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Although I'm primarily asking about caving, this is a problem that exists in any activity that moves through the landscape: walking, cycling, kayak touring, etc.

A natural tendency when on the move is for the fastest members of the group to end up at the front and for the slowest to trail behind, and eventually lose sight of those in front. Then there's potential for different parts of the group to make different navigational decisions and become completely separated.

How can I, as a group member, prevent this fragmentation, and help the group stay in touch?

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    Related: Group protocol should the group become separated - that's what we're trying to avoid! – Toby Speight Jan 23 at 10:30
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    This is not an answer, but I remember one solution that did not work. The faster walkers would get farther and farther ahead, sit down and wait, and when us slow walkers would get there they'd say "OK, we can go now". THEY would be rested and ready to press on, and WE who were tired -- where was OUR break? I admit I don't really have a solution for this. – Jennifer Jan 24 at 15:32
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    @Jennifer, absolutely right - if the faster people are feeling refreshed, they should be offering to help the slower people (e.g. carry more weight), as well as allowing them to get their breath back. I've seen this dysfunction go even further: the slower members would stop and rest out of sight just before the fast ones, knowing that they wouldn't get a break when they caught up... – Toby Speight Jan 24 at 15:56
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    I remember that when hiking in group the slower where ask to lead the way, so they won't get lost and the faster are at ease to keep their pace. – RomainL. Jan 24 at 17:10
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    In Boy Scouts it was a rule for longer walks or hikes that the fastest one goes last. It has the other benefit - the faster ones are usually also overall stronger and better equipped to assist the weaker whenever needed. – Pavel Jan 24 at 19:20
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A good rule I was taught as a teenager is that each person must keep contact with the person behind them. Importantly, don't try to keep up with the person in front - if they are following the rule, it's up to them to slow down or stop so that they maintain contact with you.

This will naturally constrain the group to the speed of the slowest member, and ensure that no-one gets left behind.

As a "group member", you'll need to (temporarily) step up to a "leadership" role to instruct your peers in this rule before you start. After that, it's important to set a good example. This can be reinforced by periodically asking the person behind you to report the status of everybody further back.

As an aside, this technique also works well for road vehicles travelling together, when traffic lights or other obstacles can affect part of the group.

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    One way to encourage this with a less experienced group is to designate an trusted, experienced person to lead, and another to take up the tail. Otherwise it fails when people forget to check behind themselves, or don't call out if they're too far behind. – Karen Jan 23 at 21:05
  • another words you are introducing a single point of failure scenario, where if 1 person forgets the rule, the entire team loses – l--''''''---------'''''''''''' Jan 24 at 2:30
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    @l--''''''---------'''''''''''' In the Marines, the way we made it not reliant on one person was by giving "<command>, relay!" Which means when you hear it, you're obligated to repeat it for those behind you. Once you get in the habit, it becomes routine and, assuming you're within shouting distance, you can then pass voice commands along the column, which includes "slow down, relay!" – TemporalWolf Jan 25 at 0:31
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    The best way to ensure the group is walking at a maintainable rate is to have the slowest / most tired group member set the pace, at first or second place in the group. Second if navigation or terrain makes it strenuous to be lead. – Stian Yttervik Jan 25 at 10:42
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    @StianYttervik, I guess that works well when walking, but less so in a vertical cave, where the fittest person derigging is still slower than the tiredest person unladen. It's still a good strategy for enabling the best group progress, of course. – Toby Speight Jan 28 at 9:41
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I've led quite a few groups through one of the biggest caves in Canada, and I've received leadership training from the Association of Canadian Mountain Guides through the Alpine Club of Canada.

Keeping your group together starts with establishing leadership. It's the responsibility of the leader to ensure that no one gets separated from the group. Every trip or excursion sponsored by the Alpine Club of Canada has a designated trip leader, even if all members in attendance are of equal ability, the trip leader is still respected as the designated leader for that trip.

Whenever I'm leading on a hike or in a cave, I always ensure that I'm out front, and check my shoulder occasionally to make sure the whole group is keeping up. It helps to have the slowest, or whomever you feel needs the most help close to you. This helps you set a pace that the whole group can keep.

