Monitoring group and environment

  • Monitoring group conditions
  • Monitoring environmental conditions
  • Modifying trip plans

Good performance as a leader on all trips requires continually monitoring the changing situation and circumstances encountered by the group. Monitoring ensures that you have the necessary information to provide the best possible trip, particularly when there is a need to modify plans and intentions. It mostly involves observation, but some specific communication skills are also required to obtain necessary information from group members.

Key issues which must be monitored

Key issues which must be monitored during outdoor trips include:

  • physical progress
  • weather conditions
  • group morale and enthusiasm
  • each individual’s physical and emotional state.

Even during the most meticulously planned trip unforseen circumstances may arise which require the leader to modify the trip. For example, someone may suffer minor injury or illness; tracks may have become overgrown, or be blocked by fallen trees or branches caused by storms or unusually heavy snowfalls. Alternatively, it may be much hotter or colder than you expected, or visibility may be poor, all of which can slow a party significantly. Walking in snow can reduce progress by up to half; and not finding an expected track or having to travel across country can reduce progress by up to three quarters of your estimated time. Snow conditions may be good, average, marginal or you may be walking when you expected to ski. All of these circumstances require leaders to consider the impact on their parties, and modify trip plans to suit.

Monitoring group conditions

To effectively monitor group circumstances and conditions you need to be in contact with all of the group. This cannot be done if the group is too spread out, or if you are at the front when the difficulties are at the back (which is usually where party members who are not coping end up). There are circumstances when good leaders lead from the front; and there are other times when the best position is at the back, providing intensive encouragement to weaker members who may be struggling. However, many of the most experienced leaders seem to prefer directing the group from around the middle.

You need to ask the group members how they are feeling, but you also need to be observant. Many group members who are struggling either physically or mentally will not readily admit to the fact, at least not in the early stages, which is when action needs to be taken to prevent relatively minor problems becoming major ones. If one person is experiencing difficulties, there is a good chance some of the others may not be far from it.

Occasionally, difficulties will occur with ‘racehorses’ who are difficult to restrain. The simplest way to restrain one ‘racehorse’ is to ask them to act as whip. If there is more than one, you may ask them to be joint whips or give a task with additional responsibility, such as following the navigation closely, possibly by directing a trail blazer you nominate to be the first person. If the leader has problems with ‘racehorses’, then the leader will probably need to be closer to the front. Wherever the problem or potential problem is, the leader will be most effective if physically located closest to the people experiencing, or causing, the greatest problem.

Another important point to remember is that the rest stop needs to be counted from when the last person arrives. The last members in the group are usually the tiredest, and require rest the most. It is unsatisfactory to give these people less time than they require, just because other fitter members who arrived first are eager to keep going. If certain group members are eager to get going earlier, set them a navigational challenge or give them another task at the rest point to keep them occupied.

Another useful tactic when some members of a group are becoming tired or losing morale is to start the group off after a rest stop in exactly the reverse order to that in which they arrived. This makes your whip number one and puts people who were previously at the back of the group at the front. If this rearranged order is enforced for a kilometre or two, then just being at the front of the group can have a remarkable effect on the morale of party members who were struggling at the back.

Monitoring environmental conditions

All leaders know that weather and terrain conditions can have a huge impact on the progress, morale and well-being of any outdoor group. Progress in bad conditions can easily be one quarter or less of that of the same party along the same route in good conditions.

Good leaders will be constantly monitoring weather conditions to ensure that appropriate actions are taken to match the demands of the trip against the prevailing conditions. If weather is deteriorating, there are excellent reasons to start earlier, and press on harder and faster than may otherwise be indicated. Conversely, if weather is gradually improving, it might be a good opportunity for a later start or a rest morning.

There are many telltale signs of weather improving or deteriorating which give varying degrees of warning of impending changes. These are discussed in Chapters 18 and 19.

Modifying trip plans

Monitoring group circumstances, environmental conditions and changes in the weather will be of little value unless the leader makes practical, sensible use of the information gained to modify the trip plans for the ongoing enjoyment and safety of the group. When faced with slower progress, more difficult conditions or deteriorating weather, some of the options include:

  • seek alternative, more sheltered routes, camp sites and rest stops
  • shorten the trip
  • relocate off-track sections to tracked alternatives
  • make use of planned or other identified escape routes.

In the event that weather is better, or progress faster, some of the actions which could be considered include:

  • a packless side trip to an adjacent feature such as ridge, waterfall, or item of interest
  • an off-track alternative to a marked track section
  • a ridge route rather than a lower valley or intermediate height route.

One of the key ingredients of good leadership is the flexibility to modify plans in response to changing circumstances. The weather may change, the terrain may be tougher than anticipated or the group may not perform to the standard expected of them. Groups are rarely homogeneous, and leaders will always have to balance the needs of the less capable against those of the more demanding members.