that don’t drink coffee.  I make sure my group members are caffeinated no matter what.
  10. Have a clear understanding of what the next day will bring BEFORE you go to bed.
    • You never know what you will wake up to.  I’ve gone to bed on a balmy night after a sunny day of hiking to wake up to two feet of snow (literally this happened to me and it sucked).  People start to freak out when they wake up to something they didn’t expect and you need to have the answers to calm them down.  Knowing the plan generally does the trick.
  11. Take pictures!
    • Everyone likes pictures and odds are they will be taking pictures of the scenery rather than of the people.  I focus on taking pictures of the people I’m with since it will remind them of the happy memories or of the adversity they overcame on the trip.

After the trip: Still more work…

  1. Send out that bill for your expenses.
    • You can wait a day or two but do this soon or else people will conveniently forget to pay you back.
  2. Send out the pictures!
    • Create a shared Dropbox folder and send the link to everyone. Its an easy way to share pictures that doesn’t use Facebook and degrade the quality.
  3. Remind people to store their gear correctly.
    • This is especially true for people new to the outdoors.  They don’t know that a down sleeping bag shouldn’t not be kept fully compressed in its compression sack for the 9 months in between uses.

2 thoughts on “What to expect when guiding a trip

  1. Taryn

    Great article. I lead backpacking trips for friends a few times a year and while most of the stuff on your list was stuff I was already doing, some of it gave me some great new ideas. Now I just have to figure out how to get them to start paying me for the time I spend planning and leading! 🙂

  2. Benjamin Bressler Benjamin Bressler

    Haha, if you can figure out how to get your friends to pay you please share! Also, if you (or anyone else) has some good ideas I left off this list don’t hesitate to talk about them in the comments.