Seven Sins of Boy Scouts
By "sins", I mean those transgressions Scouts commit on or before a backpacking trip that make it harder than it needs to be. And to further clarify, some of these sins are really by Scout parents, since they often show their sons how to pack for overnight adventures, and they control the budget for gear. Or sometimes it's the troop leaders committing the same sins alongside their Scouts. So what are these seven sins for which I so harshly pass judgment?
First, my qualifications as judge. I own a backpacking store and am a Scout counselor for the Backpacking Merit Badge, and for many years have observed Scouts on the trail (and often in misery) in the backcountry on my own backpacking trips. So I've seen the sins first-hand over the years, and I've listened to Scouts and troop leaders tell me the horror stories of well-intended, but ill-prepared Scouts (and their parents) on their early backpacking trips. There are many things that can be done badly while backpacking, but here are what I've found are the most common - the "Seven Sins of Scouts":
Sin #1: Packing like he's going to a Scout camp. It's one thing to take all imaginable gear to an established camp site where the van or gear trailer is 50 feet away. But that same type of gear can be an albatross on a backpacking trip, yet we see it all the time - big heavy tents, lots of heavy cooking gear, fresh clothes for every day, etc. All that might be just fine for car- and base-camping, but it's totally wrong for a backpacking trip. So even if you are a grizzled base-camping veteran, be aware that your skill set in that area does not necessarily translate well to backpacking. Be sure to get some advice before packing your son for his first trip. See also sin #3.
Sin #2: Taking the wrong food, and too much food. Eating all sweets, all the time - sounds like that would be fun and generate lots of energy for hiking, right? Maybe, until a hot day or a really long hike comes along and the Scout's stomach rebels from a sugar overdose. Also, water-logged food such as fresh fruits, foil "pouched" foods, and canned items are way too heavy on a per-ounce basis due to the water weight. There might be a place for those if eaten on the first night (so you're not carrying heavy food around for days), but generally, eat that kind of stuff the day before your trip and then leave the rest at home. Your most weight/calorie efficient foods are high in fat (nuts, peanut butter, olive oil, etc), followed by proteins and then slower-burning carbs. But the real key is variety - pack a wide range of items so you don't get bored and stop eating, and then wonder why you bonked.
A sub-sin is taking too much food. Sure, your Scout is in fast-growth mode and threatens your weekly food budget with one meal. But nearly all kids today have plenty of "calorie reserve" around the middle. It's not likely he'll starve in a few days. To be reasonable, target about 2000 calories a day (yes, you have to count it out) for most teenage boys depending on size and age. Bump that up if he's big for his age and he's going to be gone for more than 4 or 5 days; lower it if he's only 11 years old and going on a one-nighter. Another way to measure it is to figure roughly 1.5 pounds of food a day, depending on the mix of carbs vs fats. And no, don't worry about high-fat being un-healthy. Lastly, count meals that are going to be eaten out at home or a restaurant before and after the hike as part of the daily calorie allotment; he doesn't have to carry those calories in his pack.
Sin #3: Carrying too much stuff. This problem incorporates the first two sins, and then doubles down from there. A general rule is for a backpacker to carry less than 25% of his body weight, which means for a 100-pound Scout, not more than 25 pounds. Even that will feel like a ton for that age group. Yet, it's not uncommon to see young Scouts lugging 35-40 pounds around, and then wondering why they don't like backpacking any more. For an easy start toward lightening up, avoid the cheap, cold weather sleeping bag. There's a reason it's in the big box on the lower shelf at WalMart. It's heavy, and doesn't get any smaller, so you need a big pack to carry it in. And a big pack is heavier than a small pack, and if you have a big pack, you'll fill it up with more stuff you don't need. So that cheap sleeping bag cost you 10 pounds right there.
Also, don't take (in most cases): books or magazines to read; extra underwear; heavy gloves; rain pants; flashlights; insulated water holders; anything in cans or glass bottles; full rolls of anything; big bottles of suntan lotion or insect repellent; tent foot prints; big knives or tools; pack rain cover; backup stove; anything denim; "camp shoes"; or a cheap, heavy tent.
For most weekend/short trips, if your pack with all gear and food (but without water) weighs more than 20 pounds, and you're with a troop where boys are sharing tents, cooking gear and water treatment, unload your pack, re-read these first three points, and try again. As a point of reference, my personal self-sufficient pack, with food for a weekend and 2 liters of water and enough clothes for cold weather, comes in at 21 pounds, and I don't scrimp on comfort.
