Expedition Behavior: What It Is and How to Foster It

©istockphoto/TG_Studios It’s day eight of a two-week trip to a remote mountain peak. The weather’s turned for the worse, and someone loses control of the stove and dinner gets burnt to a crisp.

Then, someone leaves some gear out in the rain. Another teammate, worried about not making the summit, stresses that the weather window might close. Tensions build.

Two things could happen here. First, the group could fall apart. Or, they could take a deep breath, eat a crispy dinner, dry out some gear, crack a few jokes, and see what the weather does the next day. The difference between the first and the second scenarios is something called “Expedition Behavior.” It’s the difference between functional and dysfunctional groups when the going gets tough.

What Exactly is “Expedition Behavior”?

“Expedition Behavior” is the term National Outdoor Leadership School founder Paul Petzoldt used to describe the set of behaviors that keep a group moving together in the wilds. Like a finely tuned marriage, an expedition must navigate good times and bad and manage complex unknown risks. Also like a marriage, while any group can hang together for a weekend, the pressures of long outdoor adventures mean that it’s likely that at some point everyone will mess up in one way or another. Expedition Behavior is how teams get along while also performing at a high level.

How To Create Positive “Expedition Behavior”

1. Support the Group’s Goals
Before your group leaves the trailhead or put-in, everyone should know what the goals are. Is it to climb a peak? Have a relaxing time in a wild and remote place? See a lot of wildlife? If these goals aren’t clear and aligned, the group is in for trouble. There is often room for individual goals within the group goal—like using layover days to climb nearby peaks—but the group goal comes first.

2. Take Care of Yourself
Manage your own needs. If you let yourself get dehydrated, cold, or exhausted, you’ll end up slowing down the rest of the group or putting them at risk when dehydration or exhaustion affects how you can perform in challenging situations.

3. Pitch In
Everyone should contribute to group tasks. This includes routine camp chores like cooking meals, hanging food, and filtering water; and roles like route-finding, decision-making, rowing rafts, and leading and belaying climbs.

4. Help Others but Don’t Do Their Work For Them
Of course, there will be plenty of times when your teammates need help. Help out. That doesn’t mean you should fill in for them entirely. This can lead from “helping” to “enabling” and builds frustration and dependence.

5. Moderate Potentially Annoying Behaviors
Everyone has behaviors that are fun on the first few days but get old quickly. These range from the goofy jokes, boisterous laughing at night, or forgetting to brush their teeth. Keep a handle on these habits. You want room for individuality, but the pressures of a long trip will make what once was charming now a nuisance.

6. Admit Shortcomings and Correct Them
When you make a mistake, fess up and move on. This lets the rest of the group forgive and help out. Masking them or trying to blame them on someone else or some uncontrollable situation will build tension instead of cohesion.

7. Support Everyone’s Growth
Expeditions exist in part to build skills and strength in humans, as well as to achieve goals. Rotating leadership and an environment where everyone takes turns leading, setting up safety, scouting rapids, and other key roles builds everyone’s leadership ability as long as there are safeguards in place if things go wrong. This redundancy is also a group’s protection against one critical person getting injured.

8. Be “Cow-Like”
When the going gets tough, the tough…don’t react much at all. Being “cow-like” means stay calm and sort it out. This applies to sudden storms or a frustrated teammate. Reacting strongly raises the group’s tension level. A calm demeanor doesn’t mean disregard—but it does help you think, act calmly and make a plan.

9. Relaxed Awareness
Cultivate a mentality where you’re relaxed and enjoying nature but still very aware of subtle changes in weather, snow conditions, sea state, and other key conditions. Groups that are continuously scanning their environment will have storm-proofed their camp hours before the front hits….because they saw a nuanced change in the cloud patterns or noticed the barometer dropping a few hours ago.

10. Be Funny
Expeditions can be stressful, and even more so when things aren’t going perfectly. Keep the atmosphere light…except when it shouldn’t be.

Expeditions are too challenging to boil down to black-and-white rules. But Expedition Behavior can help any group stay together when the rain is coming sideways, the tent is leaking, and a warm bed is far away. It’s also what makes the bond between adventurers deep and lasting.