I am a member of numerous hiking and camping groups on Facebook and a topic that I have seen a number of times is from slow hikers and how they feel on group hikes. I am a confident back of the pack hiker and I immediately support and defend those who are feeling embarrassed, sad, and discouraged.
As a sea cadet when I was a teenager I learned outdoor survival skills and had the opportunity to go on a lot of hikes, both day and over night. While some of the survival skills like making a snare to catch a chipmunk for dinner has faded from not using the knowledge, one piece of wisdom has remained: Hike as fast as the slowest person in your group.
Everyone hikes for their own reasons and our mindset, outdoors skills, and physical abilities are not going to click with everyone we share the trail with. When you choose to hike in a group though, you are agreeing to be in it together from trail head to camp and anywhere else in between.
Hiking for me is first and foremost a mental activity followed by physical. This mindset does not mix well with people who are competitive. Be up front with people in your hiking circles about why you hike. If you like photography do not go with someone who wants to beat a personal time for distance covered.
It is important to be honest with yourself about what your physical abilities are. It is no secret that I am an overweight asthmatic and that I need to pace myself differently than others. Our physical abilities are nothing to be ashamed of though and our bodies are pretty darn amazing. Honor yourself and give thanks to what your body can do.
All hiking groups will have someone bringing up the rear, whether intentional or not. Often times it is me and I think of myself as the leader of the back of the pack. I have given thought to what hiking would look like if I was in tip-top shape and I still think I would hang out near the back or be a much more effective sweeper. I journal, read, take pictures, cast a fishing line a few times if there is water, meditate, and practice yoga while hiking. Hiking encompasses much more than point A to B to C on the trail and I view hiking with a holistic approach.
It is fine for a group to spread out within reason. We aren’t marching in formation to the beat of a drum on the trail. Keep in mind though that people may seek out groups for comfort and safety. They want the peace of mind that if they were to need help that it is within steps from them. Unless someone chooses to be a solo hiker, no one should be left alone. People are also looking for friendships with hiking as a common interest and the last thing they want is to feel alienated and told that there is a short cut back to the parking lot (this happened but not to me and I agree that those people would make pretty crummy friends.)
When planning to join a new hiking group on an outing, talk about what your intentions are before lacing up your boots if you’re concerned about speed, whether fast or slow. If completing a section in three hours is your goal and others want to be out for five, there will be an issue. Being fast doesn’t put your needs a head of someone who is slower and vice versa. All voices and abilities must be respected when you decide to hike as a group.
Nature does not hurry, yet everything is accomplished. That is a beautiful motto for back of the pack hikers. Remember that phrase when times are getting intense on the trail. When you can, push yourself to do a bit more than you think you can. Your legs may be screaming but you can make it up the mountain and when you do, the view will be worth it.
A final note for hiking with groups of people with varying speeds, all breaks start when the last person arrives, not when the first person arrives. I also want to add that with all of my support for slower hikers, I understand the frustration that faster hikers may feel. So if you are a slower hiker, try not to complain and choose your words wisely when vocalizing how you feel.
My fellow back of the pack hikers: hold your head high, enjoy the view, and be a leader of the back of the pack. You will find your groove and a pack of people who mesh well with your trail style. There are lots of us out there who would love to hike with you.