We’ve talked about not traveling alone, and the necessity for safety in numbers. Hopefully that makes sense at this point, because what happens when a member of a hiking or backpacking group becomes separated for any reason? They’re no longer part of a group! They’re again on their own, which violates our safety requirements.
Unless the group continually monitors their “groupedness”, members may become separated when hiking on a trail for several reasons. Group members may lag behind, or they may feel compelled to run ahead of the group.
Unless all group members are equal in experience, age, and trail knowledge, and can easily reach decisions by consensus, choose a Group Leader.
Group Leader– Usually the most trained, experienced, or responsible group member.
May already be established (youth group leader with youth group, parent with children, mentor with mentees, etc.).
Needs to make key decisions, be accountable for group actions, and be “tie-breaker” during group arguments.
A slow hiker may lag behind, and at the next rest stop everyone looks around and has to ask where the lagging hiker is.
Many searches and rescues start at exactly this point. Case studies continually point to this one violation as a primary reason people become lost, injured, or deceased. A straggler, in a desperate effort to catch up, may take a wrong turn at a trail junction, may try to cut across trail switchbacks and get lost, or may lose a hard-to-follow route.
So what does the group do to avoid this?
Put the slowest member of your party in front, and have the others match that person’s pace. If that person needs to stop for a rest break, everyone stops for a rest break.
Some hikes turn into a physical speed contest to see who takes the lead and reaches the next stop first. One would think this behavior is restricted to small children and extroverted teen-agers, but think again. Supposedly mature adults frequently fall into this category, putting the entire trip at risk for many of the same reasons as a straggling member of the group.
The speed hiker can easily race off into oblivion if a trail junction is misinterpreted, a shorcut is blundered, or the trail is lost.
Put faster hikers to work at the rear. Ask them to keep a head count of the others ahead, make sure no one lags, look for dropped equipment, etc. Put their apparently limitless energy to good use.
Keep track of faster hikers when they’re at the rear. Under no circumstances are they to take side trips!
Kids and adults are again equals when it comes to this. Individuals will get bored with the length or location of a stop and forge off on a side trip of their own, “just for a little while”. No one notices they’re gone until it’s time to leave, but by then it’s too late.
Okay, realistically members will need to step out of sight for “pit stops” along the way. Communication is the key. Let the rest of the group know what you’re doing, and make sure they wait until everyone’s back together.
Communicate, keep everyone together, and when it’s time to leave, leave. Period.
Keeping everyone together on the trail is essential to trip safety. If this poses problems, consider heading back. Return another day with a more responsible group.
Okay, you’ve reached your desination, everyone’s set up camp. Members of your group want to take off to explore, relax, etc. etc. They’ll be out of voice and eyesight of everyone else.