As Scout Leaders for more than a decade, Lee Fields and I have made it our mission to encourage Scouts to participate in backpacking trips. Over the years we have noticed a general reluctance from beginners (and their parents) to take the first “steps”, which unfortunately denies these young men the valuable lessons that the trail can teach. Their reluctance typically comes from a lack of gear, a lack of knowledge, and a general fear of the unknown. So if the end goal is a life-long love of backpacking, how do you take down entry barriers and get their boots on the trail?
To be fair, there are many Scouting programs that have first year Scouts (11-12 years of age) successfully engaging in backpacking trips with older Scouts, but over the years we have found that this model didn’t work for our Troop. Our experience has been that young Scouts are typically under-sized and over-packed, with the result that most come home feeling like they survived the trip rather than enjoyed it. Younger Scouts also typically can’t keep the pace of older Scouts and adults, adding to their frustration. In response we developed our Troop’s “backpacking experience” trips, where the youngest and smallest Scouts participate in building skills they can use on later trips, and the second-year and older inexperienced backpackers participate in a backcountry trip designed specifically for their skill level.
For most of the month of October we participated in meetings to discuss topic such as lightening weight backpacking, successful backcountry cooking plans, water treatment and the dreaded “how to go in the woods” talk. Scouts had an opportunity to practice basic skills such as bear bag hanging, and the week before the trip participated in a “shakedown” where they brought in their backpacks and had them reviewed by a leader for suggestions on how to lighten their load. Almost all had packs weighing in the 20-30 pound range.