Group Dynamics while Hiking and Touring with Friends in the Backcountry
When we head out on a hike or ski tour, it’s typically an informal setting with friends. You head out with the intention of having a good time. But traveling in the backcountry can be dangerous and it’s important that groups talk about these dangers and be prepared as a whole.
You primary goal should always remain the same = the safe return of everyone in the party.
Whether you’re headed out to summit a peak or hiking to a bucket-list destination, the goal always remains the same… make it home safely. While we’d love to reach that summit, the reality is, many times reaching the top just isn’t feasible. Make it about the experience not the outcome.
It’s important that groups have some kind of leader. It is the leader’s job to facilitate communication and ensure the group is discussing potential dangers. This person should focus on those potential dangers and encourage the group to discuss how they plan to manage them. The leader’s role is not to make the final decision, however. All decisions should be made collectively by the group.
Leaders must possess the following qualities to be successful in the backcountry:
Skills: If you’re leading a group into the backcountry in the winter, it’s probably a good idea to know how to use your gear. Be prepared to fix your ski bindings or snowshoe straps.
Fitness: You should be fit enough to get to the top/summit and fit enough to help other group members who may struggle. Don’t be afraid to turn around if someone isn’t going to make it safely.
Preparedness: Leaders should understand the terrain, route, weather, etc. and ensure that other members of the group are also equipped with this knowledge. If you don’t know the route, it’s probably not a good idea to lead a group in. A leader needs to make sure someone in the group is current with their first aid training.
Share Credit: Offer positive reinforcement to group members. Encourage them to give input and then recognize those smart decisions as the trip unfolds.
A good leader should also possess some of these other characteristics:
- good at coping with stress and helping others manage their stress
- the ability to remain calm in an emergency
- optimistic and flexible
THERE’S NO “I” IN TEAM - effective group communication
Try to keep groups to eight people or less, as more than this is hard for one leader to effectively manage and communicate with. A successful group will work together to establish common goals through open and effective methods of communication. It’s important to have a leader facilitate, but in the end the group should make a collective decision.
Each group member should know and understand:
- The trip goals - are you summiting, how far are you planning to travel that day?
- The equipment required and the knowledge to operate and repair it
- The weather/avalanche forecast (and proper gear like a beacon, shovel, and probe!)
- The route and potential hazards- safest method down and up
- Level of skills and fitness required to reach the goal
Don’t forget to tell someone outside of the group about your trip- even if it is only a day trip. Leave the following information with a person at home. If no one is available, leave the information on the dash of your car in a visible location.
- Where are you going?
- Who are you going with?
- When do you expect to be back?
We can all be blinded by the summit, but there are a few other things that can affect the safety of your group in the back country.
DECISION MAKING TRAPS
Familiarity: the more familiar you are with the terrain, the less risky you perceive it to be. Our sensitivity to the threat is diminished, but the threats themselves have not changed.
Social Proof: The reasoning that the terrain is safe just because other people are on it.
Commitment/Tunnel Vision: The party is determined to achieve their goal and ignore or dismiss critical danger signs to accomplish their goal.
Scarcity: The party makes a push because it might be their only chance (i.e., how often do you travel to Patagonia, or the sun is shining so we can get perfect photos)
Fear of being a Debbie Downer- Not wanting to be the person who ruins it for everyone
Poorly matched abilities- Make sure everyone can safely accomplish the goal
Guide-Client mentality: Everyone just follows the leader and assumes he knows all without questioning things.
Separating the group- never a good idea, but if you need to, the following is recommended:
- Always have a partner
- Make sure each group has adequate supplies for travel and knows where they are going
- Make a plan for getting back together and a backup plan if the first doesn’t pan out
Understanding group dynamics is important for safe travel in the backcountry. Try to remember that it’s about the journey and experience and not necessarily the destination.
We’d love to hear your stories about traveling with friends and groups in the backcountry. Tell us what trips you’ve enjoyed in the comments.