Planning for a large group

There are few wilderness trips better suited to large groups than canoe camping on the Wisconsin River. But you’ve got to get there first. Throughout many years of guiding and organizing large groups (up to 72 people), I know all too well how much of a hassle it can be. What follows are some potential strategies you can use to get your group organized and prepared so that when the day comes, everything runs smoothly and you can finally sit back and enjoy the trip.

Commiting to a trip

Nothing says “I’m not gonna bail on this trip” like handing over money. I highly recommend collecting payment up front, even if just a deposit, in order to know if people are serious about coming (Venmo, Paypal, Cash, etc are all great). In fact, we require full payment at time of reservation for exactly this reason. This way, when the day comes and the time has passed for refunds, you’re not left paying for an empty boat because Karen flaked. Come on Karen.

As a quick add-on, having a firm deadline is extremely helpful for those that tend to procrastinate. I’d say about a month prior is pretty ideal in that most people shouldn’t have a problem putting it on the calendar a month early, but you’ve still got time to get a reservation in before we’ve sold out (assuming weekend in July/August).

The full payment at time of reservation may also be a bit daunting if you’ve got a big group. Certainly this isn’t a big deal if your group members have already paid up but what if you’re still in the early stages and you’re aiming for a peak weekend that will sell out? If you’re not ready to commit to a trip now, that’s okay! You can always reserve exactly as many boats as you need and then add more as people commit. We take reservations/adjustments up until 48 hours before trip departure.

If you’re worried about availability, our inventory above is updated in real time so you can always check back to see if we’re running low on boats. And when we start running low, that is a great message to push your fence-sitters towards committing. Generally speaking, it’s better to start conservatively and add boats as needed rather than go too high and end up paying a bunch of admin fees for cancelled boats.

Booking as a group or individually

You may want to have people book independently. As long as everyone knows the trip length and departure time/date, they can book their own boats and you will all be on the same shuttle. It’s moderately helpful if the reservation notes the group name but it’s not necessary. If one person is managing the reservations for the entire group our system applies automatic discounts since we’re only handling a single point of contact/transaction/etc.

It’s about 50/50 for group organizers choosing to avoid the hassle of collecting money and getting reimbursed vs losing the group discount to have everyone book their own trip. Either option is perfectly fine by us (and priced accordingly).

First Timers

Many of our groups have been coming for years and it’s been fun to watch them grow in size as newbies are brought on. They’ll typically have a lot of questions and be a little apprehensive. I recommend directing them to our canoe camping guide for a quick rundown on what to expect, our river safety page for obvious reasons, and then the FAQ page for just about anything else.

Safety Concerns

Again, the River Safety page is a great place to cover the basics. Specific to large groups, it’s surprisingly easy for the first boat and last boat to spread out so far that communication is impossible. It’s a great idea to make sure everyone is on the same page when starting out on the water. That can be as strict as “always stay within shouting rage” to “meet for lunch at this point on the map”.

The biggest issue I run into with large groups is that the stragglers end up with all of the beer (but also the cooking supplies, tents, some other crucial piece of gear). And the corollary, the guys that think they’re in a race will find the perfect sandbar – you’ll get to it an hour later, after dark, when you finally catch up.

Packing

Standard packing lists apply. The thing for big groups to worry about is assigning who has what. You won’t need 14 camp stoves but will probably be short on tents. Get a spreadsheet going before you send out that first email and find out what people have available to bring. Google Forms is fantastic for collecting everyone’s information and what they can bring or contribute to the group.

Planning group meals is usually the easiest way to do food prep. The caveat here is that someone has to be willing to make the menu and do all of the group shopping before the trip. If you have that person in your group, lavish them with praise and cocktails, it’s an annoying job. Also, shopping with a group of friends sounds fun, and can be, but expect the grocery bill to go higher than if one person does the shopping. I don’t know why it happens, but extra everything will be thrown in ‘just to be safe’ and you’ll have a ton of food on the trip that won’t get eaten.

It’s also pretty ideal to have everyone contribute $20/day towards food when they’re also reimbursing you for the boat rental. At that point, all money issues are dealt with and the point person on food already has the money to spend and any extra can either go towards gas for drivers or refunded to the group after everything has been accounted for. It’s a lot more fun to get a few dollars back at the end of the trip than spend that time trying to track down an ATM, trying to add up all of the expenses, etc. Or worse, if you’re the person being reimbursed for food, keeping track of which of 20 people have paid you.

On the day of your trip

The biggest thing people have to know is that we’re serious about our shuttles leaving on time and big groups are slow. Give yourself at least a half hour buffer time when leaving home. Have the group meet at the river landing where you’ll start your trip. That way everyone can unload at their leisure and take their sweet time. As soon as the cars are empty, the drivers can head down to the river landing in Spring Green to park, hop on the bus, and get right back up to the group. I can’t stress how much hassle this will save versus planning to have everyone ride our shuttle buses with the unloading, reloading, unloading again. There are more details on this on the driving directions page (and will also be in your confirmation emails).

On the river

At this point, it’s not much different from any other river trip. The only thing you might want to do, and this is more crucial the larger your group, is assign specific jobs to people. Cooking duty, dishes, firewood collection, volleyball net setup, etc.