With large groups it's helpful to have a second leader who takes up the rear, then you can know that the whole group is with you when you can see that person, otherwise, headcounts are helpful. I guided a group of 17 kayaks on a river this summer, and headcounts helped me out a lot. I had one leader in the front and one in the back, and I would float back and forth between the two. There were a couple times doing my count I came up one person short, and discovered the leader taking up the rear had unknowingly passed a boy at a fork in the river, and got ahead of him before the confluence. The boy kept falling behind because he was cold, so I ended up towing him for the rest of the trip.

It's also helpful to establish periodic check points; predetermined places where everyone regroups. In the cave I guide most frequently there are multiple rappels along the way, so it's easy to establish checkpoints because everyone has to wait at the top of the rappel for their turn on the rope, and we don't proceed until the last person is at the bottom of it. Even with checkpoints though, sometimes it's prudent to stop the group impromptu when the leader notices people are falling behind, and continue on again when everyone regroups.

All the suggestions above only work if you've established a leader. It's like herding cats if you've got people up front that don't take direction from anyone, so make sure you establish leadership and protocols at the beginning of the trip. If you don't, and you get half way through a trip and people are getting spread out too far, it may be prudent to stop the group and suggest that some order be established. I've spoken up more than once to offer suggestions to other leaders when I've recognized that a group, or member of the group was struggling with a climb, hike or other excursion.

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    Good answer, and in groups with an obvious leader (like a mountain guide) then of course you need leadership. The same principles work in more decentralised groups too though, so long as you're all friends and of roughly equal abilities. Then any group member can call out that someone is lagging behind, and you all periodically do your own headcounts. – Graham Jan 23 at 23:02
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    How can I, as a group member - by ensuring one of the members of that group is a leader. If there isn't one, that's you. Step up. Anyone not willing to follow the leader isn't part of the group. Understood? - Now we can enter the cave. – Mazura Jan 24 at 1:23
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    @Mazura, that's a good point. Even when we're all peers, and don't want to tell each other what to do, there's still a role for leadership, such as ensuring everyone has given their input to group decisions (e.g. "Do we have enough time to descend the next pitch?" or, "Is it too wet to continue?"). It's just a very different kind of leading to that done by a guide that's much more experienced than his/her clients. – Toby Speight Jan 24 at 9:03
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    When I was a caver this was always the rule: the strongest, most experienced goes first, and the second goes last. Also you keep looking out for the guy behind you. If you can't see him you call for the group to stop till he's caught up. Frustrating for the fast guys, but better than losing someone. – RedSonja Jan 24 at 11:47
  • @RedSonja Of course this assumes that the strong persons are also responsible. I have sometimes seen strong people (who are not seldom also the loudest and most confident in discussions) take decisions which the weaker ones had to pay for, e.g. which trail/route to take. If the group is discussing such decisions well, then your solution is good. – Paul Paulsen yesterday
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As for hiking, it's mostly about group discipline and communication. From my experience, I find the following actions to be effective.

Put someone strong and fast to the end of the group - they should watch for anyone else not to lag behind. If someone can't keep the group pace, this last group member should notify others, and then the decisions are to be made about reducing the pace, taking some load off the lagging member etc.

Watch for the front member - if they're too fast, then don't hesitate to tell them to slow down. If they can't keep the slower pace - put someone else to the front.

If you, as a group member, see that the group is spread, then call for others so that faster would halt and wait for the rear ones.

Mind, that in different terrain and weather conditions you could allow different 'safe' distances between the front and the rear group members.

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    I can see that's probably more suitable in an open environment, where it's possible to see beyond the people immediately in front and behind. In the cave environment, it's often much harder for an individual to sense the spread of other parts of the group. – Toby Speight Jan 23 at 15:19
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    @TobySpeight Yeah, as I've said this is good for a hiking group - I've never done any speleology, thus cannot make an educated guess about cave environment. But if I would be a member of a group doing some easy cave walk, I'd assume using a rope and clip everyone into it - not very comfortable, but no one will get lost. – Usurer Jan 23 at 15:27
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The simple solution is to put the slowest person in the front of the group. This does two things.

  1. As long as no one passes, the group will naturally stick together.

  2. It encourages the slowest person to speed up, as being in front causes pressure to go faster.

At the same time, a little spreading out is not a bad thing, because it allows the group to see who is the slowest and who might need extra help.

