We’re back from our Pioneer Trek 2018 and it was a blast!
If you’re planning a Pioneer Handcart Trek, here are some brief thoughts on how to have a successful Trek experience.
Wear Pioneer clothing
It’s a pain to make or purchase, but it’s worth it.
- Anything that helps pull you away from modern life makes the experience better.
- You may not love your clothing, but seeing everyone else in period-costume transports you back in time. The other group we trekked with brought young children and purchased or made pioneer clothing for their kids.
- Be practical when you dress. Hiking in a long skirt, especially uphill, is difficult. I had to roll my waistband to shorten my skirt or I’d have tripped going uphill/downhill with a loaded handcart. I should have sewn a shorter skirt, even though I prefer the look of the longer skirts. Second-hand stores usually sell cheap khaki slacks, cheap long-sleeved button down shirts, etc, all of which can be worn as is or altered for a more authentic look. Just make sure you have some pockets because you’ll end up needing pockets. If your skirt doesn’t have pockets, sew a quick pioneer apron-you’ll be glad you did.
Assign Everyone a Pioneer Name
Give every person a pioneer name/identity with that Pioneer’s story. It gets everyone vested in the experience and is a conversation starter. Even if someone is shy, they’ll have something printed in front of them they can read from & use to join the conversation. There are plenty of books with stories of handcart survivors and you can use this site, Tell My Story Too, to see names of all members of the “failed” handcart companies.
Divide into Groups or Families with Colored Bandanas
Have pre-assigned groups or “families” and give each group a designated color of bandana. It’s fun to have your own family bandana and it helps you identify your youth in large groups.
Plan Short Vignettes
Plan vignettes but keep them short. You’ll need to stop for some rest & hydration along your hike and this is a great time to have a few vignettes. Keep the vignettes short, probably no more than three minutes apiece, because no one has an attention span when they’re physically worn out. You can Google resources for names and vignettes. Here are a few stories provided by the LDS Church.
Leave lots of free time
Bring games and other activities for non-hiking, non-meal time, but be flexible. Living in the outdoors & hiking is exhausting and physically demanding. Some people will need more rest & downtime than others. Plan for it but go with the flow.
- Dances that people can learn on-site and enjoy are a great option. For LDS Treks we always do country square dances and line dances, whether that’s historically accurate or not.
- Arts and crafts are great for those who aren’t interested in physical activity the whole time. For our Trek we made friendship bracelets with embroidery floss & a few beads/charms. Any simple craft that doesn’t require a high degree of skill or training will suffice. And if it’s something that can be worn while on the trip, that’s a bonus.
- Games, including those played by our ancestors. Pioneer Treks usually include stick pulls & arm wrestling but ours also included a magnetic chess board & some barrel games & tag.
- Unstructured free time. We had plenty of kids who just sat on a wooden bridge and relaxed as the water flowed by. It was a gathering place to socialize. Kids skipped rocks and cooled off by the stream. They probably created as many memories in their downtime as in their structured time, and enjoyed it more.
- Singing songs from the time period you’re trying to remember is important. This can either be songs about that time period or from that time period.
Plan meaningful devotionals
After our hardest hike, we distributed letters to the youth from their parents (we brought these from home). It’s hard to get parents to write letters to their youth, not because they don’t want to but because it’s hard for parents to make these letters a priority in their busy lives. If you don’t get letters for all the youth you shouldn’t give them out at an organized activity and leave one or two youth without. Fortunately, all our youth received letters so we gave them some quiet time to read them. These parents letters included: Our love for them, the talents and abilities we see in them, our confidence in them, our hopes for them, challenges and difficulties we’ve overcome and our belief they can overcome any obstacle, etc. The youth leaders specifically requested parent letters. They love these letters so it’s worth the extra effort.
After dancing the first night, we divided into families and each family had mini-devotionals. In our family we let the kids tell us about the pioneer they were walking for and tell us anything interesting about that person’s life. Then my husband shared the story of The King’s Highway & the challenge to leave the road better for the next person. We let them choose one stone from a handful of polished rocks and asked them to keep the rock in their pocket and each time they felt it, smile & think of something they were grateful for. We warned them that the next couple of days would be physically demanding and this was a token to help them remember to choose their attitude. Then we opened a bag of Sweet and Sours & let them grab a handful and runoff for the night.
The second night we combined with the other Trek group and they had invited a guest speaker, Brittany Fisher Frank, a former college athlete who fell while rock-climbing. She shared her story and what she’s learned from her fall & recovery. Visit her site to hear her story-it definitely influenced how our youth behaved the rest of the trip and helped them put life in perspective.
