What Makes Boys Interested in Backpacking?

JTP-ZionLoop-77Today, I had a person from Backpackinglight.com ask me a few questions about a recent backpack with my Boy Scout Troop, and what makes the Troop interested in backpacking.

Here is the question(s), and below, my long answers:

John, what went into making your troop interested in backpacking? Involved parents? A gear inventory to loan to new scouts? Are these all older scouts? How do you get younger scouts involved and interested in backpacking? How many adults went on your trip, and how many scouts?

JTP-T4-Little-Jimmy-184I believe enthusiasm and genuine love for the outdoors plays a large part in any person’s interest in backpacking. For boys: backpacking is helping satisfy most boys’ “call of the wild.”

However, load a young Scout with a heavy pack and all they think about is how soon they get to camp, rest and treat their blisters. They later learn to dislike the wild.

I am a backpacking evangelist, and a borderline UL zealot. As a Troop Outdoor Leader, I try to de emphasize gear collection, and instead focus on doing what it takes to travel light, smart and safe.

Backpacking 101
I conduct a semi-annual PowerPoint presentation and workshop for the Troop, covering all the basics of backpacking philosophy, gear and safety. I weave into my talk the benefits of going light, being thrifty and making your own gear.

I lay out on a table my lightweight gear, or better yet, gear from one of my scout proteges. I spend a lot of time talking about the freedom of backpacking, of sleeping under the stars and how fun hiking can be when not hauling a heavy load.

I also bring in a traditional backpack, loaded with 40 pounds of gear and let the parents and scouts try it on. Then I have them put on one of my–or the Scout’s–UL packs, weighing about 10-12 pounds. The looks on their faces are classic.

Then I ask them, “So, which pack do you want to take on your next trip…?”

At that point I have everyone’s attention. After one trip, both the parent and Scout are usually hooked! In fact, in the last six months, I’ve had close to ten people from the Troop go out and purchase UL backpacks!

So, to answer your question about parents involvement: Yes, the parents do get involved and end up outfitting themselves, and for many, the rest of their family, including their wives.

Troop Gear to Loan
JTP-T4-Little-Jimmy-44The only troop gear we provide are Tyvek ground sheets for cowboy camping, tarps, tents and cook kits. I encourage the boys and (parents) to rent or borrow packs a few times before they invest. I point adults and scouts to Gossamer Gear and GoLite when they are ready to buy. We do have a few old, donated packs, but they all weigh over 5 pounds empty. A few of the boys have gotten away with using their school backpacks!

The older scouts were weaned on traditional, heavy packs and tend to veer away from trips of more than ten miles. However, the younger scouts, exposed to lightweight from Tenderfoot, try to get in as many miles as they can on a weekend due to their lightweight kits. In fact, they are planning a 30-mile trip for our next weekend trip.


Boys working on a Make Your Own Gear (MYOG) project during a shakedown party

Shakedown Parties
Before each trip, my wife and I host a shakedown and MYOG party. An average trip yields about 8 Boys and 4 parents (ASMs), all of whom I strongly suggest attend. I have the more experienced Scouts conduct the shakedowns while I shadow. I do this so the older, more experienced boys have a job and stay focused. This also helps influence the younger, less experienced scouts. Young scouts respond better from peers anyway. The Scouts go through a checklist, which they print from our troop website, and check off each item. Then they weigh each item and make suggestions on how to lighten or switch out the heavier gear. We make a pile of the heavy items and weigh the pile. The Scout or parent with the heaviest pile wins!

Finally, we work on a 30-minute MYOG project. Most nights we make freezer bag cozies, fire starter kits, bear bags, butt pads (out of blue foam) or update our UL first aid kits.

Trip Planning
Lastly, I allow the boys to plan their own trips. They choose the route, decide which shelters to bring, and allow each boy to choose their own food at least two times.

I’ve learned that when the boys are allowed to lead, they own their own hike, decisions and mistakes.

We now have a solid group of enthusiastic backpackers, including over ten adult ultralight recruits, all who have fully embraced UL. One of the best indications of whether the boys have bought into backpacking is seeing backpacks, sleeping bags, cuben fiber shelters and other UL paraphernalia the week after Christmas.

Now THAT is pretty cool!

What have you done to stir up interest with your Troop, or friends and family?

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