Building a Group for a Long Trip


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.

shutterstock_183854504Talk 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.