Tag Archives: hiking

Lead and Sweep Hikers: What are Their Roles?

As I prepare the BMW for a long ride north this weekend I figured I’d get one last piece out to you all.

Let’s keep it quick and explore the roles of lead and sweep hikers for group backpacking.

lead hiker

Lead hiker’s have many tasks and you’ll want to rotate your group participants through this role. Among others their duties include:

  • Pace setting and checking for group pace
  • Checking for group hydration and ensuring water breaks
  • Initiating hiking games and group chat
  • Greeting oncoming trail traffic and alerting the group to move aside
  • Navigation
  • Getting the group ready after breaks and ensuring all are present

Any hiker in your group should be doing most of these tasks, don’t leave it solely up to your lead hiker. However, the lead hiker bears the primary responsibility for oversight.

You’ll find that as more of your group gets a chance to lead hike for a day or half a day, they’ll start to check in on the group even when they’re not in the lead. By the end of your trip you’ll have a whole group of lead hikers.

When you’re first starting out you’ll want to hike as the lead hiker and demonstrate to your group what the behaviors are of good lead hiking.

Sweep Hiker

Hiking sweep means you’re traveling very last in the group no matter what.

Normally you’ll want to make sure that you can still see your lead hiker and, if you can’t, call out for a slowing of pace. Sweep hikers are often the first to notice a pace that’s not correct.

As the sweep hiker it’s your job to mop up all the little details.

You should be:

  • Keeping an eye on pace
  • Watching the group carefully for signs of developing injury
  • Making sure no one drops gear on the trail (fuel bottles come to mind)
  • Leaving all break sites last and double checking for stragglers and trash
  • Triple checking the navigation and make sure your group hasn’t missed something
  • Keeping an eye on the weather; it’s often overlooked

When I hike sweep I try to focus on things I know my lead hiker might be too busy to notice.

As a good trip leading team, however, your job is always to predict what your co-leader needs support with and get that done before they even know it.

A great trip leading team works together always in harmony and creates a safe, meaningful environment for their group. This ensures maximum impact on students and best outcome of course goals.

Make no mistake, your students will notice when you are working as a well oiled machine with your co-leaeder and the group will strive to meet your level of excellence.

student participation and L.O.D.

Make sure you’re giving all your students a chance to rotate in to the lead and sweep hiking positions.

Usually this is done by creating a Leader of the Day structure in your adventure trips. We’ll talk about that in more detail later in another article.

Nurture your students as the learn to perform these roles and make sure you’ve already set a good example for them.

Debriefing at the end of each day with your entire group in a safe, positive learning environment, is critical to improving your LOD (leader of the day) effectiveness and smoothing out the operations of the lead and sweep hikers.

Don’t forget; it’s critical to also privately debrief the day with you LODs each day so that you and your co-leader can give them private and direct timely feedback about their performance.


You’ll find that your students’ ability to lead and sweep hike well is a direct result of your mentor ship and your own ability to lead and sweep hike well with your co-leader as you demonstrate and provide feedback.

If your adventure program doesn’t already have a Leader of the Day system and lead and sweep hikers in place as common practice, just contact me and we will work together to develop that content for your course.

Got great lead and sweep hiker ideas? Leave me a comment with the best games to play, common mistakes, or things you’ve learned as a lead and sweep hiker in a group!

Pre-Trip Strategies for Wilderness Trip Risk Management

There’s always a lot of excitement and energy as your group hops out of the van at the trailhead. Chatting with your driver, usually your supervisor, you button up last minute details, and then you’re off.

Wait a minute! Before you hit that dusty trail here’s a few tips to make sure your group is prepared.

Starting a new journey is always exciting.

Starting a new journey is always exciting.

Remember, these tips should be paired with pre-trip planning and training of participants which should be much more in-depth.

Weather contingencies

Make sure your group is aware of things like the lightning position.

