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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~winehiker

Trip Report: China Hole Loop Hike, Henry Coe State Park

At long last: the following photoessay has been over a week in arriving, but I blame nobody for my tardiness in posting it but the Hades Inc. Department of Pinched Nerves and Spinal Subluxation, Special Expensive Downtime Division. Thank you, dear reader, for your patient tolerance while I’ve been recuperating from this @#$*! neck thing – I quite frankly couldn’t work the keyboard for more than about 15 minutes for about 9 days. Could it have been the rigors of this hike that sent me spiraling into the Nether Depths of Neckdom? Well, highly doubtful. But dang it all anyway.

And so, onto the show: to see larger versions of each photo, the content of heart need only click once.

Sunday, October 15th, 2006
I got together with a few of my pals for a double-digit romp through one of my favorite backyards, Henry Coe State Park, which waits for the adventurous soul on a high ridge about 30 minutes’ drive along a twisty, tortuous mountain road east of the South Santa Clara County hamlet of Morgan Hill, California.

Henry Coe State Park waits for the adventurous soul on a high ridge.

Coe Park is Northern California’s largest state park – even larger than Big Basin – at over 87,000 acres of former farm and ranchland.

Coe Park is Northern California’s largest state park – even larger than Big Basin – at over 87,000 acres of former farm and ranchland.

Henry Coe kept a few horses in his stable, which still stands…

Henry Coe kept a few horses in his stable, which still stands.

…along with his family’s former homestead, which is now the Henry Coe Park Headquarters and Visitor Center.

The Coe family’s former homestead is today the Henry Coe Park Headquarters and Visitor Center.

Much of the splendor that Coe Park offers awaits the ready hiker just across the road from the Visitor Center. I say “ready” for a reason: most of the hiking here requires stamina and a few good base miles. Our group, I’ll admit, was more than ready to tackle just a little more than ten miles’ hilly hiking along the Corral, Springs, and Manzanita Point trails to a keyhole loop of the Madrone Soda Springs, Mile, and China Hole trails.

Our group was ready to tackle more than ten miles’ hilly hiking along the Corral, Springs, and Manzanita Point trails to a keyhole loop of the Madrone Soda Springs, Mile, and China Hole trails.

Though the heat of Summer in the Diablo Range was over…

The heat of Summer in the Diablo Range has given way to cool fog.

…we’d be hard-pressed to find any compulsion not to catapult ourselves off the trail. Yet somehow we escaped that fate.

The sign indicates "NO DIVING". Somehow we escaped the fate of catapulting ourselves off the trail.

At the junction of Manzanita Point, Corral, and Springs trails, we stop for a confab. It’s always good to meet halfway on stuff such as stopping at all hilltops and trail junctions. But it’s the spooky month of October, and who knew what critters lurked just off-trail, waiting to pounce on the unwitting, chatty hiker? I decided we’d better review our worse-, worst-, and worster-case scenarios before plunging down Springs trail.

At the junction of Manzanita Point, Corral, and Springs trails, we stop for a confab.

After all, it may be Fall, but there may just be big hairy spiders springing upon us.

A signpost directs us south toward Manzanita Point.

Meanwhile, the day was still ripe for some fine late-season ambling among the oak- and brush-dotted grasslands.

The day was ripe for some fine late-season ambling among the oak- and brush-dotted grasslands.

Hark! A stag a-leap!! And a fine piece of sharp-eyed camerawork, too. Photo credits – and there are many – go to Mr. Mark Shepley of Walnut Creek, California.

A black-tailed deer leaps just off-trail.

We continue, crediting Nature with this tranquil scene of pines and hardwood hillsides. And then…

Tranquil scene of pines and hardwood hillsides.

…out leapt wave upon wave of big and scary demented hairy beasts!!

Big and scary demented hairy beasts!

And so my prediction comes true: MJ, ever stout of spirit and brave of heart, models the latest line of furs from Halloween, Incorporated…

MJ models the latest line of furs from Halloween, Incorporated.

…yet there is much more trail to discover. Happy in our arachnid discovery, we continue, spirits aloft, to tramp down the trail. Andy and Annie, to my left, are almost bigger hikin’ fools than I am: we’ve pounded a lot of trail together these last coupla years, both locally and otherwise.

