How To Be A Good Trail Leader

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When people think about what is required to be a good trail leader, they often think of spotting skills; however, it’s much more than that. Trail leaders don’t just know how to drive their own rigs through some tough terrain—they also help others drive their rigs through it. And, most importantly, they properly prepare for the trip in advance with information, comfort concerns, and safety logistics to help the group enjoy the whole day from start to finish.

One of the most important skills of a good trail leader is the ability to manage different types of vehicles and differing skill levels—as well as participant expectation and spectator input on trail obstacles.

Good trail leading means starting with a plan. Beyond the date and time you are inviting the group to meet, provide information about the intended route, itinerary, pace for the trip, weather forecasts along the route, whether the group needs to bring lunch on the trail, if there are bathroom facilities or the participants need to plan otherwise, and any other special considerations people should be prepared for, like permit or entrance fees, gas stops and fuel range expectation, and if pets and children are recommended or permitted in the areas you are visiting.

A good trail ride starts long before the driver meeting at the trailhead. Participants should be prepared in advance for the trail and weather conditions, as well as the lunch and bathroom situations.

Although each driver is ultimately responsible for safely navigating the obstacles or choosing to turn around, a good trail leader will provide some intel on the trail for people to make informed decisions in advance about whether this is an outing in which they would like to participate. Because difficulty varies by experience, I usually provide measurable information like how tall the ledges are, how steep the hills are, or what I recommend their tire height or armor needs are to safely navigate the pitfalls of the trail.

Jason Seamons of Absolute Offroad is helping coach new wheelers on some tough Arizona terrain. Notice that he has positioned himself in full view of the driver, but not too close for safety reasons, and he uses big clear hand signals.

Good trail leading means providing a thorough safety briefing when you meet. Does everyone have fuel, water, and food? What is the general flow of the day? How will lunch and bathroom breaks be handled? How will the group communicate with each other on the trail? In every briefing, I also include Tread Lightly reminders and what we call the “Rubber Band Technique” for keeping everyone together—each driver simply watches out for the vehicle behind them to keep the group together.

Good trail leading means planning and preparing guests for human needs like lunch and bathrooms stops.

Establishing and using clear hand signals for any spotters to use for obstacles or recovery situations is a must too. T-rex arms are useless—hold your arms way up or out to make signals as easy to see as possible. Make sure spotters are standing in a safe place where the driver can see them, and don’t walk backward blindly while spotting (more people are injured out of the Jeep than in it). I also find it useful to discuss the plan for the wheel placement, and gear and throttle control, for the section with the drivers before proceeding through the obstacle.

Having a plan already in place for when drivers get stuck is all part of being a trail leader. “People gonna people.”

Good trail leading means having a plan for recovery and mechanical problems. Jeeps do get stuck and sometimes break. Are you or someone in the group willing and able to provide at least basic trail fixes? Do you keep the whole group together to wait for the fix, or does someone stay to help while the rest of the group continues? What if the break or stuck is beyond the skill level and equipment available? Do you know how and who to call? It is difficult to imagine every possible contingency, but you can have a plan for what you can fix on the trail and what you can’t.

Good trail leading means also having a plan for when Jeeps have mechanical issues. “Jeeps gonna Jeep.”

Having a plan for medical emergencies is part of being a leader too. You should have or arrange for someone in the group to have at least basic first aid (if not wilderness medical) training. As with food and clothing, it is recommended for all in the group to carry the medication each needs for at least an extra 24 hours beyond the planned duration of the trip. If something happens that can’t be addressed with basic first aid, do you know the closest hospital? Do you have ham radio, a satellite phone, or a personal locator beacon to call for emergency evacuation? Just a little forethought can fend off a lot of woe.

Having a plan for medical emergencies is a must. Stuff happens. However, we have found that emergencies usually happen to other less prepared people we encounter on the trail rather than to our group that took a little time to plan some things in advance. This photo was actually a training scenario that addressed just that—dealing with injured and disoriented strangers found on the trail.

Remember to not get so caught up in the details that you forget to have fun; everyone wants to enjoy the trip. Keep things in perspective, provide accurate and thorough information in advance, be considerate of the needs of each individual in the group, and above all, be prepared.

No matter how closely you monitor weather reports, there is always a chance of getting caught out in something nasty. This flash flood caught us on Hell’s Revenge. We sheltered on a medium-sized fin—not too high to be up in the lightning, not too low to get washed away. It was over in 20 minutes and we went on our way.

I carry a Garmin inReach for updates or outright emergencies. It allows you to use the device itself or sync it with your phone for text messaging via satellite, not cell phone towers. It has proven to be more reliable and versatile than my old Spot device.

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