Lighten Up On Pack Lists

Every credible organization provides a pack list to participants before taking them on any sort of high adventure backpacking outing. Inexperienced participants and their parents dutifully take these pack lists into stores to buy everything, exactly as it is written on the list. This is all very nice, except some pack lists are not very good at all. Some are out-of-date and others are poorly conceived. Even so, they are doggedly enforced by the leaders of the trek – sometimes to the detriment of the overall experience.

Many backpacking pack lists were first drawn up years ago and passed down from leader to leader over the years. Each organizer is doggedly determined to maintain their list in deference to the traditions or safely issues perceived concerns of the organization. The result of these old lists is frustration and added expense because outdoor equipment design and manufacturer has changed a lot in the past decade.

Sometimes it also boils down to a problem of control. Many adults have some experience with the outdoors and they believe they know best how to equip a group for a successful and safe backpacking adventure. Fair enough; but, when does wilderness experience turn into hubris? There are items on every pack list that are included because the leader thought it was a good idea, but have little actual impact on the success of the trip and may in fact hinder it.

Big backpack for Philmont

Specifying a really large backpack for Philmont might not be such a good idea.

One day I received a message from a worried mother in Texas who said that her son needed a 90 liter pack in order to go to Philmont. The reason? His adult leader had decided that everyone on his trek should have the biggest pack possible for flexibility in carrying the group equipment. So he informed the parents that every Scout needed at least a 90 liter pack, even if they already had a smaller pack they had been using on previous backpacking trips. (The last time I went to Philmont, most hikers in my group carried 60-65 liter packs and had plenty of space.)

One local group provides a very detailed list of clothing and equipment for their 30 day wilderness outpost. Parents bring the list into REI every year and spent an unbelievable amount of money to outfit their sons and daughters. They refuse to consider any item that is not 100% in compliance because they are worried about being reprimanded by the leaders. Sadly, the date on the pack list says 2004! This leaves many shoppers scrambling to find pieces of equipment that are not commonly used anymore because they have been replaced by newer products with better features.

One example is the external frame backpack, which is frequently specified on old pack lists but increasingly difficult to find because backpack designers have embedded the frame in virtually all newer packs to make them lighter, more flexible, and more durable (and cheaper). Then there is the down sleeping bag which has been historically villanized because getting old down sleeping bags wet generally renders them useless to protect a hiker from the cold. As a result, there are many old pack lists that specifically say “no down” that few parents will even consider down bags as an option – even for desert camping. Never mind that newer Dri-Down bags have be chemically treated to provide protection against absorbing moisture and they dry out pretty quickly.

Here are some other dubious items I have seen on lists provided by outing organizers:

• 50 feet of blue parachute cord for emergencies. No other color is allowed.
• A completely clear nalgene bottle without logos, presumably so leaders can make sure hikers are drinking enough water.
• MSR stoves with red fuel bottles, even though there are many newer isopropane stoves that are lighter and easier to use.
• Plastic knife fork and spoon. Sporks are not acceptable.
• Non-Deet bug repellent (which doesn’t work as well as the real thing!)
• Small flashlights but no headlamps.
• 100% Cotton shirts (haven’t they heard that cotton is rotten?).
• Zero degree Fahrenheit sleeping bags that must weigh less than three pounds. These extremely warm and light bags are difficult to find and very expensive when they are available. Maybe the original list maker meant zero degree Centigrade, but no parent had the nerve to question him about it.
• And the list goes on and on.

Backpacking at its core is very simple. You hike from once place to another and try to connect with nature and fellow hikers along the way. There are many ways to safely outfit yourself and your crew, as evidenced by the thousands of backpacking products available in hundreds of outdoor stores and websites. Leaders need to understand the reasons items are on their lists and consider substitutions when reasonable.

Products for Scout backpackers going to Philmont

There are lots of stores and lots of products for backpackers, but there is no one perfect pack list.

The backpacking pack list on this website might be the most downloaded list used by Boy Scouts in the United States. At the very beginning we state that “pack lists are a philosophical exercise and this list should be considered a starting point for discussion.” There are good reasons to carry everything on the list – and also good reasons to leave some of it at home or change things out.

If you are leading an outing, it is more Scoutly to be flexible. It will be more fun for you and the Scouts and a lot less aggravation for the parents. The more rigidly a leader adheres to a dubious pack list, the more likely that hikers will carry unnecessary items. So check your list and lighten up.

For more information about Scout backpacking, join the Backpacking Resource Center Group on Facebook.


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.