Disclaimer – I don’t claim that these are necessarily profound or original. They are what came to mind when recently, in preparation for a presentation titled: “20 Years of Adirondack Wilderness Expeditions,” I scanned a couple of hundred 35mm slides of the trips I have led. It was only after I had provided the title and description of the presentation that I realized it was more like 35 years of leading Adirondack ventures and that I’m getting older than dirt.
# 49: Larger groups (8-12) move more slowly than small groups (2-4)
The may fit in the “duh” department but it took me a little while to figure it out. Early in my career I was terrible at estimating time and always thought the groups I led could do more than was realistic. Fortunately I was a fairly quick learner. One trip requiring the use of flashlights to get back to the trailhead and I said to myself, “I don’t want to do this anymore!”
Given that the objectives of the majority of the trips I led were about skill and leadership development, covering large distances was at the bottom of my needs. I think shorter days with shorter miles can teach more, than longer days with longer miles. Of course it depends on your objectives. Another factor that causes large groups to be slower is that the larger the group the more likely you are going to have people that aren’t in good shape. The old maxim holds true that you can only go as fast as your slowest person. I think having slower people in your group provides a better learning experience than if everyone is in great shape. As a leader or guide you are rarely going to have the luxury of everyone being in great shape. Learning to work with slower hikers and meeting their needs is an essential skill.
I remember when planning one of our two week winter expeditions with about 16 students (too many for one group) and the students were determining how they were going to divide themselves up. The physically stronger students wanted to create what they called a “lions” team and a “lambs” team. That is, a physically stronger team and a weaker team. I remember writing one word on the black board (yes we still had them although they were green) that described the “lions”. The word was selfish. They took the hint and ended up creating more evenly divided groups.
I don’t have much experience with the “light-weight backpacking” trend that is currently so popular and how lighter weights might impact a group’s travel speed. I would think groups can move faster but that they still can’t travel as fast as similarly outfitted smaller groups. Most of the trips I led were of a siege mentality with lots of weight. The bad side of that is that you can’t move fast but it allows you to bring things that allow students to learn a greater variety of outdoor skills (e.g., a greater variety of food and cook gear allow for teaching a greater range of cooking skills, ropes and hardware allow for a Tyrolean traverse or rock climbing, and guidebooks for nature interpretation.)
In winter everything takes longer and large groups, as above, take longer than smaller groups. The one exception is when breaking trail in deep snow. Having more bodies to rotate the job of breaking trail may allow you to make better time than when you have fewer people to share the job with.
Bottom line: Expect to take quite a bit longer to do, in a group of 8-12 people, what you can do with a group of 4.
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