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.


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.


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.


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 carried 60-65 liter packs and had plenty of space.)

A 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 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. It has evolved over the years and 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 nicer 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 50miler.com Backpacking Resource Center Group on Facebook.