Early in the summer of 2019 I began organizing backpacking trips. Taking groups of people, most of whom had never even been inside a tent, out to the wilderness for overnight stays. The group sizes ranged from three to as many as seven people. Seven may not sound like a big number. With six of them having never spent a night in the mountains, ensuring their safety, and fun, became a giant task.
The first trip in June involved six people. We stayed on top of a mountain bald. In the evening there was a nice breeze to accompany our beautiful views. Spirits were high with no shortage of laughing. By the early morning hours we were presented with a different setting. Wind began blowing driving rain into the sides of my tent. Two people abandoned their tent and crammed into another one.
My mistakes as their leader started weeks before this trip.
I have been backpacking off and on since 1989. During a 20-year career in the Marine Corps I received extensive training in orienteering; what the military calls “land navigation.” I learned orienteering from two perspectives; on the ground and from the air. I was a helicopter pilot in the Marines. If you’ve been in the Corps, or you know a little about it, then you know that every Marine is a rifleman first. Before I entered flight school I spent six months training in the woods around Quantico, Virginia.
I was already comfortable spending time out in nature. Marine Corps training took me beyond my comfort zone, and that is an understatement. With all of this training, and multiple section hikes on the AT since leaving the Corps, I felt I was ready to teach backpacking. I wasn’t completely wrong. Nor was I prepared.
As with many things in life it comes down to preparation. I thought I was properly preparing these kids for a wilderness adventure. I felt confident I had them ready until we took our first steps on the trail. Immediately I began noticing little things I had either not covered, or not emphasized strongly enough before our departure.
One person was carrying multiple items. Her pack was not large enough. She had arrived with a school bookbag as her backpack. When our first rain shower approached in the afternoon, half of the people were unable to don their cheap ponchos due to breezy conditions. When setting up camp one pair did not have the proper tent poles (this is the pair who ended up in another tent). Another individual, when preparing dinner, realized she did not have anything to eat from, or with. The list goes on.
We survived. More than survived to be fair. We all returned with stories and most of them are still into backpacking.
Despite my mistakes I discovered how much I thoroughly enjoyed taking people out for their first experience in the wilderness. Fast forward to November 2019, after having led multiple excursions, my confidence level as a trail guide is much higher. Confidence? Yes. Expert? Never.
One of the things I love about acting as a trail guide is the unique challenges I will continue to experience. Challenges from what nature will throw at me. Challenges from working with individuals who bring different personalities to the trail.
Following that first trip I began organizing how I communicated. I created emails I saved as drafts. I emphasized the important things, and the little things, to make backpacking more enjoyable. This ultimately became one of the reasons I created a website with a focus on teaching backpacking. Please check out the Mountain Blazers web site.
I do not harbor any illusions that a website, or detailed emails, will completely prepare others for their initial journey into backpacking. I view these communication platforms as great starting points. People are individuals. As a trail guide I feel I have to tailor how I communicate on a personal level.
Emails and text messages are often not enough. At times I’ve required one-on-one meetings with full packs. We unpack and repack. We pitch tents in my front yard.
I created my website more because I love writing and I love to teach others. Mountain Blazers is my way of expressing my passion toward backpacking, and teaching backpacking. It’s also a new hiking club in the Carolinas.
My efforts are already paying dividends. After a full summer of leading groups, learning how to better prepare them, helping people struggle through their first tough hike, I have been rewarded. Two of them, a 19 year old female and a 16 year old male, are now experienced hikers. I have confidence these two could head out on their own, on a multi-day section hike, and not only be fine, but enjoy the experience.
Even on that very first trip. Watching the wonderment in eyes new to mountain vistas. On later trips witnessing the sense of accomplishment when returning from a trip which took them beyond their comfort level.
This is what drives me to continue my quest to improve as a trail guide. It is another reason why I created my website. To seek out others who have a desire to learn backpacking.
In August and October I would face other challenges as a trail guide. It would require more than experience to overcome these challenges. My measure as a leader and my physical conditioning would be tested. I discuss this in part two.
I look to 2020 with great anticipation. When I will hopefully take many more people on their first ever wilderness adventure. Or others who’ve been but want to challenge themselves a little further. I’m ready and excited!
Edited by aimless (11/20/1912:30 AM) Edit Reason: removed links to web site (you can websearch for it very easily)
I've done the same thing - and learned many of the lessons you did. I've also had people show up with circus tents, expecting us to show them how to make it fit in their bookbag.
I'm looking forward to reading the next installment.
Several of us here have been group leaders for folks of all ages who are new to backpacking. Let us know if you want feedback after you get all 3 parts posted; also, feel free to ask questions, if you want to. One thing that is not in short supply here is advice!
I'll second what Glenn has said. When we take newbies backpacking, we pretty much provide all the gear. That's the only way to make sure that they have what they need...And we've been doing this long enough that we have equipment for 3-4 other people if we need it.
This is giving me a great outlet since all of my trips keep getting canceled due to weather, which might happen again this weekend. When I'm not taking new people out I love to get out and just enjoy a hike. I'm trying for a GA section this weekend, but the outlook isn't too great. I can handle weather, but prefer to avoid cold rain. Yuck.
Thanks again for responding. I hope to get time to read some posts today (between running a coffee shop).