On the same note, hopefully you’ve already taught the “ABC’s” of backpacking, but make sure your group has appropriate clothing accessible. At least rain gear in an outside pocket (if it’s summer time).

Lost hiker protocol

How will the group respond in case of a lost hiker among your group? Make sure before you hit the trail that everyone in your group understands what to do if they become separated from the group.

I usually suggest the “hug a tree” policy whereby any lost hikers from my group immediately sit next to the nearest tree the moment they realize they are lost.

People often try to find their way back only to become more lost and make the situation worse.


It’s incredibly important to maintain good relations with other back country travelers when leading groups. Often you, or your employers, special use permits depend on keeping good standing with the land managing agency and if they get negative reports of your groups use, you’ll lose those permits.

  • For large groups always yield to smaller groups by standing to the side of the trail.
  • Always yield to horses by stepping to the downhill side. This is for the safety of the horse and rider in case the horse spooks.
  • When stopping for a water break or rest break, always move your group off the trail to allow passage of other users. Nothing is more unprofessional looking than a group of a dozen people clogging up the trail.

From a risk management persepective the most important tip to remember here is about horses. Always remember to step to the downhill side when yielding and keep a low voice as you greet the rider from a distance. If the horse spooks near you or your group it’s best for it to shy away toward the uphill slope where it’s less likely to hurt its self or the rider.


Make it clear that no one leaves the group without informing you. No matter the reason every hiker in your group must let you, the leader, know when they’re leaving.

Even for quick facili-tree breaks (bathroom); you are responsible for the group and must know where they are at all times. You don’t have to follow them to the bathroom but you must be aware that they have left.

pace setting

Consider using yourself and your co-leader (you MUST have a co-leader, never walk into the woods without a co-leader) as the lead and sweep hikers for the first half day.

This is important because you can set a good example for the group by playing trail games, setting appropriate pace, checking in with the group, monitoring rest breaks, etc.

You’ll want to let your group rotate into the roles of lead and sweep hiker as the trip progresses but it’s important to model good lead hiking so they have a tangible example to replicate.

Setting an appropriate pace is very important for group dynamics, mental health, and physical health on trail.

Often times hikers will struggle to keep up with a strong lead hiker but won’t say anything. Eventually you’ll realize it’s becoming a problem when you have an asthmatic episode from a hiker in your group who pushed themselves too hard to keep up.

Be proactive with pace setting, ask your group often “Would anyone like me to slow down?”

Eventually the group will learn to ask eachother and often they’ll ask you to slow down for someone else in the group they can tell is struggling but unwilling to speak up.

Encourage a safe environment for this, you’ll be glad you did.


What tips do you have for pre-hike risk management at the trailhead?
Leave me a comment!

What I Learned From the Appalachian Trail

This spring I started my very much anticipated would-be thru hike of the Appalachian Trail. I did not finish. This is what I learned:

  • I enjoy socializing on the trail much more than I ever have before. I sometimes found myself going out of my way to make it to a shelter where I might have an evening conversation with other hikers before turning in. It was the relationships I found out there that meant as much to me as my communion with nature. I actually returned most of the way home from the trail by getting a ride with Roy, a middle aged man with whom I had been leapfrogging for days. We met every night at the next shelter and swapped stories and advice about our struggles on the trail. He missed home. I was dragging one leg along as if on crutches. He drove me all the way to Kentucky in his beater Caprice and told me stories the whole way. He refused to let me pay him for the ride.

The first photo of my hike.

