The Basics Of Trip Leadership

I like to think of myself as a long distance hiker. Sure, I enjoy taking day hikes, especially as there’s usually a hot shower and a great meal waiting at the end. But, perhaps the core of my hiking/backing experience has been long distance hiking. A thru-hiker on the Appalachian Trail (AT) in 1972 (Georgia to Maine), I took some time off this past spring to revisit the AT, hiking some 662 miles north from Georgia to south-central Virginia.

My hiking/backpacking foundation came from scouting (I am an Eagle Scout), my four summers (1968-1971) at Camp Merrowvista (Center Tuftonboro, NH) serving in the Outcamping Department, and my recreational hiking during those same four summers. Particularly as an Outcamping Director, I began to develop a passionate interest in trip leadership that manages and ensures the quality of the overall camper experience. To be successful was not so much to have climbed a mountain or hiked some distance; it was to have accomplished these things (or not), as a group, safely and while having fun!

Scenario I:

Leaving northbound on the Appalachian Trail, from Roan High Knob Shelter (6285 feet elevation), March 27, 2005, Robin Kane and I faced an unforeseen gale force-sleet driving wind that would challenge even the most resilient hiker. The AT pathway here, tracks over several miles of open ridge, on Tennessee balds; the wind destabilized our footing and necessitated a hard lean against its blow. Once finally below the open areas we found significant relief from the wind and acute effort.

However, upon meeting three different father-son type pairs headed-up the way we were coming down, I couldn’t help reflect what Robin and I had just been through. And, I had to question their choice to continue on, though we gave ample warning. Even under good conditions, this southbound hike up Roan Mountain is a challenge. On that day, besides the wind there were patches of snow, randomly trapped in the rutted footway making the trail slippery. And, I knew that once the hikers broke into the open, the wind would not be merciful!

How could the three adult “leaders” not understand that by continuing, they were accepting unnecessary risk? Was the risk worth the challenge? And, were not their younger partners more likely to become disenfranchised with hiking/backpacking due to the extreme nature of the situation? Too often, as a long-distance hiker I’ve observed similar situations/dilemmas -- sometimes with individuals, but most often with groups.

The simple fact is for any hiking/backpacking experience to be successful there are some critical characteristics that must be achieved. Reflecting on these critical characteristics from the perspective of a long distance hiker, I believe there are at least six key concepts for organizations to consider, if they are choosing to take groups into the wilderness on hiking/backpacking trips:

Concept One: Solid Purpose – Philosophy – Mission Statement

A successful program of hiking/backpacking must have a solid purpose, grounded in a philosophy that is representative of the organization’s mission statement.

Clearly hiking/backpacking programs may be attractive for marketing purposes. But, does the program really serve as a vehicle for identified goal attainment? For example, Camp Merrowvista is one of several programmatic initiatives of the American Youth Foundation (AYF). The programs of Camp Merrowvista are designed to be representative of the AYF Mission Statement which reads as follows:

“The American Youth Foundation is a national, not-for-profit youth development organization with regional centers in Michigan and New Hampshire. AYF inspires people to discover and develop their personal best, to seek balance in mental, physical, social and spiritual living and to make a positive difference in their communities and in the wider world (Camp Merrowvista).”

Again, as an example: Camp Merrowvista’s hiking/backpacking activities (both back in my years as a staff member, and now) have a solid purpose, grounded in its philosophy. Here’s how they state their purpose:

“As a leader in youth development, Merrowvista inspires people to be their best selves. We achieve this by creating a fun and safe environment where campers will learn new skills and make new friends – and we believe much more is possible! Campers 8-17 will find a progression of age appropriate adventures and opportunities waiting for them. Our philosophy of “Best Self,” “Balanced Living” and “Healthy Friendships” is intentionally interwoven throughout the camp experiences (Camp Merrowvista).”

Finally, here’s an example where this organization has stated a solid purpose:

“At Merrowvista we live life differently...Our days are simpler but richer. We challenge often but have more fun. The outdoors is our home. Transportation is a bike, a sneaker, canoe, or a hiking boot. We laugh a lot and celebrate effort as much as success. We work together to create a community where individuals are respected, and where our values guide our actions. We gain confidence. We share. We have fun (Camp Merrowvista).”