After the devotional on the second night, we went back to our own camps and our large group had a devotional. We sang Pioneer songs and shared what we’d gleaned from the Trek. I don’t personally love these handcart reenactments but my 12-year-old son stood up and shared something I thought was nice. He said as hard as these hikes had been for all of us, we’re doing it in great weather (not snow and ice), we start each day with a great breakfast, like french toast, bacon, eggs, & juice or milk, and we have proper gear (hiking shoes, double layers of socks, etc). Then he said, We have everything they wanted their posterity to have. We take it for granted but all their sacrifices paid off and we have the lives they dreamed of their posterity having.
Choose a location with nearby services and medical care
We’ve driven 7 hours to visit the ‘authentic’ Martin’s Cove site in Wyoming. It’s nice to be in the actual site where these people hiked, but not necessary. This time we were only 2 1/2 hours from home, in Hyrum, Utah, at Hardware Ranch, with a Trek guided by the American West Heritage Center (AWHC). Here’s their itinerary. I believe the 3 day Trek, with catered meals, cost around $85/person. We just had to get there, provide our own tents & bedding & water bottles (they had a fresh water supply), and they did the rest. It was worth every penny. We pay an equivalent amount to drive 7 hours to Wyoming and cook our own meals. The extra 2 days of travel makes the Wyoming trip more expensive and preparing our own meals, leading our own hikes, puts much more of a stress load on the leaders. I love kids but don’t want to spend 8 hours in a car with my own kids, let alone someone else’s. Also, we had a few emergencies and needed to get to civilization for assistance. Several children had allergies that made it difficult to hike and one suffered heat exhaustion and needed an IV to stay hydrated so we took him home to rest and recuperate.
Cater your meals if possible
If you can have someone cater your meals, pay for the catering option. It’s a logistical headache to be cooking food for large groups three times a day for multiple days. You either need a dedicated food committee, and this is all they get to do, or you get the event catered. Even if you precook most of your meals, you’ve still got to have tons of coolers, keep refreshing the ice to keep it cool or rent a refrigerated food trailer if you’re on the road, etc. American West Heritage Center used IronGate Catering and honestly, the food was delicious. Our LDS Trek menu included french toast, bacon, eggs, biscuits & gravy, sausage, scalloped potatoes, barbecue chicken, beef stew, rolls, salads, sandwiches, chips, fruit, ice water, punch, milk, juice, & cookies. And it all just magically appeared three times a day. I doubt any of us will ever go back to cooking our own food. I don’t know what IronGate charged American West Heritage Center but our final cost was only $85/person for 3 days and that included the catered food.
Rescue Wagon vs. Starvation
One more idea about food. Don’t insist on historically accurate food. No one wants to live on 4 oz of flour or boil their leather shoes for broth. If you want to convey the idea of hunger/starvation, use the late/misplaced lunches storyline but have a rescue wagon bring your food. The kids guessed they’d be getting lunch when we announced the lunches were misplaced but they also appreciated having a sense of hunger and not being able to immediately satisfy their needs. A thirty-minute delay is plenty, in my opinion. Most of us aren’t signing up to experience Survivor or Alone. Don’t go all hardline if you want a general audience to enjoy the experience.
Pioneer Trek Packing Lists
Give everyone a Trek packing list. On both Treks I’ve attended we were instructed to pack our belongings into a 5-gallon food/paint bucket. You can buy these at a home improvement store. Then you pack a sleeping bag/mattress pad/pillow/coat/extra pair of shoes in a yard & lawn black garbage bag and throw in a couple extra black garbage bags in case yours tears. Then label your bucket and bag. The only other items we have are a small carryon we put our water bottle, bug spray, etc in to carry on our person during hikes. These are always pre-sewn and handed out to every participant. We call them our “possibilities bag” and they include a small journal.
Participants Get to Choose
Let a representative group of the actual participants decide which hikes/activities/etc they will be participating in. Should we have a Women’s Pull? Ask some female leaders and girls who will be the ones doing the pull. If you’re not the one doing the job, you don’t get a vote. Should we have flour sack babies that need to be carried the whole way? Ask the people who will be carrying them. What’s the right number of people to have per handcart? Ask youth who’ve been before. (Honestly, the 15-17 yr old guys do most of the pulling, and they rarely get a break, so I’d say double up the family size so only a third of the group has to push or pull at any given time and then only pack water & essentials in the handcart.) The people who are hiking & pushing & pulling every day should be the ones choosing how these activities will be run.
