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The Five Gallon Pack Challenge

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.

Cole Mountain

Ken and Lee talking with the backpacking group on the bald at Cole Mountain.

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.

Be sure to read part 2 of this post

6 Responses to The Five Gallon Pack Challenge

  1. PeteJ February 4, 2014 at 5:26 am #

    My son’s troop has two food dehydrators and two scout masters with a real desire to get the kids out on the trail, put the two together and last year the older scouts did a week on the AT and this year are off for 10 days in Alaska. To get the kids cooking single pot meals, last week we had a cook off where each patrol got a measure amount of dehydrated ground beef and had to come up with their own recipes. The results ranged from edible if you had just done a 12 mile hike to not bad at all. The rules were no cans, no pre-packaged commercial meals like from REI . Taking my son to the store and looking at the dry pack opportunities on the shelf, the cook inside came up with at least 5 recipes in 5 minutes to try out that all would cost less than $5 (I tried a Sheppard’s pie on my wife and son and they liked it – but it did take 2 pots to feed 3 people).

  2. Gage February 5, 2014 at 11:06 am #

    Great story. Establishing a love for the outdoors now will give them a love for our precious spaces going forward. My son has been rock climbing since birth (could climb before he could walk) and has bagged Mt. Elbert, Angels Landing, with multiple backpacking trips under his belt. All at the age of 9. I still think these memories will be the greatest gift I can give him and I plan many more memories for our future. Great work guys keep it up!

  3. Glenn February 7, 2014 at 8:07 am #

    Our troop could be described as a trailer troop. We incorporate backpacking but not as much I would like. On the first outing we had 5 scouts sign up. This included the 2 sons of the adult leaders. On the next trip we got those 5 plus a few more. The boys that went on the previous trips always wanted to go on the next. The change in dynamics between a campout at a campground and backpacking really seemed to appeal to the scouts.

    We get the scouts started by having a backpacking overnight during a regular campout. The backpacking campsite is usually only a couple miles from the campground. New scouts can get by with book bag type backpack. We call it a night hike but it is really a taste of backpacking.

  4. Matt 'Acorn' King February 7, 2014 at 8:36 am #

    Acorn the (old) Eagle Scout here: well done gentlemen!

  5. Dave Adair February 7, 2014 at 9:00 am #

    Very cool story. I sympathize with the young kids – because it happened to me, and I’m still “suffering” from it. I never really figured out how to fend for myself backpacking, and that simple beginner’s barrier became one I never overcame (even though I’ve traveled all over the world, and I’m writing from a leprosy community in India!) I’m happy for the young kids learning life-long skills.

  6. Larry Schwartz, an old Eagle February 8, 2014 at 11:06 pm #

    Ken and Lee, you might want to check out Sky Meadows State Park near Springfield. Several circuit hikes, it touches the AT, interesting history from the Revolutionary and Civil Wars too.

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