The great thing about backpacking is that it’s an individual sport. The only things to overcome are your own physical and mental limitations. The rewards include immersion in wilderness, a sense of accomplishment like no other, and satisfaction that comes from knowledge and confidence in one’s self.
Except… for all the focus on self-reliance and individual effort, backpacking is an outstanding TEAM sport as well. You certainly CAN approach a trip as a group of self-sufficient individuals, but throw in some beginners, some shared resources, and the trip becomes an exercise in optimization, trust, and mutual support.
Aside from the obvious companionship, a group can offer much-needed support to newbies, and provide confidence and real-time assistance to get somebody on the trail for the first time. It also gives you the chance to consolidate redundant items. Why not bring a larger pot and cook for four on a single stove? Why not take advantage of the extra space and weight capacity to splurge on good food? Sure, it takes a little extra planning, and some fair distribution of the load, but that’s what teamwork is for, right? Obviously, each individual has to carry his or her own load, but it turns out that backpacking as a group is an excellent way to build and solidify a team.
The experience on trail is different with beginners. You can’t just assume that things will work out if you split up and plan to meet for lunch. You have to look out for each other.
I typically put beginners, and/or the slowest hikers near the front. They can either set the pace, or be coaxed along by somebody slightly quicker. The pace setter should NOT be your fastest hiker.
Second in line is the navigator, quick with the map and the route knowledge required to steer correctly at junctions. The navigator also has the duty – at the trailhead, around the campfire during the “night before”, and again before leaving camp – to set expectations by briefing the plan of the day. It goes something like this:
“We’re following orange blazes, and covering 7 miles today. We’ll be climbing 1500 ft during the first three miles. We cross a creek about a half-mile in, and that will be the last chance to fill with water up for about 6 miles. We’ll switchback up the east face, in the morning sun, past several rock outcrops, before crossing over the ridgeline and leveling out for a while. We’ll go past a trail that intersects from the left, and then out to a rocky overlook. That’s probably a good target for a lunch stop. After that, we drop 600 feet down into a valley and start walking along another creek. Camp is on the east (left) side of the creek right after an obvious trail intersection. We’ll plan a break at the first creek, at the ridge top, and the overlook – and elsewhere as needed.”
Near the middle of the group, the crew leader can keep an eye on things both ahead and behind, and in earshot of both. From here, the leader can make the call for the pace setter to stop, and call a group rest, or to hold up and wait for stragglers.
Near the leader is the medic. This isn’t necessarily the most skilled first-aider in the bunch (though that helps), but it IS the person carrying the extra medical equipment required for a larger expedition. Everybody in the crew knows where the medic is, what the medic’s bag looks like, and where the supplies are kept. Don’t ever let the medic get so far ahead that calls for help can’t be heard, or wander off on his/her own with the med kit. The middle, or back half, is the right spot.
The strongest hiker of the bunch is the one you want bringing up the rear. The group has to know that the person in back runs very little risk of lagging off the back of the column. If anybody has any trouble, they know that a strong, experienced hiker is behind them and can offer support.
Arrival at a backcountry camp is another opportunity to share the load. First of all, camping with a group requires space, and a larger number of people have the potential to make a greater impact. Plan to camp in a way that minimizes that, and establish a rough triangle that places tents at one apex, the kitchen and campfire at the second, and a latrine area at the third point, taking care to place that area far from water sources. This layout places the smells of cooking and eating away from tent accommodations (important in bear country, but valuable for all animals), and establishes a predictable location away from both for bodily functions.
It may seem like overkill to designate a bathroom, but trust me – you do NOT want a group of people wandering in all directions to the nearest trees as soon as packs come off. You really do need a location that everybody knows to avoid unless nature is calling. You do not need to identify a spot. A general area that is away from water, cooking and living areas will do – and be prepared to refresh newcomers on proper cat-hole technique before it becomes an “emergency”.
After tents go up, divide the rest of the work. One crew can be putting up communal tarps and getting the kitchen area set up. One crew can collect firewood. Another can go replenish the water supply (in groups, I like to carry several collapsible gallon-sized bladders that can be filled and set to gravity feed through filters into larger communal multi-gallon reservoirs to use in camp). Finally, some can go set ropes for a bear/animal bag some distance from camp, preferably downwind.
Since you’ve planned for meals that will feed a small group (a meal bag per four people works), you can designate cooks to get busy prepping. While dinner simmers, and while you consider the fuel and weight you’re saving by not having each person go light up an individual stove, somebody can be getting a campfire started. And of course, a separate cleanup crew can take care of boiling water and doing the dishes afterward.
All these jobs and roles can rotate day-to-day, or even meal-to-meal, so that nobody feels burdened by an unpleasant chore, or gets stuck in a rut. Yes, it requires planning, but it creates efficiency – and it also generates a team dynamic that is conducive to bonding and effective coordination. When everybody has a role, and relies on others to do their own jobs, there’s no time to be an antisocial jerk. You find yourself having to care about how everybody else is doing, and you wind up teaching what you know and learning from others as well.
So, next time you find yourself planning a group trip, try actually planning it as a GROUP trip, and not just a group of independent individuals that plan on being in the same place at the same time. You’ll find you can operate more efficiently, and you can share the load in such a way that you can either carry less, or splurge a little on extras you might not ordinarily bring. That decision is up to you.
I guarantee that this approach will make the adventure a shared experience, and your trek will be accomplished together, and not just at the same time.
Get Out There