On organized hikes, the sweep is the individual who comes last in the group, trailing behind to ensure that no one gets lost. The sweep for a large group of hikers may be the first person who knows that someone has a nasty blister, has become dehydrated, or has overestimated their ability to complete the hike.
Most good leaders try hard never to lose sight of the rear of their group, but sometimes, with a large group, the hike breaks into fast and slow ends, making life for leaders and co-leaders complicated. So the role of sweep is more than a tail-end Charlie. The sweep may become the default leader of the rear end of the hike and needs to know the trail and destination.
As the sweep and co-leader for one of my closest friends and mentor, I always carried extra water, first aid supplies, food, and toilet paper. Of course, you hoped for the best but planned for the worst. Typically, my sweep role was to watch out for someone who needed a “station break” to go to the bathroom or just needed to amble along at a slower pace. Providing the odd shoelace or water happened also. Sometimes My job was to escort hikers to where the cars were staged because they could not complete the hike.
Then, the hike leader miscalculated a hop between boulders on Mount Katahdin and broke his hip. I became the leader on the spot, detailed individuals to notify the rangers, and stabilized my friend in place until we organized the Alpine Rescue.
So why did I do sweep year after year? When the leaders discussed who was doing what on the hike, I always chose to sweep. Well, I had an ulterior motive for this. I had noticed that when group sizes get above five or so people, the hike gets loud in the woods. So loud that any chance of seeing wildlife drops to zero. Birds go silent, and small mammals fade into the woods.
I discovered that by dropping back a bit further than expected, the routine of the forest returned. I heard the loons on the lake, the chattering of squirrels arguing, and saw the birds flitting through the woods. It was as though they were saying, “it’s safe to come out. Those idiot primates are gone!”
So next time you go on a hike, don’t pity the sweep way to the rear. Envy the sweep. While the rest of you are chattering away, only the sweep gets the experience that drew you to the woods.