Setting group expectations when you haven’t yet hiked the trail

Sunday morning I read a post on WildernessDave’s blog that delved into how diffident you can feel when you’ve decided to host a group hike but haven’t yet explored the trail you’re going to be hiking.

As Dave recounts:

We got an early start on a cold morning just as the sun was coming up.  I may not have made it entirely clear from the beginning, but I had never hiked this trail before.  I was going off of a pretty decent map and a trail description found online.  I didn’t know if there would be trail markers or not, or how easy the trail would be to follow once we got out of Spur Cross Recreation Area.  There is an expectation, when hiking with the person who has suggested the trail, that they are leading the hike.  This dawned on me shortly after we got started and I felt the pressure of needing to know where we were, where we were going and how far we still needed to go.  Every time someone asked, “is this the trail?” or “do we cross the creek here?” I felt like I should not only know the answer but be confident about it.

I appreciate Dave’s frankness in spite of what we may suppose are his ideal notions of himself; he encapsulates his experience well. I’ve certainly experienced the emotional struggle he was feeling; after all, every new trail is one you haven’t walked before. But when you’ve got other people joining you who may be new to hiking or haven’t yet hiked with you, or even seasoned hikers who may respect your abilities by reputation or proxy but don’t know the trail either, delivering on expectations can be of prime importance well before everybody arrives at the trailhead.

So how do you deliver?

Advance research is crucial for ensuring a fun, worry-free group hiking experience.

Advance research is crucial for ensuring a fun, worry-free group hiking experience.

Certainly a responsible hike organizer doesn’t show up at a trailhead as host of a group hike without doing as much advance research and planning as possible, as I figure Dave tried his best to do. Trail research can mean a good scouring of the available guidebooks, online trail descriptions, route-finding apps, weather predictions, seasonal trail conditions and hardcopy maps that you can lay your hands on – even enlisting the help of one or more of your fellow hikers – then taking the next step by setting proper expectations for the group. By all accounts, Dave is an experienced outdoorsman and, as he and I have learned from honest experience, one must also have confidence in one’s abilities as a seasoned hike leader, as well as confidence in the tools one uses to navigate the trail safely and as planned.

Which, for me, naturally begs two questions: what tools do you trust while researching a new trail and, aside from much of the typical gear you might pack with you, what tools do you trust once your group convenes at the trailhead?

I alluded to these questions in my comment on Wilderness Dave‘s post:

Once, in Paria Canyon, having seen 3 different GPS waypoints for the same trail destination prior to a hike into the Coyote Buttes, I’ll be danged if I’ll ever solely trust a GPS. Thank goodness I had my wits, a friend, trail descriptions and a map – and we reached our gruesomely twisted sandstone destination, The Wave (where we took another GPS reading that yielded yet a 4th coordinate).

While it’s preferable to have scouted a trail prior to leading a group hike over it, one doesn’t always get the opportunity, especially when the trailhead is a little further afield. But whether you know the trail or whether the hike will be a new experience, it always pays to set the group’s expectations early – once in the event write-up, then again at the trailhead before embarking down the trail. It’s at the trailhead that I tend to use words such as “discovery” and “adventure”, which I find resonate with folks. I also ask my fellow hikers to confirm my map readings so that there’s more of a consensus than an undue trust in my map-reading abilities. And that means more than any GPS interpretation can provide.

Entering The Wave, September 2003.

Entering The Wave, September 2003

It’s best to know what you’re getting everybody into…

Experience aside, you don’t want to lead other trusting souls on a group hike if you don’t know what to expect once you’re committed to leading it. But if you first take pains to characterize your hike so that you are reasonably satisfied with your expectations of what lies ahead, then when you publicly convey it as a bonafide hiking event, you’ll likely also attract the right people to your hike, simply because they will have reasonable expectations about the outing too.

Setting these kinds of advance expectations in your event write-up also raises the probability that you’ll keep out the riff-raff, which is to say, you’ll discourage those would-be attendees who, by seeing how you’ve characterized the hike, will likely realize they are not adequately conditioned or prepared; most will simply not show up for it. (Seasoned hike leaders will tell you: that’s a good thing.) Over time, you’ll become aware, and even thankful, that setting adequate expectations for your group will mean that your experience will be the fun outing that you planned rather than, as Dave may have experienced (and as I have too), an endurance exercise in people management.

