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Why We Lead Hikes

Bill Donovan on Southwest Twin Mountain
Bill on Southwest Twin Mountain

Being a volunteer hiking or backpacking leader takes a lot of work. You need to reserve a day months in advance, plan a trip, advertise it, screen the people who want to come, get everyone to show up on time, make sure everyone sticks together and has fun during the hike, and gets back to the trail head in one piece. Why would anyone do that for free?

Still, I know dozens of people who volunteer to lead trips for Meetup.com hiking groups and the Appalachian Mountain Club year round.

Why do they do it?

I recently asked my friend Bill this question and he replied “I wanted more.” A typical understated Bill answer, if you know him.

He’d recently finished the New England 100 Highest peakbagging list, which is a pretty tough list, but still felt there was something missing from his hiking experience.

Two years earlier, I’d encouraged Bill to enroll in the Appalachian Mountain Clubs Leader Training Program because I thought he’d make a great leader. He’s organized and personable and a skilled hiker. He’d deferred gracefully, so I was surprised when I saw his name on the new co-leader list earlier this year. He’s in the final stages of qualifying to become a full leader now, a process that requires taking two evening classes, attending the AMC’s leadership training weekend, running several trips under the supervision of senior leaders, and getting a Wilderness First Aid Certification. It’s a lengthy process and requires real committment to complete.

Bill and I on North Kinsman Mountain
Bill and I on North Kinsman Mountain

Bill’s answer caused me to reflect on my own reasons for becoming an Appalachian Mountain Club Hiking and Backing Leader.

I’d wanted more too:

  • To be a part of my local hiking community
  • To always have people to hike with when I want company
  • To teach others to be better hikers
  • To develop my trip planning and group management techniques
  • To promote a low impact wilderness ethic with hikers I meet
  • To help train new leaders 
  • To join the ranks of other leaders that I look up to as my hiking mentors

I honestly had no idea how fulfilling becoming a volunteer trip leader would be when I started down this road, but that’s why I lead hikes.

Why do you lead hikes?


  1. I lead hikes because I enjoy hiking with people more than I enjoy hiking alone. Specifically with regard to Meetup, I found myself in an odd situation: after moving to Cleveland, the general mindset of the local hiking leaders was “we’ll put together this event but have no stewardship over it” – meaning that they will regularly and unapologetically abandon people on the trail. I had it happen to me personally three times, and even spoke to the hike leaders about it.

    Anyway, that’s why I started my own group. I come from New Hampshire / Connecticut and I find that kind of mindset abhorrent.

  2. I’m taking the AMC leadership training now and looking forward to leading hikes.

  3. I do it for the people and the planning. I enjoy meeting people who enjoy the outdoors and similar experiences. Planning the trips is always more appealing for me when I add the element of participants who are not known to me. That element adds to the satisfaction I get from a well executed trip. Teaching these people new skills is always a thrill for me, whether the teaching take place in the backcountry, a Beacon Hill auditorium or the leadership classes. (I found one of my wives by being a trip leader, too.)

  4. I just signed up for Activity Leader training with my local chapter of the Florida Trail Association. (My home trail) I have been a member of the association for many years and been on a few of their hikes. Besides all the things you listed I see it as a way to support and promote the mission of the FTA in a more active fashion.

    My first multi-day backpacking trip a few years ago was on an FTA sponsored hike. I learned a lot on that trip. I would like to be able to pass that opportunity on to others who are just starting out.

  5. I like being able to tailor the experience when I lead a hike. It is up to the hike leaders to set the tempo, the route, the feel, who is there. This summer I need to introduce some friends to backpacking so I know I can select a route that is friendly, and invite other beginners and then friends that want to help out. I don’t need to worry about the hike leader wanting to race ahead and getting annoyed at my friends for being too slow or the expectation of skill level to be misplaced.

  6. Nice post– I agree with all your reasons and would add a slightly different twist– service. One of the reasons I lead trips is to give back to the community and to provide opportunities to other hikers that are not as confident or able to organize trips on their own. There is just a lot of demand for organized trips. I was grateful for the opportunities I was given when I started out, and as Louis says, am paying it forward.

  7. I don’t exactly lead hikes in the way described, however, I have introduced grandkids, family and friends to hiking and backpacking. The motivation is pretty much the same as mentioned above but could also be boiled down into love–love for the outdoors and environment, love for the people I’m taking out there, love of learning and trying new things, love of sharing what has been handed down to me by the experience of others who have the same love, etc.

  8. Leading hikes is a great way to share your experience and knowledge with other people. That is the reason why I would be up for doing it.

  9. While your list is a good one I think Bill’s simple response nailed it for me. I don’t hike for the views but rather for the adventure and physical challenge. I want to go where I want to go when I want to go there so the easiest way to ensure these conditions are satisfied I need to plan and lead my own trips. My approach is pretty simple “I’m going there whether I’m going alone, with just my girlfriend Monica, or a bunch of others that I’ve either known for a long time or just met at the trailhead”.

    Having others along with us makes the trip more social than physical and I enjoy sharing what I’ve learned while learning from others. Even though I’ve planned the trip doesn’t always mean I’m the most accomplished person in the group. There have been many instances where I’ve probably gotten more out of a trip than some of the participants did. I just need to know where we are going and how we are getting there – I enjoy letting the group fill in the “what we’re going to do along the way” with conversation and stories. I’ve seen people develop what will likely become a life-long love affair with the outdoors as we walked along the trail or sat atop a summit.

    The other angle to leadership that you hit on is helping others become leaders. While I enjoy leading new hikers I think I like teaching new leaders even more. During hikes I’m always seeking out people who might be a good leader so I can help point them in that direction. To get additional opportunities to help develop the next group of leaders I help teach leadership at several of the AMC’s outdoor leadership programs. The one I enjoy working with the most is the Mountain Leadership School. While there is one day “in the classroom” the other four days are spent teaching and learning while backpacking through the White Mountains of NH. What makes this program even more rewarding is that often times the leadership candidates are Boy/Girl Scout leaders of summer camp counselors – the people responsible to get the next generation of kids outdoors.

    • Ditto. I dedicated this winter to training new 4 season leaders and found it to be quite challenging because winter leadership requires such stronger trip planning skills. There’s a fine art to giving a coleader in training enough autonomy to learn the skills required by doing them while making sure all of the trip preparation planning boxes get checked. As usual the teacher learns as much as the student!

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