Step by step, five hikers made their way up Bear Canyon at Guadalupe Mountains National Park. Fifteen-year-old Ozzie appeared farther ahead after every switchback. Fourteen-year-olds Ben and Will stopped more often, to marvel at the widening view of the desert expanse below and to rest and wonder what they had gotten themselves into. Grownups Abby and Mina, bringing up the rear, wove in and out of bright hot sun and cool glades, chatting and admiring the kids’ progress. Ozzie never missed a beat. Near the top Ben and Will were really questioning the wisdom of their route choice - 2,000 feet up in 1.8 miles on a warm June day - but when we topped out on the high south rim they were ecstatic. Moving on through the open forest of The Bowl, the level walking was easier, and packs were already lightened from lunch and from drinking some of the 16-20 pounds (7-9 kg) of water each had, to start, for our 2.5-day waterless loop.
To plan this with kids, we drew on all we had learned about winnowing a kit down to make room for the water. Nobody had a single extra garment. Shelter was limited to two Integral Designs silnylon tarps - an 8 x 10 and a SilWing. We benefitted from the park’s ignition ban and did not carry stove or fuel, just no-cook meals. Sleeping bags were thin. Ozzie especially got into the discussion of pack weight, and on his own came up with the idea that razor blades would be better than a knife. Will thought a knife would be more useful. Their back-and-forth banter on razor blades vs. knife continued through the hike, becoming a fun game for all of us. (Mina and Abby thought they had wandered into a real-life BPL forum.) All three kids came home with a sense of accomplishment and an inkling of ambition to plan and go on a trip somewhere even more wild and exotic (in their minds), like Yosemite or Glacier.
Triumphant! Will, Ozzie, and Ben atop Bear Canyon, with the west Texas desert far, far below. Guadalupe Mountains National Park, June 2011.
I, Mina, felt encouraged by how this trip played out, but also understood how far we have to go. In our Camp Fire USA backpacking program, we have many more kids who would have enjoyed it, but who did not sign up because they (or their parents) thought it would be too hard to carry the water. About a dozen of them went on another trip later in the summer, to stream-filled southern Colorado, and had a great time. This winter we’ll have a discussion about what trips to do next summer. Already some who opted out of Guadalupe are showing renewed interest.
For those unfamiliar with Camp Fire USA, the organization was started in 1910 as Camp Fire Girls, by some of the same people who were involved in starting the YMCA/YWCA and Boy Scouts of America, as the original girls’ counterpart to BSA. In 1975 Camp Fire opened all its programs to everyone and is now the only national, fully inclusive scouting-type organization. We are less highly structured than either BSA or Girl Scouts, so programs vary by region. Here in central Texas, Balcones Council’s backpacking program was started in the mid-1990s after I had been taking my older son’s club on weekend backpacking trips to area state parks. I assumed coordination of the whole program, as a volunteer, about eight years ago. I originally got involved as a club leader with Camp Fire when seeking an outdoor program for my then-second-grade older son, that his younger sister could join with him. (We attract many families who do not want to segregate their kids, or who do not want as much formality, and the effect of the girls and boys coming up together in their outdoor adventures is, in my opinion, very beneficial. But that is another discussion.)
For all our adult knowledge, kids often seem to lead the way. I remember back on some of the earliest trips, my then-12-year-old daughter and her best friend, both tiny, would waltz off with the minimum possible in their little external-frame REI Long Trail youth packs - minimal sleeping bags, shared undersized discount-store tent, Pop Tarts and Ramen for alleged nourishment, dime store ponchos, no extra clothing at all, hardly any doo-dads to speak of. They had a great time, rain or shine. The older teens would be burdened down with large tents, multiple changes of clothing, full-body rain slickers, big flashlights, books, towels, etc. In those days we were all “traditional” backpackers. Colin Fletcher spoke of lightening the load, but still recommended a lot of “just in case” equipment and supplies. We restricted our program to sixth grade age and older to increase the odds that the kids would be large enough to carry their own gear successfully. Still, it opened up the fun of backpacking to teens from clubs with non-backpacker advisors, and attracted additional kids who just wanted to get outside, without joining a weekly club.
Jeremy, age 17 in August 1998, setting out on the John Muir Trail.
Our journey to lightweight was sparked by my older son, then 16, who discovered Ray Jardine’s Pacific Crest Trail Handbook in 1997, decided he wanted to thru-hike the PCT, came to his senses and lowered his sights to the John Muir Trail, researched, planned, and solo-hiked it at age 17 in summer 1998, with a little 5 x 8 flat tarp, tennis shoes, a frameless rucksack, and no stove. The following winter my daughter’s club backpacked the South Rim at Big Bend National Park, with 20 pounds (9 kg) of water apiece for three nights. On that trip, my pack, my heaviest since Outward Bound in 1975, weighed 53 pounds (24 kg), nearly half my body weight. It would have been even heavier were I not gradually learning to take less stuff, even though I didn’t know much about lighter stuff yet. A couple of the larger teens, and my husband, carried over 70 pounds (32 kg) each. It was a beautiful trip (two trip members saw a mountain lion!), but it was very hard for all of us. By this time we knew the issue, but we just didn’t know what to do about it.
