Hike Leader Guide

by Tom Bergen,  Hike Leader

Leading hikes is fun, interesting, challenging and rewarding. It is a very social volunteer opportunity that develops and rewards leadership skills, good decision-making and thorough planning. Planning and leading hikes lets you learn about the areas where you hike and your own capabilities and gives you the opportunity to meet people of diverse background, experience and interest. Being a Shorewalkers hike leader also entitles you to free Shorewalkers membership!

Becoming a Shorewalkers Hike Leader

We are always grateful to have new volunteer hike leaders, but due to safety and liability issues we must screen any beginning hike leaders. We feel most confident in those people who have been on a number of our hikes and have acted as a sweep on hikes. Before you lead your first hike, an experienced hike leader will walk the route with you, to review the route and your plan for leading the hike and discuss safety and planning topics.

Shorewalkers also requires that hike leaders submit their name, mailing address, phone number and email address. All hike leaders must be Shorewalkers members. If you are not already a paid member of Shorewalkers at the time you lead your first hike, a free membership will be established for you.

Shorewalkers hike leaders are protected by liability insurance. Also, all participants in Shorewalkers activities agree to liability waivers. However, protection after the fact is no substitute for proper planning and proper supervision of the hike. Following these guidelines will help you lead safe, fun and successful hikes.  

Planning A Hike

First: Where to walk? The best way to choose where to walk is to pick a route, topic or location that interests you. Your knowledge, enthusiasm and enjoyment of the hike will make it more interesting and enjoyable for the hikers. Your interest does not have to be fully formed when you start planning a hike, you can use the hike planning as an opportunity to educate yourself and plan the details of the hike as you learn.

Online resources such as Untapped Cities (untappedcities.com), Atlas Obscura (atlasobscura.com) and Forgotten New York (forgotten-ny.com) publish detailed posts on New York City, such as “The Top 10 Secrets of NYC’s Floyd Bennett Field.”

For trail hikes, the New York New Jersey Trail Conference website (nynjtc.org) has an interactive guide to choose trail hikes in New Jersey and New York. Libraries, Barnes & Noble and the Strand bookstore all have guides for New York City and surrounding areas to find ideas and routes. Looking at paper maps, such as the free NYC Bike Map or even the MTA subway map, can give both detail and overview to plan a hike through parks and past interesting sites.

Second: Scouting: If you are planning a hike on a walkway, such as the Hudson River Greenway, you may be able to lead the hike after only walking the route once. Check for detours and dangerous conditions, note the location of restrooms and dropout points, decide where to stop for lunch, and you should be ready to lead.

If you are developing your own route, it may take three scouting walks before you are able to knowledgeably and comfortably lead a hike.

Review some maps and get an idea of where you would like to hike. Then make a first scouting trip and explore the area and consider the best route. It is useful to use a smartphone GPS mapping app, such as MapMyWalk, to create a map that you can review later.

After the first scouting walk, review maps and the GPS track you created on your phone to develop a more detailed route. Then, head back out and walk the detailed route, creating a GPS track with your phone. Review the detailed route and consider any minor adjustments, such as the safest way to approach a busy intersection or which deli would be best on the way to lunch. Then, walk the route a third time so that you know every turn.

Being knowledgeable and confident about the route of the hike will free you to tend to and enjoy the company of the hikers. If you have to constantly think about the route, you will be too distracted to properly guide the group and enjoy yourself. Also, design a hike such that completing it will only require 70 percent of your capabilities. If 10 miles is your walking limit, then your hike should be no more than 7 miles long. This way you will always be relaxed and able to lead without being distracted by your own physical struggle to complete the hike and have plenty of reserves in case an emergency requires additional effort.

Restrooms are extremely important on a hike. Pick a meeting spot which has a nearby public restroom and include additional bathrooms along the route. An urgent need to pee will make even the nicest hiker anxious and cranky. Make your hike enjoyable for you and all of the hikers and plan for rest stops. Try to plan a restroom stop about every hour and a half. If there are no public restrooms available, nearby hospitals, malls, libraries usually graciously let passersby use their facilities.

Drop out points are also important. As you plan and scout the hike, make note of nearby subway and bus stops. Download the subway and bus maps onto your phone, or even carry a copy of the borough bus map, which is sometimes available at subway stations.

Build safety into your route: Limit street crossings, respect traffic signs and signals, use crosswalks, avoid busy intersections, avoid broken pavement, construction sites, and steep and slippery paths. If there is severe weather in the week preceding your hike, consider whether fallen tree limbs or slippery terrain will require cancellation of the hike or modification of the route.

