My first backpacking trip was a family hike to a trail shelter in Shenandoah National Park in the early seventies. My brother and I carried frame-less canvas backpacks with webbing shoulder straps that my dad padded with upholstery foam. I don’t recall much else about the gear we used because my brother and I were much more interested in the creek near the shelter.
From that point on, I was hooked.
When I became a Scouter I knew that backpacking was an exciting, skill building, Patrol strengthening, activity for my Scouts. We’ve been backpacking at least once a year since I became our Scoutmaster in 1984.
Reducing everything you will need to live for a couple of days to what you can comfortably carry on your back is a test of skill, and planning ; it challenges our moral, physical and mental abilities. There are a few misconceptions that dissuade some troops from building backpacking into their program:
New Scouts are not strong or experienced enough to go backpacking.
Plan for the least experienced and set a goal that everyone can achieve. It’s not about the miles you cover, it’s about Scouts successfully challenging the activity. We want Scouts who are eager to challenge a tougher trail than Scouts who are discouraged after enduring an ordeal.
Backpacking requires specialized expensive gear.
There’s a lot of expensive gear out there! Backpacker’s love to discuss gear, and manufacturers are eager to sell it, but you don’t need it. The gear you take on every camp out, if chosen properly, can be used for backpacking.
There’s no place near us to go backpacking.
While one of the great things about backpacking is gaining access to the back country where cars can’t go, you can go backpacking nearly anywhere. It may not be a remote or strikingly beautiful location in the depths of a wilderness, it may not be even be on a “backpacking” trail, but there’s someplace you can go. Many Scout camps, state and local parks have a system of trails that may not be commonly used by backpackers. With a little imagination and planning you can put together a backpacking experience somewhere nearby.
Three Steps to Planning Your First Backpacking Trip
1. Selecting the Route
Trail guides and maps for well-used trails are available online, from local equipment dealers, state agencies and libraries. Guides are updated infrequently and trail conditions change often; be sure to use the most current information available.
If you don’t want any surprises the only sure way to know the route actually hiking the route prior to the trip. If this is impractical confirm trail conditions by contacting whomever maintains the trail and reading what others have to say about it on the web. Above all be flexible; plan alternative campsites and routes to accommodate changing weather, group performance on the hike, crowded campsites, etc.
2. Gearing Up
Smart backpackers carry enough for safety and comfort without getting overloaded. You don’t have to spend hundreds of dollars on specialized gear. See my advice on the ten essentials, backpacks, clothing, sleeping gear, cooking gear, and footwear in my Outdoor Gear Guide.
Food for backpacking needn’t be expensive or difficult to find, I get 100% of what I need for a weekend trip (or even longer) at the grocery store. I’ll be posting some more detailed information on backpacking menus soon. Until then check out the resources at Sarah Kirkconnell’s Trail Cooking and her books – Trail Cooking, Freezer Bag Cooking, and Trail Eats.
3. Preparing to go
Supplement your skill as a leader by getting certified in Weather Hazards and Trek Safely training online. Check out the AMC guide to Outdoor Leadership for an advanced course in the subject. I also heartily recommend Andrew Skurka’s Ultimate Hiker’s Gear Guide.
One key to the success of your backpacking trips is the patrol method! Early on in my Scouting career our backpacking trips were pretty much a “every man for themselves” event. Everyone bought their own food and set their own pace. This led to heavier packs, and less able hikers lagging behind as the fleet of foot went on ahead.
When we moved to having Patrols plan their food and (most importantly) stick together on the trail things got better fast. Our younger Scouts were no longer left behind, our older Scouts were no longer flying ahead – they were all hiking together, looking out for each other and everyone had a much better time.
You can make this happen for your Scouts! Get out on the trail! You’ll never look back!
I am planning a trip to Philmont for our scouts in 2016. Tonight we had our kickoff meeting with the parents. The scouts in the troop minus just a couple and including myself have no experience backpacking. One of the troop leaders suggested we have a shakedown trip sometime before the Philmont registration this November. The description of the shakedown was to see if the boys would have the mental and physical capability to make trip before having to financially commit. Our Scoutmaster basically agreed with this idea. What are you thoughts of a shakedown as described here?
I personally was planning for a couple of easy/short outings this year so that we could start figuring out the equipment and learning to pack our stuff in rather than utilizing trailers. My 2015 plan was to work on the backpacking merit badge requirements, and finally working improved speed and longer distance backpacking in 2016 leading up to the Philmont trip.
One of my concerns is that a majority of the boys will be the minimum age for Philmont which means they are only 12 now. I’m afraid a tough shakedown may drive scouts away. I think the slow ramp up is the way to go but there are lots of $$$ to consider too.
I look forward to hearing you position on this issue.
Clarke Green says
I would recommend against a shakedown aimed at determining if Scouts have “the mental and physical capability to make trip” – It is two years away! I don’t think you can assess a twelve-year old to see what he is going to be like as a fourteen year old.
You have two years to develop some backpacking skills, so do it incrementally, make it easy and move on to more challenging trips. As I noted in the article the whole idea of backpacking is that it’s fun (challenging, yes, but fun). Go out for a mile or two, make it easy, let the Scouts decide they love it and want to go further (they almost certainly will!).