Scout Backpacking “Superstar”

The typical Boy Scout likes to hike in the woods and camp under the stars. Most do it a few times a year. Some boys push themselves and go on high adventure outings like 50 miler backpacking trips and snow camping outings. Many of them eventually become competent at back country skills and often they earn their Eagle Rank. Then there is Diego “Max” Magdaleno. He has accomplished what very few boys ever dream about.

"You just have to show up and keep hiking.  Just try."

“You just have to show up and keep hiking. Just try.”

Max (trail name Maximus) has already completed 955 miles of high country backpacking with Troop 60 in Northern California. Along the way, he has been on 97 Scout outings, including weekend outings, practice hikes, day trips, patrol overnights, and five summer camps. He has slept in a tent (or the dirt) 153 times and has cycled almost 1,000 miles with his Troop, including three 100 mile rides. Then there are the winter snow camping outings there years in a row where Max dug a snow cave and spent the night in it.

His goal is to complete at least a thousand miles of Scout backpacking before he turns 18 – and he should easily accomplish this feat. Max is only 16 years old!

Max has completed three 50+ mile hikes in Yosemite, Emigrant Wilderness, and the Lost Coast of Northern California. In addition, he has been to Philmont twice and climbed Mt. Baldy. The first visit to New Mexico was his favorite because everything was new. However, his group, despite being in the same Patrol at home, didn’t get along in the beginning. After three days of arguing, annoying behavior, and constant anger, there was a showdown among the trekkers and everything finally settled down. The group become something resembling a real team by the end of the hike. In his telling, “it really strengthened the Patrol because everyone finally learned to have fun together.”

Max leading "Churro the Burro" on his first Philmont trip.

Max leading “Churro the Burro” on his first Philmont trip.

On his second Philmont trip, Max committed what he says is the stupidest thing he has ever done on the trail. It was on a stormy afternoon and the rain was heavy. Everyone was in a bad mood and most hikers were getting wet, including Max. Instead of changing into dry clothes, he tried to “man it out”. As dinner time approached, the hungry leaders were pressuring him to just get his mess kit and eat. He did just that, even though he knew he should get himself dry first and then take care of his equipment. Max shivered as he ate. That night it rained two more inches and the temperature dropped into the 30s. By morning, Max was experiencing severe hypothermia and had to be helped out of his tent. He could not stand up on his own and required medical care from a doctor in the group! This almost got him evacuated by the anxious adults. Eventually, of course, he warmed up as the sun came out. The lesson learned, according to Max, “is that you have to take care of yourself and your equipment – even if you are being told to do something else by the leaders. Don’t just focus on food – focus more on being dry and staying warm.”

There are many familiar pieces of equipment in his well-used Jansport backpack. In particular, Max is fond of his over-sized CRKT pocket knife. It might be a little too big for summer camp, but on a backpacking trip it really gets the job done. Max also carries a 30 foot cord wrapped around a carabiner in case he needs to hang food out of the reach of local bears, especially mini bears. His sleeping bag is a North Face Cat’s Meow that he has carried since his second 50 mile backpacking trip. Naturally, he always has his ten essentials at hand but says that the Cat’s Meow sleeping bag is more important on a cold night.

Little Max (fourth from the left) posing with fellow hikers on his first 50 miler in Yosemite.  He was 12 at the time.

Max (fourth from the left) posing with fellow hikers on his first 50 miler. He was 12 at the time.

Adventures have been plentiful! On one memorable weekend backpacking trip in the High Sierras near Lake Tahoe, Max and a buddy left camp alone in the late afternoon to find another group of Scouts a mile away. They carried their packs because the plan was to join the other group for the night. Unfortunately, both Scouts walked right past the other campsite in the darkening forest! They were lost, but according to Max, there was no panic when they realized they were going to have to spend the night alone in the wilderness. The boys found a suitable place as soon as it was dark, pulled out their sleeping bags, and laid down to go to sleep. “It was not the first time we had slept in the woods, it was just the first time we did it with no adults around.” They had corn nuts, water, flashlights, and their sleeping bags. No problem. They walked out in the morning and made it back to the trail head to reconnect with worried adult leaders. Both Scouts still say this was the most amazing night they ever had on a backpacking trip.

It surprises Max that many younger boys are reluctant to go backpacking, considering that Max had hiked more than 150 miles with Scouts before his 13th birthday. His advice, “Don’t worry that it is going to be scary or hard. It’s just like a camping trip and you know how to do that already. The older backpackers will help you get through it. Just show up and try. It’s fun”

This article was first posted in 2013 and has been revised and updated with Max’s newest achievements. Diego “Max” Magdaleno earned his Eagle Rank in October of 2014, just before his 17th birthday.

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Losing Some Weight

It’s not unusual for a Scout backpacker to make several major purchases just before their first major backpacking trip. When confronted with the costs, and without the time to shop around, many neophyte backpackers (or parents) look for the cheapest equipment possible, rationalizing that they can upgrade in the future if necessary. However, with backpacking, lower cost usually means lesser quality and more weight. As a result, many Boy Scouts and Adult backpackers spend their second year trying to lower their pack weight so they can better enjoy the experience.

