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Lightweight Backpacking at a High Adventure Scout Camp

I went to Cedarlands High Adventure Scout Camp in the Adirondacks last week to teach scouts and scoutmasters about lightweight backpacking. This is a recap of my trip: what I taught and what I learned.

The Philmont of the East

Cedarlands is located just outside of Long Lake and very close to the High Peaks region of the Adirondacks, making it a convenient location for outfitting multi-day scout trips. The camp itself is spread over a heavily wooded 5000 acre parcel parcel of land that boasts three small peaks and beautiful Lake McRorie.

Lake McRorie, Cedarlands Scout Camp
Lake McRorie, Cedarlands Scout Camp

Unfortunately, the camp is a bit run down. Several of the buildings on the property clearly need to be demolished and modernized. The camp is way under-staffed, over-worked, and under-trained. When I was there, the CEO and District Executive of the local council, Bill Garret and Rolland Miner, were on site to assess the required capital improvement and staff changes needed to restore Cedarlands to its former glory. Their vision is to restore Cedarlands and to turn it into the Philmont of the East.

Rolland, who struck me as a very capable administrator and leader, has also assumed the role of Camp Director. I view this as a good sign because it means that senior (paid) BSA management is on the line and is being held accountable to make it happen. Before I left camp last week, I let him know that I’d be available to help him out and come back again next year.

Having a first rate High Adventure Camp in the Adirondacks would be tremendous. The wilderness there is as dense as anything in the Maine 100 Mile Wilderness but the Dacks also have high peaks like those in New Hampshire’s White Mountain National Forest. It’s really a beautiful and wild place.

Boy Scout High Adventure Camps

If you’re not familiar with scouting high adventure camps, the most famous one in the United States is probably Philmont Scout Ranch, located in Northern New Mexico.

Troops from all over the country arrive at High Adventure Camps to participate in multi-day backpacking treks or other activities such as rock climbing, white water rafting or multi-day canoe trips. The scouts that participate in these activities tend to between 14 years and 20 years of age, so older, stronger, and more mature than younger scouts.

Troops often come with huge vans packed full of gear and supplies, set up a base camp within the camp boundaries, and then go out on day trips or overnights from there.

My Boys Scouts Teaching Gig at Cedarlands

When I left Boston last week, I thought I was going to teach two classes on lightweight backpacking and go on a five-day wilderness trek with a troop.  The goal was to see how a scout troop equips and conducts itself on a multi-day trek, and to personally demonstrate lightweight backpacking principles alongside the scouts and scoutmasters, using my own gear list and camping/hiking routine.

Before leaving for Cedarlands, I made a few changes to my normal high summer gear list to make it a little more approachable for scouting. For example, I replaced a cuben fiber tarp with a silnylon one to remove cost concerns and I brought along a canister fuel stove because scouts aren’t allowed to use alcohol or wood stoves. I also became an official member of the Boy Scouts of America (Crew 46), took Youth Safety training, and passed a background check.

Canvas Base Camp Tent
Boy Scout Canvas Tent

Unfortunately, there was some unexpected staff turnover shortly after I arrived in camp which resulted in the cancellation of my trek and my second class.  I ended up teaching one class, which went quite well, but it was disappointing for me to have things unravel like this.  I’d driven ~550 miles, purchased about $50 of teaching aids, and prepared for this audience for weeks in advance. I still learned a lot, but the experience wasn’t as rich as I’d hoped. I’m sure it will be better next time, though.

Lightweight Backpacking Class Recap

Ten people came to my lightweight backpacking class at Cedarlands: three  scout masters from two troops, two Cedarlands’ staff members and five scouts. The class was held outdoors under the dining hall pavilion, and in preparation, I took all of the gear out of my pack and spread it out on the table in front of me so people could see it and ask questions about it. One of the staff members, who is also an ultralight backpacker, did the same, so there was plenty of variety.

I’d also brought along two backpacks loaded with gallon jugs of water that weighed 35 pounds and 49 pounds to use as a game to engage a larger audience, especially a one with a lot of scouts in it. The idea was to call up scouts or scout leaders and have them guess the weight of the pack without going over, kind of like The Price is Right TV show.  I have a sneaking suspicion that people who claim that they carry 50, 60, or 70 pound packs really have no idea how heavy 50 pounds really is, and I wanted to make the point that weighing one’s gear is important.