So what kinds of expectations should you take pains to convey to your would-be group? The following list is a reasonably comprehensive one, and I consider its elements to be tantamount to crucial. So should you:

  • Always list the total distance. If there’s no adequate trail description handy, grab a good map and tally up the mileage between trail junctions/waypoints. Then, double-check your math – even triple-check it.
  • Always characterize the outing as a function of terrain and distance, and include seasonal factors such as weather, potential thunderstorms/flooding, and boil it down to a basic difficulty level, i.e.:
    • Easy
    • Moderate
    • Strenuous
    • Very strenuous

    As an example of this, a 10-mile hiking route in late Winter can be a very different experience than hiking the same route in the heat of Summer. What may seem like a moderate hike early on can seem brutal, unforgiving, and therefore very strenuous later in the year.

  • Always offer as much detail as necessary to get your hikers to the trailhead. This consideration is likely the most important one once people have committed to a hike’s distance and characterization, therefore requiring due diligence on your part so that all attendees arrive where you want them to – even when you want them to; i.e., how long they can expect to drive getting there.
  • Always state when you will meet and when you will hike. Because some people will have a tendency to show up at the last minute, I usually set a 15-minute window to allow for traffic conditions and to give early arrivers adequate time to get parked and perform their pre-hike ablutions.
  • If at all possible, always list an office phone number for the jurisdiction that manages the land you’ll be hiking in.
  • Always provide your own phone number or some other means of quickly contacting you during the hours and minutes preceding your hiking event. It’s reasonable to share this information privately with confirmed attendees rather than post it publicly in your event.
  • Optional, yet can make the difference in attendance numbers for many group hikes: a description of the expected experience, e.g., bird life, forests, grasslands, scenic views, tug-at-the-heartstrings chamber-of-commerce stuff if you prefer, plans for after the hike.

Do all of these things, and they will be the things that set a great hike leader apart from an armchair hike leader.

…so don’t be solely reliant on technology.

I’m sure it’s readily obvious from my comment to WildernessDave that I don’t place much faith in GPS technology; I surely don’t abide using a GPS system as the sole mechanism for safe and sane trail passage. I don’t believe other folks should do so, either; GPS technology is not nearly as reliable as some people tend to believe it is.

But whichever technojimcrackery you may hold in your hand, just because it’s got a microchip and software to control it doesn’t mean that it’s flawless! Don’t let technology (and its flaws) control you – or, by extension, your hiking buddies.

That’s not to say that GPS tools don’t serve a useful purpose. After all, they’re used to support land, sea, and airborne navigation, geophysical exploration, mapping and geodetic land surveys, vehicle location systems, and a wide variety of additional applications. The key take-away here is: a mobile GPS system is designed to be a support tool, not the only tool you should rely on.

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There are other life- and safety-critical reasons for not placing too much trust in your GPS system, as determined by researchers at Carnegie-Mellon University. To learn more, read an article titled Researchers Detect Big Flaws in GPS on the Tom’s Hardware website (a self-billed Authority on Tech).

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Researching my brain for a few final thoughts about…you guessed it: research.

If I may make one additional observation about setting expectations for your group hike, it is this: do your homework. And also know that placing undue faith solely in technology in lieu of adequate research one too many times will likely result in your being shunned as any kind of responsible leader by your local hiking community.

It’s a hard truth to saddle your horse with, but I’ve seen my share of this kind of bravado, and I cannot condone it. Indeed I’ve at times felt it necessary as a hike participant on another host’s event to step up and, using not much more than my wits and experience at reading unknown trail, help lead others back to where we started when confidence in the hike leader has been lost. Deciding to override the presumed authority of the hike organizer does not come easy, but when it’s a necessary decision, it’s always been the right decision in retrospect. Nevertheless, the profound outcome is that the experiences of all concerned could have been much more satisfying if the group host had been responsible in the first place. Fortunately this type of episode was not nearly the case with WildernessDave at Spur Cross; after all, his confidence in his abilities is hard-won from years of experience and experiment, virtue and volition, the tried and the true.

And: pre-hike research.

For the greater good, then, it’s better to deliver on your group’s expectations by always conducting thorough research – which, for the sagacity (and therefore, confidence) of the budding hike leader, should always mean advance trail reconnaissance – prior to even thinking about posting your group hike at that new trailhead.

