Scouters' advice on how to encourage slower hikers

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QUESTION: On the regular hikes taken by Scouter S.G.’s troop, a couple of boys have trouble keeping up. He asked for tips on helping these boys without discouraging them or hurting their feelings. 

TAKE IN THE VIEW
As one of the adults who bring up the rear, I spot things and point them out to those boys who are closest to me—usually it’s sights such as animal tracks, flowers, or bugs. Often we find that the “speed demons” at the front of the group regret missing the chance to see something really cool. With time, the slower kids will get fitter and be part of the main group.

Venturing Leader M.McG.
St. Augustine, Fla.

TOO SLOW OR TOO FAST?
You may have the problem backward. Your main group isn’t staying with its troopmates. The first rule of hiking with a group is that the group is only as fast as its slowest member. Have the senior patrol leader assign one of the stronger hikers as sweeper and another as front man. If the sweeper can’t see the front of the group, it’s his job to communicate to the front to slow down or stop. No one is allowed to go in front of the assigned front man.

Our introduction-to-backpacking hike each year is purposely chosen to seem hard but be fairly short. Most years, one or two younger Scouts are very slow on the first few switchbacks. The older boys encourage them and often offer to take some of their gear. It is a teaching moment, both for the younger and older Scouts.

Assistant Scoutmaster C.D.
Poway, Calif.

DIVIDE AND CONQUER
If these boys can’t keep up because they are smaller or less fit, they should have their own appropriate hike. Trying to hold back the older Scouts makes everyone unhappy. Our troop sometimes plans two hikes (each with adequate adult leadership)—one more challenging and the other easier—often intersecting for a night’s camping together.

Scoutmaster S.G.
Gilbertsville, N.Y.

DIG DEEPER
See if there is a root issue. Is the slow Scout’s pack too heavy? Hot spots on his feet? Is he being distracted by nature and too busy trying to look at everything? Is he hungry or thirsty?

J.J.
Enumclaw, Wash.

IF THE SHOE DOESN’T FIT
If they are new to hiking and are having trouble keeping up with the troop, it’s probably a product of conditioning or possibly just bad footwear. I have found that most Scouts will not admit to having trouble with their footwear. Keep an eye on their gait. If they are walking oddly, they may be having this trouble. Discuss the importance of proper shoes and where to find them before your next hike.

Assistant Scoutmaster B.R.K.
Shoemakersville, Pa.

TAKE TURNS
We have had the same situation in our troop. We decided to start rotating the boys from back to front about every 15 minutes. We found that when we put the slow person in front, his attitude changed, and he became excited. The whole troop started to move faster. Ever since we started that, we have never had a problem with boys staying up with the group.

W.E.
Sandy, Utah

START SMALL
We start out with short hikes just for the newcomers, usually two or three hikes of five miles or less. During the hikes, we take frequent educational breaks for map reading, nature study, etc. We use much praise and encouragement and never tell the Scouts to speed up. When we put them with the main group, we let them rotate leading with an adult who hikes at the speed they do.

Assistant Scoutmaster F.D.
Limestone, Tenn.

USE MISDIRECTION
I would start talking about something they like to get their mind off the hike and then slowly pick up the pace until we catch up with the group.

Assistant Scoutmaster B.R.
Plainfield, Ill.

A FATHER’S WISDOM
I go by the wisdom my father (an Eagle Scout) taught me when I was a Scout: “We hike as fast as the slowest man.” The patrol should all hike together at the same pace, which keeps those who move a bit slower from getting discouraged and emphasizes the patrol method.

Scoutmaster S.W.
Middletown, Ohio

TORTOISES AND HARES
Split your hiking group in half and have the quicker boys and adults up front and the rest in the second group. Then everybody’s happy.

R.McC.
El Paso, Tex.

HIGH-FIVES ALL AROUND
Whenever our troop goes hiking, backpacking, canoeing, or cycling, I always make it a point to be the “sweeper” and make sure that no Scout ends up too far back. It is a rewarding place to be, because the challenge is on me, as a leader, to make a difference in the Scout’s experience. I’ve had some great conversations with Scouts who have fallen off the pace.

Sometimes, getting their mind off the task is just enough to get them back in stride. Other times, I’ll thank them for encouraging me. By now, everyone knows that I will be the last to arrive, and there is no shame in it.

On a recent backpacking trip, we formed three smaller treks by age to conform to Leave No Trace standards and for ability grouping. As expected, the older treks arrived at camp first.

The veteran Scouts, being aware of the accomplishment of the younger ones, did a very special thing. As we arrived at the site, they met us on the last stretch of trail and cheered and offered high-fives to every Scout. With motivation like that, there’s no doubt that even the slowest Scouts are already looking forward to the next hike with the troop.

Chartered Organization Representative R.D.
Oakland, N.J.

TRUTH IN ADVERTISING
Advertise all hikes’ lengths and ratings well in advance. Hopefully, the slower Scouts will train for the hike and come prepared to meet the challenges.

B.A.
Decatur, Ala.

3 thoughts on “Scouters' advice on how to encourage slower hikers

  1. Our trail association website directs email request to me. Often I hear scout leaders tell and ask about what to do with younger or first time backpackers. As I read in a couple comments and agree, putting the new or slower scouts up front is best. Often scout units do have split up on our trail for campsite occupancy levels. The younger boys need interaction with others, and keeping the group together if possible seems best. An added note is that In a Georgia State Park….minors must stay in voice or sight contact with adults at all times. Thus keeping a line of scouts together is a must on our trail (Pine Mountain Trail). Having an adult near the first of a line also does two things…make sure encouragement is proper, and no wrong turns are made.

  2. We were on a campout centered around 2 – 5-mile hikes up and down some fairly steep bluffs. A few of us adults brought up the rear, and there was one scout having a particularly rough time keeping up.

    When we caught up with the rest of the troop, it was decided, by our senior scouts at the front… that this scout be up front with them. The pace was good – even with the slowest kid in the front, and the senior scouts encouraged him, and made sure he was doing ok the rest of the day.

  3. I was almost always the slowest on a hike as a child. No amount of training ever overcame that as I had childhood asthma. I still had a great time

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