At the start of class, I also handed out a sample lightweight backpacking gear list to illustrate how to make one, including a list of recommended lightweight gear manufacturers, and the following list of gear weight reduction tips.

Suggested gear weight reduction tips

  • No cotton at all, anywhere: Slow to dry, causes blisters.
  • Backpack, sleeping bag, tent, under 9 pounds total.
  • Be able to wear all of your clothes at once!
  • Take off layers when you become too warm. Don’t wait
  • Put on more layers as you get cold. Don’t wait.
  • Wear the same underwear, socks, pants, shirt everyday
  • Use lightest sleeping pad possible. Cut down to size
  • Leave tent footprint at home. Not needed.
  • Leave inner tent at home. Bring mosquito netting.
  • 1 Qt Soda bottles are much lighter than Nalgenes.
  • Use cook pot as a cup and bowl
  • Camel up at water breaks to reduce carried water
  • Try to replace tent poles with trekking poles.
  • Buy smallest bottles of DEET, lotions, creams
  • Narrower sleeping bags are warmer and lighter
  • Open sleeping bag as a quilt in hot weather
  • Getting a small backpack will force you to bring less
  • Don’t bring extra shoes. Hike in comfortable sneakers .
  • Use a small knife instead of a big one
  • Use a head lamp not a flashlight or a lantern.

The scouts in my class showed up late, so I started by talking to the scout masters and Cedarlands’ staff.  I skipped the game and launched into my talk. I explained what was on the handout and the importance of making a gear list with gear weights before asking the scoutmasters to talk about how much weight they’d carried on previous backpacking trips.

They’d all carried 50-70 pound packs, but right off I could tell that they didn’t have much backpacking experience. They couldn’t tell me what kind of water filters they’d used or the brands of stoves they owned. This is why I included some backpacking 101 tips above, including the importance of layering and not wearing cotton clothing.

Boy Scout Troop Trailer
Car Camping on Steroids

I wasn’t altogether surprised by this having observed the car camping culture in camp, where the troops had brought all of the comforts of home with them in huge trailers. I’d also been forewarned by the many scoutmasters who’d commented on my last post about Lightweight Scouting.

Anticipating cost concerns, I started by emphasizing that less gear means less weight and less expense. Rather than recommending the purchase of new gear, I emphasized all of the ways they could cut gear weight by removing uncessary items first. I started by explaining how tent footprints are completely unnecessary and can be left at home and how a one pound tarp, draped mosquito netting, and a tyvek ground sheet could be used by 4 scouts instead of carrying multiple tents. I explained how a pot could be used for cooking, a dish and a cup, and so on.

All of the leaders were very interested in what I had to say, including one of the Cedarland’s staff members who I knew had decades of Adirondacks’ backpacking and scout master experience. He told me afterwards how valuable it had been for him to see different ways of doing things.

By then the scouts had trickled in. They explained how they each carry full mess kits and how they carry a completely different set of clothes for each day of a trip. I explained how I wear the same change of clothing every day, how you can wash clothes if they get very dirty, or turn them inside out. Very basic stuff. They were all receptive to it, but explained that it’s very different from how they do things today.

After about 30 minutes of this, I switched to a gear demo and had everyone come up and check out my gear. They were amazed when I showed them my 2 ounce Frontier Pro water filter screwed onto a soda water bottle, the bivy bag with head netting that I use instead of a ground cloth and bug netting, how a sleeping pad can be used as a pack frame on a Gossamer Gear pack and how light my Montbell wind shirt is.

UL Sleep System under a Canvas Tent
Philip's UL Sleep System under a Canvas Tent

Of all of these, I think the Frontier Pro made the greatest impression. While, I’m not sure it’s appropriate for scouting,  it definitely makes the point that you don’t need camping canteens or Nalgene water bottles to carry water. There are also very lightweight alternatives to heavy water filters or purifiers available, including liquid bleach,  chlorine dioxide tablets or ultraviolet light using Steripen technology.

