How to become a Leader

Organizing and Leading a Sierra Club National Outings Backpack Trip

by Patrick Colgan, April 1977

[Patrick Colgan has been leading Backpack trips since before the Sierra Nevada was thrust upwards through sedimentary overburden. Under Patrick's careful guidance, hundreds of people have learned to love backpacking. Here he offers his own take on the particular skills and practices that make a good leader. Patrick writes as he speaks, with earthy prose and a quick and charming wit.]

Part One: The Leader

Being a backpack leader for the Sierra Club National Outings Knapsack Subcommittee involves much more than just striding boldly along some remote mountain trail at the head of your group. It's a major commitment of your time and energy. As the trip leader you are responsible for the entire trip, and for everyone on it. Your responsibility starts with the germ of an idea born inside your head, and continues through all aspects of trip development and implementation, even to the post-trip financial accounting. If your trip members have a great trip, and you meet your overhead, you're a hero. If your trip members have a rotten trip and/or you come in way over your budget, you could be, as George H. W. Bush used to say in his finest hour, " deep doo-doo!"

That's not all. As a leader, assistant leader, or even a trainee, you are also expected by your Subcommittee Chair to attend regular subcommittee meetings, and leadership training seminars. As the actual trip leader, you are further expected to meet deadlines for publication in Sierra magazine, cooperate with regulatory agencies such as the National Park and National Forest services, be sensitive to the trip budgeting requirements, and to "marketing" and "sales" techniques in selling your trip.

This latter aspect of trip responsibility is important, because in addition to the primary objective of providing the Club members with the best backpack trip they ever went on, you are also obliged to observe a certain level of fiscal awareness.

If, after reading the above, you still want to be a leader, then read on.

As you can see, leadership is clearly not for everyone. However, this large-scale commitment is not all negative. It's not all putting out with no returns. Far from it. For the true, dedicated leader, the rewards are enormous. Your subcommittee can be an extended family, a support group where you can enjoy a degree of visibility, notoriety and maybe even prestige. But more importantly, as part of the Knapsack Subcommittee leadership program, you establish meaningful friendships that can last for the rest of your life! And as you progress further into Leadership, you'll find that each new trip is unique, and different. Putting the whole thing together is a long and involved process, a learning experience, and quite an adventure.

But for now, some more mundane discussion, such as the basics of taking that germ of an idea that's been rolling around inside your head, and turning it into an actual backpack trip that will enhance your life, and the lives of those who go on it.
Who Leads What Trip
Sometimes the Subcommittee Chair will have a specific trip in mind that they want someone to lead, but generally speaking, as a leader, you are expected to come to the Subcommittee with your own ideas for a trip, based on your own backpacking experiences. This is important! The Chair, and other leaders who may have led trips to the same region, will in all probability be able to make suggestions which will undoubtedly improve and enhance your basic plans. This is all part of the mutual support system described above.

In addition to the Chair and a sizable support group of other leaders, there are other resources available to help you get your trip on the road. For example, your trip gets advertised in the Outings Catalog which usually appears in the January issue of Sierra magazine. This publication goes out to the entire membership which ranges in size, depending on the ebb and flow of things on Capitol Hill, between 400,000 and 600,000. Ever since the Republicans gained control of the Congress in 1996, membership has been escalating!

The Outings Office in San Francisco, which coordinates this advertising, will also be an invaluable resource for the successful implementation of your trip. They process all trip applications and reservations, and feed you a special diet of forms and rosters which help you monitor the state of your trip. But prior to any of this happening, the Outings Office requires three things from you (the leader), each of which is integral to the success or failure of your trip:

  1. The trip copy; the little blurb which appears in Sierra magazine.
  2. The trip budget; reflecting all trip costs.
  3. The trip brochure; formerly known as the trip supplement.
These are all due in October or November of the previous year, and in order to meet any one of these deadlines, you must have already researched your trip in just about every detail. When writing your copy, or preparing your budget, and especially in writing your trip brochure, you already know exactly where you are going, when you are going, and what you will do when you get there. You know the trip dates, the trailheads, the number of miles to the trailheads, the routes your trip will take, major topographic features your trip will encounter, the regulatory agency restrictions and enhancements. You have pored over your maps as if they were the New York Times, or whatever your favorite newspaper is. And you have topographic contour lines burned into your brain. You have consulted with your subcommittee chair, and other leaders who may have led similar trips into this area, and, in short, by the time you submit your trip copy, your budget, and your trip brochure, your trip is ready to roll. All you need is some warm weather and some signups.
The Trip Copy
It's a known fact that a finite number of Club members have already made up their minds that they are going on a trip this coming summer. Sad to say, however, this number is actually less than 1% of the membership. It fluctuates with the size of the membership, and is spread throughout the entire National and International Outings program. This means that trips often compete with each other, and in the early stages of this great game, it remains to be seen which trip a member might choose.

You want them to choose your trip. And as soon as they receive their Outings Catalog in January, you can imagine prospective trip applicants eagerly scanning through the pages looking for that one special backpack trip which not only fits their needs, but actually catches their eye! That's how important your trip copy is. It's a powerful marketing and sales tool, but if improperly handled can blow your trip right from the get-go. Here are a couple of known scenarios where, instead of taking a trip, folks have spent that particular summer time slot... at home, playing with their plonker (so to speak):

1. Your trip might be in the right time slot to coincide with a prospective trip applicant's vacation schedule, and it might be going to an area that they are especially interested in. But your description of the trip might be somewhat lack-luster, less than inspiring, and generally speaking, quite dull. In fact they were actually attracted to another trip instead just because that leader did a better job than you in tossing verbs and adjectives around. The sad thing here is that your trip would have been a better one. Because you are a better leader. But THEY don't know that. YOU have to sell them on it.

