Any experienced hiker can become a hike leader -- and should. The satisfactions are many. You give something back to those who have provided you with many outings in the past. You learn much more about the area that you hike in by leading others through it. Finally, you receive respect from your peers in the hiking club, and gratitude -- usually expressed profusely -- from the participants on your hike.
The best way to break in is to walk right behind the leaders on a few hikes and observe what they do and say. Volunteer to act as a "sweep" sometimes to become a little more alert to what people do on a hike. If you can, be a co-leader on a scheduled hike.
Then when you think you are psychologically ready to assume the responsibility of leading people into the woods and out again, schedule a hike in an area that you are fond of and know very well. If path finding is the easy part, you can pay more attention to the people on the hike.
Planning the route
Some people memorize a route by walking it several times. That's a little easier if the trails are marked, but not entirely so. Trail signs may be removed, or vandalized. A tree bearing one may fall down at a critical juncture.
Unmarked trails are not necessarily any more difficult to follow, if the turns are few and easy to ascertain. But we always insist that the leader carry a compass. On an overcast day, you cannot tell direction from the sun (obviously), and can easily wander off on the wrong fork.
Whether you also need a map, and/or a printed walking guide depends on the complexity of the area and the existence of visible landmarks. If you can see at almost every turn exactly where you are headed, as on Sandy Neck, for instance, a guide is helpful, but not absolutely necessary. If you are in the West Barnstable conservation area, you will be deep in the woods all day, with many confusing side trails.
We recommend walking the entire route again shortly before the scheduled hike. Bring a friend for company. You will discover and be alert to recent changes in conditions. Trails look different in the various seasons. High water may make a short detour necessary, as on the bike path in the Province Lands. Jot down what to watch for, on a card, and bring it with you on the hike.
Listing the hike
If the group you hike with is informal, and does not publish a schedule, listing the hike may be no more than just announcing that you will meet at such and such a trailhead on a future date. Be sure that someone else will come along who could also lead the hike, if you are out of action at the last minute. It sometimes happens.
Listing a hike with a club that publishes a schedule re- quires planning your availability well in advance. Hike chairman do not like to be informed that you will be going to Portugal on the scheduled date. The principal reason is that publishing the hike leader's name and telephone number gives participants the opportunity to obtain more in- formation about the hike directly from the leader.
So be aware that you will get calls. Be friendly and receptive to off-the-wall questions. When people ask, "Can you tell me about the hike?", assume that they want to know something important to them, in addition to what the hike description contains. So you say, "Absolutely; what else would you like to know?" And it's usually a minor question or two, easily answered.
It's even a good idea to ask for at least the first name of a caller, and where he or she is coming from. If it's far away, offer advice on finding the trailhead, which is often the most difficult part of going on a hike! When the hike assembles, ask for the persons who called you. People like that reassurance.
In listing the hike, you will be guided by the conventions of the club, as to what to include, and what to explain. If you also list your hike in the local media, do not be dismayed if some critical parts are edited out. As a rule, people do not just show up for a hike that is clearly unsuitable for them. They always call first to be sure.
You may wish to include a cancellation condition in your hike description. Heavy rain, high winds, deep snow are common. That means that prospective participants should pay attention to the weather forecast, or at least look out the window before setting out.
Some may call you on the evening before, or even early in the morning. If you know it's no go, tell them. If you are unsure, tell people to call you in the morning at such and such a time. Make a decision, and that's that.
The most difficult call is "bad driving conditions." It is the immediate vicinity of the trailhead that you are concerned about. This would most likely be flooding, or ice and snow. If you can't get there, stay home and field phone calls.
If you can get there, regardless of the weather, drive to the trailhead to send home any strays who have shown up. Some folks simply pay no attention to the weather, or the cancellation notice, and expect to go hiking!
Assembling at the trailhead
Arrive at the trailhead, usually a well-defined parking area, at least fifteen minutes early. People often arrive early, and get nervous about whether they are in the right place. Your arrival and identification as hike leader will reassure them.
Walk around the cars and identify yourself. Have them sign the trip sheet, if it is a club hike. That covers them and you under the club's liability insurance. Inspect their gear while you're chatting, to be sure they are adequately prepared for the conditions to be expected.
There is no need to make a big deal out of it, but on rare occasions, you may encounter someone who has been brought along by a well-meaning member, who is clearly unsuited to the scheduled hike. Explain gently what the hike will en- compass, and give them an opportunity to back out gracefully.
The unspoken message is that you, as hike leader, have ab- solute authority over who does, or does not, go on the hike. The reason is, of course, that you are concerned about the safety of each participant. You are not legally responsible for anyone else, but you are expected to use good judgment.
Wait five minutes after the scheduled time before jumping off. That gives anyone unfamiliar with the area extra time to find the trailhead. Use that time to help the group get acquainted, and to inform them where they will be going and what they will see. Use a map to show the route.
If the hike is a shuttle, designate which cars will be used to transport everyone to the starting point. Don't ask for volunteers; pick out the cars that hold the most people. Then take off in a convoy. One car returns with the drivers.
Conducting the hike
With everyone all prepared, well-informed, and ready to go, set off on the hike. Even with a very fit group, keep the pace relatively slow to begin, so that the column can sort itself out. Hiking is one sport where you can talk non-stop, and many folks like to do so.
You may wish to appoint a sweep, that is, a person designated to bring up the rear of the column. He or she should also be an experienced hiker, who is reasonably familiar with the route. The sweep stops the hike if anyone drops out, usually by blowing a whistle.
Shortly after leaving the trailhead, stop for a separation. Have a place picked out that is somewhat secluded in all seasons. Instruct either the men, or the women, to walk ahead far enough to be out of sight. Someone in the lead group should shout back, "Come ahead," when it is clear.
After the first separation, you can usually set the pace for the remainder of the hike. Stop at views and at points of interest. If you are relating something, be sure that the entire group has moved up within earshot. At the very least, stop once per hour to regroup, delayer, and take on water.
Think about a good place for stopping for lunch, if the hike includes same. A pleasant lunch spot makes the whole day. A picturesque viewpoint, out of the wind, is best. In winter, get out in the sun; in warm weather sit in the shade.
You, and the sweep, if there is one, should be aware by now of anyone having difficulty. The most common are foot problems, which usually can be alleviated by a piece of moleskin, or a large band aid. You should, of course, be carrying a simple first aid kit.
In the warm weather, watch for symptoms of heat exhaustion. Anyone who is laboring and sweating profusely, with a red face, should be sat down in the shade to cool off with a moderate intake of water. Hypothermia may occur in cold, wet weather, but can easily be prevented with proper gear.
Occasionally, someone will want to go back at lunchtime. That is, if the hike permits it. If you are on a long circular, or a long shuttle; going back may take as much time as continuing. But let that person go, with your blessing. Once a person leaves the group, after notifying the leader, he/she is no longer on your hike. Simply note that on your trip report.
Be sure to have a separation right after lunch, at the next suitable location. Start off a little slower after lunch, also, then pick up the pace later on. If the route back is clear; e.g., along the beach, you don't have to be in the lead. Let those who want to stretch their legs get out ahead of you. Warn them, though, of a pending change in direction.
When you get back to the cars, stay around for a while to answer questions about hikes, hiking, club membership, and other matters of interest. You can spread a lot of good will at the end of a hike, while people have a lot of good will toward you!