No matter how your organization approaches it programming; a successful program in hiking/backpacking must have a solid purpose, grounded in a philosophy that is representative of the mission. Otherwise, the organization’s commitment to quality camper experiences may wane and short-cuts taken in securing competent leadership and the necessary resources may fall below that which is essential for safety and fun!

Concept Two: Competent Leaders/Leadership

A successful program of hiking/backpacking must utilize competent trip leaders/leadership. Clearly the fundamental skills of hiking/backpacking are an important qualification. But essential to a successful program are leaders who are critical thinkers and problem-solvers. Competent trip leaders must be able to think on their feet and make value-laden decisions in a manner that ensures a safe experience for all members of the group. Allen (1998), in his book Don’t Die On The

Mountain explains this concept quite succinctly:

“While we assume the leader’s objective is to climb a peak, keep in mind that the leader’s major goal is to bring everyone back safe, and secondarily, as content as possible. The leader should focus his or her actions and decision-making on this goal. Decisions made by the leader before the trip and during form the basis for survival and safe return (p. 18).”

Other important characteristics of a good trip leader include: intelligence, knowledge, appropriate physical skills, alertness, listening ability, effective communication skill, a humble nature, selflessness, a willingness to make decisions, a good sense of humor, team building skills, a willingness to give credit where it is due, composure when accepting input, organizational skills, emotional control, applicable experience, and confidence (Allen, 1998). This is not an all-inclusive listing, and not all trip leaders will have all of these characteristics. However, these are skills and attributes any organization should seek-out when selecting the leaders/leadership for their group hiking/backing programs.

Concept Three: Comprehensive Planning

Absolutely nothing takes the place of good planning. Last spring, in the Great Smoky Mountains, literally hundreds of college-aged “spring breakers” descended upon this beautiful park. However, the temperatures in the surrounding valleys did not fairly represent the dangerously cold temperatures of the ridge. Poor planning, on the part of some of these hikers/backpackers resulted in several life-saving helicopter rescues during the week of March 12th.

I entered this National Park on March 13th and over the course my next five days walking north, I faced some of the most physically demanding winter hiking and camping in my life. However, what made this section of my longer trip successful was that I had spent months ahead of time planning for the hike. In the Smokies, I especially paid attention to critical aspects of the trail including the distances between shelters, elevation changes, footpath, and the potential for much colder conditions than I had experienced in 1972 when I began hiking the AT on April 2nd.

The first part of comprehensive planning has the trip leaders (as much as possible) involved in the selection of the hike (both destination and route). Decisions regarding destination and route will likely depend upon the availability of, and organizational access to, appropriate outdoor settings/trails. However, age and ability of group participants, and the challenges intrinsic to the choices of destination and route, require that at least someone in the organization be capable of creating this kind of “marriage” for all hiking/backpacking trips. Finally, this first part of comprehensive planning also requires that the organization meets various applicable codes/regulations for group hiking/backpacking and/or secures necessary permission and/or permits for full implementation of the program.

The second part of comprehensive planning relates to both preparation and implementation. Trip leaders should (as much as possible) be involved in the acquisition of all hiking/backpacking equipment and/or be thoroughly familiar with the correct use/application of the organization’s existing equipment (see also Concept Four: Excellent Preparation). This part of planning is also where the trip leaders must own the fundamental skills of hiking/backing.

Not only will the trip’s leaders need to know how to use the equipment correctly, they need to be able to teach the group’s participants how to use the equipment correctly. Not only must the trip leaders know about what to bring on the trip, e.g., clothing, personal items, boots, sleeping bags, etc. (as well as group items such as stoves, fuel, tents, etc.); they must ensure that all members of the group have what they need for the trip (no more and no less).

Not only do the leaders need to know how to pack gear, hike over different types of terrain, to set a pace, and manage their daylight hours; they are charged with the responsibility to carefully provide this information to the group.

Comprehensive planning means that leaders of any hiking/backing group, should know their emergency resources and be able to seek emergency assistance (as much as possible) anytime throughout the trip. A detailed trip itinerary should be filed with the organization before departure. And, prior knowledge (ideally actual experience) of the usual and unusual features of the trail, and noted quickest routes to shelter and/or leading out of the woods are essential. Further, organizations would serve their programs well to require all trip leaders to be certified in wilderness first aid and cardiopulmonary resuscitation.

