Planning a Boy Scout 50-Miler

Scouting 50 Miler

Defining a 50-Miler

In doing research for this post, I found there are a lot of differing opinions about what the Boy Scout 50-Miler Program is all about. In a nutshell, the award recognizes a Scout who travels 50 miles in at least five days. Some describe it as a self-supported, high-adventure activity only for older Scouts or Venturers. Others dismiss certain modes of travel such as bicycling or horseback riding. Most agreed it should be hard.

One of my Scouting mentors once told me: “There is your way, my way, and the Scouting way. Stick with the Scouting way.” In fact, the official BSA Guide to Advancement is clear on this subject:

“No council, committee, district, unit, or individual has the authority to add to, or subtract from, advancement requirements” (Guide to Advancement, page 2).

As I dove into the requirements and award application documents to “stick with the Scouting way,” I was left with these key questions left to answer:

  • Does the 50-miler require the scouts to carry their own gear (self supported or unsupported)?
  • What modes of travel are approved and can you use more than one?
  • Is a 50-mile trek limited only to older scouts?

To answer the first two questions, I wrote directly to the National Council of the Boy Scouts of America and received this reply from Keith Christopher, Outdoor Programs/Properties Department Manager:

The intent of the 50-miler award is for Scouts to cover 50 miles in a minimum of 5 days. Scouts at Philmont qualify when they cover the minimum 50 miles and do the service project. Look closely at the patch and you can see a boot (for hiking), a bike wheel (for biking), a canoe paddle (for floating) and a horseshoe (for horseback riding). It is not intended that they carry all of their food and supplies, and I really can’t see where that is implied in the requirements. As a foot note (sic), horseback riding and biking were added about 12-15 years ago.

It is acceptable to combine more than one mode of travel as long as it is not motorized.

Thankfully, Keith’s message clears up most of the confusion (although I’ll admit that referring to the patch design to clarify the requirements is somewhat obtuse).  Thankfully, the website usscouts.org references a note they received from the BSA about clarifying the award in the future:

There’s a note in the publishing files for the award application and requirements book – so that “on horse” and “on bicycle” will be specifically included in descriptions of the fifty-miler requirements in the future.

Boy Scouts Backpacking

Does the 50-Miler Need To Be Self-Supported?

Short answer: No.

The reference in the requirements to use pack animals should be clear enough on this issue. In addition, if the 50 miles is to be covered on mountain bikes on single track (as an example), carrying a weeks worth of food and gear is simply not safe or recommended. Other modes, such as kayaking, pose similar risks. Having gear hauled for you is perfectly permissible, if that is what works logistically for the trip. Transporting participants in a motorized vehicle, even from venue to venue, however, would disqualify them for the award.

This really opens up the possibility of planning a trek with supply drops, gear shuttles, or other support aids that can help scouts of any age or ability level as may be appropriate.

Even a trek at Philmont, which is the quintessential trekking destination for Scouts, accommodates a wide-range of possibilities that qualifies Scouts for the 50-Miler Award. Dutch oven dinners, food pickup points, and activity stopovers (e.g., rock climbing, fishing, blacksmithing) are not counted against the award, and indeed would be impossible to pack in without extra support. Creating your own Philmontesque trek could involve the logistics of gear couriering, meal or food delivery, and organizing program outposts. None of these logistics takes away from the purpose of the 50-Miler Award or diminishes the achievement of covering 50 consecutive miles.

Depending on the makeup of your troop, organizing a support team is a great way to encourage and sustain young Scouts along the entire trek. Older, more experienced scouts are certainly more able to complete a self-supported trek. For younger scouts, the process of slogging along, day-after-day, to finish 50 miles can be a challenge in itself and yet takes nothing away from the spirit of the 50-Miler Award.

If you are looking for a Scouting award that recognizes more difficult trekking requirements, such as self-supported backpacking trips covering high mileage, please check out the BSA National Outdoor Badge.

Scouts Canoeing

What modes of travel are approved and can you use more than one?

The official clarifying statement from BSA makes this one easy. The modes include:

  • Bicycling
  • Paddling
  • Horseback Riding
  • Hiking (to include, but not limited to backpacking)

You can use one or more of these modes in your planning. Organizing and planning a trip to include hiking, backpacking, paddle sports, horses, and even pack animals (to say nothing of all the behind-the-scenes logistics) is quite an undertaking. Sticking to one mode is certainly appealing from a simplicity point-of-view, but adding the variety can provide necessary advancement opportunities and stimulation to keep the Scouts going day after day.