Lessons Learned

I’ve been thinking about my experience at Cedarlands for the past week and here are some preliminary conclusions, still based on very few inputs.

  1. Before we can teach scoutmasters and scouts about lightweight backpacking, we need to teach them about backpacking. In the group I met with, there doesn’t appear to be much distinction between car camping, where you show up at a campground with a huge trailer full of gear, and backpacking where you need to carry it all on your back. (I’m afraid that this describes the general US population, as well. )
  2. Lightweight backpacking education has to start with scout masters, adult leaders and older scouts that have assumed leadership positions in a troop. They are the people who will tell parents what to buy to outfit scouts and they have the ability to prune backpack loads before they’re taken on a trip.
  3. Teaching scout leaders about lightweight backpacking would be extremely useful in the planning stages for a high adventure trek. I wouldn’t even emphasize it as lightweight backpacking, but as a set of techniques for ensuring maximum enjoyment and trek success.  I could even imagine developing a curriculum of training hikes for a troop where they get to practice lightweight backpacking technique in advance of a major trek, as part of the preparation process.

What do you think?

I am still very new to scouting and I’d appreciate any feedback you have about my experience, the techniques I used to convey lightweight backpacking principles, or the conclusions I’ve drawn by this first experience. I assure you, there will be more in the future.

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19 comments

  1. Great report — I would love to be able to do something like this in the Houston area.

    I think one of the keys is selling the value of backpacking in helping to achieve the aims of Scouting, and how backpacking fits the methods of Scouting.

    Also –Don't call it ultralight or lightweight backpacking, just call it backpacking. Present your gear and techniques as the way it should be done, not something that is different.

  2. I agree with you John – it's about teaching backpacking to begin with not a special form of it.

  3. The scout motto "be prepared" is sometimes the downfall of scout backpacking trips. Scouts and their moms (who too often do the packing) try to bring everything they might ever need.

    You are right that backpacking education is what is needed. Probably the best way to approach it is to take a typical scout backpack (fully loaded) and divide it's weight by the weight of the scout. Then scale that up to the weight of the parent and ask them how long they could carry that weight and how they would enjoy the trip if they did.

    I'm speaking from experience here. I remember being a burdened-down 13-year old scout carrying 30% of my body weight. My pack was full of extra cotton jeans, a hatchet, and lots of other stuff I would never use.

  4. This is a really great post. As a scout several years ago and now a scout leader, I can relate to all of your comments regarding the state of scout camps, and troops (with their trailers). I would like to first say thanks for getting involved, I'm confident you had a great impact on those scouts and adults, I hope you keep helping out and encourage others to do the same. I think John was spot on with his recommendation of teaching it as 'backpacking' not a special kind of it.

    Just thought of another activity that I think would go over well. Have two piles of gear that would be used to accomplish the same task (say cook dinner or set up a shelter), one with all the normal car camping gear they would try to take backpacking and another minimal set. Split the boys up and have them do the same task to show how the same thing can be done, with much less gear and a few new techniques.

    A good note to hit home with the scoutmasters is that backpacking can really reinforce the patrol method. I have several examples of this from my own experiences but Ryan Jordan has already done a great job of illustrating the relation between backpacking and the patrol method in several of his posts on his blog. http://ryanjordan.com/blog/category/scouting/

    I'm really happy to see experienced backpackers sharing their knowledge with scouts and leaders. Myself, and two other adults, took about a dozen scouts backpacking back in April. Only one had been backpacking before that trip. We made sure to have everyone bring their packs to the troop meeting before the trip to review what they were planning on bringing and also distribute food and group gear. I definitely recommend this step for all scouts and adult leaders.

    Thanks again for doing what you do, Scouts need more experienced teachers at the local level like this!

  5. Earlylight, speaking as a long time lurker and a mom, all I can say is I hope you and others like you make a dent in the current Scout philosophy. I've always tried to teach the travel light, "take only pictures, leave only footprints" philosophy to my son and his friends. Sometimes it feels as if I am swimming upstream. The last time I encountered "Scouts," I had to prove to them I had indeed reserved the campsite on which they were squatting, and then spent half an hour after they left collecting their trash and putting out their smoldering fire, which they so kindly left for us. Smoky wept, to say the least. Any way, those of us who are trying to teach the kids well are looking to folks like you for inspiration.

