As soon as they discover you’re planning a big trip, or that you’ve scored a much sought-after river permit, people come out of the woodwork trying to hitch a ride. Tempting as it may be to say yes to all comers, it’s not always a good idea. Here’s how to assemble a group that works.
This is different
First of all, recognize that a major trip is more than a longer version of a weeklong backcountry trip to your local river or mountain range. The longer timeframe is merely one factor. Major trips usually have more intense conditions and greater remoteness. Because they’re further away and harder to reach, chances are high that your group will have less familiarity with the local conditions. The first step in assembling your group is to accept the fact that different rules apply than rounding up the usual crew. They may fit in this group too, but the rules are different.
Beware the Traps
Outdoor risk management experts use terms called “the scarcity trap” and “the commitment trap” to describe mental processes that frequently lead to accidents. The first is that the rarer an opportunity is, the more willing people are to take risks to enjoy it. The second is that the more that’s been invested in getting somewhere—time, money, verbal commitments, blocking out calendars—the more people will feel compelled to charge forward even if conditions say that its dangerous. Big trips magnify both of these traps: the rarity of the experience, the commitment of most of the people’s annual vacation time, and the amount of work that goes into planning create both scarcity and commitment and can lead to risky behavior. It manifests in both the larger decisions about whether or not the trip is a good idea at all and the decisions made once the trip has started, like whether to run or portage a particular rapid.
Beware of Reciprocity
If someone has invited you on their trip in the past, there’s a natural feeling of obligation to invite them on yours. That’s a great instinct, but don’t take it blindly—if that person doesn’t have the skills for this trip, won’t get along with the group, or has different goals, it’s a recipe for bad group dynamics. Be equally cautious about inviting someone along because they have equipment like rafts or Class IV skills if their personality doesn’t fit.
Goals and Habits
A lot of stress can be avoided by having an open discussion of what everyone’s goals are: to climb a certain peak? Cover lots of miles? See lots of wildlife and enjoy a leisurely pace? It also helps to do some research about your group-mates’ daily habits: late risers vs. early birds, pre-planning routes vs. winging it, austere freeze-dried food advocates vs. gourmets who want a long time to cook. These may end up being worked out in the first couple of days, but it’s easier to deal with them up front when you build the group. Of course, should expect people to fib a bit. If they really want to go, they’ll say what they think will get them on board, only to show a different pattern later. Base your decision on their past, rather than what they say.
Every trip requires different skills, both hard and soft. There are the specific skills of climbing mountains, establishing routes, running rapids, navigation, and wilderness camping, as well as the strength and stamina for the venture. Then there are the soft skills: organizing people and gear, planning, keeping a group focused, fun, relaxed, or whatever’s needed to fit the situation. One of the most effective people I ever saw on a river trip knew absolutely zilch about whitewater or even camping—but they were a great organizer of both plans and people, and they made everything run smoothly. Make a list of both the hard and soft skills you think you need.
And be cautious about your own skill. The fact that your name happened to come upon a permit lottery or that you’re leading the charge to make a trip happen doesn’t mean you have the skills to lead the group in the mountains or on the water.
Don’t place anyone burden (for instance, finding routes through rough water or wilderness first aid) on one person. That’s too much risk—that one person can get sick or injured, have a bad day, or have an emergency the day before the trip leaves. It also builds dependence, not group competence. They may lead these aspects, but the rest of the group shouldn’t follow like sheep.
Talk About the Intangibles
Talk openly about the things that are hard to put into words: what frustrates people on trips? What scares them? How do they react when they’re tired, frustrated, or scared? What are their pet peeves? It’s inevitable that some of these situations will arise, and talking about it beforehand achieves two things. First, it reminds everyone that the trip won’t be all perfect weather, rainbows, and unicorns. Second, it gives everyone a sense of how to get along when things get stressful and how to interpret the behavior of their buddies when times are tough.
Talk about money early. Big trips are usually expensive. Realistic expectations of cost can save a lot of awkwardness and frustration later. It may lead to someone you’d love to have along dropped out—but it’s best to have that happen earlier rather than later. It gives them more time to plan and reduces the likelihood of dropping out at the last minute.
Divvy Up the Planning
There will be a lot of planning to be done. Ask different people to lead chunks of it: planning the route, food, travel planning, equipment lists, and so on. It does more than just make your life less insane. It changes the dynamic from leader-follower to active co-participants, which translates to groups that work better on the trip itself, where responsibility is shared and expertise is honored but not followed blindly. It also allows you to spot where the trouble is likely to arise—if someone drops the ball planning, it can be a warning sign.
Shake It Down
If the trip is significant enough, go on a smaller shakedown trip first. There’s only so much you can learn about each other around a pub table. Of course, small trips aren’t the same as big trips, and everyone will likely be on their best behavior on the shakedown. But the sooner you get this preliminary forming stage out of the way, the faster the group will gel for when it really counts.