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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
- 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. )
- 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.
- 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.