Getting Ready for Philmont!

Cimarron, gateway to Philmont

Cimarron, gateway to Philmont

As Spring approaches, hundreds of Boy Scouts and Scouters across the United States are preparing for their trip to Philmont this summer. After winning a lottery to secure a spot, and after collecting payments over the past year, it now becomes very real for the 20,000 hikers who will converge on the small town of Cimarron, New Mexico – gateway to the Ranch.

Some units go to Philmont every other year and have an established routine. Pull out the planning schedule from last time, change the dates, and get started. Other groups have never been backpacking and need to start from scratch as they try and learn how to hike together and camp in the back country. For them it is an exciting and scary scramble from the first meeting to the last practice hike.

By now most basic transportation decisions transportation have been made. Will the group be flying into Albuquerque or Fort Collins, or maybe taking the train to Raton? Some units will opt for the convenience of driving their hikers and equipment, often with rented vans. Many Scouts and leaders will suddenly become of aware of the BSA requirement that all travel be done in full Class A uniform and some will think that this is annoying. However, on the actual trip they will find that the uniform magically connects them with fellow travellers who were also Boy Scouts and who also went to Philmont. In this way, the boys will get a better perspective on the pervasiveness and influence of the Scouting movement in America.

philmont gate

Sightseeing in New Mexico or Colorado before or after the hike is a natural extension of the outing, and Scouts will soon have to decide where they want to go. Should they travel up to bustling Santa Fe for a history lesson or head over to dreary Taos to see the pueblos. Bandelier National Monument is nice, but the Sandia Peak Tramway is more exciting. Visit Los Alamos and learn all about the Manhattan Project or get over to Roswell and see “evidence” of flying saucers. It would also be fun to take a hot-air balloon ride (probably not BSA approved) and there are lots of museums of all kinds in the area just in case.

Mistakes will be made. Some units will decide that coordinated practice hikes are a waste of time, telling everyone to get into shape on their own. Participants will respond, form small groups, and try, with varying dedication, to prepare for the “big trip.” These unprepared groups will suffer the most as untested equipment breaks down on the trail to the Tooth of Time or Mt. Baldy, and tempers flare as hikers constantly work through the “storming” phase of team development. Not to mention the physical problems they are likely to encounter.

Getting ready to hit the trail, after months of preparation.

Getting ready to hit the trail, after months of preparation.

Stronger units will arrive at Base Camp knowing the Philmont Hymn because they have been singing it continuously at planning sessions and team conditioning hikes. For them, the Philmont experience started at their very first meeting, carried through to the practice hikes, CPR and Wilderness First Aid Training classes, fundraisers, and the pizza stops on the way home from camping trips. This kind of group creates their own Philmont shirts, with everyone’s name on the back, and wears them proudly during the orientation on Day One. These hikers will have the most fun together on the trail.

Scouts and Scouters start with a common objective – get to Philmont and have a fun adventure – but every unit will take a different route. Many groups will achieve their objective (and more) and will want to return as soon as possible. However, through lack of leadership, planning, preparation, or simply bad luck, some units will have a terrible experience and complain about it forever. No matter how it turns out, after returning home, everyone will tell friends and family that Philmont was a life-changing experience.


How Can We Start a Backpacking Program In Our Unit?

Let’s face it, starting a backpacking program is not easy for many Troops. The Patrol Leader’s Council needs to decide at the annual outing planning meeting that they want to hike more and “car camp less.” To make this happen, adult leaders must “convince” the boys that backpacking trips provide benefits and are the best things to put on the unit calendar. This convincing can be a big challenge today.

Backpacking has lost favor among Scouts and Parents for many reasons. It takes a lot of time and is expensive (in the beginning). Some parents also view backpacking as dangerous and an activity that potentially loosens the bond between themselves and their sons (think helicopter parents!). Scouts, on the other hand, know that backpacking is the antithesis of the passive behavior they embrace while playing video games or doing their homework online. Today, neither Scouts nor their parents view “adventure,” “individual responsibility,” or “independence” in the same way as previous generations, and consequently do not especially value the fact that backpacking normally provides these benefits.

Backpacking is losing its allure for Scout familes.

Backpacking is losing its allure for Scout familes.

As a result, Scout backpacking is in decline across the country.

