We had this as a constant issue when I worked in a school with a strong outdoor program.
As group size increases problems increase faster.
- The distance between the first and last person is larger.
- The spread in ability/speed is likely to be larger.
- You have increased chances of equipment problems.
Problems travel downhill, downstream. Someone breaks a pin holding their pack strap on, they stop or slow down. Eventually they are last. One canoe gets wedged on a rock, eventually they are last. (maybe some stop above them.) One person gets a blister from new boots, they slow.
The back of the line has to have some way to stop the front of the line.
The front of the line has to have way to find out where the back of the line is.
- You need to have an adequate leadership cadre. In the school I was at, our rule was generally 1:5 for anything overnight, 1:8 for day trips. We had to have one competent outdoor leader per 5 students. That said: A senior student who had been there at least two years was counted as 'half a leader' Ones who passed our qualifications tests, and were approved by the staff council were counted as a full leader. (School was a boarding school. We knew these kids quite well) Adult staff were not considered leaders in any program during their first year. All trips had to have a mininum of 3 leaders. (This came up on a trip where one other staff and myself had a group of 10 grade ten boys. What was our plan if either of us got hurt. Leave the injured staff in the hands of the kids? Send two kids out for help (15 miles to the trailhead, 30 more to pavement.))
If all leaders have a set of maps, agree on rendezvous points if there is a separation.
Slow people in front. In extreme cases, start them off 10 minutes early. They MUST travel with a leader. Instructions to stop if the trail branches.
Slow person with a pacer. Individual behind the slow person encourages and gives tips. Sometimes a slow person is better at keeping up than at being first. Put him behind the pacer, and get pacer to very slowly increase the pace.
Designated sweep. This is a responsible (and strong) individual who is last, and makes sure that people don't evaporate off the back end of the line.
Buddy system. Pair or in some cases triple up individuals. Position is binding all day. Must always know where buddies are.
Group leader generally travels at just sight range of front of group. So with a 25 person group, he may travel about position 8-10. When I ran trips about once an hour I would work my up to the front of the line, then drift back chatting for a bit with each person and looking at them to see how miserable or happy they were. Since it's a lot easier to go back than go forward my favourite position was to be where I could just see the first person.
System of whistle signals.
Two long blasts from behind. Stop the front of the line. Acknowledge with two short.
Two long blasts from front. Where are you? Acknowledge with two short. Used when you weren't sure how far back the other end was.
One long blast from behind. Proceed. Ack with two short.
Four long blast from behind. Proceed, but slower. Ack with 4 short.
We used fox40 whistles which are very loud, but unfortunately sound a lot like marmots. Hence all the 2 toots. Note: The traditional pea whistle will freeze in cold weather with the pee (usually a cork ball) sticking at a point where in makes little more than a whimper.
Two others we had in our list, but didn't use normally:
Three long blasts: "Come to me!" Two shorts "I'm coming" Three blasts is a distress signal. We tried not to use it unless necessary.
On lakes we had designated lead, point and sweep. No one went ahead of the lead, further from shore than point, or fell behind sweep.
Small rivers were harder. A large river, one with sight lines of half a mile or more, were treated like lakes. Small rivers where 50 yard visibility was common were much harder.
Worst case was a 12 canoe brigade. If a canoe gets wedged on a rock, you can get a pile up. Too much current to stop, not enough room to go around. We never had this actually happen, but we talked about it a lot.
On rivers we traveled in groups of 4 canoes. A group generally traveled in yelling distance, although everyone had a whistle to get attention. Usually the 2nd most experienced or skilled person would lead. He was unlikely to get in trouble, and able to say if this was beyond the group's skill. It also meant that there was someone at the bottom of the rapid to collect the garage sale if someone dumped.
The last canoe had a highly skilled person too. He was the one who would have to dodge wedged canoes.
Groups traveled about 5 minutes apart. When we got to the next lake or long reach we would pause and regroup.
Small rivers with dangerous rapids We never had this come up. The rapids were far enough apart we could regroup. We talked about doing it though:
- Have a set of high visibility flags -- say 1x2 feet that you could hang on shore.
- In addition to the flag, use a ribbon.
Red ribbon -- manditory portage.
Yellow ribbon -- track or line. Anytime tracking is an option, so is a portage.
- Orange ribbon -- Scout rapid first. If we scouted a rapid the usual first canoe would go with everyone else watching. The sweep would give a running commentary, and suggest alternatives. Sometimes, sweep would go second to show an alternative if first canoe bungled it. Sometimes sweep would say. "I don't like it. Portage."
Group was split in half with one half going ahead on snowshoes breaking trail. The mushers broke camp, and would set out an hour later. We treated the two groups as being independent, sometimes not seeing each other all day. More commonly the dogs would catch up in a bit over an hour. Mushers would halt, and then catch up.
If the terrain was rough, mushers would have to park a sled and help the guy in front or behind get up the hill/over the creek bank, around the deadfall. On occasion, breakers would have to come back and help the sleds. Sometimes two of the breakers would stay with the sleds full time if the terrain was really rough. On rare occasions the breakers got too far ahead.
Keeping the sleds in a group wasn't a problem. Dogs will go faster if there is a team in front of them.