2. You might have used words like "rugged," and "strenuous" in your write-up, and you actually freaked people out, scared 'em away. People no longer wish to sweat and strain any more than they have to, lugging that huge backpack around like a bloody great crucifix. Nobody wants to get nailed anymore. Not like the old days when you could use terms like "knee-jarring," "spine-wrenching," and "sweat-blinding grunt," and folks would be fighting each other to get on your second section's wait-list. Not any more. In this high tech world of "eco-tourism" and "adventure travel," some folks would rather click their heels like Dorothy, and somehow magically "be there," without having to work for it. So "strenuous" is out. "Moderately paced" is in. Possibly with an inference to "Some strenuous moments." On the other hand, if you get thirteen people all writing or calling, telling you "Take me out on a real rugged backpack trip and kill me!" then go for it. Kill 'em! Or at least half kill 'em.

3. Your trip might be split between the bottom of one column and the top of another in "Sierra" and completely missed by the readership. This is something beyond your control - unless you work closely with the Outings Office and have some inside connections with "Sierra" advertising staff.

In reality however, as stated above, the sad fact is that your trip was probably vastly more superior to the other guy's, and they would have had a much better time had they gone on your trip. But because of your inattention to marketing strategies, and failure to comprehend the power of words, or just bad luck in the "layout" department, you lost a participant and possibly even a trip.

Except for the latter circumstances, over which we have little or no control, it doesn't have to be that way, especially if you use a bit of psychology, choose your words carefully, and consider every trip applicant a potential sale. So when writing trip copy, be original. Use a good thesaurus. Avoid cliches. Even though it's only a paragraph, spend quite a bit of time on it. Come back to it many times, polishing it till it gleams like a gem. Remember, your trip copy is your most powerful marketing tool.

"This moderately paced, occasionally demanding, cross-country junket presents the avid backpacker with the opportunity to spend nine glorious, fun-filled days exploring and enjoying one of the last truly great wild places left on the North American continent. In Glacier National Park we encounter the habitat of grizzly, wolf, caribou and an astonishing variety of birds. Layover days for romping and snoozing. Suitable mainly for experienced backpackers, strong, spirited beginners are encouraged to apply."
The Trip Budget
The whole budget process has been refined and streamlined and simplified. In the old days you had to sweat and strain with a calculator sometimes for weeks over "raw data" until you arrived at an approximation of a trip price, which you submitted to the office for verification and the addition of a FAO, a Final Adjusted Overhead. Nowadays, all you have to do now is come up with the "numbers", plonk them down in the designated spaces on the form, and the Outings Office computer cranks out the trip price. But before getting into the budget process, a word about trip overhead

Overhead is that mysterious amount of money that somehow gets added to your trip price, sometimes almost doubling it: But backtracking even further, a few words about WHY we have "Overhead" at all.

The Sierra Club proper (as distinct from Sierra Club Outings) functions today in the same manner that John Muir first envisioned it-- as a grass-roots, member-supported conservation oriented lobbying force whose main objectives now include thwarting big business and government in their attempts to destroy our planet. This is why the Sierra Club employs so many lawyers -- Lord love 'em!

The Outings Program, on the other hand, exists as a service to this membership, and, unfortunately or otherwise, is subsequently looked upon by the Sierra Club proper in the same way that a CEO regards an independent cost center within a large corporation; in short, "Outings" must pay for itself.

Therefore, in addition to covering the basic cost of the trip, the trip price is also required to generate a certain amount of money to pay for running the outings program at large. This amount is called "overhead." And each Sierra Club trip is required to generate a fair share of this amount-- which pays staff salaries, office rent, computer time, advertising in "Sierra," phone, copying, mail, heat, light, and even janitorial services. The Sierra Club proper does not contribute a single dime towards any of these costs. The money comes out of our one source of revenue -- our trips!

This is one reason why the success or failure of your trip is so important. Not only must your trip be a successful service to the membership, it must make money. And when your trip goes out with less than 80% of signup, or goes over-budget, or, heaven forbid, gets canceled, it's considered a major financial loss. By the same token, if you've done a good job, filled your trip to capacity, and had enough of a wait list to generate a second section, hey! You're a ficin' hero! Hence the importance of understanding the concepts of marketing and finance, and sales mentioned earlier. With that, let's get back to the budget process.

As with the trip copy, in supplying the raw data used to compute the trip price, your trip should be planned out in every detail, even to knowing the number of round trip miles to the trailheads. In completing your basic budget form, just follow the simple instructions, and plonk the numbers down where they're supposed to go on the form. If you don't know what the numbers are, then call your subcommittee chair. Or call the Outings Office. And no matter how tempting it might be, make no attempt to perform the calculations yourself on your super-duper, high-tech, state-of-the-art spread-sheet. Because in doing so will only make the job more difficult for those in the Outings Office receiving your completed budget form.

Besides, the Outings Office and the OAC (Outings Administrative Committee) will undoubtedly have some other numbers to tweak you budget with before finally dumping the whole schlopful into the computer and grind out an actual trip price.

A few tips on living within your means: (That is, within your budget!) The Outings Office will return your budget at least once for you to modify. Study it carefully. Understand exactly what the yellow-highlighted questions are asking, and before accepting the numbers, be absolutely satisfied in your mind that these numbers accurately reflect what your trip is going to cost, down to the last farthing!

When actually running your trip, don't over-spend on any budget line item. For instance if your food budget is $7.25 per person per day, don't spend $10.00 per person per day, regardless of how gourmet your commissary plans might be. Don't spend money on something that you haven't budgeted for, such as a van, or a food cache, or a guest speaker at one of your campfires, or a big dinner for the whole group at some fancy restaurant at the end of the trip. This is how you go over-budget and get your Subcommittee Chair thoroughly disgruntled (pist) with you.