  • Hiking with an 8.5 pound base weight will attract attention. My pack was very noticeably smaller than those of any other hikers out there. Especially when unpacking for the night at or around a populated area (shelter) I was grilled with questions about my pack and gear. It’s important as a lightweight backpacker to not look down on those with heavier or different gear choices, it’s simply an opportunity to share information. I try to listen more than talk.
  • My legs are much stronger than the tendons and ligaments in them. My thru-hike was ultimately cut short by my decision to leave the trail due to increasing and consistent tendonitis on my right knee. While my muscles and mind were ready to (and did) pump out 26 mile days, the joints were not. It was, in hindsight, something I should have seen coming a long ways off. I didn’t. It took me off the trail.
  • Bleach is a totally cool water purifier. Why didn’t I start using it earlier???
  • Life teaches us new things when we embrace change and opportunities. I left the trail for a week at Hiawassee, GA to let my severely painful knee have a rest. It was there I happened across the welcoming arms of Dr. Swan and Enota Mountain Resort where I worked for stay during the Memorial Holiday. I made a dozen new friends who I will remember forever. I learned to love the early morning smell of the organic farm in Georgia. I read a book on vegan lifestyle and ate healthier there than I ever have. I had milk straight from the cow for the first time in my life. I went to bed having worked a 16 hour day and smiled about it. It was the best thing that could have happened to me.
  • I enjoyed the trail more when I let go of my schedule, ditched my itinerary, stayed and talked with whomever and whenever the whim took me. I enjoyed finding a crashed plane with Chris who continually graciously complimented my overall hiking knowledge while never ceasing to speak about the spiritual connection he felt to the forest. He started to awaken a sense of wonder in me that I so often overlook. Thanks, Chris.

Still smiling through it all.

  • Letting go of such an ingrained and heart felt goal as thru-hiking is difficult. It took me many many days to come to terms with my decision to leave the trail. Every day I lowered my mileage and pace hoping to relieve and restore the injury in my knee. When it became clear that an extended hiatus was the only foreseeable solution to my increasing knee problem I had to make peace with the decision to leave. The trail will be there next year and ten years from now. Permanent knee damage would render me useless to my two largest passions, hiking and skiing.
  • It’s important to remember that hiking the trail (and in general) should be about pleasure. If you’re not enjoying it, then you’re doing it wrong. I love the sense of having completed a difficult and high mileage day but, as I mentioned, I also found I loved the people and the experiences as much or more. It took me a while to realize it was okay to make changes to my hike in order to embrace these new experiences.

It was surprising to find out so much about myself in so short a time. From the technical challenges (and failures) I encountered to the new interpersonal relationships I experienced. Every day on my journey led to a new and welcomed discovery.

My happiness came in knowing that no matter what I was doing or how things turned out, the trail was teaching me.

Even though I didn’t even come close to achieving my initial goal I am hugely grateful for the experiences I had and the lessons I learned. I will be back to the trail soon and I will be ready to embrace every odd and whimsical opportunity that presents its self. I’ll also be hiking a little less and talking a little more.

Appalachian Trials: The Psychological and Emotional Guide to Successfully Thru-Hiking The Appalachian Trail Review


Kindle Edition

Over the last two evenings I have sat down and done a little reading on my fancy new Kindle Paperwhite.

Okay, it’s not that new but I don’t always use it regularly. I’m actually becoming more and more convinced that it’s worth its weight in my pack. Perhaps I’ll try taking it out soon?

So I’ve stumbled across the website “Appalachian Trials” a few times over the years and this book is plastered all over it. Appalachian Trials by Zach Davis. Supposedly a book about how to deal with the mental challenges of a thru hike, written by (you guessed it) another through hiker.

Within the first few pages is another surprise (kidding), it’s based on the journey of yet another zero-experience backpacker who sets out to hike the AT and pulls it off. Let me just say right here that no matter who you are, finishing the AT is awesome, so congrats to Zach.

What drew me to the book is that it’s the only real source on the mental and spiritual challenges of the AT. There is plenty of scattered info out there about overcoming the internal struggles of long distance hiking, but nothing that really drives at the point. That is, other than “Appalachian Trials”.

The second thing I noticed is that the book (at least the Kindle version) is littered with small but annoying gramatical and spelling errors. I myself make plenty of these errors in my posts but, granted, I’m not selling these posts to anyone and I most certainly don’t do multiple proofreads.