Concept Four: Excellent Preparation

Excellent preparation includes ensuring that each person going on the trip, leader or participant, is highly prepared. I like to consider this preparation in three ways: Body, Mind, and Spirit.

I am both a Springfield College graduate (MS and DPE), and a former YMCA profession; where such terms are commonly used when considering physical activity and programming. Investing in excellent trip preparation means that the trip leaders ensure each individual in the group is ready to participate as a member. And, it means that the leaders and the group have already worked together to plan and prepare for the trip experience.

Regardless of how competent the leaders and regardless of how talented or experienced the participants, everyone in a group should have some planned period of time together to build a culture that promotes a unified effort; thereby achieving a safe and enjoyable experience for all…a successful hiking/backing experience!


Physical (psychomotor) preparedness is the ability to meet the everyday requirements of the hiking/backpacking experience as well as the extreme or unusual physical requirements of a weather or injury emergency. Physical preparedness can begin before a group trip, individually. The organization should consider sending-out a recommended pre-trip training regimen along with health history form(s), several months before the trip; and as soon as pre-registration is complete.

Participants are to return the completed health history form(s) along with a signed commitment to physically prepare for the trip; prior to acceptance into the program. In addition, for the group to truly bond some period of time should be set aside before any group hiking/backpacking experience, that allows the members of the group to train or prepare together. And, a good sign that the group is ready to begin a trip is when everyone understands that the pace they travel should be no quicker than one that is enjoyed by every participant.


Mental (cognitive) preparedness expects that all members of the group understand how to be safe and how to manage the challenges of the experience, as a group. Again, prior to leaving on the trip, the group leaders must be prepared to teach and mentor the members of the group so that they are able to acquire both the basic skills of hiking/backpacking; and develop the an understanding of what working-together really means (when things are going well and when they are not).

I like to think that organizations that are striving to prepare leaders are also working to develop followership.

Allen (1998) describes followership this way: “As a follower you should know what is expected of the leader in order to understand his or her role… Surviving an outing in the mountains may hinge on the leader’s decisions, but decisions made by a follower, or the group can be just as critical. Usually, the follower’s decisions relate to whether or not to speak up about difficulties being encountered or to give other input” (p. 21).


Spiritual (affective) preparedness expects that all members of the group are willing and able to co-exist with others, especially those who are in their immediate group. They have learned and demonstrate the values of honesty, justice, responsibility, beneficence (do no harm), and respect. They appreciate and celebrate diversity while working together to affect a culture of fellowship. Organizations often strive to build character through hiking/backpacking programs.

However, positive behavioral changes can take a long time, and so group hiking/backpacking trips should be considered a reward for demonstrative social skills and values; not the birthing place. Prior to leaving on the trip, the group leaders must be prepared to assess the affective readiness of each participant. Better to delay the experience for one participant who is lacking in this area, than to put at risk the quality of the experience for the others who meet this characteristic of preparedness.

Concept Five: Effective Implementation

Effective implementation is where the “rubber meets the road.” For hiking/backpacking groups with a purpose, that have competent leaders, that have comprehensively planned and have excellent preparation; effective implementation is now a probable outcome. So, for such organizations I offer a few trip tips… [Perhaps in the future article, if you too are willing to will share some of you own trip tips, a subsequent article could expand on “effective implementation.”]


When groups are hiking/backpacking, I recommend that individuals that are the most challenged, walk directly behind the leader(s). When there are big differences in ability, size, or stamina, etc. between hikers, remember that individual pack weight can be adjusted in a manner to mitigate these differences. So that the group remains together, at least one leader walks at or very near the front and another at the rear of the group. In my opinion, at no time should the front of the group be out of voice contact with the rear of the group.

And, it is especially important that groups that are hiking/backpacking are familiar with and practice good trail etiquette [see sidebar: Guidelines for Trail Users (Bruce, 2005)]. A long day of hiking/backpacking can be appropriately broken-up with other group activities including snack and meal breaks, a siesta or quiet time (card playing is also popular), teaching moments, etc. “Getting there” should always be half the fun!

Group Management:

Taking a larger group and dividing this group into smaller units can be a useful way to get things done effectively once the group is ready to camp for the night or is preparing to pack-up in the morning. However, make sure that every group has an assigned leader (Trip Leader or possibly a CIT level vs. camper) to ensure that every participant is always accounted for.