As an aside, if you have to spend money that you haven't budgeted for, one option is to pass the hat among the trip members. However, if do this, it's imperative that you make it known to them well in advance of the trip, in one of your departure bulletins. For example,
"TRANSPORTATION: Many trip members are flying in from out-of-state. We can pick them up at the airport, and arrange accommodations for them with friends and neighbors. However, transporting such an entourage to the trailhead might pose a problem. One option is to rent a van. In this event, all passengers would be expected to share the cost." Teen backpack trip '97
This way there are no surprises that is unless somebody doesn't read your departure bulletins anyway, which sometimes happens. More about departure bulletins later.
The Trip Brochure
This is where the whole thing comes together. In the perfect scenario, perspective trip applicants have been intrigued by your description in the catalog, the trip copy. The dates are right, the money is right, and now that they have swallowed the bait and you have 'em on the line, it's time to reel 'em in! They send in (to the Club Office) for the trip brochure, and, if you've done the job properly, the brochure you wrote will land 'em.

However, backtracking again; in order to accomplish this, your brochure must be well-written, spontaneous, lively and move lightly and with imagery... like a mountain stream dancing through a bright green meadow ablaze with a riot of spring wildflowers! In short, your brochure is what compels the perspective trip applicant to reach into their pocket and make a deposit in the Outings Office for your trip!

Sitting down to write the brochure is probably the hardest thing you have to do. It's like looking up at South Fork Pass from the East side of the Palisades and being at first completely overwhelmed and intimidated by it. But upon finally making up you mind that you can do it, you eventually hit upon your route, the clear and obvious way to the summit!

Writing your trip brochure is quite similar. At first it's a monumental task that you dread and finally begin to detest, that is until you are faced with the grim fact of the deadline. (It doesn't get any easier folks. Not even after a quarter of a century!) But once you get started, it's amazing how easy, and eventually how thoroughly enjoyable it becomes. Like that route you eventually negotiate up through South Fork Pass.

As with the pass, so with your brochure, (and with life in general for that matter) you begin falteringly. But with time things begin to fall into place. Finally you are inflamed with passionate inspiration, flailing away at the keyboard with vigor and gusto, with words and images flying madly through your fingers via your brain and onto the paper. It's all there before you; the roadhead, the trails, the passes, the campsites, the layover days, the degree of physical exertion required. And you wonder what all the fuss was about.

Brochure Format: Meanwhile, it might be helpful to know that there is a basic format for all brochures which, over the years, has proven to be quite beneficial, regardless of how well (or poorly) you write. Following the heading which contains the trip name and trip dates, the first section of the brochure is the "Introduction." It can also be called "The Trip," and should be composed of a few paragraphs of some poetic and provocative, eye-catching verbiage which inspires the reader to pursue the matter further. The "Introduction" should also be informative. It should describe the area in which you will be travelling; ie, a National Forest Wilderness Area, a National Park, or a National Wildlife Reserve. If necessary it should distinguish between them.
"A Wilderness Area is a specifically designated, or re-classified part of a National Forest which is administered much the same way as a National Park. In a Wilderness Area loggers can't log, miners can't mine, grazers can't graze, and all you can do is be there, taking nothing but pictures, and leaving nothing but foot-prints - maybe!" (Teen Backpacking '97)
Following the Introduction comes the "General Itinerary." There are differences of opinion here about exactly how much information should be given away in this section. Some leaders feel it expedient to spell out in detail exactly what they will be doing each day of their trip. Others, for very good reasons, prefer to dispense that information in a later departure bulletin to all accepted trip members: It's a well known fact that there are some people out there who like to cruise through trip brochures. (Brochures don't cost anything. They're free on request from the Outings Office.) These "Supplement Slugs" (as we used to call them) get all the information they need from our brochures, then go off and do their own trip. In other words, unbeknownst to you, and because of the information readily available in your brochure, (maybe even on-line now) you might be having your brains picked, and are losing another sale!

So rather than spell it out in exact detail in the "General Itinerary," perhaps, in this section of your brochure, you might instead give the impression that you are providing an itinerary, while in reality you are not! This is both tricky and risky, and requires a bit of intellectual dexterity. But that's why we call it a General Itinerary. Talk this over with your subcommittee chair.

The rest of the brochure should be devoted to boiler-plate material describing, under appropriate headings, Central Commissary, Equipment, Conservation Objectives, Hygiene, Personal Safety, and last but not least, Leader Authority. It should conclude with a section called "About Your Leader," wherein you get to describe yourself.

The Central Commissary portion of your brochure is important in that it describes not only the full compliment of equipment and supplies needed to support your trip, it also lets your trip members know what they are going to eat. But given that backpacking food is such a highly individualized matter among various backpacking leaders, and that there are as many opinions as there are experts, (and there are lots of experts) no attempt is made here other than to generalize. Your Subcommittee Chair can probably direct you to a wealth of information on this subject which you can elaborate on in one of your departure bulletins. Besides, your writer is not renown for the quality of his cuisine and has been known to include SPAM on the dinner menus.

Be aware therefore that what people eat on your trip can make the difference between a truly memorable trip, and a less than satisfactory experience, or even a complete fiasco. For example, you can subject your trip members to the most gruelling, cross-country persecution, pushing them to the brink of mutiny, but at dinner-time swell their tum-tums with a good hot soup and a tasty main dish followed by some "No-bake Cheese Cake," and you'll come out smelling like a rose. With a good breakfast inside you, and the prospect of a good dinner ahead, you can lead your trip members right into Hell, give the Devil a fist-full of fives in the snot-locker, then hike 'em right out again and they'll love you! But be forewarned; if you do this, then serve 'em up less than Grade A backpacking grub and you're a dead duck!

