Top 10 Fears of a 4WD Trail Leader

Very Smoky in California

Have you ever wondered about being a Trail Leader? Ever imagined yourself guiding a group of four-wheelers down historic trails and through scenic landscapes?

What has stopped you?

Most likely a lack of confidence. Understandable. Leading a group of four-wheelers is quite a bit different from being just another participant.

Even the best-planned excursion experiences a hiccup or two. Heaven knows I’ve seen a bunch in my time. By making and overcoming mistakes you learn and grow.

We constantly stress the need for preparation before a 4WD trip. Even so, something is bound to come up.

Here are my Top 10 fears a Trail Leader could face, and what to do about them. (Don’t worry, though: You’re not likely to see more than a few during any one trip.)


  1. Getting lost. You’re supposed to know where you’re going. You lose credibility fast if you can’t find the right trail. Turning the group around on a narrow trail is difficult. Finding your whole group in a sensitive or restricted area is a conundrum!

Mitigation: Check out the area in advance. Take note of landmarks to help you remember potentially confusing sections of trails. Have maps, GPS coordinates and other tools to keep you on track. Have a tail end Charlie who is smarter that you and can sort out if it is a right or left turn.

  1. Guests seem bored. No one is talking on the radio. There are no questions. This can happen on long stretches of trails or roads that aren’t that scenic or challenging.

Mitigation: It might just be your imagination that they are bored. Perhaps they are happy to drive enjoying the sunshine, in peace and not listening to you. Design a trip that offers nice scenery as well as some 4WD challenges. During the drive, fill in the silence with tidbits about history, wildlife, plant life, and so on. Encourage your guest to contribute special knowledge they have about geology and history of the area.

If you know in advance that certain stretches may be long, mention that during the drivers’ meeting. Guests need to understand that not every mile will be exciting or interesting.

As a guide, I like the cheerleader type who asks lots of questions, asks for another story and exclaims constantly how wonderful are the 4-wheeling, views, etc.

  1. Campsite is full. With the exception of managed camping grounds, you usually cannot reserve campsites.

Mitigation: While driving the area in advance, scope out possible alternate campsites. Ideally, they are near your intended camping grounds. During the trip, send someone (trail hand) out to ahead to check the status of your primary site. It’s good to know this in advance so you do not need to double back to your back-up location. Plan fuel to permit a detour to a more remote camp site.

  1. Someone is seriously hurt or sick. Conditions include heart attack, severe allergic reaction (and no medication to treat), and trauma (often from a fall or accident).

Mitigation: Before starting out, try to identify any medical hazards. Right now, heat is a big factor. Tell your guests to watch for signs of heat exhaustion in each other. Discuss hazards on the trails, such as abandoned water wells and buildings. Check they brought their emergency inhaler and epi pen.

Have a list of emergency numbers. Know where the hospitals are and what routes to take if you need to evacuate someone. Have secondary forms of communication in case cell coverage is spotty. Confirm every vehicle has a first aid kit.

Make sure you have a high level of First Aid training.

  1. Broken ring and pinion

    The trail leader’s vehicle has mechanical problems. This one hurts credibility, too. It’s bad form for the Trail Leader to have mechanical problems. The trip is heavily affected if your vehicle goes down.

Mitigation: Maintain a good maintenance schedule. Even so, certain parts can fail. Carry spare parts to get you up and running as quickly as possible. A quick, elegant repair can salvage your credibility. Worst case, abandon the vehicle. Run through your abandon-vehicle checklist so you can still guide the trip.

Anticipate that your guests may have vehicle problems too. Be prepared for the common problems (tires) with spares and tools to keep them on the trip. Have a plan to escort them off the trail to get repairs if necessary.

  1. Staying on schedule. An ideal schedule has you on the trails for about three hours in the morning and then up to three hours in the afternoon. With an hour for lunch, you should be able to arrive at the campsite by 4:30, maybe 5:00.

Mitigation: Determine early on if any drivers are unable to keep up to speed. (Some drive very cautiously.) Also, watch how much time you spend at each rest or sight-seeing stop. Those who tend to linger need to be gently prodded along (does not mean using a cattle prod!).

  1. Late arrival in camp. This is a function of starting on time and staying on schedule. As noted above, you need to keep an eye on the time. Increase the pace if you lingered too long during a stop or you stop to make repairs. Skip one of the lower-value locations to save more time. It is nice to be in camp at or before sunset. Allow for early sunsets during the winter months. Prepare the group for a late arrive at the drivers meeting if you know it will be a long day.
  2. Roads are closed. They were open when you scouted the route but are now closed. Apparently, Smith Creek Ranch on the Pony Express route recently change hands and now the gate is locked. Five months earlier when scouting it was open. Fortunately, this was a second scouting trip to gather more details. This is private property and we will now use a bypass.

Mitigation: Have options. Scout a bit broader to find several alternatives. They might not be as elaborate or interesting, but at least you can keep going.

Call the Ranger station and other authority about road and trail conditions.

  1. Tough weather. Guests understand that you may encounter inclement weather. It’s the severe weather (sandstorm, blizzard, torrential rain) that can wreak havoc on a trip.

Once on the Navaho reservation, the sand storm was so bad the Indian guide had to use my moving GPS display to find the trail. It did not let up until the next day. Setting up a tent or cooking dinner was impossible.

Mitigation: Check the forecast. Consider postponing the trip if severe weather is a possibility. Check NOAA weather every day on your ham radio (start at 162.400 and tune up 25MZ to find a local station). Have an exit strategy in place should you hit really bad weather (A hotel anyone?). Get out before the roads are impassable. If you’re going up in the mountains, prepare for cold and snowy conditions.

  1. Driving on a shelf road with another group of vehicles approaching you. One of my biggest concerns is return from Coyote Flats on the shelf road down to Bishop, Calif. The last three or four switchbacks are too narrow to pass or even pull off. Worse yet, it is impossible to see major sections of the trail for uphill traffic. If we meet uphill traffic, they have the right of way and it would mean backing our entire group a long way.

Mitigation: Ideally, avoid such a situation. As you approach the shelf road, look as far ahead as possible. (Slow down if you’re not already at a slow speed.) Look for dust clouds. But the absence of dust is not a clear indicator. If you see or hear other vehicles, stop. Look for a spot to pull over and wait for the other vehicles to pass.


As you can see, there is a reasonable solution to most issues you will encounter as Trail Leader. You’ll still make a mistake on occasion. That can be expected. But the more often you take to the trails, the better leader you become.

Take the plunge. Put together an easy but fun itinerary. Then call up your buddies and get ready for a great time off road.

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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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