Since the heaviest items are the most expensive, many Scout backpackers try to lighten their loads by counting ounces on smaller cheaper things in their pack or they try leaving extra clothing, food, and equipment at home. This is a nice idea but you can’t make a big weight difference with small sacrifices. The only way to significantly lower your pack weight is to replace your backpack, tent/shelter, or sleeping system – often called the “Big Three of Backpacking.”

REI Flash 62

REI Flash 62 pack weighs only three pounds

Your backpack is the foundation of your trail experience. They vary greatly in terms of design, support, fabric, color, and especially weight — yet many people spend almost no time in selecting the right pack for the wilderness experience they want to have. While 6-8 pound backpacks were the norm a few years ago, there are many great packs today that weigh far less. For example, Osprey specializes in light packs and offers several models that weigh under four pounds and the basic REI Flash series comes in even lower. There are even Ultralight packs that measure their weight in ounces not pounds. So weigh your backpack and see if this is the first place you can save a few pounds.

If you need a tent, carry a light one. This tent weighs two pounds.

Most boys prefer tents and most units provide them. Typical Scouting tents are big, heavy, and not so good for backpacking, but good backpacking tents are small, frail, expensive, and not so good for teenage boys. Many Troops use tarps or even old fashioned “tube tents” to save weight and simplify the trip. They are great in good weather, especially if the mosquitoes have all died off for the season. A few have adopted “cowboy camping” and just sleep under the stars every night. If you can afford it, get a tent that weighs under three pounds. Big companies like REI, Big Agnes, and Marmot all offer lightweight tents as do specially vendors like Six Moon Designs.

Most hikers carry a sleeping bag and sleeping pad. Goose down bags are the smallest and lightest but many in the Scouting world avoid down bags for fear that they will get wet and lose all their insulating value. Some synthetic bags come close to down bags but they don’t stuff as small and are usually heavier. Any sleeping bag that weighs more than two pounds is probably too heavy for a serious backpacker. It is possible to carry a very lightweight sleeping bag if you also carry thermal layers in which to sleep and have a pad with a reasonable R rating. The yellow Thermarest Neo weighs in at about ten ounces and is very popular!

Adding up the “Big Three” gives you a very good idea about where to start cutting weight. With “Traditional” it’s not unusual for the “Big Three Weight” to be 18 pounds or more (this is wicked heavy). Ultra Light hikers aim for something less than five pounds for the same equipment. Most Scout backpackers want to be somewhere in the middle.

The"Big Three" are the heaviest items in your pack besides food. Set a weight goal and work towards it, even if you have to purchase used equipment.

Decide how much you want to carry and set a goal of getting there as quickly as possible. (Buy used equipment if necessary.)

The “Big Three” accounts for a lot of your pack weight, but not all of it. If you want to minimize your load, here are some additional rules for lowering what you carry:
1. Weigh everything
2. Take less stuff
3. Choose equipment carefully – Emphasize multi-use items
4. Know the difference between wants and needs
5. Continually try new and lighter things – experiment on practice hikes
6. Load lightening is a gradual process of trial & error so set goals every year

For more information about Scout backpacking, visit the 50miler.com Outing Resource Center on Facebook.

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How Do Scout Backpackers Eat?

Getting into camp every afternoon means achieving a brief sense of accomplishment which is followed by a flurry of activity. Backpacks have to be emptied of Troop equipment. Water has to be filtered. Bear bag trees need to be located. And most important for most, dinner has to be prepared and eaten.

Everyone on the trail is hungry and food is an important part of a successful outing.

Meals on a backpacking trip assume an inordinate importance to Scout backpackers. During the long afternoon climbs, everyone thinks about what they are going to eat. Then as soon as dinner is finished, hikers start to talk about what is on the menu for the next day. Changes in the plan, delays, short rations, confusion, or just plain bad food can send even the most mature backpacker into an temper tantrum. How the hikers eat is a critical component of planner for a group backpacking trip, and every unit has their own strategies for dealing with them.

Many backpacking groups believe in communal cooking and eating. If there are twelve hikers on the trip, one meal is prepared and eaten by everyone. This fosters camaraderie, promotes equality, ensures consistent calorie consumption, and provides a common experience. No one is better off than anyone else and everyone has a vested interested in making sure the one meal is tasty, well prepared, and served efficiently. With communal eating, one of the cook’s critical jobs is making sure everyone gets a fair and equal portion of food, so discipline and leadership become critical components of every meal.
With shared meals, the menu must take into account every hikers eating preferences and dietary restrictions. Shopping can be done together and a trek planning session can include repacking the food to eliminate wasteful wrappers and boxes. Group leaders decide who has to carry each meal, based on their experiences during the practice hikes. Stronger hikers carry more. Slower hikers carry less or are assigned to carry meals that will be consumed earlier in the trek, thus lightening their load.

Big pots are needed for big groups of hikers.

Communal eating requires at least two large and sometimes dirty pots that have to be crammed into backpacks along with the clean (and often not so clean) clothing of the person assigned to the task. Sometimes, the large cooking pot is tied to the outside, providing a shell for the sleeping bag attached to the bottom of the pack. At the end of a meal the large pot is perfect for washing dishes.