Even when campers get up to go to the bathroom at night, they should notify a trip leader so that a leader can appropriately ensure the safety and well being of the participant. When rotating assignments such as cooking, setting-up tents, gathering firewood, etc. I recommend that each participant in the group be responsible for caring for their own eating utensils, plate, cup, etc. And, whenever group members are packing-up, there should be careful supervision to ensure that nothing is lost or stored incorrectly (fuel bottle with the lid loose). At this same time I also strongly recommend that the trip leaders have a small scale to weigh each pack so as to balance individual loads (as suggested earlier), before the hiking begins again.


All group participants should not only be familiar with procedures regarding different emergencies, the groups should practice these procedures. Leaders should carry whistles that when blown, indicate a certain response to an emergency (most appropriate to times when different units may be doing their tasks, further apart than when hiking and/or at night). Again, these are used only in emergencies, e.g, a serious injury or life-threatening accident, a weather emergency, a fire, prowler, or in some cases as a tool to scare away a threatening beast of the forest.

Concept Six: Quality Assessment

Organizations who offer group trips should require that each group, upon their return, participate as a group, and individually, in a formal assessment of all components of the experience. Formal assessment as a group can take the form of a focus group where individuals respond to some questions in writing (on a survey) and some questions through individual comments in a discussion environment. This group reflection/assessment on the hiking/backpacking experience needs to take place before the members of the group disperses.

A second, individual assessment can take place shortly after the experience. I recommend an anonymous survey, within a week of the trip. However, if the participants are headed-home in less than a week, I would recommend a survey where a parent(s)/guardian(s) and the participant (if under 18 years old) discuss the questionnaire and then respond. When an organization is truly striving for excellence, they are well to consider involving both the participants and the “decision-makers”(parent(s)/guardian(s) in outcomes assessment.

How Everyone “Wins”

Everyone “wins” when the experience is safe and fun, for all members of the group; and, the trip experience meets or exceeds the goals/objectives of the program. Organizations that manage their group hiking/backing trips are easily identified by others on the trail. These are the groups that behave responsibly in the outdoors; they are the groups that are invested in the concept of “leave no trace” and are considerate of other trail users. In other words, most experienced hiker(s)/backpacker(s) will know within minutes if a group is going to have a positive or negative impact on their own experience.

Scenario II:

On March 7, 2005 I hiked14.4 miles from Standing Indian Shelter (4760’) to Big Spring Shelter (4940’) along (on and off) with three other long-distance hikers: Bayley, OPa, and Train (my own trail name was Doc Holiday). Characteristics of this day included hiking over the summit of Standing Indian Mtn. (5498’) and down to Coleman Gap (4300’); up again to the Timber Ridge Trail (4700’) and down to Carter Gap Shelter (4640’); up again to a viewpoint (4720’) and down to Betty Creek Gap (4320’); up again to Albert Mtn. (5220’) [at this point it began to rain] and down to a Road (4480’); and, finally ascending to Big Spring Shelter (4940’).

This “rollercoaster” day was not uncommon in many sections of the trail. However, the day was generally cold (between 30º and 40ºF) and the four of us had camped the night before in a shelter surrounded by snow [on March 6th] and then after an evening of heavy rains and gusting winds, we woke up to three to four inches of snow on March 8th. The significance of the detail of this journey is not so much to take out of the context of a long distance hike, the challenges of a single day; but, to recognize a most important aspect of this experience that can only be attributed to the model behavior of an organized group of college students, on a backpacking trip.

OPa and I were the first to arrive (in the rain) at Big Spring Shelter. Bayley arrived only a few minutes later. And, once we were settled-in, Train arrived. We four were the only hikers in the shelter! We were able to change into warm, dry clothing, begin meal preparation, and enjoy a relatively short period of daylight, prior to bedding down in our sleeping bags…

ALL OF THIS WOULD HAVE BEEN SIGNIFICANTLY DIFFERENT had a group of college students chosen to stay in the shelter, rather than use the tents they’d packed-in. And, though I am keenly aware that the college hikers had more time than us, to set-up camp; I’ve frequently seen groups of hikers/backpackers forego the effort to set-up their tents and instead choose to occupy an available, pre-existing shelter. NOTHING is more disappointing to a thru hiker after a long day, than finding the shelter taken (even though we come prepared for such a situation).

