Chapter 22: Hiking light – Boy Scout Ultralight Hiking is More Fun for Leaders and Scouts

That’s not an oxymoron. Boy Scout lightweight hiking is not only possible, it’s the only way to go.

Travel back with me to 1972. I was an inexperienced 24-year old scoutmaster. I knew I wanted to go on a 50-mile hike with the boys, but I was worried about having to take care of their complaints and aching backs. I wanted the boys to have fun, and I wanted to have fun. I didn’t have anyone tell me about lightweight backpacking. Common sense just told me it would be a lot easier if packs were light and simple.

We targeted a beautiful 56-mile stretch through the Three Sisters Wilderness area in central Oregon. Then we did the most important part – we started planning early. I made moms and dads come to required meetings. Moms are critical because not only do they do much of the purchasing of equipment, they’re also the ones who almost always load too much gear in juniors back to “make sure he has everything to be safe.” Of course, in an effort to keep their son safe, they insure that he’ll have a horrible time carrying his pack.

I told parents what was required, and just as important, what was required to leave home. Parents needed to visualize their son not lounging beside a lake for five days, but walking 10 miles a day for five days. Once this picture gets clear in their minds, they buy into the need for lightweight gear. We talked about shelter, sleeping bags, clothes, food, and all the usual things.

After careful planning, we had that other crucial meeting, the pack check. That’s the meeting where leaders check the fully-loaded pack a few days before the hike. That gives some extra time for necessary changes. Our pack check meeting went well. We weighed the packs on a bathroom scale and they ranged from 19 to 26 pounds, a fantastic effort for 1972.

Shelter was simple, and less than perfect. Most of the boys slept under black plastic. Most of the sleeping bags were U.S. Forest Service fire fighter sleeping bags. These turned out to be much less than perfect, but everyone lived. The food was good, but most of all, the packs were light. Because we packed light, we arrived in camp early each day so we could enjoy more time relaxing.

The checklist in the scout handbook should work fine for informing parents and boys what to pack. There are a couple of things that should be checked closely at the pack check. The first is rain gear. The importance is obvious, but it’s scary how many people think a windbreaker will work just fine. An inexpensive, urethane-coated nylon jacket and pants would be far better than a windbreaker that doesn’t protect against rain. Another important item to check is food. Parents might not understand the importance of almost doubling the calorie intake for their sons on a 50-mile hike. For meal planning, it’s best to let mom pack plenty, as long as it’s light, healthy, calorie-dense food. Make sure to have a presentation on lightweight backpacking foods well in advance of the hike.

Sadly, many Boy Scout troops today don’t catch the vision of ultralight backpacking. Boys trudge through their 50 miles with heavy backpacks then swear they’ll never hike again. And they live up to that promise. Large numbers of boys who should fall in love with backpacking learn to dislike it.

If you’re already an expert in lightweight backpacking, volunteer to give ultralight presentations for local troops. Or, ask around and find an expert. The presentation doesn’t have to be fancy. Just show the scouts and leaders a fully-loaded backpack that’s ready for 50 miles and weighs only 20 pounds. Go through the gear piece by piece, starting will the bigger items. Scouts and the leaders who will be going on the hike will see the advantages. Show them how they can share the weight of some items such as tents. When a boy shares the weight of a four-pound tent with a buddy, he immediately reduces his pack weight by two full pounds.

The troop I hiked with in 1972 was a blue collar group of boys. With early planning, you can exchange ideas on inexpensive gear. Some of it can be found in discount department stores. Start exchanging information within the troop well in advance of the hike so the boys get a good mix of quality and good prices on their gear.

The Boy Scout motto of “Be Prepared” is perfect for lightweight backpacking. It doesn’t mean be prepared by taking lots of heavy gear. It means be prepared with a well-equipped lightweight backpack. Boy Scout lightweight hiking is more fun for both leaders and scouts.