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Hiking and Trail Guides

Hiking and trail guides can make otherwise forbidding hikes accessible.

Hiking with a guide helps develop outdoor skills. [©Jupiter Images, 2009]
©Jupiter Images, 2009
Hiking with a guide helps develop outdoor skills.

Hiking and Trail Guides

Hiking and trail guides can help even a novice have a positive hiking experience, whether completing a day hike through the Grand Canyon or a month-long trek along the Appalachian Trail. In general, hiking and trail guides are local experts who take vacationing groups to secluded places they may never discover on their own. More importantly, trail guides help hikers stay safe by teaching them how to walk over rough terrain and avoid potential hazards.

Aside from their roles as teachers and safety officers, hiking and trail guides can tailor an excursion to meet the interests and match the skills of the individual, group or family who has contracted their services. In many cases, hiking and trail guides also take care of planning the trips logistics, a task that can include reserving overnight huts, choosing camping sites, and having food and supplies shipped forward to specific points along the trail (the latter is usually required only for long-distance treks).

What Hiking and Trail Guides Do

As the National Outdoor Leadership School points out, outdoor skills are developed with time and practice. Inexperienced hikers can begin developing their skills with the help of a knowledgeable guide and at least three to five days on the trail. Vacationers strapped for planning time prior to their trip may also choose to hire a guide, as might hikers who want some extra company and support on the trail.

Certified hiking guides are trained in leadership, hiking and climbing techniques, environmentalism, risk management and client care. They are experienced hikers who keep current on the latest trends in hiking, which can include types of terrain, apparel, footwear and gear. As a bonus, hiking guides are often knowledgeable about the flora, fauna, geology and natural history of their area, which can make hikes pleasantly educational.

Hiking and trail guides also offer companionship on the trail, which can give hikers the emotional boost they need to overcome the trek's physical demands. Good guides are also skilled camp cooks, level-headed leaders in emergencies and creative problem solvers (all of which are good skills to have in the backcountry).

Though not required, many guides strictly follow Leave No Traces principles to ensure the best outdoor experience for both current and future hiking groups.

Places to Go With a Hiking or Trail Guide

Any trail can be fun to hike with a professional guide leading the way, but customers will get the best value for their money by using a guide on trails that they would be unable or unwilling to hike by themselves. As a starting point for choosing a route, hikers can check Trails.com, which maintains an up-to-date list ranking the top hiking destinations in the country. As of 2009, the top three are the Breakneck Ridge Trail in upstate New York, Glacier Gorge in Rocky Mountain National Park and the Pinnacle in the Appalachian Trail.

Alternatively, hikers can work with a guide to determine the best route for their trip based on their interests, fitness levels and prior outdoor experience. In some cases, a local outdoors or sporting goods store can recommend an experienced guide to help hikers plan their excursion, but many times conducting a simple search through a guide organization, such as the American Mountain Guides Association, will yield the best results.

Screening a Hiking or Trail Guide

Before putting down a deposit on a trip, savvy hikers should interview potential guides to determine whether they are worth hiring. Although it is important for hikers to get along with their guides, there are other factors to consider, including the following:

  • The guide's certifications, including CPR, first aid and other general safety skills
  • The guide's fees
  • The guide's experience, especially as a leader on past hikes, treks and expeditions
  • The guide's reputation among other hikers and guides in the area
  • The guide's knowledge of the trail and the general area

While there is no gold standard for trail guides, hikers might consider avoiding those who seem reluctant to answer questions about their experience, safety qualifications or fee structure. Judging guides based on their reputation can be unfair, especially in areas where competition for business is fierce, but it is good to keep in mind nonetheless.

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