Sin #4: Pack doesn't fit the Scout. It's understandable that a parent might want her son to just wear Dad's or Big Bro's pack, or borrow one from wherever - it's a lot cheaper that way. But it's equally understandable that the son may never want to go backpacking again if that pack didn't fit. You wouldn't make Junior wear Dad's hiking shoes, and it should be no different with the pack - it's important that the pack be reasonably sized to the one wearing it, in terms of capacity, torso length and hip belt sizes. Fitting problems are common with skinny young boys, with not much yet going in the hip department. Since most packs today are built for ever-widening adults, the hip-belt ends on most packs on skinny boys come together before tightening, so the Scout ends up wearing the pack "gangster-style" - down below his iliac crest - and all the weight ends up on his relatively weak shoulders. Only a few pack models have belts that will grab the hips on the younger Scouts to support the weight there instead of the shoulders, yet are big enough to actually carry the typical gear load.
The problem the other way is too tall of a pack torso for the shorter scout - you can tell that is the case if the top of the shoulder strap is all jacked up high with a big gap above the shoulder. That means all the weight is on the hips - better than all on the shoulders - but still not ideal. The best balance is maybe 75% of the weight on the hips; the balance spread over a wide an area of the shoulders as possible.
Yet another parental sin is buying Junior an external frame pack because that was what you wore 25 years ago. There is a good reason hardly any companies make those things any more. Granted you can carry more big and bulky things on some externals than you can on a internal frame pack, but that is treating a bad symptom, and is not a cure. Do your Scout a favor, and buy or rent the correct gear.
Sin #5: Scout starts the hike in a deficit. A Scout can avoid this sin - and carry less food and water - by being fully hydrated and fed before starting his trip. A lot of boys drink a cup of juice at most at home at breakfast, and then ride to the meeting spot, wait and wait some more, and then ride a few hours to the trailhead, and then start hiking, and then bonk. A prepared Scout should drink beyond satisfying thirst the night before, and then drink water often and heavily before the hike starts. Plain ol' water is good enough for hydration; most Scouts are not going to be on a troop hike so strenuous to warrant taking in sugary sports drinks all day.
It's equally sinful to start a hike hungry. But sugary cereals and juices are not a good choice for a pre-trip breakfast if it's going to be several hours before eating again - he'll have a sugar crash-and-burn even before getting started. Heavy protein or complex carbs are better for that pre-hike breakfast.
Sin #6: Cotton kills. Want foot blisters, chafed thighs, and death from hypothermia? Just wear denim jeans and cotton socks while hiking on a cold rainy day. Seriously - no cotton clothes anywhere, anytime, except maybe on hot desert days where having on a clammy, soaked shirt feels pretty good. Otherwise, stick with fast-drying, wicking synthetics or wool.
Sin #7: Lastly, Scout is not selfish enough. What? Isn't Scouting all about sharing, camaraderie and teamwork? Sure, as long as you don't get separated from your troop. But if you do get separated, you're on your own. Here's how to be selfish in a smart way:
Know as much about the backpacking route and plan as the trip organizer does. Don't just be a sheep and blindly follow. Instead, ask questions; review the route on a map; and understand the trip plan. Be a pest if you have to, because if you get separated from the group, or the group leader goes down (it happens) you need to be able to get back to safety. Know trail names; entry and exit trailheads; and how long you will be out hiking each day.
Have your own area map and compass (and GPS if possible), and keep them with you anytime you are on the move (even if others also have a map) and most importantly, know how to read and use all navigational aids available to you. If you have a GPS, mark waypoints at the car and at every intersection. Get educated - take a class; read a book and practice on your own - you can do all this before taking your first backpacking trip. Bottom line: do not be totally reliant on others for navigation as "map guy" might not be around when you need him.
Have your own water-carrying and treatment options. It's OK to have a group water filtering setup, but keep with you anytime you're moving one or two emergency backup water treatment tablets, such as iodine or preferably a chlorine-based tablet to ensure your survival if you get separated. This goes for first-aid items too. And sharing food-carrying duties is fine, until you can't find "food guy" or anybody else. Always have some rations on you when you are on the move, even for short hikes away from base camp.
Lastly, don't let the other guys in your group out of your sight. Even if you believe they're headed in the wrong direction, don't head out on the "right" way on your own. Catch up with the group and state your case for a re-route. Need a bathroom break? Never say, "Go ahead, I'll catch up with you." Make 'em wait.
There you have it - the Seven Sins of Scouts and how to make amends. Got questions, or want to quit being a sinner? Think there are bigger Scout sins that should have been included? Let me know at dallas-at-lowergear-com or contact us at LowerGear Outdoors, 2155 E.University Drive, Tempe AZ 85281 (480) 348-8917 www.lowergear.com.