Let’s be honest, there are times when I just need to hike alone. Hiking alone lets me be spontaneous when deciding where and when I’ll hike. I can go at my own pace, stop every 5 minutes for photos if I want, and I get to make all the decisions. However, I also love to hike with other people. Hiking with others helps me to explore places I might not go on my own, it pushes me, humbles me, teaches me patience, and builds friendships and community.
While on the trail with others, I’ve had great conversations on topics ranging from work, eating disorders, grief, loss, dating, and relationships. I’ve learned from other’s knowledge of plant identification or geology. I’ve had others challenge me to hike peaks I wouldn’t have considered and to push the limits of what I thought I was capable of. Group hikes aren’t always so perfect though. I have hiked with people I just met, people I’ve known a long time, and with dogs and toddlers and sometimes everything works out and sometimes people get annoyed or frustrated, including me.
People who hike a little slower might feel pressure to keep up, people who are fast are annoyed they have to wait, some people want to stop and take photos and breaks, while others want to get a quick fast workout. I’ve been on hikes where people show up without anything but a water bottle or hikes where the leader goes so fast no one has time to shed layers or get a snack. I’ve also been the one who is slowest in the descent on steep slopes and felt a bit panicked when I couldn’t see any of my group and worried I might miss the trail in rocky areas. Instead of enjoying my hike, I’ve had times where I just frantically try to catch back up to the point I have to run.
Most of these issues can be resolved by one thing: communication. By taking a few simple steps prior to setting out on a hike with a group, you can make sure that people enjoy themselves and want to hike with you again:
1. Set Clear Expectations
Whether or not you are the “designated leader” or if there isn’t one person in charge, the group should have a discussion about expectations for the hike. Determine which trail you are hiking and let everyone know what to expect in regards to distance and elevation before the hike whenever possible.
If it’s a hard hike, ask people to be honest about their level of fitness or experience. Remind people of what to pack for a day hike (ten essentials, water, layers, snacks, etc.). Decide before you start the hike how often people want to stop and who will set the pace.
We like to switch leaders frequently, that way everyone has a chance to set the pace at some point. Slower people can slow things down, and faster hikers can push the group do try a little harder. Switching it up frequently helps prevent frustration building up, which is more likely to happen when the same person leads the whole time.
2. Talk About Time
Is there a time people need to be back by? Will you stop for lunch on the way back home or will you plan to eat lunch on the trail? Is weather a concern for how long you are out?
The idea to “hike your own hike” is great, but in reality, if you need to be off of an exposed peak before afternoon thunderstorms (like when you hike a 14er), then safety becomes more important in regards to pace. Talk about the plan before you leave the trailhead and check the weather.
If there’s a disagreement about start time, try your best to settle on something in the middle. For example, one of our most recent hikes in Colorado (Mohawk Lakes) needed an early start. Derek wanted to start as early as 4am or 5am, but I thought we could push it back to 7am. We settled on a 6am start, which was earlier than I wanted and later than he wanted.
3. No Hiker Left Behind
If you are hiking in a group, then you are hiking in a group. People don’t necessarily have to be right next to each other the entire time, but if you are in the lead, make sure you are waiting at intersections for others to catch up so they don’t take a wrong turn.
If you know you are going to be the slowest person, make sure you let others know what you are comfortable with. Do you want to one other person to hike with you? Do you feel o.k. with catching up to people later? Does everyone know the trail? Should one person be designated as sweep to stay behind the slowest hiker?
We prefer to stay as close together as possible. Otherwise, what’s the point of hiking in a group?
4. Check in With Each Other
Does anyone need to shed layers once you have started to warm up? Do you need a second to retie your hiking boots (which is essential for footcare while hiking)? Is the pace o.k.? Does anyone feel they are getting blisters or need to adjust their pack?
Hiking should be fun! Group hikes are a much better experience when you are making sure people feel good and have their needs met. Stop to take a group photo, enjoy the overlook with a snack or lunch, point out the wildflowers to others, and get to know people. Enjoy the hike and the shared group experience.
5. Be Responsible for Yourself
Even if you aren’t the leader, you still have responsibility for yourself and your own life. You should do some research before the hike (or at least take a photo of the map at the trailhead). If something were to happen to the one person on the trail who knows where to go, then you aren’t much help to that person or yourself. More than one person should have a trail map, GPS, or compass, especially if it is a trail people are unfamiliar with.
When you know someone is leading a hike, it’s easy to fall into a mentality that relies on them for all the information. You should still have your own snacks, layers, and first aid kit, despite what others might be bringing, especially if it is going to be a long hike.
Part of hiking with a group is that everyone must compromise, and it’s going to be different than you’re used to. Each group hike will be different than the last, but take the opportunity enjoy it and use it as a time for growth, both physically and mentally.
Know that clear expectations, feedback, and communication will help make your next group hike even better. Whether you are hiking with friends or people you are meeting for the first time, try out some of these ideas.
Happy group hiking!