What I’m getting at is this: I paid $8 for this (rather short) book. I expect a higher level of editing for $8. I mean I picked up David Miller’s “AWOL on the Appalachian Trail” for $3, less than half the cost.

Just judging by the customer reviews (168 of them on Amazon) this dude has generated at the very least $1344 and I’d be surprised if that estimate covered even a quarter of his true revenue from the book.

If I was getting paid $1344, I’d sure as hell get those grammar and spelling errors out!

Alright, now, harshness aside, I think the book was (largely) worth my time to read. His insights on how to mentally prepare and maintain healthy mental hygiene while hiking were at least mildly valuable. Being a long time backpacker and thru-hike attempter though, most of what was covered was at least unsurprising.

To an aspiring hiker with little or no experience of what to expect on a trip of this magnitude, however, his insight and advice would be eye-opening.

Gear Advice

As I reached the end of the book I really looked forward to the section on gear written by Zach’s friend Ian Mangiardi. Being a long time gear junkie myself, I was at least curious to see what was in store from (as Zach had made it sound) this mythical guru of inexhaustible gear knowledge.

I was sorely disappointed. Let me give a few examples:

The section on stoves has this direct quote: “The best stove for me will always be a screw-on IsoButane stove. These will always be the lightest weight…”. I was slightly stunned by this comment. For those of you who are not aware, canister stoves are not the lightest weight stoves (alcohol stoves far surpass IsoButane as the lightest stoves).

Off hand his low-end canister stove weight figure was 2oz, my alcohol stove weighs .6oz. Misleading information at best, poor research or blatant disregard for facts at worst. Perhaps the section on stoves was meant to be abridged and intentionally left out any mention of lighter weight options with misleading preference given to canister stoves?

Ian Mangiardi makes a pass at the “too-good-to-be-true NeoAir”. The NeoAir pad (I can only assume he means the xLite as I believe it was the only model available at the publishing of this book) is indeed less durable than many other pads on the market. I can take a closed cell foam pad and sleep on broken glass, the pad will still function in the morning. That’s not the point, however. If you’re repeatedly breaking your NeoAir, you’re using it wrong.

I’ve used my own xLite for multiple seasons now and I have yet to have a puncture. If I had to guess, I’d say it’s been slept on for a total of ~90 nights. It was my sole sleeping pad while leading trips on the Appalachian Trail in 2013 and is still my all-time favorite. I also snagged it brand new for somewhere in the $90 range off eBay.

What many fail to recognize is that as gear gets lighter and more purpose-built, it becomes increasingly imperative to use it properly. Yes, it’s true, if you sleep on a bed of dry pine needles, you’ll pop your NeoAir. If you pitch your cuben fiber tarp next to a broken jagged branch and it gets pushed into your tarp by wind, it’s going to puncture. This is not a failure of the gear, but an oversight of the operator.

In the shelter section, Ian mentions that NEMO Equipment “will always be [his] go-to brand for quality, lightweight tents”. There’s a pretty good chance that this is because he’s sponsored by NEMO (see photo) which he fails to mention in the book.


Ian talks up his sponsors.

Perhaps, however, Ian genuinely loves NEMO and always has. Thus he became sponsored by them. It’s equally likely, however, that his sponsorship by them resulted in this shameless plug. We’ll never know (unless Ian comments or emails me).

What we do know, for sure, is that NEMO most certainly ranks very low on my list of recommended brands. I’ve never seen any products by them that are worthy of being included in my pack, let alone a section of gear-advice consumed by hundreds of will-be hikers.


Lightheart Gear’s “Lightheart Solo – Standard”

Let’s take one example, the NEMO Veda 1-P. It’s a “trekking pole tent” weighing in at 33oz retailing for $350. It has an integrated bug net and bathtub style sil-nylon floor. Now we’ll put it up against the Lightheart GearLightheart Solo – Standard” weighing in at 29oz with the same features and a $245 price tag.

