Minute Mysteries: Group Dynamics

Summer day hike
Summer day hike

The situation:

You, and a co-leader, have a group of ten (10) participants. You’ve planned an ambitious day hike up a 4000+ peak in late July. The weather is clear, although it is hot & humid with temperatures in the mid-80s (Fahrenheit). Every member of your group has at least 2 liters of water and a daypack with the 10 Essentials.

After a fun, albeit slow, hike up and down the peak, you have about 1.5 miles to go to reach the parking lot. This final stretch of trail begins with a short, 400ft. climb, followed by rolling terrain, and then an easy, mostly flat 3/10 mile walk to the trailhead. Before tackling this final section, the group takes an extended break to refill water bottles, tend to personal needs, etc.

When you head back out on the trail after the break, you notice a change in the demeanor of the group. Folks are no longer laughing or joking. The group, which has done an effective job pacing over the course of the day, starts to spread out. Some folks are really slowing down. One participant starts complaining about sore legs.

What’s going on? What are some things you can do as a leader to counteract the changes you’re observing? PAUSE. Take a few minutes to think about what you might do if you encounter this situation before continuing.

Outdoor activities during hot, humid summer days can take their toll on even the most well-prepared group. As a leader, here are some things you can try to help your group finish the day successfully:

  • On a hot day, it can be helpful to bring along some lemonade, Gatorade, or other drink mix with sugar & electrolytes to help folks replenish what’s being lost via sweat & exertion. Remember, one of the first signs of heat exhaustion is a change in a person’s demeanor (i.e., “the grumpies”). You can also make your own rehydration solution by mixing 1 liter of water with 1 teaspoon of salt and 8 teaspoons of sugar.
  • Elevation gain/loss can take a toll on feet, knees and hips, especially if the terrain is more challenging than folks anticipate. Carrying an extra set of trekking poles, or finding a good walking stick along the trail, can make a big difference.
  • As folks get tired, you may notice the group spreading out. Folks become anxious to get back to the trailhead and pick up the pace. Other folks, who are struggling, slacken their pace and begin to feel like they’ll never reach the end. This might be a good time to strike up a conversation or introduce a trail game. As a leader, this is the time when you need to step up and infuse the group with some positive energy. You may also remind the group of the some of the norms you established at the start of the day around traveling as a group, etc.
  • An end-of-day surprise! As a leader, perhaps you’ve decided to bring along a cooler with sliced watermelon, or some other treat, for folks when you return to the trailhead. Or perhaps you know a great place to grab an ice cream cone on the way back home. Even if folks are tired, you’ll be amazed at how they revive with the promise of a surprise at day’s end!
  • Hot and humid temps require leaders to up their group management game. Structure extra breaks and make sure when you stop it’s in the shade so people can cool off!

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Kristi Hobson Edmonston

AMC Outdoors, the magazine of the Appalachian Mountain Club, inspires readers to get outside and get engaged. Learn more.