Therefore whatever you say in your brochure about your central commissary, the bottom line should clearly reflect the fact that your trip members will not go hungry.
"We will enjoy a mixture of light-weight, simple, but sustaining backpacker's food: freeze-dried and dehydrated meals, rice, noodles, pasta and dry soup mixes, stewed fruit, dry and cooked cereals, pancakes, smoked meats, a variety of cheeses and crackers, together with breads and spreads, bagels, cream cheese, GORP (Good Old Raisins and Peanuts) chocolate and hard candy. First thing we do when we come into camp every day is fix up a big bucket of lemonade. We will not go hungry. (SPAM optional!)
As with the description of the Central Commissary, under the heading "Equipment," your brochure might describe the importance of travelling light while staying warm and dry under the most adverse conditions.
"...Even in mid-summer, weather in the Sierra can be unpredictable. A bright, clear morning sky can, by noon become sodden with black, rain-swollen clouds that look like huge mammary glands in the sky but filled with rainwater instead of milk. You can be thoroughly soaked, deluged by torrential rain, with hail as big as duck-eggs, blasted by icy winds, while forked lightening rips along the ridges like fingers playing a hellish concerto on a gigantic keyboard. By evening it can all be over, with the western sky ablaze with a glorious alpen-glow sunset. Come prepared for it all. Have good rain gear, and lots of layers to put on, or take off, depending on the weather; polypro., therms., fleece, goretex, wool. Wear well broken in boots with at least ten good days left on the lug sole. Have access to a good tent. Above all, make sure you have a large, roomy backpack to stuff everything into, including your fair share of the Central Commissary."
Your brochure could go on to provide more details on the basics of equipment, and can conclude by stating that a more detailed description of the trip, its itinerary, and an equipment check-list will be furnished to all accepted trip members in a later departure bulletin.
Conservation Objectives
Bear in mind that because we are a service to the Club membership, a very clearly defined conservation objective should be a close second to your immediate objective of having a bloody good time! After all, some folks are taking out membership in the Club just to go on your trip, and as a leader you have a responsibility to inform your trip members not only about general conservation topics, but of specific environmental issues unique to your area. Once again, your Subcommittee Chair, the Outings Office, the National Park or National Forest agencies, and in particular, the local Chapter Conservation Committee, could be of invaluable assistance in providing you with useful information about your area.
Leader Authority
Last but by no means least, your brochure should contain a section on Leader Authority. Make it clear from the get-go that you are the leader, that this is your trip and you are in complete charge of it, but because you're such a nice guy and a devotee to the Club, you are more than willing to share your trip! Some leaders recall horror stories about trip members pulling temper tantrums, power plays and even trying to incite mutiny in their attempts to take the trip away.
If you lose control of your group, you're opening up a Pandora's box of potential problems which could lead to dangerous and even life-threatening situations. So figuratively speaking, being a leader means that not only do you hang on to your own marbles, you hang on to everyone else's as well.

This is not difficult. In fact if you are direct about this in the brochure, you will automatically screen out trip applicants who are natural born take-over guys who might otherwise challenge your authority and be just a royal pain in the ass.
"In addition to carrying their fair share of the central commissary load, trip members are also expected to take their turn in the kitchen. Trip staff functions at every meal, especially monitoring the stoves. Everyone else take turns cooking and cleaning pots, and should be prepared to do so willingly and with enthusiasm. Unless you die on the way into camp, there are no exceptions!"
In conclusion, be aware that no matter how much you anticipate what might happen on the trip, there is always the surprise, the curve ball-- for which you are totally unprepared. In retrospect, from the safety of your living room, you can reconstruct things from the debris of some kind of trip disaster and see where you went wrong. And nine times out of ten it's because of bad planning. Somewhere along the line-- and it could have been in the trip write-up, the brochure, or even in the budget. Regardless, after the dy had been cast and you were actually on the trip, your small but significant error multiplied in its progress. It would require an entirely separate document to prepare you for the complex matrix of possibilities, and even that wouldn't be sufficient. It would fall far short-- of predicting the innumerable things that can go wrong on a trip, and for which you MUST be as prepared as possible to deal with. This is the essence of LEADERSHIP!
Pre-Trip Communications
You've written the brochure, your budget has been finalized, "Sierra" is in the mail, and all you need to do is kick back and wait for sign-ups. Right?

Wrong! You have another deadline to meet. Check with your Subcommittee Chair about the latest reservation procedures required by the regulatory agency responsible for your trip. The first thing you discover is that they all differ from each other. In fact it's sometimes so confusing that you suspect somebody must be up all night somewhere, dreaming up these administrative hoops for us to jump through. For example, Kings Canyon has different requirements than Yosemite. Trailhead quotas and Wilderness Permit and Outfitter Guide procedures differ from one National Forest district to the next.

Wilderness Permits Application Procedures. Depending you your roadhead, and on local area regulations, on March 1st you may be required to submit a written application to the local National Forest for your Wilderness Permit. These agencies treat applications on a first-come, first-served basis. And if you need to apply for a wilderness permit, and don't get your application on time, you might find your trip having to move to a different location than the one described in your brochure. In all probability this would go over like a bag of dead mice with most of your trip members! Your application should have the beginning and ending dates of your trip, the location of each campsite, and a description of the route you plan to take each day.
Outfitter Guide Permits
Regardless of our non-profit status, the Sierra Club, and other organizations who charge a fee for their trips (Boy Scouts and YMCA not excluded) are considered "concessionaires," or "outfitters" by the National Forest, and as such are required to have an "Outfitter Guide" permit on file with the National Forest Service for each trip.

At the time of writing, application procedures seem vary from year to year, and from one National Forest district to the next. For instance, there was a time when each leader was responsible for getting the "Outfitter Guide" permit for their trip. The following year the Chair did one blanket "Outfitter Guide" requisition for the entire subcommittee. It might even be different again the year after that.

