Are We There Yet?

Nothing annoys me more than a Scout who is constantly asking “how many miles until we get to camp?” It is the Boy Scout equivalent of “are we there yet?” which is a developmental stage that most children grow out of before they reach the age of 11. Conscientious hikers should know approximately how long it is going to take them to reach camp before they even start hiking.

The only way to increase time and distance awareness in novice backpackers is to spend time with the map – especially at the beginning of the day. At a minimum, everyone should leave camp understanding their destination, how many miles they are hiking that day, and the approximate elevation gain or loss. Water sources and important trail junctions are also good to know. It is the leader’s job to inform everyone of this information and every hiker’s job to know it.

Are We There Yet

Are We There Yet

For planning purposes, boys can generally be expected to hike about two miles per hour. Slower if the terrain is steep, the weather is hot, or if they are carrying backpacks that are very heavy (like on the first day of the 50 miler). You also need to plan on an hour for every 1,000 feet of elevation gain.

So if ten miles need to be covered in the day, including 3,000 feet of elevation gain, then the group should get to camp about eight hours after they start walking – plus the time taken for lunch, swimming, or running away from bears. (The first day of a 50 miler is usually the hardest and slowest, especially if you drive to a trailhead at an elevation higher than where you live. As the hikers get conditioned and the food is consumed, the pace will speed up.)

Setting up camp after dark creates a lot of problems.

Setting up camp after dark creates a lot of problems.

Check your watch when you leave camp in the morning and then calculate approximately when you should expect to arrive at the next campsite. If you start hiking at nine o’clock in the morning and it is supposed to take eight hours, then you should be setting up your tents around five o’clock in the afternoon, assuming you did not take any long breaks along the way. This calculation is important because you want to get your group to the campsite before dark.

Knowing when the sun will set is relevant because generally you want to arrive at an acceptable campsite, eat, and clean up while it is still light outside. If you are wearing a watch, then there is no problem knowing how many hours of sunlight are left in the day. However, Scouts without a watch can still estimate how much light they have left. Have them hold one hand at arm’s length – with his palm flat and facing himself – toward the western horizon right under the sun. The width of a hand equals about an hour of sunlight left and each finger about 15 minutes. So if there are three palms between the sun and the western horizon, then there are about three hours of sunlight left. In the summer, you also usually get about an hour of sunlight, even after the sun drops below the horizon.

If your group is setting up camp in the dark every night, you probably need to start hiking earlier in the morning. However, each group moves at its own pace and after a day or two, everyone will sync up to some kind of schedule. Most boys don’t like to get going before nine or ten in the morning and that’s fine if they can cover the required distance. However, I have also hiked with boys who were hell bent on hitting the trail at dawn so they could take long lunch breaks and get to camp in time for some swimming. Also fine. But please, don’t keep asking me, “how many miles do we have left?”

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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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