The 50-Miler Program has no pre-requisites, no prescribed methods or models to follow. To earn the BSA 50-Miler Award, both youth and adults must complete no less than 50 consecutive miles using the approved modes over a minimum of five consecutive days. On a Philmont trek, for example, it is the mileage that is stressed in their Guidebook to Adventure, as they only provide for three hours of service. All 12-day Philmont itineraries meet the distance and day requirements. The word consecutive is used specifically with this award to indicate the mileage and timeline be continuous or unbroken. This doesn’t mean that the 50 miles must be split up into neat chunks of five 10-mile days. It does mean that there shouldn’t be large breaks in activity, like splitting up the trek between two weekends. This is the crux of the trek. Even the service project can be postponed or amended, but not the trail mileage or days.

The service component is important because it supports the ideals and aims of Scouting. The ideal plan would be to complete all 10 hours on the trail or waterway, but the Program allows the Scouts to be flexible on the timing if conditions warrant.

Who Should Attempt a 50-Miler?

According to the BSA Trek Safely module, “[any] trek should reflect the maturity, skill level, and fitness of each member.” By properly planning ahead, you can build a 50-mile trek to meet those parameters and meet the needs of Scouts ages from 11 to 18, depending on the makeup of the participants.

This year we planned our 50-mile trek for a very diverse group of Scouts of varying builds and abilities. We arranged several months of weekend camping and backpacking trips to get our new scouts to First Class and prepare everyone for the 50-miler in the summer. All the Scouts who met the pre-trip “shakedowns” and training (e.g., completing Trek Safely along with Safe Swim Defense and Safety Afloat for the canoeing portions) were allowed to participate.

Hiking the Arizona Trail

Planning and Goal Setting

The 50-Miler Program can be used as a motivational tool. Let’s say the Scouts planned for a week-long, 35-mile canoe adventure in the summer, but as a mentor you suggest that if they add just a few more miles and kick in a little service project, they could earn this really cool award as a bonus. In other words, the award doesn’t need to be the goal in itself (although it could be) but a side benefit from careful planning.

One element of any backpacking trip is factoring in safety contingencies. For example, if a problem should arise on the trail, you should have planned “emergency exits” and fail safes in place. A lot can happen on a long-distance trek and it is important to plan for setbacks. When I’ve planned our 50-mile treks, I look for trails with multiple access points. In Arizona, one of the most accessible trails is the Arizona Trail (AZT), an 800-mile (1,287 km) nationally recognized scenic trail that weaves through multiple towns and is crossed by hundreds of roads and trails.

Like many long-distance trails, these access points not only provide convenient emergency exits, but also allow for periodic supply drop-offs and base camps for activity centers.

Scouts Mountain Biking

Advancement Opportunities.

Another requirement for the award is to have the Scouts plan for any advancement opportunities. Our troop had already been working on the Hiking Merit Badge, which requires a few 10-mile hikes and one 20-mile hike. The Scouts decided that they wanted to complete the 20-mile hike on our summer trek. Thankfully, the Hiking Merit Badge and the 50-Miler Award do not prohibit this type of “double-dipping,” so long as the hike is not applied to another merit badge.

The Scouts’ final plan outlined a week of adventure beginning with hiking, followed by canoeing, and finally self-supported backpacking. We planned for a “rest” day where we completed our service project and worked on the Archery Merit Badge. At another base camp, we met up with the Forest Service who taught portions of the Forestry Merit Badge. During the canoeing day, we completed activities for the Canoeing Merit Badge, having done most of the skill qualifying during earlier encampments. The variety and advancement opportunities made the mileage requirement seem less demanding.

The Importance of Good Food

If an army marches on its stomach, a Boy Scout troop runs like a berserk zombie horde incessantly craving food that will never satisfy. A few years ago my troop completed a 50-mile trip that was strictly about backpacking, with dehydrated or freeze-dried meals. After a few days into the trek the Scouts were near a food mutiny. Even though I felt we were eating in high style, I quickly learned that some backpacking meals are an acquired taste, particularly for the uninitiated. Thankfully I was saved from lynching by a surprise BBQ provided by one of the adult volunteers who met us on the final night at a rendezvous point. That BBQ was a turning point for me in planning future 50-mile trips.