Check with the Chair! The bottom line here is that as the leader it's largely your responsibility to stay on top of these regulatory agency procedures and not get caught on Day One of your trip. And if you want to get your leadership privileges revoked quicker than a blind bat's blink, try leading a Sierra Club trip in a Wilderness Area WITHOUT a Wilderness Permit, or an Outfitter Guide Permit!
Trip Applicant and Other Pre-trip Correspondence
In addition to all of the above, there's also the correspondence between you and perspective trip applicants, plus your interaction with the Outings Office. First, the trip applicants:

As stated above filling your trip is marketing and sales. And every time someone makes any contact with you, be it a casual phone call, a brief note, or someone you meet on the street asking about your trip, it's a potential sale. Short of putting a twelve-quart pot-sack over their head, don't let any of 'em get away. Every contact could become a trip applicant, and every trip applicant could become a trip member. So follow up on every phone call. Respond to every letter. And when they make a deposit for your trip, or even if they've paid the full amount, stay on top of your communications with them. Long silences from the leader makes trip members nervous and can lead to cancellations.

One way to sustain on-going communications with trip members is through a series of departure bulletins. Consider writing one gigantic departure bulletin containing everything your trip members ever needed to know about backpacking, but don't send it all at once. Send it a piece at a time. In doing so you accomplish two things; First you avoid the long silences, and second you get around the fact that some people don't like to read large gobs of text. And as with your trip brochure, make your departure bulletins lively and informative. It should provide accurate driving instructions to the trailhead, name, address, fax and phone number of the local Forest Service Ranger District, a detailed equipment check-list, and an itinerary providing trip members with some general expectations such as wilderness manners, and kitchen duties.
Don't stop reading, you're not done yet!
There's pre-trip communications and correspondence with the Outings Office. Soon after the January issue of "Sierra" containing the Outings Catalog hits the mailboxes, you get a large packet of documents from your trip reservationist in the Outings Office. Your reservationist is the staff person in the Outings Office who handles all the applications for your trip. You will get to know your reservationist quite well during the entire pre and post trip process. The packet your reservationist sends you contains the following documents:
  1. Sierra Club Outing Department Contact List and Phone Numbers.
  2. "How to Promote Your Trip." A one page list of useful tips.
  3. "What Gets Mailed Out?" A list of all literature sent out to trip applicants.
  4. "Outing Materials Order Form." Various documents and applications you might need as a Leader, plus an order form for letterhead stationary and envelopes.
  5. "Reservation and Cancellation Policy." Familiarize yourself with this.
  6. "Minor Release Form."
  7. "Policy Regarding Leader Screening."
  8. "Outing Department Procedures in Booking "Leader Approval" trips. (Not all trips require Leader Approval. But if yours does, this document describes the leader approval process.
  9. "Staff Roster." A form used for you to submit the names, addresses and phone numbers of every staff member of your trip. Plus how you can be reached during the trip in case of emergency.
  10. "Wee Pak" and "Backpacker's Pantry" Order Forms. To be used when ordering freeze-dried food items for your central commissary. This should go to your Assistant Leader who main responsibility will be the Central Commissary. More on this under Part Two - The Assistant Leader.
  11. General information on "How to Do Your Finances." This includes Out-of-Pocket Expense forms, Expense Advance forms, Request for Vendor/Agency Payment forms, Telephone Charge Recap forms, and After Trip Expense Summary.
  12. A list of all the Finance Officers for the entire Outings Committee, including KS.
  13. Extra copies of your trip brochure.
  14. A copy of the Accident Report form. Read the instructions carefully, and keep the form with you on the trip in a zip-lock bag inside the first aid kit.

Item Number 11 above describes probably the most important documents in the whole packet. Use the Expense Advance form to request money to buy the food and other supplies for your trip. When completing this form, use the numbers from the appropriate line-item on your trip budget, and send it to your Finance Officer at least six weeks prior to the time you need the money. Your finance officer is listed in the packet of information from the Outings Office. (Item Number 12 above.) Use the Request for Vendor/Agency Payment forms for any money you need to send to the regulatory agencies. And at the end of the trip reflect whatever costs you accrued using your own money on the "Out-of-Pocket" expense form. Also at the end of the trip list ALL your trip expenses on the After Trip Expenses Summary form.
Accepting or Rejecting Trip Applicants
In your pre-trip communication with trip applicant you determine that one of them is not suitable for your trip, you have the right and the obligation to not accept them. There are many reasons why someone might not be qualified to go on your trip: In their letters or phone calls to you, it becomes obvious that they are over-weight, or they lack previous experience, or they suffer from a medical problem. These are the common reasons.

Before rejecting a trip applicant, it's best to talk it over with the Chair, and even with one or two other experienced leaders just to get a variety of responses. Chances are you are absolutely correct in your diagnosis, and it's imperative that they not go.

Methods of rejection differ among leaders. Be sensitive to people's feelings. A simple note, or a phone call, with a clear and explicit explanation why they are being rejected, accompanied with a sincere apology is quite acceptable. Some leaders gently discourage unsuitable trip applicants, sometimes even convincing them to cancel off the trip themselves. In such an event however, it's only fair to make sure they don't dunned by the Outings Office for the trip cancellation fee. After all, if they hadn't canceled off themselves, you would have rejected them anyway. Right?

Maybe not! As with everything else there are always exceptions to the rule, and occasionally it turns out that no matter how hard you try to discourage a seemingly unsuitable trip applicant, the more determined they become in their desire to go. In instances like this, especially with applicants who seem only slightly out of shape or lacking experience, one approach might be to accept them on your trip, with the clear understanding that short of a contract written in their own blood, you expect them to work extra hard and keep up with everyone else. Who knows where such a decision might lead. Their experiences on your trip might be a major turning in their life, as it was with mine all those many years ago...

