I’ve been doing a lot of appearances lately to promote my book, which has given me the chance to talk to lots of people at all different levels of outdoor comfort and ability. One of the most commonly asked questions I hear is, “so how do I find a hiking group?”

Hiking in a group is a wonderful way to learn about the trails around you, especially if you’re just starting out, are unsure of your skill level, or if you feel unsafe in the outdoors. These groups can be fantastic ways to learn about outdoor ethics from more experienced hikers and more often than not, places where you’ll meet some solid friends, too. I know when I was first learning how to hike, it was really helpful to have people around who actually knew what they were doing.

In the past, I’ve recommended people check with the park rangers or docents to see if they offer any hiking programs, as well as signing up for some of the group hikes led by organizations like the Sierra Club. I’ve also suggested people look into sites like Meetup and other groups on social media – but as I always warn people, not all hiking groups are created equal.

This week, an event came up in my Facebook feed for a hike to the Wisdom Tree in Griffith Park. The trail is single track, begins in a residential neighborhood where homeowners are putting pressure on the Los Angeles City Council to limit non-resident access, and is currently the subject of much debate about overuse, trail erosion, and vandalism. With a few weeks to go, this event currently has over 80 people who say they’re going and almost 700 who say they’re interested. Even if only half of those RSVPs show up, doesn’t that seem like too many boots on this trail all at once?

In some places, the “too many boots” threshold is explicitly spelled out for you. Most federal wilderness areas, for instance, set limits to group sizes that vary depending on where you’re traveling. Outside of that, though, guidelines tend to be vague or nonexistent – which means it’s often just left to the group organizers to make that call.

The largest group I’ve ever led was probably around 80-90 people – but I chose a park with wide fire roads and partnered with the agency that managed the park. They offered excellent interpretation on the trail and helped keep the group together as it inevitably splintered into smaller sections. It’s much more work to put together an event like that (to be honest, that’s one of the main reasons I don’t lead many hikes for Modern Hiker), but if you’re bringing a lot of folks out onto the trail it’s the right way to do it.

Waiting for a group to pass at Crypt Lake. Photo by Davey Nin, used by Creative Commons License

It is great that people are finding groups to hike with and I really do hand it to the organizers because I know how much work is involved. I don’t think any of these hiking groups are being malicious, and I know there are excellent, responsible groups using social media to organize hikes, too. I know of many that are very conscientious of where they’re hiking and some that use different methods to keep on-trail group sizes from getting too large. But when groups start to see their numbers swell, I hope they take time to think about what kind of impact they’re having on the trail and on others who are trying to use it. 

 

What do you think? Are large hiking groups having a negative impact on the outdoors? How can we keep encouraging people to get outside while also being mindful of digital and traditional Leave No Trace principles?

an organized race on Mount Baldy

Featured image of visitors to Hawaii Volcanoes National Park. Photo credit NPS / Janice Wei.

Founder and Editor-in-Chief of Modern Hiker, Author of "Day Hiking Los Angeles," Walking Meditator, Native Plant Enthusiast.





7 Comments

Patk Morrison

Patk Morrison Aug 3, 2018 17:08

It use to be a hiking trail was a footpath. It seems now that it has to be 5-6 ft wide wit the major brush moved back as well for 2-3 abreast walking and gabbing.

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Matt (The Simple Hiker) Aug 3, 2018 16:08

I recognize that picture - looks like Hawai'i Volcanoes National Park - an area that's no stranger to dozens of visitors hanging out on the lava shelf. In any sense, I'm kind of on the fence about hiking groups. On one hand the benefits of getting outside for a person's mental health and overall well-being has been well documented. It's great that in a country like that United States with as many chronic diseases and an obesity epidemic that people are getting outside. Hiking groups can also be great for people looking to make connections with other like minded people or for those people who feel unsafe going solo.

Here's my problem: groups are getting so large now that it's obvious the trail erosion that's being caused. They also add to the noise pollution - and if the noise pollution is as annoying to me then it must be equally and even more annoying to local wildlife. I also feel bad for impacted neighborhoods that have to deal with the influx of traffic. Cowles' Mountain is a great example here in San Diego where parking is so problematic that trail visitors are often parking in residential neighborhoods. With the car traffic comes vandalism to cars and trash along the road.

The arguments are valid on both sides of the isle here and I hope some common ground can be found. The one thing large hiking groups can't guarantee is that all members of their party will adhere to the leave no trace principles. That lack of adherence is something that I've witnessed first hand.

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Bethan Jul 16, 2018 20:07

This is a really interesting reflection. I do think that people who want to enjoy the outdoors also have a responsibility to look after it and really understand the impact their activities have (such as erosion) and the meaning of Leave No Trace. To me it’s all about education, and the more we share about life outside the more people will understand these issues.

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Anon Jul 6, 2018 19:07

Casey, I'm one of the many volunteers that cleans up the Wisdom Tree Trail. I have zero affiliation with the group mentioned in your post. I happened to trail run to the tree a few hours after they departed. On any given weekend, I'll easily pull off a garbage bag of trash. That Saturday, I collected one water bottle. They left the trail in better shape then they found it.

I'll contrast that group with another popular girl's who hike group who did the same trail in January 2017. They had a sponsored event with a energy drink. Based on the internet posts, over 200 hikers participated in the event. I pulled off 3 bags of trash. One was loaded with their discarded energy drinks. When I contacted them they denied all responsibility and proclaimed to "Leave No Trace".

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Kristin Sabo Jul 5, 2018 12:07

This article is about 10 years late, Casey. I basically had to abandon maintaining the singletrack stairs around Amir's Garden due to the hiking groups of 100+ that started pounding on them roughly a decade ago. I also quit hiking Griffith Park altogether around that time, same reason essentially.

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Sher Jul 4, 2018 08:07

There are many of us who hike to escape people and enjoy nature. Some things in this world are best enjoyed in solitude. Why does everything have to become a "social media" event? When these groups come along, one is left standing next to the trail to wait for them to pass, and they can be heard for a long way afterwards. Best to keep these groups to places where there is already a high volume of traffic, and then it is not a surprise for those of us out to listen to birds, watch for wildlife and enjoy not being social.

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Eric Jul 4, 2018 01:07

It's a great way to have people connect with nature but I've seen people carelessly throw gum wrappings on the trail which is a big NO-NO when hiking or camping. No matter how the organizers tell the hikers to be responsible for their actions, it is still up to the participants whether they comply or not.

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