Special from Tom Severin, Badlands Offroad Adventure
Have you ever wondered about being a Trail Leader? Ever imagined yourself guiding a group of four-wheelers down historic trails and through scenic landscapes?
What has stopped you?
Most likely a lack of confidence has stood in your way. Understandable. Leading a group of four-wheelers is quite a bit different from being just another participant.
Even the best-planned excursion experiences a hiccup or two. Heaven knows I’ve seen a bunch in my time. By making and overcoming mistakes you learn and grow.
I constantly stress the need for preparation before a 4WD trip. Even so, something unexpected is inevitable.
Here are my Top 10 fears a Trail Leader could face, and what to do about them. (Don’t worry, though, you’re not likely to see more than a couple during any one trip.)
1 – Getting lost. You’re supposed to know where you’re going. You lose credibility fast if you can’t find the right trail. Turning the group around on a narrow trail is difficult. Finding your whole group in a sensitive or restricted area is a conundrum!
Mitigation: Check out the area in advance — do a through recon. Take note of landmarks to help you remember potentially confusing sections of trails. Have maps, GPS coordinates and other tools to keep you on track. Have a Tail End Charlie (or Tail Gunner) who can help you sort out if it is a right or left turn.
2 – Guests seem bored. No one is talking on the radio. There are no questions. This can happen on long stretches of trails or roads that aren’t that scenic or challenging. Boredom is lurking.
Mitigation: It might just be your imagination that they are bored. Perhaps they are happy to drive enjoying the sunshine, in peace and not listening to you. Design a trip that offers nice scenery as well as some 4WD challenges. During the drive, fill in the silence with tidbits about history, wildlife, plant life, and so on. Encourage your guest to contribute special knowledge they have about geology and history of the area. Learn about your trail/area so you have things to share on the radio.
If you know in advance that certain stretches may be long, mention that during the drivers’ meeting. Guests need to understand that not every mile will be exciting or interesting.
As a guide, I like the “cheerleader” type who asks lots of questions, asks for another story and exclaims constantly how wonderful are the 4-wheeling, views, etc.
3 – Campsite is full. With the exception of managed camping grounds, you usually cannot reserve campsites. Sometimes where you want to camp is already loaded up before you get there.
Mitigation: While driving the area in advance, scope out possible alternate campsites. Ideally, they are near your intended camping grounds. During the trip, send someone (trail hand) out to ahead to check the status of your primary site. It’s good to know this in advance so you do not need to double back to your back-up location. Plan fuel to permit a detour to a more remote camp site.
4 – Someone is seriously hurt or sick. Conditions include heart attack, severe allergic reaction (and no medication to treat), and trauma (often from a fall or accident).
Mitigation: Before starting out, try to identify any medical hazards. During summer, heat is a big factor. Tell your guests to watch for signs of heat exhaustion in each other. Discuss hazards on the trails, such as abandoned water wells and buildings. Check that guests brought their emergency inhaler and epi pen.
Have a list of emergency numbers. Know where the hospitals are and what routes to take if you need to evacuate someone. Have secondary forms of communication in case cell coverage is spotty. Confirm every vehicle has a first aid kit.
Every guide should have a high level of First Aid/CPR training.
5 – The trail leader’s vehicle has mechanical problems. This one hurts credibility, too. It’s bad form for the Trail Leader to have mechanical problems. The trip is heavily affected if your vehicle goes down.
Mitigation: Maintain a good maintenance schedule. Even so, certain parts can fail. Carry spare parts to get you up and running as quickly as possible. A quick, elegant repair can salvage your credibility. In the worst case, abandon the vehicle. Run through your abandon-vehicle checklist so you can still guide the trip.
Anticipate that your guests may have vehicle problems too. Be prepared for the common problems (tires) with spares and tools to keep them on the trip. Have a plan to escort them off the trail to get repairs if necessary. Advise them ahead of time of the importance of being trail ready and maintained.
6 – Staying on schedule. An ideal schedule has you on the trails for about three hours in the morning and then up to three hours in the afternoon. With an hour for lunch, you should be able to arrive at the campsite by 4:30, maybe 5:00pm. “Murphy” often raises his head and your schedule goes way out the window.
Mitigation: Determine early on if any drivers are unable to keep up to speed. (Some drive very cautiously.) Also, watch how much time you spend at each rest or sight-seeing stop. Those who tend to linger need to be gently prodded along (does not mean using a cattle prod!). Adjust your schedule to accommodate the flow of your group.
7 – Late arrival in camp. This is a function of starting on time and staying on schedule. As noted above, you need to keep an eye on the time. Increase the pace if you lingered too long during a stop or you stop to make repairs. Skip one of the lower-value locations to save more time. It is nice to be in camp at or before sunset. Allow for early sunsets during the winter months. Prepare the group for a late arrival at the drivers’ meeting if you know it will be a long day.
8 – Roads are closed. They were open when you scouted the route but are now closed. Apparently, for example, Smith Creek Ranch on the Pony Express route recently change hands and now the gate is locked. Five months earlier when scouting it was open. Fortunately, this was a second scouting trip to gather more details. This is private property and we will now use a bypass.
Mitigation: Have options. Scout a bit broader to find several alternatives. They might not be as elaborate or interesting, but at least you can keep going. Know your routes and alternatives well.
Call the administering land management agency Ranger station or other authority about road and trail conditions.
9 – Tough weather. Guests understand that you may encounter inclement weather. It’s the severe weather (sandstorm, blizzard, torrential rain) that can wreak havoc on a trip. Once on the Navajo reservation, the sand storm was so bad the Indian guide had to use my moving GPS display to find the trail. It did not let up until the next day. Setting up a tent or cooking dinner was impossible.
Mitigation: Check the forecast. Consider postponing the trip if severe weather is a possibility. Check NOAA weather every day on your ham radio (start at 162.400 and tune up 25MZ to find a local station). Have an exit strategy in place should you hit really bad weather (A hotel anyone?). Get out before the roads are impassable. If you’re going up in the mountains, prepare for cold and snowy conditions.
10 – Driving on a shelf road with another group of vehicles approaching you. Passing on shelf roads is not fun! One of my biggest concerns comes from the example of the return from Coyote Flats on the shelf road down to Bishop, Calif. The last three or four switchbacks are too narrow to pass or even pull off. Worse yet, it is impossible to see major sections of the trail for uphill traffic. If we meet uphill traffic, they have the right of way and it would mean backing our entire group a long way.
Mitigation: Ideally, avoid such a situation. As you approach the shelf road, look as far ahead as possible. (Slow down if you’re not already at a slow speed.) Look for dust clouds. But the absence of dust is not a clear indicator. If you see or hear other vehicles, stop. Look for a spot to pull over and wait for the other vehicles to pass. Err on the side of caution. Some guides will send a scout down the trail with a good radio to recon the situation first.
As you can see, there is a reasonable solution to most issues you will encounter as Trail Leader. Nonetheless, you will still probably make a mistake on occasion. That can be expected. But the more often you take to the trails, the better leader you become. The more you keep your group informed, the less they will be upset with you when things “go south.”
Take the plunge. Put together an easy but fun itinerary. Then call up your buddies and get ready for a great time off road.
NOTE: Any commercial operations may require a permit from the administering agency. Know the rules before you go.