The Wetfoot Blog

Monday, February 25, 2013

Managing Expectations for Wilderness Trip Leaders

Leading a great wilderness trip with youth requires checking some of your expectations at the door and taking hold of those that are doubtful to change. By the time you start the trip, youve already put a lot of time and effort into ensuring you have the proper training, set goals and benchmarks to reach them, performed research on the area you will travel and learned its history. Youve envisioned what your trip will look like, the successes, challenges, how your group will get along, and how finishing the trip will feel.

The difficulty with setting any expectations is keeping them. After all, you will also need to meet the expectations of the participants, their parents, and the organization that you work for. The odds of feeling successful after a trip will increase dramatically if you work to meet the expectations that are not likely to change, persuade those that have set their expectations too high to lower them, and to alter your own if necessary. First, we will identify key expectations of a trip leader by multiple parties and in a subsequent post we will discuss ways in which to be proactive in aligning expectations of your trip group.

Organizational Expectations
The organization you work for will undoubtedly train you to perform in a way that meets their mission and vision. The training will include lessons on policy, procedures and guidelines to ensure consistency within the program. You will be prompted to use good judgment in order to lead safe trips and to utilize the resources provided to you. These expectations are steadfast and must be met in order to keep your employment. Meet these first and foremost as they have lasting effects on the ethos of the organization and set the groundwork to meet the expectations for everyone else.

Parental Expectations
Parents will also expect certain things from their child's trip leader. This may be the first time they say goodbye to their loved ones for an extended period of time. They will pray their child is safe and treated similar to how they would treat them. They are expecting that the leader is a positive role model and makes their child feel special. The child should also return home having had a fun and enriching time. These are held by nearly all parents and should be met without reservations. Of course there are the parents that have many more expectations than this, some of which are lofty and indeed unobtainable. Other expectations should be taken into consideration by the trip leader but shouldnt provoke feeling a sense of failure if they are not met, for you most likely made a huge impact having met those listed above.

Participant Expectations
Then there is the participant. A young child or growing teenager, they are full of expectations, wonder, excitement, and trepidation for their wilderness excursions. This is uncharted territory, a place outside of their comfort zone and a chance for tremendous growth. They will want whatever their imagination can fathom. From sleeping until mid-afternoon with the lack of parental supervision to sitings of rare wild animals in a natural surrounding they are not accustomed to, theyve thought of everything.

 Within those hopes and dreams will be hidden three consistent expectations: Make me feel part of the group, make me feel valuable by listening to my ideas and answering my questions, and make sure I have fun. As a leader, your job will be guiding those other personal and grand expectations of the participants to ensure they feel satisfied with the trip. This can be easier said than done and will require you to be proactive. More on this in a future post.

Personal Success
There are expectations worth holding onto as a leader. Having a fun trip where participants take ownership and maintain great group dynamics has high value. Holding yourself to maintain good judgment, lead a safe trip, build character, develop leadership qualities and to be empowering should be in every trip leader's agenda. You need to have your own mission, a purpose for why you do what you do. It should be an expectation of yours to meet that mission and if you are not doing what it is you want to be doing, then quit. No use in wasting yours or your participant's time on something you are not invested in. That being said, these are expectations that you can hold yourself to as a measurement of your personal success
Establishing a way in which to communicate both participant and leader expectations will give you a chance to align said expectations and frame the experience. It is unwise to hope that participants will alter their expectations to meet yours. In fact, you will more times than not be let down and feel short of running a successful trip. Instead, learn what it is that they want  out of the trip and work to meet those expectations. Remember that the organization you work for has developed a mission for you to work towards and parents will want the very best for their children. Awareness of these challenges is the first step in leading a great trip. 

Ryan Wagner is the Wilderness Program Director at Camp Manito-wish YMCA. If you are interested in writing for The Wetfoot, please email your interest to

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