Here are six things that must be in place to sustain a vibrant backpacking program in a Boy Scout Troop (or any group). Maybe somewhere in this list is an idea that Troop Leaders can use to get their guys out into the wilderness.

Requirements for a Successful Backpacking Program

1. Older Scouts who tell younger boys that backpacking is fun. After every hike, post pictures and encourage the older hikers to tell stories to the younger ones about how great it was on the trail. Also bring it up at outings and encourage the older boys to reminisce about their last 50 miler. This creates positive peer pressure.

2. Parents that value the wilderness experience that is provided by backpacking. Boys do not always take to backpacking. Sometimes parents have to give them a kick in the backside to get them started. There are studies about the benefits of backpacking and parents might have to be “sold” on the idea, especially if they have little or no experience with hiking. (I spend a lot of time “selling” the backpacking experience to worried parents.)

3. Backpacking trips specifically created for first-year Scouts. An easy and fun experience sets the stage for longer hikes later. We do a 10 mile loop in three days with stops at lakes every night for swimming. (And we usually get all the boys into the water, even if it is cold!) Older Scouts carry the food and equipment. Younger Scouts carry their personal items. Also make sure the food is good!

4. Several Assistant Scoutmasters that are “gung ho” about getting into the wilderness and becoming role models for young backpackers. These guys (or women) have to be willing to jump in the lake, throw a bear bag rope, encourage people to keep hiking up the hill, and lead outrageous campfires. If you do not have a lot of these adults in your Troop, recruit friends to fill in on high-adventure outings. (The lack of adult support is a huge issue in many units across the country, not just for backpacking but for camping as well.)

5. An inspirational leader who loves and values backpacking and wilderness adventure. That leader needs to tell inspirational stories about their backpacking experiences at every opportunity and make themselves a “Backpacking Hero.”

6. A culture of “manliness” in the Troop. Celebrate high-adventure experiences, praise the boys who participate in them, and let them be “men” on outings. Make sure the parents know your expectations that their son should be on this kind of outing if they want to earn Eagle rank.

One way to proceed if the Troop leaders do not have the time, energy, and inclination to mount a backpacking program is to organize regional backpacking outings. Get several Troops to agree on a backpacking schedule and recruit hikers from several units or even an entire District.

Another solution is to keep backpacking as a family activity and invite your son’s friends that are Scouts on the trip. In other words, just bypass the unit entirely.

The "Guide to Safe Scouting" is growing

The “Guide to Safe Scouting” is growing

The National BSA organization has contributed to the decline in Scout Backpacking. There has been a seminal shift in parental attitudes about high-adventure outings over the past 15 years and BSA has been trying to stay relevant by following these societal changes. As BSA continues to expand the Guide to Safe Scouting to appease some parents, while softening advancement requirements, many units have taken the path of least resistance and removed “high-adventure” activities from their outing calendar entirely. And as Scouting gets “safer” and less “adventure-oriented,” those adults and boys who actually desire riskier activities are self-selecting and looking for adventure in one of the many alternatives to the Scouting Program.

Please share this article in all your scouting social spaces.


“Be Honest and True Boys”

This poem was published in the children’s periodical “Golden Days for Boys and Girls” in 1887, a few decades before the founding of Boys Scouts. It was featured during a flashback episode in the television series “Boardwalk Empire,” which also had several references to the Boys Scout movement.

Boy's Life was modeled after popular magazines like "Golden Days for Boys and Girls"

Boy’s Life was modeled after popular magazines like “Golden Days for Boys and Girls”

Be honest and true, boys!
Whatever you do, boys,
Let this be your motto through life.
Both now and forever,
Be this your endeavor,
When wrong with the right is at strife.

The best and the truest,
Alas! are the fewest;
But be one of these if you can.
In duty ne’er fail; you
Will find ‘twill avail you,
And bring its reward when a man.

Don’t think life plain sailing;
There’s danger of failing,
Though bright seem the future to be;
But honor and labor,
And truth to your neighbor,
Will bear you safe over life’s sea.

Then up and be doing,
Right only pursuing,
And take your fair part in the strife.
Be honest and true, boys,
Whatever you do, boys,
Let this be your motto through life!

— BE HONEST AND TRUE, by George Birdseye.