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Lightweight Backpacking Talk for Boy Scouts

Earlier this month I was invited to give a talk on how to start lightweight backpacking to Boy Scout Troops 654 and 655 of Nashua, New Hampshire. This seemed like a great opportunity, since Scouting is where many people are introduced to backpacking, and giving the Troops a few ideas for lightening their loads could have a big impact. When I asked the group who had carried an overnight pack that weighed more than a third of their body weight before, every hand in the room went up.

Since this was an indoor presentation, I talked mostly about reasons for lightening packs, the importance of knowing what you’re carrying, and some ideas for gear replacements. Especially for groups of beginning hikers, the ideas of focusing on skills and multi-use gear are very important because of cost considerations. It’s much cheaper to leave unnecessary gear at home than to replace it with lighter and fancier equipment. In order to leave things at home, though, you need to have the skills to function without it.

BSA Troops in New Hampshire

Guthook Talks to BSA Troops in New Hampshire

Some lightweight hiking gear is especially well-suited to outfitting large groups, though. Driducks rain gear, Gossamer Gear ground sheets, and silnylon tarps are very inexpensive alternatives to most commercial rain gear and tents, and much lighter! Tarps also are great teaching tools, since there are many ways to set them up, and the learning process also gives you a good knowledge of knots and hitches.

Food is another important subject, since efficient food planning is a good way to lighten your load while hiking. Calorie-dense foods like nuts and dried fruits are a perennial favorite, but it’s easy to overdo them, so variety is key. I’d brought a bag of Larabars to hand out as an example of dense, good food for hiking– they seemed to be a big hit. I’d forgotten about the appetites of teenage boys!

I could go on for hours about ways to lighten a pack, but time was short (and I would have bored the boys to death after the third or fourth hour). No problem there, though. The best way to get ready for backpacking is to take some practice hikes, practice your backpacking skills (like setting up bear bags and tents), and making some trip plans. These two Scout Troops are planning a hike of the Monadnock-Sunapee Greenway this summer. I think between their enthusiastic leaders and high-energy Scouts, they’re going to have some great experiences on the trail!

This post was written by former Trail Ambassador Ryan “Guthook” Linn

8 Responses to Lightweight Backpacking Talk for Boy Scouts

  1. Call Me Ishmael June 28, 2013 at 9:18 am #

    I use the same approach:
    -improve woodscraft to be safe and comfortable with less
    -leave extraneous gear at home
    -ESPECIALLY FOR ADULTS: drop excess body fat
    -select multi-use gear (e.g. shelter/raingear, pad/pack frame, trekking/tent poles)
    -trade up to lighter gear (think: Christmas and birthdays)

    The boys are usually better with all this than the adults, who prefer to do things “the way they’ve always done it”, without appreciating that a 50 pound pack is a much bigger problem to a 100 pound Scout than a 200 pound adult.

  2. Philip June 28, 2013 at 9:42 am #

    Great comment. The boys ARE better at getting IT than the adults. It seems that half the battle is finding or educating the adults, not the boys. If the adults were more comfortable, maybe they’d be more willing to take the boys on more backpacking trips instead of car camping.

  3. JT June 28, 2013 at 11:48 am #

    Great post on lightweight backpacking for Scouts.

    A couple years ago, I saw an opportunity to lighten the gear and thinking of our Troop. We have about 100 registered Scouts and about 50 registered Assistant Scout Masters. I saw packs on boys in the 30-pound range and up. A good number of the boys enjoyed backpacking but complained about pack weight, blisters and steep hills. When I was asked to lead the Backpacking 101 Program for the new Scouts, I saw an opportunity to influence the Scout’s way of thinking about going light and doing more with less, while maintaining a high standard of safety and BSA approval.

    The first year was tough: I got push back from some adults, especially those who like myself, grew up with big external packs, heavy leather boots and all the trick, “lightweight” gadgets from REI. However, the boys caught on immediately and ran with it.

    I’ve led at least one backpack trip a month for the last eight months and the boys have averaged 15-pound packs! One way we achieve this is through a shakedown party at our home. We go through the packs and point out ways of lightening their loads and offer lightweight alternatives (often recyclables found at home or at the “Dollar” Stores). I also have the boys make their own freezer bag cozies made from car windshield reflectors and duct tape. They love it, and parents are joining in on the fun.

    Now, the boys are influencing the adults.

    When I first showed up on a backpack trip with my GG Mariposa Plus (base weight 10 lbs), it raised a lot of eyebrows from some leaders. Today, many of those leaders have traded in their big packs for lighter ones.

    I think that “modeling lightweight” speaks louder than lecturing. Once the adults see and then experience a light pack, trail running shoes and a Gossamer Gear polycryo ground sheet, it’s pretty hard to go back.

    Today we have about six leaders and 20+ boys who have totally embraced lightweight and ultralight backpacking. This is a trend I hope that continues.


  4. Glen Van Peski June 28, 2013 at 10:20 pm #

    Great post, good job getting to some scouts. I have given similar talks to local troops here, and it’s heartening to see some kids really ‘get it’. We all benefit from people placing a value on wilderness, and getting them excited about backpacking without having to carry so much weight that they get turned off by the experience is a great way to make that happen. Good job!

  5. Philip July 16, 2013 at 6:59 pm #

    Simple Walter and just brilliant. I am going to try this myself!

  6. Walter Underwood July 16, 2013 at 6:43 pm #

    I give a few presentations on lightweight backpacking each year to Scouts. A couple of years ago, I revamped the whole thing. Here is what I do now.

    I pack two packs, one the way I used to pack and one the way I pack now. The latter is about 2X lighter.

    As the group assembles, I ask everybody to try on each pack.

    Once we are there, I ask a couple of volunteers to unpack them and strew the contents out in two lines. While this is happening, I explain that the two packs have equivalent gear for a weekend, the only difference is paying attention to what you pack and a few easy skills.

    After that, we go through the equivalent items in each pack (Sierra Designs Flashlight vs. MLD Speedmid) and talk about the decisions and skills needed for each one.

    I also show the most important equipment, a scale, and have some volunteers use it.

    Along the way, I reinforce that skills weigh nothing and that fear is heavy. Planning means taking what you really need. I translate “just in case” to “I’m not planning”. Finally, for leaders I explain that less energy on the trail means more energy for leading and making safety decisions. Less stuff can be more safe.

  7. Ken Holder July 18, 2013 at 4:41 pm #

    I have used that line as well: “The lightest thing you can put in your pack is knowledge and the heaviest is fear”.

  8. Mike H. April 10, 2014 at 8:29 am #

    Great article. Having been a scout & then later military, “lightweight” was a revelation! I now assist with the local scout troop & it’s like pulling teeth. The other leaders insist on big leather boots & frying pans for a weekend overnight trip. I’ve talked & presented my 15lb pack to the boys, but an older leader will always discount it because “that’s not the way it’s always been done”.

    I personally think carrying over 35% of your body weight is more likely to result in some sort of injury than wearing a pair of trail runners will, & I worry that the scouts will have a miserable time (usually exhausted & grumpy by the time they get anywhere) that will diminish their interest in backpacking.

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