The Trail Leader can make or break a trail ride. Done right, they are not just the person in the lead, but also someone who steps up and agrees to make everyone's trail ride safe, and fun, and hopefully, help make it something everyone will want to do again. For those who do it right and put others above themselves, the reward is a great trail ride, the respect and trust of your fellow wheelers, and a lot of fun. Anyone can drive in front of other vehicles. But, being a good Trail Leader, for a 4x4 club, takes a little more than just being out front.
Here are some thoughts on how to do it well.
Off-Road Experience: As a Trail Leader, you do not need to be the most experienced wheeler in the group, let alone the craziest or most aggressive one. You should, however, be proficient enough off-road to lead the group over the particular trail safely. Recognize the obstacles where the inexperienced wheelers may require assistance. Then, provide it. Treat the safety and enjoyment of those following you as at least as important as your own.
Things to keep in mind: Make an effort to know about any trail closures or restrictions. In Montana, this will usually be a call to the Forest Service or BLM. For example, during the summer areas may be closed for logging operations or road maintenance. In the winter, there are seasonal closures on many trails. It is poor form to lead 15 rigs to a “Trail Closed” sign and have to turn back. During fire season, check on any fire restrictions. Will they allow the group to have a fire, or should a cold lunch should be planned? Keep in mind that County, State, and Federal lands often have different or even conflicting rules, including fire bans. A phone call to the correct agencies can eliminate embarrassing issues. Here, in Montana, this will usually mean calling the Forest Service or the BLM, offices for the area you will be wheeling in.
Know the trail: When possible, have driven the trail once or twice. Know where the parking, air-up, and air-down locations are. Pick out a good spot for lunch and as rest areas. Some trails have a lot of spots to stop and "playing it by ear" works. However, on others, once you miss the good spots, there may not be others handy for some time.
With that said, time for a dose of reality. The reality is, knowing a trail is just not always possible. Everyone has a first time on any given trail and sometimes everyone in the group is new to it, too. However, as a Trail Leader, you should do what you can to learn about the trail. Check what maps you can. Get whatever information you can from other off-roaders more experienced with that trail. Do whatever you can to ensure a good, successful, and fun trail ride for the group.
Set the group up for success and safety: It won’t always make everyone happy but can be a good idea to set the placement of certain vehicles in the group's lineup. For trails or conditions with a high probability of people getting stuck, alternate the rigs with winches with those without. Consider assigning an experienced wheeler to buddy-up with a new wheeler. Also, consider placing the slowest drivers in the front of the line-up so they can't easily get far behind. My experience is, the newest drivers almost always want to be in the very back. If you can help it, don't let that happen. That is not a good place for the newest, least experienced driver. An inexperienced wheeler is not what you want or need as the group's rear guard (aka: Tail-Gunner).
Keep the group together: (as much as possible) This sounds easier than it is sometimes and may seem like herding cats on some rides. However, the safety and enjoyment of the participants can hinge on it. This is not just limited to when “in the dirt”, but should be from when you gather, through the convoy to the trail, and until the full group disperses after the ride is done. A good Trail Leader will ensure EVERYONE is ready to go before pulling out of the gathering area and/or the trailhead. If airing-down is not finished or there are still hoods-up, then offer help to accomplish whatever is holding things up...but, never leave a member behind. Not at the beginning. Not in the middle. And not at the end of the trail. Everyone gets home safe...right?
Periodic stops for a quick stretch of the legs can help the tail end catch up to the lead vehicles, lets the newbies catch their breath, and can add to the overall enjoyment of the group. Before the ride begins, let the group know that each member is responsible for the vehicle behind them and, if they lose visual contact for more than about 1 minute, they should stop. If they stop, so should those in front and eventually, you. Promote the buddy system. No rig should go off by itself.
Communication can be key: Before you leave the gathering point, make sure everyone knows the plan. Let everyone know where to meet next if, for some reason, people get separated from the group during the drive. Remind everyone to be a good trail-buddy and watch out for others, especially the rig behind them. Do they all have radios? Does everyone know what frequency or channel to use? Did everyone do a radio check BEFORE heading out? Knowing or checking on these things can make your job as Trail Leader considerably easier and everyone safer.
Letting everyone know when other users are on the trail can be a great safety boost for everyone. Are hikers, horses, dogs, or other off-roaders on the trail? Let people know. If a gate needs to be closed when the last rig passes, let the Tail-Gunner know. If there is a problem, don't leave everyone guessing about it, let people know what is going on. We have radios...use them.
Be considerate of others you encounter: Always promote proper trail etiquette and TreadLightly! Model good trail manners like sharing the trail and being friendly. A Trail Leader’s behavior is often mimicked by those following you. Pass others slowly and safely. It should not just be about who has the “right of way”. When you can, be the first one to pull over and let the others get past. When a faster group comes up behind you, encourage your group to find a safe spot to let them pass. That is another time when a well-chosen Trail-Gunner is imperative. Once again, good communications will be the key.
Make an effort to KNOW if there are issues in the group. Periodically confirm with your Tail-Gunner that everyone is moving or has left a gathering point. Should the group slow down, or can it speed up? At the end of the trail, a good Trail-Leader will ENSURE everyone is safely off the trail, and able to head home. It is the job you are signing up to do.
Being a good trail leader is about THEM, not about you. Now go out there and lead. And, of course, have fun and Wheel Safe!!