Planning group walks

Nigel Vardy By Nigel Vardy

GetOutside Champion Nigel Vardy regularly takes large groups out walking. Delve into his solid planning tactics for where, when and how he does it to ensure everyone's safe outside on adventures.


For almost 30 years I’ve led a New Year’s Walk to get family and friends together. For many, it has become a must in their diaries and I often get asked for the date months in advance.

Leading 50+ people isn’t an easy task, so here’s a few of the lessons I’ve learned along the way…

Date

Set your date early and pick it well.

Mine might be called a New Year’s walk, but I always pick the second Sunday in January. This gets away from a myriad of hangovers and school holidays. If you’re planning any event, you need to check diaries for clashing with other days out, events and holidays.

View across hills
Group walking in winter

Contact

Whatever method you use, write invitations clearly and simply. Never underestimate the ability of others to misread, misunderstand or mistake. Always send them again a week before the walk as people will lose the first copy or forget. Just because you write a well organised diary, doesn’t mean that others do.

Include a grid reference for the start/finish point including a verbal description (car park name etc.), route, distance, suggested footwear and clothing. A link to the route on OS Maps is an excellent idea.

Audience

Will they be mountain goats wanting a fearsome day on a high ridge or families wandering around a park? Whatever the audience, you need to consider peoples limitations and expectations. OS have some great map reading resources if your audience are keen to learn new skills so they can explore confidently on their own.

Numbers

I’ve led over 50 people on many occasions, but I prefer much smaller groups. They are easier to manage and create less ground damage, so think about what you and the environment can take. If you wish to put a maximum limit on numbers, stick with it.

Windy walk outside
Family group walking

Route

Plan your route and walk it in advance. There is nothing like walking the route yourself to check footpaths, access, ground conditions, timings and safety. Always add plenty of extra time as many groups walk much slower than individuals.

Seasonal changes, weather conditions and available daylight will need taking into account. I’ve found footbridges missing, valleys flooded and bulls in fields. Not fun when you have a large group to manage! I always like to walk 2/3 of the route before eating, to allow a late exit from the pub or café and still get back to the starting point in good time (if the weather is bad they’ll take some prizing out!)

Environment

Consider such points as erosion, parking, waste, impact on local communities and agriculture. I always pick a starting point with good parking and toilets as many people travel a long distance to join me. Many bring their children, friends and friends of friends (who may not be as accustomed to the outdoors as yourself).

Walk with ‘Leave No Trace’ in mind

Are you walking delicate paths or well used bridleways? Are they in SSSI’s? Should you lead a large group through a farmyard? There are dozens of questions and thoughts to consider.

Anyone found dropping litter must be challenged. You could organise the walk to pick up litter and provide bags and pickers on the day.

Group walking in forest
Moss on forest walk

Sweeping

I like to walk the route with a good friend who doesn’t mind sweeping up the tail-enders. When you’re out with big groups, it’s tempting to lead from the front (at times you have to), but you need to make sure that no-one gets left behind.

Stiles, gates and road crossings can soon string your party out. A good ‘Tail End Charlie’ is a must with large groups.

Catering

My New Year’s Walks always include a pub stop. People enjoy a hot meal, roaring fire and drinks, engage in long conversations and then don’t want to leave! Plan well in advance with any pub or café. Some will welcome you, others refuse you.

Ask the obvious questions – muddy boots, dogs etc. and pay particular attention to anyone who has an eating disorder. One huge lesson to learn is about running the pub or cafe – DON’T! If the food is slow, or the wrong orders come, or whatever else people will complain about (and they will), it’s not your problem. Leave the staff to sort out any concerns. If you’re planning to eat butties in a field, book sunshine or have alternative plans under cover.

Professionalism & courtesy

Be courteous, polite and well turned out. Even when I’m with close friends, I always walk in clean and smart kit. You need to set the standard.

Be correctly trained, carry emergency equipment and know how to use it. Be prepared to teach skills or to just lead. Find out some interesting facts about the area and share them. Always introduce yourself to everyone in the group and enjoy the day!

Always thank your group, even if you did all the organising. Send an e-mail with a few facts and figures, photographs and anecdotes. But beware, once you start leading for people, you’ll never get off the hook!

Nigel Vardy By Nigel Vardy

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Nigel is a frostbitten mountaineer who doesn't wasn't to die in an unused body.

Find out more about Nigel Vardy.

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