There are other reasons to reject or not reject trip applicants. Sometimes it might be acceptable to refer trip applicants to another trip for which they are clearly more suitable. For example, your trip would be too difficult for them while another trip clearly would not. Last but not least, it's highly ill-advisable to reject someone because you don't like their personality. As the leader you are required at all times to "rise above" petty personality conflicts and remain cool, calm and in charge. If you can not do this, you have no business being a leader!
Attendance at Meetings
The Knapsack Subcommittee holds meetings several times a year. They are attended by the Chair, representatives from the Outings Office, various Subcommittee officers, by old-time and freshman leaders, and by folks interested in getting into the program. Much of the material touched upon briefly in this document is elaborated upon in even greater detail at the meetings, and supported by a wide variety of experienced voices. Stories are swapped, roadheads, trails, cross-country routes and obscure knapsack cols described. The meetings are where it all comes together for you-- especially during the coffee breaks when folks break up into little knots and talk about their trips past, present and future. A wealth of information is disseminated here. Topo maps spread out on tables, phone numbers exchanged, leaders' teams established.

At the Spring meeting, one of the major topics of discussion is backpacking food, while in the Fall meeting, leaders are given the opportunity to describe how their trips actually fared. In short, these meetings is the glue which holds the whole program together, and when you're on the mailing list for the Knapsack Subcommittee, you are sure to be invited. So don't miss out on a golden opportunity to make your presence known.

Part Two: The Assistant Leader.

The First Step
To become a leader or an assistant leader in any Sierra Club National Outings Subcommittee, you must be a member of the Sierra Club, possess a valid Standard First Aid card, and participate in that particular Subcommittee's unique leadership training program. In the Knapsack Subcommittee (KS) potential leaders are also required to serve at least once as an assistant leader.

There are several ways you can become an assistant leader. Generally speaking, an assistant leader is someone who has previously participated as a paying member on a KS trip, (or trips). At some point during a trip they either approached the leader directly with a view to becoming involved in the leadership program, or were observed by that leader as someone displaying that extra calibre of "whatever" which made them stand out as leader potential. Or both.

For instance, not only were they strong backpackers with a good sense of themselves in the mountains, they also displayed an element of compassion and understanding in helping those not as strong as themselves, a quality which is the basic essence of leadership. They also fell to work with gusto and enthusiasm in the kitchen at every meal, even when it was not their turn. They even proved to be quite adept at learning how to work the stoves. In short, they were constantly there to help the leader in innumerable small but significant ways. Clearly they were leader material.

As an assistant leader candidate you might not precisely match this hypothetically perfect description. But being helpful on a trip, and having the desire to know more about the program could at least get you on the Knapsack Subcommittee's mailing list. And being on the list means you get invited to attend the meetings.
The Importance of Attending Meetings
As described at the close of Part One above, these meetings are important to everybody on the Subcommittee roster; experienced leaders, assistants, trainees-- anyone interested in learning how the subcommittee functions, and how the season of KS trips is assembled and launched. But to Leader-trainees and Assistant Leaders, these meetings are more than just "important," they are essential. Even if you have a quarter of a century of experience leading backpack trips for another organization, you still need to attend the regular KS meetings-- if for no other reason than to learn how this Sierra Club National Outings Subcommittee does things.

Besides, at the meetings you get to rub shoulders with other leaders, the Chair and other Subcommittee Officers, meet a few of the Outings Office staff, and... AND ... get a free lunch. If you're alert (and everyone knows we need more lerts) you'll take advantage of this unique opportunity to become part of the process, exposed to a plethora of relevant ideas, philosophies and concepts which you can ultimately incorporate into your own trips once you finally get your hard-earned "sheep-skin union card." Finally, through your participation at the meetings, you either find yourself signed up as an assistant for a backpack trip in the coming season, or invited to participate on the Annual Leader Training Trip.

So once you're on the KS roster, watch your mail for the meeting notices, and BE THERE!
The Annual Leader Training Trip
Once a year, the Subcommittee organizes a nine-day leader training backpack trip, usually to the Sierra. Lead by a team of experienced KS leaders, the trip is structured exactly like a typical KS National Outing. It's not mandatory to participate on this trip, but highly recommended for anyone who's seriously interested in getting started.

On the trip, participants, all potential leaders or assistants, are instructed in every aspect of leadership described in Part One. The theory is now put into actual practice. But it's not all field work. In the weeks prior to the trip, participants get to write Trip Copy, come up with a Budget, write a trip Brochure, and plan a meal. On the trip they also are presented with ample opportunity to futz with the cook stoves, and actually lead the trip for at least one whole day. Last but not least, their performance on the training trip is critiqued both by the staff and by their peers. Bear in mind however, that in performing all the above described tasks, they are exposed to just a few of the innumerable complexities of leadership. If they pursue this path, there's a lot more learning ahead. It's called practical experience and is the best teacher that exists.

In a final note on the training trip it's only fair to explain that in some instances this training and follow-up critique can be a screening out process. Following this show and tell experiences some folks decide to go away never to be seen again.
Basic Duties and Responsibilities of the Assistant Leader
You're on the KS Roster. You've been to a couple of meetings. You've even participated on the Leadership Training Trip. You have your First Aid card, and perhaps attended a couple of extra-curricular Wilderness and Mountain Medicine seminars. And now you find yourself actually assigned to a specific trip as an assistant leader. Congratulations! You're finally at square one. Now you can begin...

Although some people wish to remain assistant leaders for the rest of their lives, traditionally speaking, as the assistant leader you are being groomed to eventually lead your own trip, and your duties and responsibilities are clearly defined. Your major responsibility as assistant leader is the Central Commissary; the full compliment of food and supplies necessary to support a trip for it's duration.

