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).”

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