WHAT WAS REALLY NICE was how considerate and friendly this group behaved. Though they had arrived to the shelter area before any of us…they set-up their tents, got their equipment organized, and then politely asked us if they could take advantage of the shelter’s extended overhang, to cook their dinner!

THIS GROUP KNEW HOW TO DO IT RIGHT! They were interested in a quality experience, but not at the expense of others. They clearly recognized that as an organized group, on a several-day trip, the quality of their own experience would not be diminished if they planned-ahead and prepared to co-exist with others, during their hike. They took care to “leave no trace” and they effectively and efficiently managed the challenge of cold night and three-four inch snow. This group knew and practiced the basics of good trip leadership!


Allen, D. H. (1998). Don’t die on the mountain (second edition). New London, NH: Diapensia.

Author (2005). Group hiking & camping. Waterbury Center VT: Green Mountain Club [available online: 01/17/06]:

Author (2005). Group size guidelines. Waterbury Center VT: Green Mountain Club [available online: 01/17/06]:

Author. Groups on the A. T. Harpers Ferry, WV: Appalachian Trail Conservancy [available online: 01/17/06]:

Camp Merrowvista, Tuftonboro, NH (American Youth Foundation) [available online: 01/17/06]

Web and Print Resources

Center for Wildlife Techniques. Black bear safety techniques. [available online: 01/17/06]:

Curtis, R. (2004). Outdoor Action guide to winter camping. Outdoor Action, Princeton University [available online: 01/17/06]:

Edginton, C. Hudson, S. and Scholl, K. (2005). Leadership for recreation, parks, and leisure services (third edition). Champaign, IL: Sagamore.

Giduz, B. (2003). Intrepid outdoor enthusiasts begin semester with icy mountaintop experience. College News & Events, Davidson College [available online: 01/17/06]:

Learning for Life (2002). Safety first: Learning for life guidelines-A leaders guide to keeping youth safe in learning for life activities [available online: 01/17/06]:

Leave No Trace Center for Outdoor Ethics [available online: 01/17/06


Guidelines for Trail Users (p. 175)

Stay on the designated footpath at all times, and avoid taking shortcuts, especially at switchbacks. Walk single file and stay to the inside when slabbing around mountains. In camp, use established paths to the water source and privy.

Do not litter by discarding candy wrappers, cigarette butts, orange peels, and other such non-degradable or slowly degrading items in the woods. In camp, do no leave unburned trash in the fireplace. Pack out everything you carry in.

Wash yourself, your clothes, and your dishes at least 100 feet from any water source. Do not use soap, even the biodegradable kind, in springs and streams, and empty dirty water well away from any water source. Keep your pet out of springs.

Use a privy for solid waste. If no privy is available, dig a cat-hole, at least 50 feet from the footpath and 200 feet from water sources, and cover everything thoroughly afterwards. Urinate away from the footpath. Do not dispose of feminine-hygiene items in privies or the woods. If traveling with a pet, bury its waste as you would your own.

Camp only in designated camping or already-heavily-used areas. Avoid camping in fragile or seldom-used areas even if legal, and never camp in restricted areas or on private property. Always restore your campsite to its original condition before leaving.

Use a stove for cooking,. Avoid building campfires except at designated campsites. If you do build a fire, use only downed (dead) wood. Afterwards, extinguish thoroughly with water and stir the ashes around with water until they are cool to the touch.


Shelters and lean-tos are available on a first-come first-served basis. If you are first into a shelter, do not occupy all of the space. In bad weather, always try to make room for those needing space. If you smoke, go outside to smoke. Pets should remain outside, too. Refrain from the use of alcohol or illegal drugs. If you are a late arriver or early riser, remember that quiet time is observed from dusk to dawn.

Sign your real name in Trail registers in case you need to be located in an emergency, and be sure your comments leave a good impression of the hiking community and the A.T. Avoid the use of profanity and vulgarisms in registers.

Cell phones should be used privately, so that your use cannot be seen or heard by any other hiker, to avoid destroying the feeling of wilderness sought by most hikers. Rule of Thumb: Use your cell phone only in locations and situations where you could have a bowel movement without risk of offending anyone. Ask yourself, “Would I take a dump here?” if the answer is “No,” then don’t use your phone there either.

Bruce, A. (2005). The thru-hiker’s handbook. Conyers, GA: Center for A.T. Studies.