There was a trip that I was one where because the leaders were so careful to keep everyone together that it wasn't till much later that we realized how out of shape certain members were.

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    I've tried that, and it usually ends up with faster people passing the slowest person (where the passage widens, or when there's a choice of route). – Toby Speight Jan 23 at 15:48
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    @TobySpeight If your group won't take the basic steps of looking out for each other, you may as well not be a group – Charlie Brumbaugh Jan 23 at 15:51
  • Also, being last will often necessarily make you slowest - if you're de-rigging, for example, so changing the person in that position won't always enable them to keep up. – Toby Speight Jan 23 at 15:59
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    This works for activities where technical proficiency won't affect speed too much. As a counter-example, whitewater rafting will benefit from having the best water-readers at the front for on-sight rapids. That way a less experienced guide will be able to see how to approach the entry line and learn from it. Since speed is heavily affected by how sloppily the line is followed, one rapid might be enough for the second boat to get slowed down and be unable to reach the lead boat before they engage in another rapid. Rubber-banding can get insane, then. – Gabriel C. Jan 23 at 18:53
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I very much recommend formally asking the group’s permission for you (or someone else the group designates) to tell them what to do as needed in order to keep the group together. Everyone tends to shrug and agree, and then that breaks down the momentary hesitation to say anything when the group is starting to split up. It’s much easier to prevent than fix.

Once that understanding is in place you can employ whatever tactic you want (putting one of the more capable team members in the “sweep” position at the end of the group, with the explicit agreement that they are empowered to set the group’s pace based on what they observe, seems to work well).

The concept is simple it’s the social aspect of execution in the moment (telling an older / more experienced / more grouchy person what to do) which causes hesitation so this upfront agreement really helps.

  • That's great where one person is in a position to see the entire group. In the cave environment, it doesn't work so well, as often you can only see the immediately preceding and succeeding members of the party. – Toby Speight Jan 23 at 15:49
  • That's why this was discussed before we went in the cave. – Mazura Jan 23 at 20:22
  • Caving is an activity that large groups are really difficult. I think that 4 is the max group size. If with a larger party, some merit in dividing into groups near the start, with agreed on rendezvous points. – Sherwood Botsford 1 hour ago
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In the roller blading groups (50+ people) I've been in in Florida and NYC they have a sweep at the back whose job it is to make sure the slowest person is always with the group.

Everyone goes as fast as they like, but the leaders have a pre-planned route and take breaks at designated rest stops and wait for all group members to arrive (the sweep). Then they set out again.

Not everyone needs to know the route.

I would recommend rest stops at pretty areas, or where paths diverge, or places with seating or water. You can use walkie talkies for group leaders to keep in touch.

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    Thankfully I've never had to deal with a group that size! If there's more than six or so, it's time to split my group. Walkie-talkies don't work that well underground, but are very useful when you have a line of sight, so definitely valuable above ground. – Toby Speight Jan 28 at 9:49
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    BTW, it's not obvious in advance where paths diverge. A case in point is one time when I was ascending JH (James Hall Over Engine Mine, Derbyshire) at the front of a group of five cavers. A straightforward series of three or four pitches leading to the entrance shaft, or so we thought, but after I had made contact with the surface team (we were overdue but not in need of assistance) I re-entered to help with loads, passing team members 2 and 4 without seeing 3. It turned out she'd ascended a dig rope the rest of us hadn't seen, and almost got marooned when member 5 passed that point... – Toby Speight Jan 28 at 9:56
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    ... We'd have had to regroup at every pitch to avoid that (very, very slow, and very cold), whereas with each member guiding the person behind, we wouldn't have lost a member. Part of the problem was that we were very tired by that point, the most experienced members were at front and rear (leaving a vulnerable middle section) and we were overdue (meaning that I had to leave the group behind to reassure and inform the surface group). Luckily it all worked itself out with no harm done, but it could have turned out much worse! – Toby Speight Jan 28 at 10:01
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We had this as a constant issue when I worked in a school with a strong outdoor program.

General things

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.

Hiking

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.

Canoeing

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."

Dogsledding.

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.

  • +1 I especially like the part about the canoe groups - the second most skilled person being capable and also less likely to overestimate the group's skill. Not being able to do that is a common problem with having the most skilled person in the front! – Paul Paulsen yesterday

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