That’s a $105 less for (in my opinion) a superior, lighter weight, product from a cottage manufacturer.

I have personally met the owners of Lightheart Gear and spoken to them at length about their products and their construction. I trust their gear more than I trust NEMO because I know if anything (even the smallest error) goes wrong with a Lightheart tent, they will repair or replace their work without question. Cottage industry manufacturers rock. Period.

What’s clear is that this book was not written primarily to give gear advice and Zach would have been much further ahead to leave the section out as it seems to heavily work against the reputation of his book.

Read Zach’s book “Appalachian Trials” if you can borrow it from a friend, get it on the cheap, or find it in a book stash at the back of a shelter but do everyone a favor and tear out the gear section. The book’s primary purpose and best assets lie in the mental preparation of an Appalachian Trail hike. If you can look past the poor editing, I think you’ll find content thats worth your while and valuable to an aspiring thru hiker (or avid long distance hiker).

NOTE: I did not get compensated in any way for this review by any person or company mentioned (or anyone not mentioned, for that matter).

How Fast Will I Hike?

Saw a post today over on whiteblaze.net where a hiker was asking if one mile per hour is a slow hiking speed. I was going to post an in depth answer to their question but I figured perhaps my readers would benefit more (there were already a few good response there).

Let me also start by echoing what many on whiteblaze said, that as long as you’re having fun then you’re doing it right.

Now let’s start juggling numbers.

An unburdened human being walking on a flat sidewalk at a brisk pace will average approximately 3 mph. That’s 20 minutes per mile.

Let’s remove the sidewalk and give our hypothetical hiker a trail to walk on. Something mostly flat with a little up and down and net gain of zero feet elevation. We will also give him a moderately loaded pack with, say, 30 lbs of gear (pretty standard weekend weight for most hikers). We can now expect this average hiker with average gear on average terrain to maintain about 2 mph. That’s 30 minutes per mile.

If we’re getting off trail and bushwhacking, you should calculate .5 mph to 1 mph.

Now we’ll start adding in some elevation gain. For every 1000 ft of elevation gain, we can add on an hour of travel time.

For every 1000 feet of elevation descent we can add on 30-45 minutes of travel time.

It’s important that you not calculate these numbers based on net elevation change. You need to read the topography and calculate the elevation compensation cumulatively, not net.

So let’s say we’re hiking a total of ten trail miles with 1500 feet of elevation gain, and 1000 feet of elevation loss.

We can start by calculating ten miles at two miles per hour. That’s five hours of travel time.

Now we’ll add on one hour per 1000 feet at 1500 feet, which give us an extra hour and half.

Finally we can add an extra 45 minutes for the 1000 feet of elevation loss.

In the end our theoretical trip would take us seven hours and fifteen minutes (7:15).

This method of calculation is highly accurate in most situations I have encountered. I used this calculation while guiding trips with 10+ people on the Appalachian Trail. I have used it in the backcountry calculating itineraries through the Wind River Mountains of Wyoming. I use the same method whenever I go out.

You will eventually come to understand how accurate this method is for you, try it in a safe setting. Not every person hikes at the same pace, and you’ll learn to adapt the numbers depending on what terrain, weather, or other contingencies you expect to encounter.

This method may not be perfectly accurate for every person in every situation but it’s an excellent baseline tool for understanding your travel times while hiking and backpacking.

How to Get Started Backpacking and Hiking

“How do I get started backpacking?”

Red River Gorge Gray's Arch.

RRG, KY. A great day hiking area.

This question gets vomited up on a daily basis across the web, on forums, in comments, etc. Today people are looking for an instant answer, a perfect solution. I stand accused, I will admit to pouring over forum articles and gear reviews, stagnating in a lull of indecision. Let’s take a look at how our “never-ever” backpackers and hikers should approach starting out.

Go  with a friend. It’s fine to spend some time reading around and asking question online, but you’re not going to get the  information you really need this way.