Accommodations for Physical & Mental Limitations
Assisting those with physical & mental limitations. Pioneer Treks are physically demanding but there are ways to accommodate some disabilities.
- The other group we were Trekking with had something like a jogger stroller but for an adult to ride in and other adults to push & pull. This allowed an adult to ride along and not hike. Some handcarts permit people to ride in them. I don’t remember if Martin’s Cove said we could do that or if the youth just took it upon themselves to do that when they were tired. At Hardware Ranch we were specifically told not to ride in the handcarts and we never did.
- Hiking poles are very helpful. I purchased hiking poles after hip surgery and have made it through many hikes during my recovery. My son has flat feet and wears prescription orthotics. I didn’t think he’d be able to do the 7-mile hike in rough terrain but he used one of my hiking poles (like a walking stick) and took Ibuprofen and was able to take enough weight off his feet he could complete all three days of hiking. Another girl with a knee injury used my other hiking pole and made it through the hikes.
- The other group we trekked with appeared to have a teenager with mental limitations. What we noticed was this teenager needed an assigned guardian the entire time. Even during the dance, this child would disappear. I’m not sure this is a liability any group wants to assume so it would probably need to be a parent or sibling who takes responsibility for a mentally impaired person. Outdoor hiking trips usually have multiple places where someone can drown, fall, dehydrate, etc. and you’d need multiple guardians to take turns helping someone who isn’t able to take reasonable measures to protect themselves from injury.
Not all the conveniences of home
Bathroom facilities are usually primitive. In my experience, it either involves portable toilets or pack in/pack out.
- Portable toilets in the U.S. are usually Honey Buckets or Porta-Johns. These facilities are unisex but we designated one for women only and tied a pink ribbon around one door handle and stashed it with any feminine supplies, trash facilities, and alcohol wipes or other germ-free hand wipes we could find. Some of us just needed a touch of civilization to stay sane.
- Pack-in, pack-out is as bad as it sounds. Sometimes you can bring a shovel and toilet paper but other times you truly have to pack out. Visit a backpacking site for tips. My only recommendation is to know your options beforehand and plan accordingly.
Plan, Prepare, & Stick to the Rules
The best thing about this Trek experience versus my 2002 experience, was this Trek was led by professionals at the American West Heritage Center instead of adults from our own group. We did a lot of planning and preparation ourselves but in addition to that, the professionals had rules we had to sign and agree to abide by. They led the hikes on horseback and had ATVs in case someone needed to be pulled out. Any time I camp/hike with people, we get physically and mentally exhausted and we make poor decisions but don’t recognize why things have gone awry till we’re physically and mentally rested & recovered. For example, on our last day, some well-meaning leaders took half the water off the handcarts to lighten the load. The AWHC leaders insisted the water be put back on (as agreed to in the contract we signed) or we couldn’t Trek that day. The leaders who took the water off weren’t even hiking. They just wanted to lighten the load and get an early start on packing things up. In 2002, when we led our own hike at the real Rocky Ridge, we got stuck at the top of a ridge in a lightning storm. It was dangerous. It was slick to hike down wet rock with handcarts and dangerous to be the tallest thing on the ridge during a lightning storm. Rested, trained professionals make better decisions than the rest of us so plan and prepare but defer to the pros and follow their recommendations.
Small Doses of Reality, Please
My last bit of opinionated advice is to aim for a small dose of historical accuracy, not full-blown reality. I’m strongly opposed to the idea that we need to “break” the youth. And by that I mean the idea some leaders have of breaking the youth down physically and mentally so we can build them back up the way we want them to be. Treks aren’t intended to be an intervention for troubled teens and shouldn’t be treated as such.
The American West Heritage Center in Hyrum, Utah was fun, took the stress off our group leaders, and still gave our youth the time to disconnect from modern life and appreciate what their ancestors were willing to endure to provide a better life for their posterity. As a leader, I had a much better trekking experience with AWHC than I had in the trek we ran at Martin’s Cove, primarily because AWHC did much of the leader work so we could focus on having fun with the kids. We had lots of downtime and unstructured time on this Trek and the youth loved it. The youth went home tired but happy which to me is a success.
If you’re planning a Trek or other heritage reenactment, I hope it’s fun! Below is a pinnable image you can save to your Pinterest boards for future reference. Best in your research and summer plans!