10 Qualities of a great Trail Leader

Communication Pointing out our location on the map.
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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. Contact the responsible agency (BLM, parks department, state DNR) for the latest information. Is there a fire ban? Any trail closure? Does the group need permits? A phone call can minimize the 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 and photo ops. (More on communications later.) Then make sure you don’t leave anyone behind. I could be 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, 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 stop more them 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 tail gate 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 you can communicate during the trip.

Your communication responsibility extends outside your own group. Talk to other Leaders you meet on the trail. Ask how many vehicles, where they are going, tell him the trail condition you just came over, ask what's ahead of you, if there are any other groups, etc. If they pulled over, tell him which is your last vehicle. I also like to thank each vehicle (if I can) as I go by for stopping for us. I want my tail end to do the same thing.

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 uncertain of his skills and ability (don’t stick the new guy just cause no one wants it!) Pair him up with an experienced Trail Leader who will not let him 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 him coaching but not giving the drive instruction himself.


Related Articles from Badlands Off-road Adventures

Did you miss the previous article?

Some Upcoming Events

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Serpent Crossing the road - Borrego Springs, CA
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With just about 3 1/2 months before the Rubicon Trail trip, now is the time to sign up and make the commitment that this is the year you will "do the Con". 3.5 months will give you time to, schedule vacation, make those upgrades you need, get in a Rocks Clinic or two and prepare for an epic trip. Check the schedule below to sign up for Rock clinics and the Rubicon.

Summary of upcoming events.


Rock Clinic June 18 and July 09


If you are planning on doing the Rubicon, this is a good "shake down" or if you prefer a "warm up" clinic. It is great introduction to rocks even if you don't plan to do the Rubicon. The Class will be in Johnson Valley. It is an introduction to Rock crawling but it is not on "baby" rocks. We take our time and stress careful wheel placement. We use spotters for difficult sections. You learn by inspecting the obstacle and predicting the line; by watching others try their line; by experiencing it yourself; and by the coaching. We recommend you repeat the training several times. You will be much more relaxed the second time over the same obstacles and you will pick up on little details missed the first time. More Details...

You can register directly at http://www.4x4training.com/calendar/calendar.php#Rocks

Rubicon Trail Adventure August 15- 18, 2016

The Rubicon Trail

The Rubicon Trail is the stuff of legends. It is considered the Grand Daddy of trails. If your vehicle has a weakness, it will find it. Any serious four-wheeler needs to "Do the 'Con" at least once. There is no guarantee of avoiding vehicle damage. Even the most skilled driver can succumb to the fatigue of 12 unrelenting miles of rocks. Just bring a good attitude and the best prepared vehicle you can. This could be a once in a lifetime trip but a lifelong of bragging rights. More Details

You need to register now so you have time to prepare. Register directly at http://4x4training.com/calendar/calendar.php#Rubicon

Happy Hour It comes in many colors.
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Jack Covers

Have you ever broken a tire bead while 4- wheeling and found that the hi-lift jack was barely operational due to dust, dirt and mud packed into the operating mechanism? Not only is it frustrating but dangerous as well. Since most of us bolt our hi-lift on the outside of the vehicle, it is not uncommon to find the mechanism less than functional.

A simple boot over the working parts of the jack to protect it and keep it clean is an idea that has been around for a while. The current offerings have not been very successful. At TDS this week, I discovered a new product for the hi-lift jack cover that looks promising.

Adam Woods has built a better “mouse trap” which he market under the name www.jackcovers.com The new cover marries a neoprene inner liner with a marine grade vinyl shell on the outside. It has a heavy duty - #10 Marine grade zipper, treated for mildew and antimicrobial, and available in 20 + colors. Since the product covers a number of holes on the jack upright, Adam explained to me he analyzed which holes most of us use to mount a hi-lift and offers two sizes of the cover - 11" and 15”- to allow several mounting combinations.

Winch Recovery Bandana & Winching DVD

Winching Recover Bandana
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We have our new stock with many new colors (Red, Orange, Green, and Blue) on hand. The Bandana is packed full of useful information and is a quick reference in the field when no DVD player is available."

The Bandana layout follows the “Vehicle Recovery Plan” with pathways to more detail. A unique section of the Bandana, gives the steps for a “Winch Rigging Check: Walk through” so that you verify every element of the rigging before you commit to the pull. Stuff this in your recovery kit and you will always be ready!

Pick up or order the Winching DVD too! There is no substitute for hands on training. If you can, sign up for one of Badlands Off-Road Adventure’s Winching Clinics.

Warning – the Bandana and DVD are not a substitute for proper training and use of quality equipment that is used within the bounds of their safe working load. We advise you to use the information provided in both the Winching Recovery Bandana and the "Basic to Advanced Winching and Recovery DVD" at your own risk. We cannot control the quality and specifications of the equipment used and the methods actually employed.

Winch Recovery Bandana Order Button

Order a Basic to Advanced Winching & Recovery DVD too!

Winch DVD
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I hope to see you on the trails!
Tom Severin, President
Badlands Off Road Adventures, Inc.
4-Wheel Drive School
Make it Fun. Keep it Safe.
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Want To Use This Article In Your Magazine, E-Zine, Club Newsletter Or Web Site? You are welcome to use it anytime, just be sure to include the following author/copyright information: 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.

Copyright 2016, Badlands Off-Road Adventures, Inc.

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