  6. "Be Prepared" is not bringing a spare cast iron dutch oven on a backpacking trip.

    If you look at what Baden-Powell said and what the BSA handbook still says, it is about

    having the skills and attitude to deal with whatever comes your way. That is ultralight.

    Bringing extra stuff is usually from ignorance or fear, which are very heavy loads in the backcountry.

  7. Thanks Phill! A great write up. The camp needs a lot of work.
    Training the leaders will eventually result in a trickle down effect of techniques to the scouts, well worth the fine effort you you expended in this presentation.

  8. That camp looks a little like it has seen better days. They aren't all that run down, and I hope their council gets its act together. Young scouts tend to be naturals at light weight – as long as Mom, Dad, and the other adults don't get in the way with a big list of things to take. My favorite story is of a scout who came back from summer camp with his foot locker full of neatly folded clean clothes; his mother was so proud that he'd done his laundry and neatly put it away!

    Actually "I wouldn’t even emphasize it as lightweight backpacking, but as a set of techniques for ensuring maximum enjoyment and trek success" really gets to the point.

    The scouts do take their lead from the adult leaders (i'd say scoutmasters, but there are many more involved), but more from how they act and what they do than from what they say. At Philmont, we adults decided to wash regularly (bandanna baths, and rinsing clothes daily). After a few days the scouts in our crew did the same. So by the end of the trek we kept being confused with crews that had just started, instead of the normal extremely dirty and smelly 9 and 10 day out crews.

  9. Bruce aka Old Man of

    Sounds like both you and the Scouts learned something on your adventure! That's a long way to drive to teach a shortened class schedule although the location looks amazing. I hope this does indeed become a Philmont of the East and the backpacking skills are increased.
    My experience as a Scout leader, novice backpacker and encouraging two sons in Scouting was one of evolution – from our first hike which included dragging a Coleman stove, way too many clothes and extra food on local prep hike, to our latest Long Trail section hike of 60 miles using a scale to weigh each item and even cutting the ends of the toothbrush! One set of clothes – reduce the weight and size of the pack, shelter and sleep system — use everything or leave it at home. Multiple use items and Cotton Kills!
    There certainly is a place for car/trailer camping where you bring all the comforts of home and then theres the pride of knowing you have everyhing you could possibly need on your back- weighing in at under 27 pounds including food and water! I continue to learn how to lighten the load and enjoy the freedom it brings. Keep teaching the LIGHT WAY!

  10. Your report is very consistent with my experiences with Boy Scouts. I was an assistant scoutmaster at our troop for several years – I begged and pleaded with them to move away from the trailer based car camping approach towards a backpack based experience. Lots of nodding heads from the adult leadership but loads of passive resistence. I just returned from Philmont a couple of weeks ago with a crew of 12. Being the adult crew leader, I was able to convey some of the backpacking light message as we prepared, but the resistence to any ideas about weight reduction once we got to Philmont were very much discouraged by Philmont staffers who have their own "Philmont Way" of doing things that denies any other views. While there I could tell a big difference between the crews that regularly backpack and the ones who do the trailer thing. Those that backpack regularly carried less, were more organized, in better shape, covered more territory, and had fewer injuries.

  11. Cedarlands is not "run down." Yes, there are a number of buildings that are over 100 years old. And aesthetically these may need a little paint and some shingles traded out, etc. But the older buildings are generally maintained well enough to prevent further decay. It is difficult to maintain historic buildings that are generally used less than two months a year to a perfect degree of preservation. But what is the answer? To tear down these historic buildings? The property is a 100+ Adirondack "great camp." While it may not be quite a architecturally significant as Uncas, Sagamore, or Santinoni, at its prime, the property was along the lines of those. I am definitely on the side of historic preservation and reuse that is a bit shabby over tear down and replace with a new concrete block building.

    There has been an infusion of cash at Cedarlands in recent years. The central office/conference center/trading post is three years old and a nice facility. The shower house will likely be replace soon. There is serious talk of building a new commissary. More importantly, "camp" is the lake, mountains, land, and trails. Not the buildings.