Happy in our arachnid discovery, we continue, spirits aloft, to tramp down the trail.

While it’s only been about 2 miles or so to this point on the trail, and while we haven’t yet enjoyed any strenuous hillclimbing, the endorphins are coursing, and it shows easily and often in the smiles of ardent hikers Caroline and MJ.

The endorphins are coursing, and it shows easily and often in our smiles.

Though they say that a picture paints a thousand words, Mr. Shepley’s sense of composition has certainly added a broad palate of fine brushstrokes, as depicted in this still of a tough old ridgetop oak.

Juxtaposition: a tough old ridgetop oak and a foreground stump.

Into the canyon
The remains of the old Madrone Soda Springs resort, built in the late 19th century and destroyed by abandonment and neglect, but mostly by a much more recent Soda Springs Canyon flood: this former two-story building used to stand about a half-mile upstream.

The remains of the old Madrone Soda Springs resort, destroyed by a Soda Springs Canyon flood.

The descent from Coe Park’s Pine Ridge down Soda Canyon spills, finally, onto Coyote Creek.

The descent from Coe Park’s Pine Ridge down Soda Canyon spills onto Coyote Creek.

With 13 creek crossings and some truly fantastic wildlife sightings – the latter being nearly always true for Henry Coe Park – the hike thus far has been an exciting one…

With 13 creek crossings and wildlife sightings, the hike thus far has been an exciting one.

…but that’s because it’s all been downhill to China Hole, a perfect place to swim in Summer if you don’t mind the long, hot, steep, and sweaty hillclimb out from here. Alas, even though the air temperature is rather warm, the water is already too cold for frolicking and wet-play, and all we’re doing is stripping down to our lunchbags.

China Hole is a perfect place for a Summer swim if you don’t mind the long, hot, steep and sweaty hillclimb out from here.

“I smile unto you, my Children.”
Thus uttereth a satiated Winehiker from a well-placed post-lunch promontory. And yet somehow, wine was not involved.

The winehiker surveys the scene from on high.

Mark’s sharp eye once again captures a fine moment in wildlife poseurship: this time it’s a male Dark-Eyed Junco, a common sighting all over coastal California.

A dark-eyed junco whistles overhead.

The old rancher’s grasslands spawn many oaks and many pines. This Monterey pine is more picturesque than most.

A picturesque Monterey pine.

Our Coe Park sortie dissolves, as it nearly always does, into a fine mix of food, laughter, beer, endorphins, and hilarity. Such are the wily plans of a crafty winehiker. If I recall correctly, we also shared a bottle of 2001 Lindeman’s Pyrus from Coonawarra, Australia that afternoon, and I might just have to blog about that wine. [Editor’s note: I’ve now done so.]

Our Coe Park sortie dissolves into a fine mix of food, laughter, beer, endorphins, and hilarity.

The hike was officially over, but not so the day: Mark sighted this coyote through his viewfinder…

A coyote jaywalks along the mountain road.

…and the coyote sighted Mark. Good thing Mark didn’t think this critter was a wolf!

The jaywalking coyote turns to sullenly mock us.

Glad he’s on the other side of that really stout fence
No photoessay of the hills east, north, and south of the San Francisco Bay would be complete, of course, without including its most conspicuous citizen (besides us two-legged varmints). This steer appears well-practiced at posing for photographers exiting Coe Park.

This young steer seems well-practiced at posing for the camera.

On the drive home, we cross a bridge above the junction of Coyote Creek and Anderson Reservoir above Morgan Hill. Pine Ridge is witness to our departure in the mid-afternoon distance.

A bridge above the junction of Coyote Creek and Anderson Reservoir above Morgan Hill.

A view to the west out over Anderson Reservoir is quite enchanting. In late season, this pond is more full than usual.

A view to the west over Anderson Reservoir.

Yes, it’s been a good year.

It’s been a good year of winehiking.

And thus concludes our broadcast day from Henry Coe State Park.

Thus concludes our broadcast day from Henry Coe State Park.

~winehiker