When Am I Being Helpful? When Am I Just Annoying?

Saturday, Sprocket and I climbed Uncompahgre Peak. It was a gorgeous fall day although I ran into five other groups of hikers on the trail—it was just a hopping place! (Seriously, how am I ever going to hike 14ers closer to Denver?!?)

All kidding aside, I want to talk about unprepared hikers. You know the ones I’m talking about…

This time, it was a pair of well coiffed, expensive (non-athletic) sunglass wearing people. Neither was wearing a pack and they had matching expensive looking polished walking sticks. Music was playing from someone’s phone and neither was wearing a jacket. Later in the parking lot I discovered they were driving a rental jeep.

The forecast for the day called for a strong chance of thunderstorms in the afternoon and the breeze on top of Uncompahgre had been more than a little bit chilly (it took me a mile or so of brisk downhill hiking to really warm back up).

Curious as to what these people were up to, I asked them where they were headed. I figured it would be presumptuous of me to assume that they were headed for the peak. The woman pointed up at the unmistakable hulk of Uncompahgre. “Are we about half way?” she asked.

Taking in the whole tableau, all that could come out of my mouth was a very emphatic, “No.” Her face fell and her hiking partner asked, “So how far are we?” I told them they were at best a quarter of the way (turns out they were closer to a third…but with only a quarter of the elevation accomplished).

They looked at each other and appeared to be ready to press on and I felt that I just had to say something. I pointed up at the innocent looking clouds that were beginning to gather. “There are thunderstorms predicted for this afternoon. Those clouds weren’t there an hour ago, please keep an eye out. You’ll be the highest point around up there and lightning isn’t something to mess with.”

They looked annoyed. I’d pretty much been a dream crusher, so I mostly understood. “Have fun but watch the weather,” I said, bidding them adieu. I hoped they would get tired before they tangoed with weather (although the weather seemed to stay nice for several hours more). I hoped they’d enjoy their day in the mountain with our without a summit.

Experienced hikers, how do you handle running into someone who might be getting in above their head? How about someone definitely above their head?

Inexperienced hikers, how can someone offer a bit of advice without being rude or ruining your day? Or is that possible?

I feel like I have a decent handle on the risks entailed in most of my outdoor activities. I get annoyed when those who have less experience try to tell me how dangerous something is. I wouldn’t tell Steph Davis that soloing the Diamond is a dumb idea. She knows how dangerous it is and makes her choice accordingly. So is it ever okay to say something to someone? Is it selfish that I don’t want to hear about someone I could have spoken to making a dumb choice on the trail?

I try to err on the side of polite, direct, and factual.

19 Replies to “When Am I Being Helpful? When Am I Just Annoying?”

  1. I think it’s good for society for you to weigh in. If someone really knows what they’re doing, they should have the confidence to express themselves. “I appreciate it, we’re aware of the risks though” etc. People need to stop being so damn precious about their choices haha.

    Also…it helps that you’re a woman, to be honest. I’d definitely bristle more at an older dude trying to help me. It’s all in the tone, though.

  2. I think I’d appreciate a bit of advice, as long as it was told in a not snobby/condescending tone. (And it sounds like your tone was great.) I’d also probably ignore it in the moment, and push ahead anyway, but it would also make me feel better about turning back early or slowing my pace, or whatever, later on down the line.

    Like, in that situation, I would likely have kept going, but maybe a mile on if I was feeling tired, I would have said, “You know, if we’re not even half-way there and it might start raining, maybe we should enjoy this view and then head home.” Where as if you hadn’t said anything, I would feel more obligated to finish it?

    (Also, for myself giving “expert” advice to others, because grammatical help is not really a life-or-death situation, I just wait until someone asks, but if they ask, I don’t hold back.)

      1. I didn’t expect them to turn around at all! It was still pretty nice outside (and actually it stayed fairly nice for hours) but I wanted them to “be aware of their surroundings” (oh my mother’s phrase that I use all the time!) and actually know what they were: storm clouds, altitude, winds, etc.

  3. I agree that it is fine, fun, and helpful to make conversation about the current weather, trail conditions, distance, general mileage, etc. But sometimes looks can be deceiving about someone’s experience on the trail or in the mountains if it doesn’t match your preconceived notions.

    I used to lead an ultralight backpacking group, and recall one cold trip where we ran into a crotchety old man with a giant pack who had something new to say to each of us as we passed by essentially along the lines of we didn’t know what we were doing, “you better have a zero degree bag!” “I’ve seen two people carried off by hypothermia!” and other ominous warnings. It was annoying but also humorous.

    We were absolutely fine and totally prepared–but our tiny packs and light hiking clothes (to move fast) didn’t match his conception of an overnight backpacking trip. “The General” became somewhat of a well known entity that lived on in later trips.

    In our stories he eventually became the “Yer all gonna die!” guy that provided countless laughs around camp.

    1. I’m okay with people who know what they’re doing laughing at me. I don’t know (nor do I particularly care) and they’re not in danger. And I don’t mean to JUDGE the inexperienced, ’cause dude, I’m so happy they’re out doing something.

      I’d just rather tell the random person who gets it but just happens to be out hiking in jeans and a t-shirt one day to be careful up there (ahm, sometimes that’s me) than ignore the person in jeans and a t-shirt who has no clue that turn into bad news.

  4. As an older dude, I try to be as helpful as possible. I guess informative, rather than condescending.

    But a young girl in a bikini top was scaling a ridge at sundown, without water. It was an 80F day, but it was going to drop to the low 40’s once the sun went down. I just let her know it was going to get really dark and chilly in the next half hour.

