Anyone can get along in the wilderness when it’s 75 degrees, sunny, your Bluetooth speaker is kicking out the jams, and there’s a great swimming hole. It’s a different story on the third day of cold driving rain, or when you have to cover long miles in rough weather.
Experienced wilderness travelers talk about something vaguely called “expedition dynamics.” NOLS calls it ”Expedition Behavior”: a set of practices that keep a group cohesive. Here are my tips to keeping groups operating smoothly through rain, snow, sleet, long miles, bugs, and other adversity.
Group Comes First
Strong groups are more than a collection of individuals. To prosper through the warp and weft of a hard journey, groups need to have a clear goal and group members must be wiling to make the group’s goals their priority.
That doesn’t mean that individuals won’t have their own goals—from seeing a particular part of the world to climbing peaks or surfing waves on a remote beach. It just means that they’re secondary. If individual members get too much summit fever, group dynamics tend to fall apart.
Take Care of Yourself
Each member must also take care of their own needs. If people get dehydrated, exhausted, or injured, the margin of safety shrinks and the group’s goals are more likely to be out of reach.
Everyone’s Responsible for Assessment
Assessing risk in the outdoors is a complex judgment process. While there’s a tendency to defer to experience, the reality is that everyone in the group will be running that rapid or traversing that ridge. Self-assessing one’s own abilities is even harder than evaluating external risk, so everyone should develop their judgment.
That doesn’t mean that the most experienced members of a group don’t hold sway. They may overrule the group consensus based on their experience. There should be redundancy in critical skills like route-finding: any group reliant on one person’s ability is at risk.
Help Others, But Don’t Do Their Work For Them
Everyone will have responsibilities, and there will be times when someone needs a hand. The whole purpose of operating in a group is to be able to support each other when needed and to allow the group to achieve what individuals can’t. Helping out, however, is not an invitation to slack off.
Personalities Meet in the Middle
When you’ll be crammed together in stressful situations, moderating personalities helps the group endure challenges without getting on each others’ nerves. The manic or deeply introverted personalities that work fine or can be funny when everything is going well can become grating when times get tough. A moderate combination of placid calm and positive energy, will help the group weather rough seas and endure over time.
On an expedition, you never know when you’ll need a reserve of energy: a midnight storm or a late night setting up camp. Keep some fuel left in the tank.
Expect Everyone to Mess Up….Including You
High-altitude mountaineers operate under the assumption that due to the combination of oxygen deprivation, fatigue, and summit fever, everyone will make both physical and mental mistakes. Even if you’re not in the 8000-meter zone, double-checking ropes, compass bearings, and other critical functions is a good practice. Once a group accepts that it’s operating in a challenging environment under stress, this redundancy will feel less like an implication of incompetence and more like a basic pre-flight check.
This list doesn’t mean that expeditions are all work and no play. It’s just a different kind of fun in some of the wildest places in the world.