    I agree that when Scouts generally go backpacking or even weekend camping they carry far too much. They don't do lightweight food. They wear jeans, etc. But it isn't fair to criticize troops for bringing equipment to summer camp. Summer camp for a week is an entirely different context than a backpacking trip. They need to cook three meals a day for a week. And there is nothing wrong with being comfortable for that week. Cedarlands and other ADK Scout camps offer backwoods hiking and canoeing treks in addition to their base camp programs. For troops that want a backcountry adventure, that is the appropriate venue. And the good trek programs stress the importance of keeping things light (though probably not to the degree you practice).

  12. MP,

    Staff quarters, in a few cases, do need replacement. There is a difference between “a little paint and some shingles” and serious wood rot. Repairs should be performed on the foundations, structures, replacing rotted wood, replacing rusted out fasteners, roofing, windows and siding as well as “a little paint and some shingles.” But, I am on your side. The main buildings can be repaired to be the great camp they were. This will provide the base for the scouts. It is with sadness that the main lodge was never replaced and simply used as a gathering area. At every flag ceremony, I could not help thinking what a nice place it must have been, maybe could be again. The lake is really quite beautiful. Replacing the shower/laundry facility will go far in upgrading the whole camp. As will some sort of new commissary.

    Thinking backpacking MEANS thinking light and safe. Backpack gear forms the basic gear for most ADK outings. Mountain boarding means you have to climb a mountain. Mountain biking is not all about riding DOWN a hill. Hiking requires back pack gear, as does canoeing or kayaking trips. Climbing may or may not, but did originally.The material and gear needed for going light has always been there. Indeed it is cheaper, or, more cost effective than heavyweight packing. The technique needed requires training and a bit of planning. But backpacking technique is what the BSA is known for. BSA camping should not be equated with how to carry everything, including the kitchen sink. Rather, it should be equated with an intelligent comprehension of how to do more with less.

  13. Diagree about the staff quarters. Any money that is available should go into the program, not staff housing.

    Most Scout camps sleep their staffs in wall tents. If any staff member thinks the existing edifices are that bad, it is easy to throw up a tent for them.

    A middle age staff member may object to the state of the housing. But I have never heard a complaint from anyone under 30.

  14. MP – the council executives in charge of Cedarlands think that the camp has fallen on hard times and is need of major capital improvements. Their words, not mine. Call it what you like – restoration, modernization, expansion, deconstruction, whatever. Let's get this discussion back onto scout education. I'm sure the camp will be restored to its former glory someday.

  15. I thought we were talking about the state of the buildings. I don't really care about sleeping arrangements in the ADK's, a tarp and bug tent work fine for me.

  16. You are right on the money about scouting. I have been working at a scout camp for the past six summers in Wisconsin and recently graduated from the University of Minnesota Duluth with a degree in Outdoor Education. Their is no doubt that scouting brought me to where I am now and what I have achieved but it took a while to find that niche.I never felt as if I had the opportunity to learn about backpacking and long term camping until college.

    While working at my scout camp I had the opportunity to teach Camping merit badge. For one of the requirements we had to take a five mile hike and camp overnight. This was a far stretch for most of the scouts who are used to car camping instead of backpacking. Many of the scouts would end up running to the mess hall and grabbing a trash bag for a backpack and pack ten minutes before our hike. They would carry all of their gear over their shoulder (usually about 20-30lbs) and then complained about the experience. I would carry only the necessities (less than 10lbs of gear) and kids would ask me why I felt so much more comfortable then them. We would then take the remainder of the night to talk about our differences in packing, gear and mentality of trail. I enjoy hearing how different people experience camping and how their mentality changes over time. On the way back from the hike I would let some of the students carry my pack and I would carry theirs to see how their mentality would change. It was remarkable. Scouts would go from hating the experience to really enjoying it just because they "knew" what and how to pack.

    I do think that the Scouting program needs an overhaul on some of their camping and backpacking practices and I agree that it starts with the leaders. If we don't have qualified leaders who are really excited to lead trips and get their scouts out there, there is no chance for change.

  17. Teaching a Backpacking 101 class for some new Scouts and parents. Any chance you have a class outline I could use?

  18. Thanks. I have watched the videos and will be providing links to them to all the parents.

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