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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The Journey of a Winehiking Novice

Rebecca came from the Midwest to discover winehiking, though she didn’t know it at the time. The following is an illuminating record of our recent correspondence.

Hi Russ,

I’ve really been enjoying the hikes I’ve been doing lately, and I have discovered that I like hiking a lot more than I thought I did. That all means that it’s time to consider trying one of the hikes led by the best hike leader around. But I wanted to ask, before signing up for your next hike: the distance doesn’t scare me and I think I could handle the elevation gain though it would be a challenge. But I am wondering about the pace?  If you do all of this at a fast pace then maybe I’ll just have to resign myself to joining one of your hikes later on, after I’m more up to speed. But if you go no faster than the pace that the hike w/Debbie went a couple weeks back, then I think I could do it?  What do you think?  Also, I’m not really a wine person, but I gather it’s OK to do your hikes and either skip the wine part or just go along for the social aspect but not the wine stuff?  It’s all lost on me, though I finally identified that I like red better than white. That’s about as far as it goes for me though.

P.S. Never mind, looks like your hike has filled up already. Thanks anyway though.

Shoot, Rebecca, I’m sorry I couldn’t get back to you earlier while there was still room on the guest list.

Judging by the crowd, I’d have to say that this hike may indeed be fast-paced. Nevertheless, your predisposition toward hills and distance says to me: “2 out of 3 ain’t bad!” So, you might consider signing on to the wait list.

As to post-hike wine tasting, there’s no pressure to participate, but you’re welcome to come along, as you say, for the social aspect — which is what it’s really all about, anyway. The thing I like about wine tasting most is that, because there are so many styles and flavors of wine, every tasting is a learning opportunity, and delicious fun too.

Keep on keepin’ on down that trail, Rebecca!


Well, if they’re all pros, then I guess I’d be the one people complain about afterwards, who holds up the group. So, best to wait. Hopefully it won’t take long.  I lapsed in my running in the past year but have started up again along w/the hiking so I should hopefully be ready for one of your hikes before too long.

As for the wine, we should have a conversation about it some time. You strike me as very down-to-earth, as well as someone I like a lot from what I’ve seen of you, and all this doesn’t jive w/my (stupid, close-minded) stereotypes of the wine-tasting culture. Honestly it’s all a big mystery to me why people would choose to invest so much time and energy in tasting and discussing different forms of a beverage. I went wine tasting once up in Sonoma and it made me laugh. But that’s just my Midwestern ignorance and narrow-mindedness coming out. Maybe sometime you can help unravel this mystery for me. It was Mark, from Bay Area Linkup, who unraveled the hiking mystery for me. So BAL is doing pretty well at challenging my stupid preconceived notions.

Anyway, thanks for your reply, hope to see you on one of your hikes before too long.


Rebecca, you seriously crack me up. I think I should invite you to a wine tasting at my home on the 27th. Feel free to check out my posting: I hope you can come!


??? Gewurtz what???  If I can’t say it will I still be allowed in?  Before you allow me to sign up I should confess to you now that my wine rack (yes, I have one, for guests of course, but my well-kept secret, until now that is, is that I don’t know how to use my corkscrew so I just casually hand it to the guests while I pretend to be busy with something else) gets stocked according to two criteria: 1) Price (about $16 is what I typically go for, seems I am in line w/what you are recommending for your event!!!) and 2) Attractiveness of the label. I’ve never heard of a Gewurtzraminer, have no idea if I have one of those in my wine rack, though now you have piqued my curiosity, so after I send this email I will have to go check!

OK, I will sign up for your event. Is it OK if I laugh?  I’ll be laughing WITH you. You can laugh back WITH me for organizing a cooking event, where we talk at length about such things as how the food was prepared.
Uh-oh, just read your event post to the end. What’s a foil cap?  Oh boy, in over my head. It’s worse than a hike w/ a 2000 foot elevation gain.


Ah, the foil cap!  Alas, poor Rebecca….

We shall learn a few things. But I’m willing to bet that you can piece together what a foil cap is — the “cap” being what covers the cork, and the foil being what the cap is made of; sometimes these features, by virtue of brand labeling, colors, etc., can give away something about the wine within to the cognoscenti. (Yes, I have actually been able to declare a wine just by seeing the top of the bottle — don’t ask me how or why). So, removing the foil cap is just being fair to all — but it ain’t no big thang.

I’ll also open the wines myself unless one of the other guests really wishes to. Nevertheless, I’ll be happy to perform a demonstration of proper technique if’n ya like.

In the end, this here Geh-VERTZ-tra-Mee-ner tasting will be just like your foodie exploits: we talk about it, we develop our learning about it, and we have a few laughs in the process!

Glad you’re coming, Rebecca.


OK, yes, I did figure out the foil cap when I went to look at my wine rack (no Gewurztraminer there, seems to be just the usual stuff, though I see I somehow managed to sneakily slip in some sparkling cider too.)  Anyway, in the process of examining my extensive and varied wine collection I discovered that in addition to having a propensity for $16 wines I seem to also have a propensity for burgundy-colored (oh, I get it!!) foil caps.

If I told you I have half a bottle of wine in my fridge left over from a dinner party about two months ago would it make it clear to you the extent of the problem you now have on your hands?  It won’t be pretty, I can tell you. I promise to observe proper decorum though. This is serious business!

Anyway, thanks for the invitation. I’ll go brush up on my German, do some mind-opening exercises, and see you on the 26th! (or the 20-whatever). Forgot already, but will put it on the calendar and be there on the right day.)


Rebecca –

TRULY, ya done cracked me up six ways from sideways. How’re you going to top yourself?

Russ recommends the following:

1) Pull that bottle out of your fridge, pull the cork immediately, and set it on your favorite table.

2) Fetch your best wine glass, and set it on the table next to the bottle.

3) Wait 30 minutes. Or do something! But do it for 30 minutes.

4) Sit down to the table.

5) S-L-O-W-L-Y pour yourself a 1/4-glass of that wine, observing every nuance of the pour.

5a) OK, I’m kidding about that last predicate there. (Maybe.)

6) Twirl the glass, sniff its contents, and pull it into your mouth to savor the flavor, S-L-O-W-L-Y.

7) Repeat until content.

8) Return to Step 5.

Oh, and: that’s Thursday the twenty-seventhththtthhh.


ummm, wouldn’t two-month old wine, I mean after it’s already opened, be vinegar by now? I am kind of afraid to find out. Good thing it’s way at the back of the fridge.

Ah-HA! Thy words thus speaketh unto steps 1-3 above.

The fact that the wine has remained chilled has probably preserved the wine fairly well. But, to really taste the wine, one must let it release its flavors. The only way to do that is to let the wine remain open so that it warms to just-near room temperature — or longer if you can wait longer than 30 minutes (but no more than 60!). Then, after a fit of mild patience (in my case), you can receive the full panoply of the wine’s aroma and taste.

Wash down your dinner with it. And then decide if it’s vinegar.

We’ll do this again on the 27th, but we’ll do it so that we can compare each wine’s subtle proponents. You’ll drop your midwest “twang” oncet fer good. Guaran-dang-TEED!


Umm, OK, I’ll try that. But will have to wait until the weekend. Being basically a one-glass-of-wine-per-year kind of girl, I can’t really do that on a school night – it would be like you drinking a keg of beer or something. Not sure how I’ll get through tasting six wines and still remain intact, but maybe I’ll start practicing so I’ll be in shape by then. Like gearing up for a Russ hike, I guess.


The student doth learn Lesson One!