    On the same hike, I saw group hiking up the same steep ridge. The only liquid anyone of them had was some Fanta at the bottom of one guy’s plastic bottle. “Is this the way to the waterfall?” My mind wanted to say, “Of course the waterfall is at the top of this exposed ridge. That’s where waterfalls are always found! Not up the obvious creek you had to cross to get here.” But I just said, “The waterfall is down below, up the creek, but it’s a challenging bushwhack.”

    Like Beth, I always wish them a great hike and mean it.

    But unprepared hikers is one reason why I avoid the front country when I can.

  5. Ugh, Will and I debate this all the time, especially with high altitude weather! We were in RMNP coming down from Tyndall Glacier, and we were hauling– trying to outrun the black clouds that were quickly moving in. We fortunately got below tree line before the thunder and lightning began, but we were astonished to see people hiking UPWARDS, towards the summit, in the middle of a lightning storm. With 2 or 3 recent deaths in the park due to lightning strikes, we assumed they HAD to know better. In situations like that, we had no idea what to do– obviously, the weather sucked and was dangerous– but they could see that too. So do you insert your opinion when it’s unsolicited?! Still not sure I have a good answer.

    1. I kind of feel like I have to give my opinion to feel like I’ve covered my tail. I’d feel so bad if I just shrugged and didn’t care about my fellow human getting themself into trouble.

      And it really is the high altitude weather thing!! I’ve been on ridges in lightning (even sort of understanding how to avoid it!) and it was scary! I don’t wish that on any unsuspecting person.

  6. I’m always amazed at how unprepared many dayhikers are. Sure there might be an experienced hiker mixed among them, but for the most part it doesn’t seem that most of them have a lot of experience or understand the risks of some hikes. I have two friends who had to rescue an unprepared person who was trying to summit a mountain in, I think it was Idaho. The person was going up as they were going down and when my friends got down to the trailhead they had a nervous feeling about that person, so the male half of the duo decided to go back, almost halfway up the mountain—and of course the person was out of water and in need of assitance down. I believe they ended up coming down in the dark, too.

    I think it’s always better to at least warn someone of a potential risks so that they can weigh the risks themselves, at least give them that nagging feeling in their head to make the right decision.

  7. When we were taking a guided kayak tour we launched at a place where the low tide created mudflats, so you had to only launch at high and be back in time otherwise you could lose a shoe and sock and maybe more to the mud trying to walk your kayak in.

    As we were loading up to leave a family was getting ready to launch. My guide asked them what their plans where, just as you did, and then told them that in 20 minutes that whole section would be mudflats, that they shouldn’t launch until X time later that day, or wait until tomorrow. Maybe it was different because she was clearly a paid guide, but the family took it swimmingly and just packed up and left.

    Now then, my idea of a “hike” is mostly just walking in pretty areas. If I am willing to pay for sticks, then I better know what the fuck I’m doing. If I don’t know what I don’t know, I would greatly appreciate the headsup. Especially about needing a jacket, especially about distance, especially about safety and weather. Whether or not people are going to be D-bags, you cannot control. I would never be. Personally, it would have helped me adjust my expectations for the day and then learn better for the future.

    You’re a good person. Everyone should be as informative and kind. <3

  8. I’ve been on both sides of this — the tourist heading up when I should NOT have been and the more experienced hiker chatting about weather with tourists. I think there is a VERY FINE line between offering advice and being pretentious about it. I think what you did is the ‘good advice’ side of that line — you warned them of the risks and then bid them on their way without any worst case scenario scare tactics. When they got further up, got tired, realized how far they really had to go or heard thunder they had the opportunity to put two and two together on their own — then make their own decision with your help, even if you weren’t there at the moment.

    That’s the kind of advice I appreciated getting on the trails…and that’s the advice I’d actually listen to. If you get all dramatic/worst case scenario with me I’ll just ignore you, but I’m a stubborn problem child like that.

  9. Thanks for voicing this topic – it seems a bit like an elephant on the trail when hiking in popular places with less-experienced people. I really get mad when I see adults leading children into dangerous situations… really swimming in rivers above hundred foot waterfalls?! This is a not your life to throw away! On the other hand, less experienced people have the most to gain from enjoying nature too. I don’t want to scare them off of the trail.

    That said I trend towards over polite, but attempting to planting a seed of knowledge. I like how you mentioned the specific storms that could arise. Hopefully once these hikers were aware of the potential danger they could quickly identify and react to it.

  10. I’m a firm believer in the school of hard knocks. They’ll figure it out when they’re cold and miserable.

    Of course, if it’s a life and death situation like Heather describes, or if it’s blatantly obvious people are not prepared and serious weather is rolling in (not just, “oh it might get cold once the sun goes down.”), I’ll give them a straight-forward heads up. If they listen to me, great. If not, it’s the hard knocked life for them, and my conscious is clear.

  11. I figure I have to live with myself for my actions for the rest of my life so I decide with that in mind.

    I can live pretty easily with someone thinking I was rude if I know I meant them nothing but good.

    I can’t live with sending them into harms way without a warning if I knew better.

    I was a campground host at the Mt Elbert campground (the highest peak in Colorado) and I warned every camper about altitude sickness and lightning. I just felt an obligation.

  12. This is obviously super tricky. No one likes getting called out on being ill prepared/in over their head. We also want to make sure the outdoors feel accessible to people.

    I think you handled it fairly well. Verge on factual and brief and let them make up their mind. We’re all adults here and unfortunately that means letting people take their own risks.

  13. I think you were spot on how you handled it. Like many have said, there’s a fine line. I know that since I’m somewhere in the middle with my experience I’m appreciative of those that provide me insight, knowledge, and feedback!

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