Third: Hike Description: The hike description is your invitation to the hikers. It should be friendly and fun and also provide enough information so the hikers can decide if the hike is appropriate for them and can arrive at the hike informed and prepared.

 Include the following information in your hike description:

  1. Length of the hike in miles and hours (start by assuming a 2.5-mile per hour pace and then add time for lunch breaks, rest stops, any sightseeing along the way)
  2. Meeting place and time, directions to   get there, the beginning and end point of hike
  3. Dropout points, the places to buy food and drink and the lunch spot
  4. Terrain: sidewalks, park paths, trails, etc. and whether it is flat, hilly, rocky, sandy.
  5. Pace: slow, moderate or fast. The reality is that the speed of the hike will be determined by the hikers and how you manage them along the way. But stating a pace in the hike description will at least give people an idea of what to expect.
  6. Note any challenging parts of the hike: a steep hill, a long stretch without restrooms or a drop out point, a long stretch in the sun. 
  7. Note any admission fees for museums or attraction you may visit on the hike.
  8. What to bring: water, snacks, lunch, sun hat, hiking shoes instead of sneakers if necessary, a MetroCard if the way home is a bus.
  9. Include links to any out-of-town train or bus schedules, such as MTA Hudson Line.
  10. Contact information: Your name, phone number and email for hikers to contact you with any questions about the hike. If you are concerned for your privacy, you can simply use your first name and last initial and an email address and omit your phone number.
  11. If you have a GPS track of the route, load the track on to Google maps and post a link to the map in the hike description.

Besides all the important technical details, also include in the hike description the fun parts of the hike: parks, views, historical sites, an interesting place for lunch. Add appropriate internet links to provide background information, such as a link to an art museum website if the hike includes an exhibit.

Trail hikes: Since most Shorewalkers hikes are on paths and sidewalks in the city, it is important to provide additional information for trail hikes.

1. Indicate mileage and elevation gains on moderate and difficult trail walks.  Many walkers overestimate their abilities.  Ten miles on a trail is very different from a 20 mile   walk on city streets.

2. Be detailed in your hike descriptions.  Follow the examples below:

  • Easy: carriage roads and some hills
  • Moderate: may be some rock scrambling, high exposure
  • Difficult: steep hills, rock scrambling

3. Include in the descriptions items that participants should bring and clothing to wear.  For moderate and difficult hikes the minimum should be hiking boots, two liters of water, food, and snacks.

4. Screen participants at the trail-head.  If they are not properly equipped they should be turned away as this would be an indication they have not done trail walking; those who are turned away should be told they should start with easier trail walks such as the Old Croton Aqueduct Trail before attempting more challenging terrain.

5. Sweep: If you can arrange it, having a sweep will make your day easier. The sweeps job is to remain at the back of the group to make sure no hikers get left behind, whether because they are slower walkers or they stopped to take pictures. Ask a hiker who you know is a strong walker with good judgment and an agreeable personality to sweep and make sure the sweep has a good idea of the route. If you do not arrange a sweep in advance, you can ask a hiker to take on the role as a hike progresses. Sometimes strong hikers prefer a slower pace and will become the sweep by default.

6. Submitting the hike: Shorewalkers solicits hikes from hike leaders via email a number of times each year. But you can also submit a hike any time you want by sending it to This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. . Both shorewalkers.org and meetup.com allow hike leaders to post and edit hikes. After your hikes are posted online, please check them for accuracy. If you are a member of the Shorewalkers Meetup group, check your hike for questions and comments and respond in a friendly, helpful manner.  

Leading a Hike

1. Gathering: Greet the hikers as they arrive and introduce yourself. Give the hikers a chance to talk to you and ask any questions. Answering questions up front will save time and trouble later in the hike. When the hikers feel informed about the plan, they are more confident and relaxed and both you and they will enjoy the hike more. Uninformed hikers are anxious and insecure. Here is where a good hike description can save you time and save the hikers anxiety. If you did not provide your cell phone number in the hike description, consider providing it to the hikers at the beginning of the hike so they can contact you if they get separated from the group. If you have the Meetup app on your phone, you can check it during the hike in case hikers try to contact you through Meetup.

2. Sign-in: Make sure everybody signs in. The liability waiver on the sign-in sheet is important legal protection for you and for Shorewalkers. If all the hikers sign-in, you can keep track of how many hikers you have on the hike. The phone numbers on the sign-in sheet may be important if a hiker gets separated from the group. Mention that we would like a $3.00 donation from anybody who is not a paid Shorewalkers annual member, but don't push it too hard. Accept the donations that are offered and mention that hikers can join Shorewalkers online at shorewalkers.org.