This means preparing menus, organizing, buying, repackaging, and transporting food and supplies to the roadhead. The leader, who is in charge of the trip and it's finances, will request a cash advance from the Outings Office for the amount of money you'll need to buy the food and other supplies. This amount corresponds to a line item on the trip budget. You are required to keep all receipts, and maintain an accounting of all related expenses. These will be included in the leader's post-trip expense report. When you attend the meetings, especially the Spring meeting, you will be deluged with advice on this subject.

As an assistant leader you earn your keep. On the trip you are the first one up every morning, and the last one to bed every night. Upon arrival in camp each afternoon, you make sure each trip member deposits their commissary load in the leader-designated kitchen area before they slope off to set up tents or... whatever! You also designate leader-approved latrine areas, one for men, another for women, ensuring that everyone is familiar with local rules and regulations pertaining to disposal of human waste.
(To burn or not to burn. That is the question... )
The campsite the leader selected can either be an established campsite, or, if travelling cross-country, in an area that is not ecologically fragile. For example, if the group arrives at a lake with a nice crassy green beach below a level but more rockey promentory, the leader will choose the latter to establish the camp, saving the grassy beach from the severe environmental impact created by fifteen stalwart backpackers.

After you stake out your own bed-site, make yourself available to help trip members set up their tents, patch blisters and, outside of performing unnatural sex acts, provide general aid and comfort whenever it's needed. And it will be needed!

You also participate "hands-on" at every meal and relish working with the cook-stoves, even when your fingers are almost frozen to the bone. You supervise cleaning the pots, and make sure the camp is secure before retiring for the night. This includes protecting the commissary from bears and other wee beasties.
Bears have become a major problem in some of the more popular back-country areas in the Sierra. Over the years they have learned that backpackers are a source of food. Bears don't actually eat backpackers, they only want what backpackers carry in their backpacks; food. The problem is so acute that it's now a federal offense in most National Parks or National Forests NOT to bear-proof your food properly! If a passing Ranger discovers that your camp was raided by a bear and they were successful in getting into your grub, you WILL be cited! Some leaders hang their commissary out of trees at night, using an intricate bear-proof system of ropes and carbiners. Other leaders establish territorial rights by urinating all around the pile of food before going to bed. And they sleep next to the food. Your writer has even been known to go as far as punching a bear in the nose in his efforts to protect central commissary from bears. Please don't consider this by any means a standard practice. Our California Brown Bears, although amiable in appearance and nature, can, if they get annoyed at you, whack your arm off in one fell swipe.

One of the annual KS meetings provides an in-depth study on how to bear proof your food. Another good reason why assistant and trainee leaders must attend the meetings.
Fire Rings
A brief word about fire rings. Basically their presence serve no earthly purpose other than to blacken rocks, thereby bringing further blight to an already overly impacted environment. Backcountry rangers have been racking their brains for years trying to figure out why people who arrive at a campsite feel that the first thing they have to do is construct an elaborate fire ring, particularly when there are already half a dozen of them in the vicinity. We can only conclude that, like graffitti, this penchent for making rings of rocks around a fire, is a throw-back to prehistoric cavemen times when we had an explicit need to leave a remnant of our passing, like my cat who likes to shit on my living room rug!

If a fire is permitted at all (your Wilderness Permit will inform you), it should be a small warming fire contained in a shallow pit scraped with the heel of a boot. Use only downed wood, and don't burn plastic trash. Prior to retiring for the evening, ensure the fire is thoroughly extinguished. And when you break camp in the morning, you make sure the site is cleaner than you found it. Break down and scatter blackened rocks from all unnecessary fire rings. Organize a sweep through the site to completely eliminate any inorganic remnants of the group's physical presence, including spent matchsticks, ready-ties, wisps of noodles, and scraps of paper and plastic.
Understanding the Kerosene Cook Stoves
Unless handled with tender loving care, these brass, kerosene-burning Optimus Campstoves can sometimes behave like onrey and contemptible contraptions. Like most camp-stoves, they operate under pressure, with the liquid fuel having to vaporize before it's hot enough to cook with. Before the stoves can be fired they must be correctly fueled, assembled, pricked and primed.(FAPP) Use a funnel when Fuelling the stove, and only fill it two-thirds full, allowing space in the tank for the kerosene to expand when you pump the stove. In Assembling the stoves, make sure the fuel caps and the pressure valves and burner-heads are all "finger-tight" on their finely machined screw threads, and the pot support struts are correctly ensconced in their slots on the sides of the fuel tank. Then Prick the orifice (the jet on the burner-head) with a cleaning needle or pricker. Only when you have done all of the above can you begin the Priming process.

Basically speaking, kerosene is one of the safest stove fuels in existence. Unlike white gas or Coleman stove fuel which can explode in your face, you can take a lighted match and drop it into the raw kerosene, and the liquid will extinguish the flame. In order for the stove to function efficiently with this kind of fuel, the liquid kerosene must be therefore be "heated." The generator, the system of pipes around the burner-head through which the fuel is pumped, is primed (pre-heated) with de-natured alcohol. This is called priming the stove. Here's how it works:

First open the safety valve on the fuel cap HALF A TURN. This is important. If it's closed during the priming process, the stove might start spewing raw kerosene all over the stove. And if it gets hot enough and starts to burn, it can engulf the entire stove in a useless ball of cold yellow flame.