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Have you ever organized a group hike but hadn’t first walked the trail?
Have you ever participated in a hike in which trust in the hike leader was compromised?
Please feel free to embellish upon my thoughts by adding yours.

But please, don’t judge. No group hike leader is ever a good group hike leader
until he or she makes the commitment to being one – a commitment that must renew
with each group outing.

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Dropping the eco-ball: camp stove manufacturers

I’ve camped with folks who really love the JetBoil system. Others have endorsed JetBoil’s products online. It’s true that the JetBoil stove can certainly can put a hot steaming mug of caffeinated goodness in one’s hand very quickly on a cold morning.

However, the JetBoil system uses a proprietary propane/iso-butane fuel mix; on their website, they state “we cannot claim safe operation with any canister other than our Jetpower brand of fuel.” A closed, proprietary standard, to be sure.

Strike One.

Their fuel canisters are not refillable, either, being designed only for one-time use. Yes, they are recyclable, but who among us knows off the top of their head where they can go nearby to recycle these canisters? This type of helpful information does not appear to be present on the JetBoil website.

Strike Two.

Landfills: let's not fill 'em up so fast.

Landfills: let’s not fill ’em up so fast.

Years ago I made a commitment to not buy disposable/nonrefillable products if there were alternative products available. Products that are disposable or are not designed to be reused merely clog the landfills and enlarge the aggregate ecological footprint, our per capita impact on the Earth.

Therefore, when recently replacing my trusty old Coleman stove, I did not purchase a JetBoil system.

I wrote to the JetBoil folks and asked the question, “Do you plan to produce a fuel canister that is refillable and/or can the JetBoil connect to a larger fuel distribution system such as a one-gallon propane tank?”

This morning I received the following response from Kristen Headley at JetBoil Customer Service:

“At this time our canisters are not refillable. However the canisters can be recycled anywhere that will recycle steel products. When recycling we do recommend that you puncture the canisters before sending them to be recycled. This can be done with a common can opener.”

Ms. Headley’s response is quite disappointing, if not also shocking. It tells me nothing that I don’t already know, plus it evades my question. Apparently JetBoil does not plan to adopt a universal system that allows for reuse. It is also not clear to me why I should puncture the fuel canister prior to recycling. Quite frankly, the last thing I’m willing to do is to puncture a pressurized fuel canister. In fact, the Northeast Recycling Council, a non-profit organization, advises the public that “The individual consumer should never attempt to puncture, incinerate or otherwise vent [a] fuel canister except through its normal intended use.”

The NERC goes on to state, “…the canister may be recycled in some communities if accepted in the recycling program or at the household hazardous waste collection site.”

Grabbing pine (keeping the bench warm), when we should be on the field.

Grabbing pine (keeping the bench warm), when we should be
on the field.

Strike Three. YOU’RE OUT!!!  (Go grab some pine, meat.)

There’s two big ifs wrapped up in this problem of recycling nonrefillable fuel canisters. Most people will have to drive to one location to buy their proprietary one-size-does-not-fit-all fuel canister, then drive to another location to recycle those same canisters — if they can find one within a reasonable distance and if that recycling location accepts spent fuel canisters. (Only 1 in 6 recycle centers does so within 50 miles of my home.) To say nothing of using more gasoline to accomplish these tasks, most people will, I’m afraid, just throw their spent canisters away, thereby adding to the landfill problem.

Until JetBoil and other campstove manufacturers adopt product policies that incorporate zero waste and a more open design approach to fuel type, canister reuse, and fuel distribution systems, I cannot in good conscience buy or endorse their nonrefillable products.


Gliding along the trail: more on blister prevention

I periodically cruise the hiking forums to see what topics are important to hikers these days, and you know what? Today’s topics are those same tried-and-true topics that we long-in-the-tooth hike folk used to engage in way back when.

Topics such as:

  • What should I wear?
  • What kind of pack should I buy?
  • What foods should I carry?
  • How do I waterproof my bear canister?

OK, just kidding about that last one. Maybe.