3. Starting the hike: Wait 15 minutes after the scheduled time to begin the hike. When you are ready to start, introduce yourself to the hikers, give a brief rundown of the route and answer any questions. If you have a sweep, introduce the sweep. If the number of hikers is less that 30 or so, you can ask them to stand in a circle and count off, so you can keep a count throughout the hike. You can also ask the hikers to look after each other and let you know if somebody is missing when it is time to resume the hike after a break. Ask the hikers to let you know if they decide to drop-out of the hike. If a hiker does leave early, simply thank them for coming and check that they know their way home. Always check bathrooms before leaving a rest stop.

4. Safety: The most important thing to keep in mind on the hike is safety.

  • Be careful when leading the group across streets - if the entire group cannot cross before the traffic signal changes, wait where they can see you. If they become anxious about being separated from the group, they may decide to dart across the street against the light.

  • Point out any potentially dangerous spots like potholes or slippery surfaces.

  • When turning corners, make sure everybody sees that you're turning, so they don't get lost behind you.

  • When you reach a fork in a path, be sure the hikers know which way to go.

  • Check every once in a while for people falling behind and give them a chance to catch up.

  • If you want to share information, it's best to stop and let the group gather around you, rather than talking as you walk - the hikers may get distracted and not watch where they are stepping. Stopping to point out a view or historical site is also a way to allow the slower hikers to catch up to the group and to allow everybody to take a rest and have a drink of water. On hot summer days, find a spot in the shade to stop and talk.

  •  Always obey traffic signs and signals; do not let impatient hikers goad you into unsafe action.

After safety the most important thing is fun. Chat with the hikers, share what you know about what is along the route, and listen to what the hikers have to share. The hikers are generally pleased to be on a hike and see and learn new things and grateful for the work you put in to lead the hike.

Remember that you are the hike leader and this is your hike. Sometimes well-meaning hikers will attempt to sway you from your chosen path by recommending a route they think is better. You may feel pressured or eager to please but do not lead the group on a route you have not personally planned. Thank the hiker for the interesting information and suggest that you may consider it for a future hike, then continue on your chosen path.

Some hikers are slow, which can get tiresome. Other hikers are fast, and may draw you away from the bulk of the group without you realizing it. Set a steady pace at the beginning of the hike and monitor how well the group keeps to that pace. If the fast hikers get impatient, you may be able to give them directions to walk ahead of you on the route and meet you at some spot ahead, such as a park or road one mile ahead. For the slower hikers, if you have a sweep, the sweep will remain at the back of the group and make sure everybody stays on the route. If there is no sweep, moderate your pace enough so that the slower hikers can keep you in sight and are aware of any turns in the route.

As a Shorewalkers hike leader, you should be respectful, courteous and helpful to the hikers. However, you do not have to tolerate disrespectful behavior on the part of any hiker. If somebody is being disrespectful, it is probably best to avoid any confrontation and simply avoid that person and enjoy the company of the other hikers. Shorewalkers has many experienced hikers who are aware that courteous and respectful behavior is the norm on a hike and they will naturally be supportive of you.

If necessary, you can tell a hiker who is being disruptive and can’t be ignored that the hike may not be for them and that it would be better if they left. Finally, if the disruptive individual persists, it may, unfortunately, be best to simply end the hike near a drop-out point. If at any point you feel that an individual is a danger to you or anybody else, do not hesitate to call 911.

At the end of the hike, thank the hikers for coming and make sure everybody knows how to get home. Ask the hikers how they enjoyed the hike to get some feedback that may be useful to you next time you lead a hike.

After the Hike

Let us know how it went: We are always interested to hear about your experience leading a hike. Obviously, alert us immediately if anybody is injured or gets ill on the hike or engages in inappropriate behavior. Please also give us your impressions and feedback as a hike leader on how Shorewalkers can make leading hikes easier and more enjoyable.

Sign-in sheets and Donations:

Mail the sign-in sheets and a check or money order for the amount you collected to Shorewalkers, PO Box 20748, Cathedral Station, NY, NY 10025.

Or, preferably, you can scan the sheets and send the money you collect via PayPal.

  1. Scan the sign-in sheets and name the scanned file as “Your name, Name of Hike, Date of Hike.” i.e. John Smith Brooklyn Walk 10.12.17

  2. Go to paypal.me/shorewalkers and submit your payment.

  3. You will receive an email receipt for PayPal for your payment to Shorewalkers. Change the subject line of this email to “Your name, Name of hike, Date of hike.”

  4. Next, attach the file of the scanned sign-in sheets to the email from PayPal and forward the email to This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. .

 

Additional information