After you've opened the valve, fill the little brass saucer around the base of the burner-head with denatured alcohol from the little plastic bottle which should be in the stove box. Light it. And watch carefully as it burns in a blue flame. The heat produced by this barely visible flame should be sufficient to heat the generator. Only when the generator has been heated will the kerosene you pump from the tank "vaporize" and create the kind of heat necessary for cooking. Wait for the denatured alcohol to almost burn out, then close the safety valve on the fuel cap and give the stove two or three gentle pumps. The kerosene pumped through the orifice should vaporize and burn with a gentle roar. You should see a ring of blue beads burning around the head. Wait about a half a minute then give the stove a few more gentle pumps. See if the blue burn from the head continues, and the roar steadily increases.

If however, at this juncture the stove flares up in a useless, cold, yellow flame, it means you fucked up somewhere. That's how sensitive these stoves are. Quickly open the safety valve half a turn and let the pressure out. (If you open the pressure cap more than half a turn it might fall off and get lost in the dirt.) When the stove has cooled down a bit, try the lighting process again. If you follow instructions and do it right, there is no reason why the stove will not burn the way it's supposed to.

If, during any part of the process the stoves flare up in a ball of flame, instead of panicking, try to reach under the flame and open the valve. Even if you can't do this, the next thing to do is to take a large empty pot and place it over the burning stove. This cuts off the supply of oxygen and the flames will eventually go out. Never pour water on burning keroscent. All this does is scatter flames all over the place, burning people and possibly setting the entire central commissary on fire.

To ensure that they function properly in the field, all stoves are "bench-tested" before being sent out on a trip. However, during a trip a finite number of things can go wrong with them, usually through ignorance on the part of the operator. For instance:
In the repair kit which accompanies each trip, you'll find replacement parts for stoves, including "O" rings, pump leathers, and oil for lubricating these leathers and the pump stem. (Never use margarine or corn oil. They tend to rot rather than lubricate. Instead use these products for whatever unnatural sex acts you wish to perform!)

Once again, attendance at meetings will prove invaluable in learning how to operate the camp-stoves. At these stove seminars, don't be afraid to step forward and try your hand at working the stoves, even if you screw it up a few times and are made to look foolish in front of everyone else. This is how you learn, and you'd better learn before going into the field as the assistant leader. Because in a real live situation you need these stoves to function properly. The life of a somewhat damp and hypothermic trip member sorely in need of hot soup inside him might depend on it.
Dangerous Situations
So far not much has been said about physical danger on these trips. In fact, other than the incredible amount of work and responsibility that goes into leadership, being in the remote back-country leading a group of backpackers, might seem somewhat bland and inoffensive, devoid of all danger. As leaders and trainees we may not be that naieve, but many a beginning backpacker might be. To them, the photographs in slick equipment catalogs depicting healthy young men and women all trussed up in their high-tech gear, seeming relaxed and at ease in a pristine wilderness, might be very misleading, duping them into thinking that the back-country is some kind of blissful Nirvana. In reality, nature is intolerant of ignorance, and danger lurks around you and your trip members every foot of the way. When it strikes it does so quickly and without warning:

One of your trip members can become ill with anything from altitude sickness to a heart attack to acute appendicitis. They can get lost, fall and break a leg, get swept away in a miscalculated river crossing, get swallowed up in an avalanche, or get whacked on the side of a head by a seemingly inocuous rock, which had hitherto lain peacefully for a quarter of a million years on the side of a knapsack pass till innocently kicked loose by an unsuspecting backpacker, and you observe the victim with their head looking like someone dropped a watermelon off the fifteenth floor of the First National Bank.
The combination of possibilities is enormous. The question posed here is, how can we adequately prepare ourselves for all these possibilities? The answer of course is, we can't. But we can pay attention to the old Hindu adage which advises "Go easy, my son. And if you can't go easy, go as easy as you can!" Which loosely translates into being as prepared as we can. A very tall order indeed. Some of this preparedness can come from leadership training, especially First Aid, CPR and Wilderness and Mountain Medicine seminars. You can never get enough of this kind of training. But the fact remains that most of this preparedness comes from experience.
Along these lines, as the official Assistant Leader you may as well know that it would be your job to evacuate a trip member who became unable to continue the trip because of injury or illness. This is because the safety of the group comes first, and in such an event your presence is expendable while the leader's is not. Depending on the situation you may be required to either assist the injured trip member back to the roadhead, or, if they are immobile, hike to the nearest ranger station to get help. You might even have to co-ordinate a helicopter evacuation. This will require you describe in detail the full circumstances of the injured party, and be able to pin-point their exact location accurately on the topo map. And in demonstrating how serious a business this really is, you must also be prepared to assume full responsibility for leading the entire trip in the event that the leader is injured -- or in some other way incapacitated and unable to lead -- like dead!
To Be a Leader, First You Gotta Be a Leader
There you have it then. As you can appreciate, there's a lot more about being a leader or an assistant leader for the Sierra Club National Outings Knapsack Subcommittee than is addressed here. We haven't talked much about First Aid for instance, perhaps the most important topic in Leader Training. But this document is merely an introduction, a very rudimentary primer, a teaser. It makes no attempt to pass you off as qualified in either capacity. The only way to accomplish this is to do as Joseph Conrad prescribes in Lord Jim:
"... to submit oneself to the destructive elements, to tread water with the sharks."
Leaders are not made, they are born. Don't be afraid of leadership. Don't be afraid of taking chances. Don't be afraid of life. In this life there are the leaders and the followers; the doers and the done-unto. If you're not born to leadership, you'll soon find out. We'll soon find out! And no harm done...
Meanwhile, In Conclusion - A Prayer From an Agnostic
The past is behind us. It's history. The future's still ahead. It's a mystery. All we have is the moment, And it's a gift. It's why we call it "The Present." Let me give this moment to you... BE A LEADER!
Good luck and happy trails. See you at a meet'n but I'd rather see you up a mountain.

Patrick Colgan, La Honda California. April 1997

[Patrick died in May 2010. He is dearly missed by all who knew him.]