Find a friend (or make a friend) who has an extra pack, head out on an overnight with them. You’ll start to understand what it’s like to carry all your own gear and food. How to set up your shelter (tent, hammock, tarp, etc.) This way you’ll have some idea of what all these old-timers on the forums are blabbering about with their mumbo-jumbo responses to your questions.

You’re going to have to just do it. I don’t use the same pack that I did when I started backpacking. In fact… I don’t really use any of the gear I did 6 years ago.

I started with a Katadyn Hiker water filter  that I got for $60 with a gift card. The plastic nipple broke off, and I was ready to switch over to Aqua Mira. I’ve been using that ever since.


An example of titanium alcohol stove vs. canister style stove.

My first pack I bought on Ebay for $35, it still works but I replaced it within a year for an Osprey Aether 60. I now have three Osprey packs for various purposes from expedition to backcountry skiing. I have a Gossamer Gear Gorilla as my UL pack, a Mountain Hardware day pack for cycling, and at least two disused old off-brand packs  that gather dust. Oh, and several Hydrapak’s that were sent to me as promotions.

My first shelter was a Swiss Gear single wall sil-nylon tent with one tiny gear vestibule. I bought it for $40 from Sam’s Club years ago and I still use it. It leaks pretty bad in hard rains, and these days I use my Hennessey Hammock much more often but there are times when the old tent still sees action.

Here’s my point, I’ve used tarps, hammocks, tents (of many kinds) and just about every other version of various gear under the sun. Without trial and error and experience using all these various pieces of gear, I’d have no idea what works for me. At some point you’ve got to just go for it and learn as you go.

Don’t take the kitchen sink. One bit of advice that gets circulated with frequency is to make three lists. A list of things you need to survive (food, 476277_10150566238696315_2114817487_oshelter, etc.) a list of things you want to take (camp chair, mp3 player, etc.) and a list of things you wish you could take (the kitchen sink might be a bit of an extreme example). Now, leave the last two at home.

Hair curlers, beer, cast iron skillets, wooden tent poles, ALICE packs, and anything bought from the military surplus store has no place on a backpacking trip.

One simple fact. You’re going to change your mind about gear. You’re going to upgrade, trade, swap, and stash gear. Don’t spend too much time worrying about what gear to get because rest assured it will change after you’ve had some time to experience the wonderful world of backpacking.

What to do on South Manitou Island

South Manitou Island, located 17 miles off the western shore of Michigan’s Lower Peninsula, is part of the Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore. I’ve had two opportunities to visit this island so far this summer while leading adventure trips and here’s what I think you should know before you go:


Beaches of South Manitou Island


Keep your trip short:

The island is only 10 miles in circumference, easily a day hike for most people. If you stay on the island for more than two nights you’ll be bored of finding new sights quickly. If, however, you want to take a hammock, get a beach-side campsite, and enjoy a very relaxing and pristine week then by all means, stay a while!

Visit these sights:


My Hennessy Hammock A-Sym Ultralight at Group Site #2, Weather Station Campground

The best sights are the village (where the ferry drops you off) and visitor center, the wreck of the Morzan, and the dunes. Catch the lighthouse tour before you go as well, meet at the lighthouse at 2pm for a 20 minute ranger led tour to the top of the light with the best possible views of the entire island.

Bring water shoes:

Recent Zebra Mussel population spikes have left the shores of South Manitou Island littered with the razor sharp shells of these little guys. In some places you can walk for yards without even touching sand on the beach! Thanks to the Zebra Mussel there has been a spike in algal growth along most of the shoreline, so also expect a green muck-like consistency in some of the lake water.

Camp at Weather Station Campground #10:

Site #10 at Weather Station Campground has unobstructed views of Lake Michigan from a site perched atop a sand dune. It has direct access to the beach less than 20 yards down the sand and is very close to the potable water access and the restrooms. Best campsite on the island by far!

What are your favorite sites on South Manitou?