Sunday, February 13, 2011

Finding The Sweet Size

Recently, a great San Francisco hiking blog (its a treat!, anyone, anyone, Bueller?) extolled the virtues of hiking in groups. The reasons stated for large groups included great conversations, meeting new friends and doing less planning (that is ALWAYS a benefit). This got me thinking, what is a good size group to go hiking?

The first option is, of course, solo. Many a person over the centuries has wandered out into the wilderness looking to test themselves against nature, against themselves, etc. Or they just hate people and want to get away from it all. I have done solo hikes before and there definitely is a balance of competing concerns. On the plus side, you can hike at your own pace and you can see what you want to see. This control is great, especially if you hike with in-shape hikers who kick your ass on the trails and implicitly question your recent adherence to the Fitness-By-Cheetos plan.

Also, this freedom allows you to explore trails or terrain of your choosing, which is welcomed if you are hiking the same trail for the 10th time.

The downside, and its a pretty big one, is that if you get into trouble, you either are getting yourself out of it, hoping someone comes along to get you out of it or, well, let's say there are some bad scenarios out there. Not that every trail is life or death but if you start going solo into backcountry or big peaks, the chances go up. Personally, I don't want those thoughts in the back of my mind but I find myself negotiating difficult sections of the trail differently when I am on my own and there is a bit of a hesitation while enjoying nature.

Another group size to consider is this large group dynamic. I have only been on one large group hike, my first Griffith Park adventure. Do you make friends with new conversations? Yes! Do you not have to worry about where you are going since there is a hike leader there? Yes! Given my newness to LA, all of these things are definitely positives. I like the idea of hiking clubs and camaraderie and the idea of matching t-shirts.

The downside to this approach though is that the conversations and the people tend to drown out nature. Part of me that wants to hike wants to experience nature as the antithetical to the City. There are people in the City, there are conversations in the City. In nature, what I am looking for is nature itself, not really people within nature. I think large hikes tend to overwhelm nature and it becomes more about being social than the hike itself. There are also a tremendous amount of people who do these hikes in LA. In the Adirondacks, the limit on group size is 15, for a variety of reasons, but even that number is too much for me.

So now, we are to our third option and for me, the sweet size. That would be a group of 4.

Preferably 4 great friends of all about the same skill level and all the same interest in the hike. You want conversation, talk to your friend for a bit. Want some silence, there is plenty of it on the trail with only a couple hikers. Plus you know a few of them will be able to get you down if anything goes wrong. Of course, the downside is scheduling. You have to make sure 3 other hikers that you like are available when you are available. Still camaraderie and small size usually is a determining factor for me and should make your hike "just right".


  1. Two other issues with groups:
    1) Groupthink. Often in groups things simply get done without the right questions being asked because the rest of the group is steaming ahead. Like "are we on the right trail still?" or "is this cornice everyone is heading over safe?"

    2) Slinky Effect. Perhaps the most frustrating part of group hiking is having disparate fitness levels among members. The slow hiker tries to keep up with the rest, gets worn out and as a result hikes slower.

    On the other hand having even just one extra person can be a serious motivation boost. It's so much easier to give up on a difficult hike or climb when you're alone.

  2. Great comments Chris, I agree with them all! So, imagine you are more or less on board with my 4 theory. Of course, that theory is underwritten by everyone being around the same skill/fitness level which I think can really lead to your Points 1 and 2 happening on hikes.


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