10 Qual­i­ties of a Great Trail Leader


You’ve driven the trails nu­mer­ous times. Have hun­dreds of hours of 4WD ex­pe­ri­ence un­der your belt (some of which, of course, is spent out­side of the ve­hi­cle). You’re good with peo­ple, and feel your man­age­rial skills are top notch. You’d like to be Trail Leader for an up­com­ing ex­cur­sion. What’s next?

First, I com­mend you for want­ing to take on a lead­er­ship role. As a cer­ti­fied pro­fes­sional 4WD Trainer with more than 40 years of off-road ex­pe­ri­ence, I know the value of a good Trail Leader. Our hobby could use more peo­ple will­ing to step for­ward and ful­fill this role.

Be­ing a Trail Leader is not an easy task. It in­volves skills, per­son­al­ity and pa­tience. Here are my Top 10 qual­i­ties of a great Trail Leader.

1. You must have good 4WD skills. This is a huge cat­e­gory, and in­cludes reading the ter­rain, pick­ing lines, spot­ting, re­cov­ery, ve­hi­cle re­pair and the Tread Lightly phi­los­o­phy, to name a few.

2. Know the trail. Drive it at least one time. Get fa­mil­iar with the ter­rain and trail. Learn the dif­fi­culty level of the ob­sta­cles. Know the lo­ca­tion of camp­sites, gas sta­tions, parts store (s) and rest ar­eas. Pick out back up camp­sites and a safe spot to air up at the end. Is there a fire ban? Any trail clo­sures? Does the group need per­mits? Phone calls ahead of time can min­i­mize sur­prises.

3. Keep the gang to­gether, es­pe­cially at dif­fi­cult ob­sta­cles. Don’t let the driv­ers split up or spread out. A driver can peel off in the wrong di­rec­tion. Oth­ers fol­low him, and pretty soon sev­eral driv­ers are lost. Have you heard of the ac­cor­dion con­cept? Ev­ery­one keeps an eye on the ve­hi­cle be­hind and slows down as needed so as not to lose him. Don’t rely on that as it doesn’t work well. Keep an eye on three ve­hi­cles be­hind you. Stop and let the group close up fre­quently.

Sched­ule your stops for 10-100 (bath­room breaks) and photo ops (more on com­mu­ni­ca­tions later.) Then make sure you don’t leave any­one be­hind. I am still look­ing for sev­eral ve­hi­cles that left the lunch stop

go­ing the wrong way! Thanks to a sharp Tail End, who chased them down! Don’t split the group un­less ab­so­lutely nec­es­sary. The most com­mon rea­son is due to a break­down that can’t be re­paired on the spot. Make sure ev­ery­one knows what they are to do, as well as where and when you’ll meet up again. Try to stay in ra­dio or phone con­tact. Fol­low the buddy sys­tem: No ve­hi­cle goes off by it­self.

4. Start on time, and keep the team on time. You can ad­just trail time by adding or delet­ing stops. Don’t ca­jole or push the team, but don’t linger at a stop more than nec­es­sary. Main­tain a good pace through­out so you end on time. It’s al­ways bet­ter to ar­rive at the camp­site ear­lier than later.

5. De­velop a good com­mu­ni­ca­tions plan. This in­cludes writ­ten in­struc­tions be­fore the trip, as well as brief­ings and ra­dio gear. In­clude spot­ting hand sig­nals too. Your tail­gate brief­ing at the trail­head is an im­por­tant part of your com­mu­ni­ca­tions pack­age. Do a ra­dio check be­fore leav­ing. Know some his­tory of the area and names of ge­og­ra­phy fea­tures that you can share dur­ing the trip.

6. Know how to se­quence the ve­hi­cles. High dif­fi­culty - al­ter­nate those with winches. Place ham ra­dio guys in back. They have the power to ask for a re­peat of in­for­ma­tion that was dif­fi­cult to hear on the less pow­er­ful ra­dios. Have any new­bies right be­hind you. They will fol­low your cues. Lay down an easy line so the newer driver can

fol­low you. Once iden­ti­fied, put the slow­est driver be­hind you to pace your­self.

7. Be a peo­ple per­son. Any num­ber of is­sues can crop up dur­ing a ride. Your guests come first; do ev­ery­thing you can to de­liver a quality ex­pe­ri­ence. Pa­tience and un­der­stand­ing are a ne­ces­sity in any Trail Leader. You’ll en­counter a wide va­ri­ety of skill sets and per­son­al­i­ties while en­dur­ing a whole range of cir­cum­stances.

8. Han­dle pres­sure well. You can­not re­lax and fol­low the ve­hi­cle in front. This can be a nerve-wrack­ing po­si­tion, es­pe­cially dur­ing in­clement weather, ve­hi­cle break­downs, very slow driv­ers, bad be­hav­ior and other chal­leng­ing sit­u­a­tions. If the risk is too high, be will­ing to change plans.

9. Be con­sid­er­ate of oth­ers you en­counter, and en­cour­age the same in your group. Slow down when ap­proach­ing ve­hi­cles, pedes­tri­ans, camp­sites and cab­ins. This will min­i­mize dust. When pass­ing, don’t in­sist on right of way even if it’s nor­mally yours. If you have only two or three ve­hi­cles, pull over and let the larger group pass. Ad­just to the sit­u­a­tion, and be po­lite.

Gen­er­ally speak­ing, four-wheel­ers are a nice bunch. So are other types of trail users. No need to think or act com­pet­i­tively. Al­ways be friendly, and en­cour­age that in your team. Be will­ing to share gear or a camp­site with some­one in need out­side your group. The good deed will be re­paid some­day.

10. Treat your po­si­tion as Trail Leader with re­spect. Since you reach a rest area or camp­site first, hold back and let oth­ers grab the prime spots.

Be­ing a Trail Leader car­ries with it much re­spon­si­bil­ity. You are ex­pected to know the route, coach oth­ers through dif­fi­cult ob­sta­cles, deal with bad be­hav­ior, have a backup plan for many un­knowns, and keep a cheerful at­ti­tude through­out. But the re­wards are tremen­dous.

A note to clubs: Ev­ery­one needs to start some­where. Let a will­ing mem­ber be the Trail Leader even if you are un­cer­tain of their skills and abil­ity. Pair them up with an ex­pe­ri­enced Trail Leader who will not let them fail! The same goes for spot­ting. Get some new blood out there learn­ing to spot and build­ing the trust of the group. Have your nor­mal go-to-spot­ting-guy stand be­hind them coach­ing but not giv­ing the drive in­struc­tion him­self.

Tom Sev­erin, 4x4 Coach, teaches 4WD own­ers how to con­fi­dently and safely use their ve­hi­cles to the fullest ex­tent in dif­fi­cult ter­rain and ad­verse driv­ing con­di­tions. Visit www.4x4­train­ing.com to de­velop or im­prove your driv­ing skill.

De­velop a good com­mu­ni­ca­tions plan for those un­ex­pected mo­ments.

You must have good 4WD skills that in­clude reading the ter­rain, pick­ing lines, spot­ting, re­cov­ery and ve­hi­cle re­pair.

Know the trail and the ter­rain you are go­ing to be in.

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