On the other hand, some units reject communal eating as too restrictive or difficult. They break into smaller eating groups of four or five hikers, each with their own menus. Typically, each team is responsible for buying their own food, repackaging it for the trail, cooking it, serving it, and cleaning up afterwards. This eliminates the need for large cooking pots and makes menu planning and food shopping easier. Team systems work well if there are strong feelings about food (I won’t eat canned chicken) or dietary restrictions (Vegetarian or Kosher food requirements). However, it is much harder for trek leaders to be sure that everyone is eating enough nutritious food to keep them on the trail all day. Some groups eat better than others.

Lunch can be an "every man for himself" experience in some Scout Backpacking groups.

There are, of course, many variations on these two basic arrangements. For example, a hiking group may decide that breakfasts should be communal and dinners eaten by small teams. Sometimes in older groups, lunch (or daytime calories) becomes every man for himself with no central planning or coordination. In this scenario, hikers bring their own food, sometimes sharing or trading with others on the hike.

It’s rare and somewhat odd for hiking groups to decide they want to travel together but eat separately for every meal. Part of the experience of a long backpacking adventure is working as a group and eating together after a long day on the trail. This is the perfect time to wind down, discuss the day, and think about what everyone is going to have for breakfast.

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It’s Spring and Spring is Backpacking Season for Real Scouts!

Its Spring – a time when every sturdy young Scout starts thinking about the backpacking season ahead. Across the country, young men are pulling packs out of the closet, cleaning out the leftover food from last year, and getting ready for practice hikes. Adults are enthusiastically stepping up to do the same. Many with the goal of completing their first 50 miler backpacking trip before the end of the summer.

Everyone agrees that wilderness backpacking embodies all of the core Scouting values. Accordingly Scout leaders often ask me, “How do we start a backpacking program in our Troop or Crew?” It’s not really complex, but here is a straight-forward plan for getting your guys onto the trail. The steps are not necessarily in chronological order but, the last step does loop back to the first step every year.

1. Promote backpacking in your Troop: Younger Scouts and many adults will not associate the idea of idea of carry heavy packs over long distances with fun so they have to be convinced. Start slowly, schedule a few short trips and promote stories about success and overcoming adversity. Then get everyone to agree on a goal of completing a 50miler or going to Philmont in the near future. Remember, it’s not just the older boys and Scouters that have to be won over – parents also have to understand the benefits of a backpacking program.

Scouts planning

Scouts should plan their own hikes if possible.

2. Select dates for the adventure: With everyone busy schedules, spontaneity is usually not possible. Select a week for the big trip about four months in advance and let everyone know so they can arrange their calendars accordingly. (So if you want to have your hike in August, then select the dates in April.) Most of the details, including where you are going, can be worked out later. (Philmont participants usually have to commit to their dates 18 months in advance!)

3. Have a planning meeting: Schedule a gathering of potential hikers and then advertise it in a way that attracts most of the target audience. This planning meeting is about building enthusiasm for the backpacking program, scheduling practice hikes, assigning responsibilities, discussing dietary restrictions or physical challenges, and electing leaders. It is also a great opportunity to talk about the dates of the 50 miler and potential locations. Order pizza to put everyone into the right mood.

4. Distribute a Pack List: Successful youth backpacking trips require good pack lists and the leadership to enforce their use. However, developing a pack list is a philosophical exercise with many possible and contradictory outcomes. Every unit has their own list, based upon location, leadership philosophy, anticipated routes, and even hiking history. Publishing the pack list (months or years) ahead of time allows parents to buy what they need without pressure. Set a deadline at least a month before the 50 miler for acquiring all the gear and conduct a rigorous pack check about a week before you leave.

5. Conduct Practice Hikes: Arm the group with a practice hike schedule that includes dates, times, required pack weights, locations, responsibilities, and discussion topics. Each hike, in addition to the conditioning aspect, is an opportunity to increase the group’s knowledge about topics like wilderness first aid, maps and compass, bear bagging, water purification, hygiene, trail safety, and cooking. In addition to the regular Troop outing schedule, schedule ten Venture practice hikes including three overnighters every Spring. The minimum requirement should be four hikes with appropriate weights, including at least one overnighter. Make them as fun as possible – especially for the adults.

Practice hikes are part of the 50 miler experience.

6. Complete the 50 miler: With a map, permits, medical forms, emergency plan, food, and all the equipment on the pack list, the group is transported to the trailhead for their big adventure. Also, it’s nice to have parents waiting at the end with fruit, root beer floats, and pizza to welcome home their young warriors and listen to them talk about their misfortunes and exploits.

It is not uncommon for Scouts to stand up at their Eagle Courts of Honor and talk enthusiastically about how their backpacking experiences changed their lives or inspired them to new achievements. One said, “I don’t remember many days of my life, but I do remember vividly every day of every 50 miler I have ever been on.” With this kind of testimonial, adult leaders and parents should do everything in their power to provide opportunities for their Scouts to experience wilderness backpacking at least once.

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