There are many times when Scout backpackers, and especially their leaders, have to deal with the fear that comes with high-adventure wilderness outings. Sometimes this fear is small and easily confronted, but there are times when a disproportionate fear of the trail can turn a Scout away from some incredible and life-changing experiences. Teaching boys how to successfully move beyond their comfort zones and manage their fears is what separates good leaders and Troops from everyone else.
High Adventure fear manifests itself in many ways and can be very destructive. Before a hike, there can be the fear of discomfort or apprehension about the unknown. This leads hikers to start thinking about packing a heavier sleeping bag for fear they are going to get cold or carrying extra food for fear they are going to be hungry. Some people buy expensive new equipment for fear that the stuff they have used for years is going to break or because they worry about encountering some freakish situation like a summer snow storm. These kinds of fears usually disappear after a couple of miles on the trail but by then a scared Scout or adult is already carrying a lot of extra weight on his back.
For some Scout backpackers, there are horrors about poison oak, snakes, ticks, blisters, forest fires, exploding stoves and bad food or water. In extreme cases, Scouts hesitate to go on a hike for fear they are not going to be strong enough to finish or they worry that others will pressure them out of their comfort zone and into danger. When the weather report predicts rain or snow, some backpackers become unreasonably fearful they are going to be wet, cold, uncomfortable, or worse. These type of fears usually disappear with wilderness experience, but they keep many newbies from visiting life-changing places like Philmont or Northern Tier.
Once on the trail additional fears can be encountered at any time. Other hikers might talk about bad trail conditions, high river crossing, mosquito swarms, cold weather, or difficult mountain passes. Rangers warn of bears or mountain lions. Weaker hikers look at the trail profile and see that there is a 3,000 feet mountain ahead so they stay awake all night fearing that they are not going to get to the top. Inexperienced and pessimistic hikers all-too-often fear that tomorrow is going to be much worse than today. (Sometimes it is, but usually it isn’t.)
In the midst of all these exaggerated and imaged terrors, there is legitimate fear, based on experience, about the health and safety of the group. Good adult leaders know if they are crossing the line between meaningful accomplishment and high-risk behavior and they act accordingly. When the group passes from discomfort to real danger, someone has to be willing to pull back, change plans, or even end the outing without fear of repercussion. In other words, good Scout backpackers are competent “risk managers.” They must be adept at identifying real risks – not the imaginary ones – and helping their group prepare and respond appropriately.
There is no way to eliminate fear from a backpacking trip and no one should try. Healthy fear is normal. However, success on a high adventure outing is all about facing fears and dealing with them successfully (and safely). This builds strenght, confidence, self-worth, and maturity. That’s why high adventure Scout outings are so good at turning boys into men.