Since that first attempt, I’ve decided that breaking in young Scouts gradually to the idea of simple trail meals is more important than full immersion. As I mentioned before, using road crossings and “emergency exits” as a planned camp allowed us to plan evening dinners and morning breakfasts together with a volunteer who trucked in a camp kitchen and delicious food.

Time Control Plan

Time Control Plan

Develop a Time Control Plan

The last tip I want to share in helping with the planning aspect is including a time control plan (click for blank template). I have found that a time control plan is a great way to predict how long you will complete sections of the trail. This has been invaluable in coordinating logistics issues such as food drop-offs on a 50-mile trek.

A time control plan also includes important trail features such as water sources, trail intersections, stream crossings, and other landmarks. This is helpful for everyone to determine where we are at any given time, how far we have left to the next landmark, and how long it will take us to get there.

For our troop, we designated a navigator each day who was responsible for managing the time control plan and leading the trek. Questions like “are we there yet?” or “how much longer?” were directed to the navigator to answer.

For younger or less-experienced scouts, a time control plan can be completed all in advance and reviewed daily with each crew leader, to help build essential skills. The plans should also be shared with participating in any way with logistics. Older or more experienced scouts can help create the time control plan as part of their morning routine.

Using the time control plan along with a map and compass is a great way to reinforce navigation skills and build confidence with the scouts.

I like to create time control plans on a grid showing elevation on the Y axis and miles hiked on the X axis. These grids can be printed on small index cards that can be quickly reproduced and used in the field.

Final Thoughts

If you’ve ever contemplated completing the BSA 50-Miler Award with your Boy Scout group, all I can say is just go and do it! I highly recommend it. In fact, I strongly believe that all Boy Scouts, even as young as 11 or 12, are capable of completing such a trek, and nothing is more rewarding than watching these young men prove to themselves that they can do hard things. For those scouts who complete the trek, the “50-miler” becomes an anchor for new adventures in the future.

This post was written by Trail Ambassador and Scoutmaster Derek Hansen. Be sure to visit his incredible web site, The Ultimate Hang, for loads more information about Scouting, Hammock Hanging, and Lightweight Backpacking. 

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9 Responses to Planning a Boy Scout 50-Miler

  1. Bill Sheehy November 22, 2013 at 12:59 pm #

    Very good explanation of the 50-Miler. Our troop hikes a 50-100 mile section of the A-T every year. The participants must be age (at least 13) and rank (at least First Class) qualified to go on these hikes and must complete a number of shakedown hikes as well.

    I have to say I’m not really on board with the inclusion of bicycling and horseback riding in the 50-miler award. My feeling is that this should be completed under your own power, not that of a horse. And let’s face it, you could ride 50 miles on a bicycle in a few hours, without packing more than some bottled water and a bag lunch. Does every scout who earns Bicycling Merit Badge (a 50-mile ride is a requirement) automatically earn the 50-Miler Award?

    Besides, I like the look of the old patch better, with the inclusion of the words Afoot and Afloat. The new patch has no character and looks cartoon-ish. But then again, I’m a 55 year old Geezer…

    • Derek January 29, 2014 at 11:08 pm #

      Bill, I completely understand your concern, and I think for a lot of folks, we have a preconceived ideal of what the 50-mile Award is all about. I had to rethink and reevaluate my own perceptions after receiving that letter from the BSA.

      The case of the Bicycling Merit Badge _wouldn’t_ count because it wasn’t done in the minimum 5-day period. I think that helps differentiate it a little. But from what National says on the subject, the award isn’t meant to be restricted to just backpacking or hiking. However, there _are_ awards that are designed for more rigorous treks, such as the National Outdoor Badge.

      What I’ve had to grapple with is that the 50-miler Award has its own unique framework and I think over time we Scouters have projected meaning to it beyond its scope. Even recent updates to the award have tried to clarify that it isn’t as difficult or restrictive as we have tried to make it.