But I think I should add to my Wear Wickable Fabrics to Avoid Blisters! post to note that if you experience more than your share of blisters on your feet from hiking, try liberally coating your feet before the hike with BodyGlide. The folks on the forums swear by it, and the BodyGlide folks themselves say:

The Skin Formula and Sun Formula are used to guard your feet against blisters, hot spots, and chafing from footwear, including sandals, boots, high heels, and athletic shoes.

BodyGlide: because it just ain't safe to chafe.

BodyGlide: because it just ain’t safe to chafe.

I’m reminded how much of a tenderfoot I really am now that I’m (still) trying to break in a new pair of Vasque boots. Yep, I’m experiencing blisters all over again, despite my own advice. Think I’ll give BodyGlide a try.


Bad wine, maybe, but good camp shower

Reuse, recycle. Party down, clean up. Novel idea!

Reuse, recycle. Party down, clean up. Novel idea!

I’ve just got to laugh at the ingenuity of bright minds. Along with how to make a Five-Cent Wedding Band and How to Get a Free Yacht, the Instructables collaborative website suggests that we can recycle empty wine bladders from boxed wines by turning them into solar showers that we can use to stay clean while we’re camping.

And that’s just one use. How about an inflatable pillow? A Camelbak-style water bladder? A sleeping bag insulator for homeless people? At the Instructables website, you can even find out how to clean a box-wine bladder and “get the funk out.”


Wear Wickable Fabrics to Avoid Blisters!

One recent Sunday at one of my volunteer hikes, twelve of us were assembling prior to entering the trail, and I overheard two of them recounting a 10.5-mile hike they had done the previous day at Point Reyes National Seashore. I knew I had some serious hikers with me, since we were about to embark on an 11.5-miler at Portola Redwoods State Park. And yet one of them, in pulling her boots on, winced a little, and asked point-blank if anyone had any moleskin.

I said I did and proceeded to set down my pack (I carry a large-capacity Camelbak) and pull out my bright-red Backpacker’s First Aid Kit, its 12″ x 3″ x 4″ dimensions causing an audible buzz among the group.

“Geez, that thing’s huge!” exclaimed one hiker. “How do you fit your lunch in your pack?” inquired another. A third calmly remarked: “I know who I’m getting hurt with from now on.”

I smiled and, having deftly rolled out the contents of the kit to grab the moleskin and a pair of scissors, I cut out a piece of moleskin and handed it to the hapless hiker. She was ready for me by this time, having removed her socks to display a dime-sized blister on her heel. I conferred with her briefly about applying the patch of moleskin, and we were soon ready for the trail.

As I shouldered my pack, I asked her to consider wearing two pairs of socks when hiking – one of them an inner pair made of wicking fabric – and mentioned how the incidence of blisters can be vastly reduced by doing so. I was speaking from experience, having worn wicking socks inside my boots for nearly 20 years. I’ve carried moleskin in my pack even longer, but I’ve found in recent years that I distribute it much more often to others than I’ve used it myself; I’ve only had 3 hot spots (pre-blisters) in all that time.

Made of polypropylene or nylon, wicking socks function as an inner lining to reduce foot friction under a pair of outer hiking socks, which are typically made of wool or a wool/nylon blend. Wicking socks are less abrasive than wool, too, but their main purpose is to move moisture away from your feet. Cotton socks can’t do the same job. In fact, if you hike distances longer than 4 or 5 miles at a time, never wear cotton socks, since cotton absorbs moisture and can practically guarantee that blisters will form.

When it comes to blister prevention, I consider the most important rule to be a pretty easy one, and that is: STOP! The second you feel the slightest hint of a hot spot on your heel or other part of your foot, don’t keep walking, and don’t wait until it becomes a painfully large blister to do something about it – even if your friends don’t want to stop and are egging you on.

If something is chafing in your shoe, stop and remove your shoe, and find the pebble, seed, dirt clod, or wrinkle in your sock. And, if you know you’ve got a vulnerable trouble spot (or a blister already formed, like my fellow hiker), put a piece of moleskin on it before you begin hiking. You don’t have to carry a serious humongosity like my Backpacker’s First Aid Kit, but you should consider always packing a Swiss Army knife that includes a pair of scissors and a patch or two of Dr. Scholl’s. If you’re a serious hiker (or want to be), you might also bring two pairs of socks – an inner pair and an outer pair – along with you to your nearest outfitter so that you fit well into that new pair of hiking boots.