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.
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.
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.