  2. Herb Ellis November 22, 2013 at 2:14 pm #

    As I read the description of your 50 Miler trip with your scouts I looked up at the canoe paddle with a 50 Miler decal that I have hanging over my fireplace. I am a 65 year old backpacker that does consecutive sections of the AT every summer. But the foundation for such activity was laid as as a 12 year old Boy Scout paddling down the Suwannee River over a 7 day period. We did our service project at the Sheriff’s Boy’s Ranch. Thank you for the efforts you have gone to give these young fellows an outdoor experience that will stay with them their entire lives.

  3. Diane Pinkers November 22, 2013 at 2:47 pm #

    Our local troop walks 50 miles every summer along a Rails-to-Trails trail between our town and Chehalis. They do not carry any packs (driven by van), and they camp in farmer’s fields. Reading this article, technically they are fulfilling the requirements, but I’ve always thought it a great shame that they walk along this easy path, when the Olympic mountains are not far away. I don’t know the age of the scouts involved, but it doesn’t seem like the logistics would take much planning, so I’m not sure what the scouts are accomplishing other than trudging 50 miles.

    • Derek January 29, 2014 at 11:15 pm #

      Diane, I think what your Scouts are doing is fantastic, and yes, it appears it would qualify for the award, provided they do the required service component and advancement requirements.

      As I said in my post and earlier comments, I think we, as leaders, have created an ideal around the 50-miler Award that takes it beyond its scope. Yes, there are harder badges out there to earn (e.g., the National Outdoor Badge), but the 50-miler can be organized in so many ways that can make it an entry-level event for new scouts, or even planned as a more rigorous activity for older scouts.

      Again, from what I’ve learned, the 50-miler is often a byproduct of careful planning than an event in and of itself (if that makes sense). For younger scouts, the achievement of crossing the threshold of 50 miles over 5 days is quite an achievement, worthy of recognition, whether they rode horses, bicycles, or walked with some assistance. I don’t think this downplays the intent of the award.

      I think we sometimes get caught up in the destination and forget about the journey. The 50-miler seems to be about the journey of miles over 5 days; the participation in service, and the opportunity for advancement.

  4. Carol Rodgers November 22, 2013 at 6:37 pm #

    Missing in this discussion is the additional requirement that an environmental-oriented service project of 10 hours be completed. Philmont only gives 3 hrs towards the requirement. :-)

    • Derek January 29, 2014 at 11:17 pm #

      Yes, that is true. That is mentioned in the post, as is the requirement to have opportunities for advancement. The award _is not_ just about covering 50 miles, but having an adventure along the way through service and advancement opportunities. Again, I think that the 50-miler is more of a byproduct of a carefully-planned week-long trip than just hiking 50 miles.

  5. Bert Skillen November 23, 2013 at 6:39 am #

    Our troop completed 55 miles along the PCT over five days this summer. We were very thankful to be resupplied on day two as five days worth of food is a lot to carry. I feel that the 50 miler should be rigorous but it should also be enjoyable and open to any boy in the troop who is willing and able. I agree that preparations and “shakedowns” are key to helping a Scout and his parents decide if he is ready for such an adventure. It’s far better that they come to the decision on their own rather than being told they are not ready.

    • Derek January 29, 2014 at 11:27 pm #

      Great points, Bert. I agree.

      One of our jobs as Scouters (adult advisors) is to allow the Scouts to make plans and decisions and let them fail gracefully as it provides teachable moments and opportunities. As I wrote in my post, younger scouts can help plan an activity, with the guidance of adult mentors, to make sure the trek is within the skill level, but not to dismiss the goal of finishing 50-miles out of hand. That goal could be achieved in a variety of ways that qualify for the award and still provide advancement opportunities, leadership growth, and service in a safe manner.

      As I said before, the 50-miler Award doesn’t have to be a self-supported, 5-day backpacking trip in the High Sierras to qualify. It can, but it doesn’t have to. The Scouts can ride horses, bikes, or day hike their way if that is how they plan it.

      If I were working with a patrol with older Scouts who wanted to earn the 50-miler award, I would encourage them to go for something more rigorous, to push their limits a little, and help them get more out of it. Our troop has made this easy by insisting that patrols are divided by age groups. If you mix in 11-year-olds with 18-year-olds, than having a patrol do an activity like this is made more difficult because the ages and stages of abilities and maturity of each boy within the patrol is significantly different.

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