Taking it all! One of our 17-year-olds, ﬁrst Pecos Wilderness trip, summer 2001.
In summer 2001 our council-wide program took its first summer mountain trip, to Pecos Wilderness in New Mexico, for a four-night loop up to East Pecos Baldy. Every summer since then we have offered a week-long trip to the mountains somewhere, and held four or five weekend trips during fall-winter-spring (our “season” here in Texas). We have chosen not to restrict participation much - the only firm requirements are attending an initial Orientation workshop, and that a participant must have been on at least one weekend trip with Camp Fire before being eligible for a summer trip. It is an ever-changing group, with some folks just dropping in for a trip or two, some stalwarts sticking with us for years, and many participating on and off when they can, around their busy school schedules. It makes for a challenging learning process, since we are always starting afresh with new kids and parents. Fortunately we always have at least a few veterans around, to set an example. While we recognize the potential benefits of more advanced-training requirements, in the interest of getting more youth (and parents) outdoors and into the backcountry, we have opted to be as flexible as we think we can be in reasonable safety, and do most of our teaching on the trips as we go.
Way up on top of East Pecos Baldy, 12,529 ft, summer 2010. Theresa, center, is following in the footsteps of her older sister, who went on our 2003 and 2004 trips to the same area.
In summer 2005 I drove up to Salt Lake City, on my own, to attend Outdoor Retailer, with the dual goals of learning more about the outdoor equipment industry (I was thinking of a gear resale shop either as a business or as a funding stream for Camp Fire), and of seeking out possible sources of major grants for our program. Neither of these goals panned out exactly, but I did wander the exhibit halls of the Salt Palace mesmerized for three days, and met and talked to a lot of enthusiasts. Off on the side of the big hall was a small table with a really interesting magazine called Backpacking Light, and a couple of friendly guys who were happy to listen to my story of taking kids outdoors - Vic Lipsey and Ryan Jordan. They gave me their cards and some of the magazines. Back in Texas, I looked up the website, then buried myself in the site and the magazines, the enthusiasm there was so contagious. I also emailed a bunch of “thank you” notes to various people I had collected cards from at OR, and was pleasantly surprised by a reply from BPL offering Balcones Council a group subscription to the magazine and the site! (BPL was the only contact I heard back from.) BPL has renewed us each year since, and the group subscription has allowed me to add access for other volunteer leaders.
How has access to BPL helped our program? Probably most importantly, it has helped me, and some of the other most involved adult volunteers, learn much more about our whole relationship to backpacking and outdoor adventures. By this I mean, not just lightening up on equipment, although that is certainly a critical concern, but the broader skill set that goes with a deeper understanding of how equipment, knowledge, and skills are used in the outdoors. We didn’t just find out about the existence of silnylon tarps and tarptents, we had our minds opened to realize that we, too, could use them successfully. We didn’t just learn about lightweight packs available on the market, we were motivated to select REI UL packs when REI gave us an equipment grant, instead of their “sturdy” conventional packs weighing twice as much. We learned about the issues surrounding water treatment and backwoods hygiene, fire starting, managing altitude effects, weather safety, and backpacking food. Of course, we knew the basics of these issues before, but the depth and quality of information available on BPL helped give us the confidence actually to try out what we were learning, and to let the kids try things out as well. When one of the kids wanted to bring just a bivy for shelter, our BPL reading gave us the confidence to let him do it, and he has continued happily using that old bivy through rain, hail, cold, and wind for the last four years.
Experimenting with a tube tent. Cheap, light, condensation city!
We have added occasional in-town skills meetings to our schedule, between trips, to just get down and practice something for a couple of hours, like effective fire building, setting up tarps, or hanging food bags - things you can’t just read about, but that should be practiced before you need to be able to do them on a trip. We already knew about alcohol stoves and ULA packs, but it was through BPL that we learned about Caldera Cones, Gossamer Gear, Gatewood Capes, mini-dropper bottles and fine headnets, DriDucks, and so many other gear options. Even when, often because of cost to the families, it is not feasible to equip each participant with the lightest of up-to-date gear, for those of us leaders willing and able to invest, it enables us to carry that required big first aid kit, that extra backup equipment, or that notebook with all the signed medical forms and emergency plans and contacts, without overloading ourselves.
Lara and Theresa enjoy success at a firebuilding practice meeting.
Each spring we do a service project at Lost Maples State Natural Area. On this trip, we painted the overlook benches.
In an ongoing program like ours, some issues will always be with us. Because we are always integrating new families, some of whom are complete beginners to camping, or at least to backpacking, or in which the parents know only heavyweight backpacking, we always have folks at every stage of the learning process, from beginners to old hands. Most kids will pay more attention to older kids than they will to adults, so it helps a lot when the high school age teens find time in their busy schedules to keep participating and take on some of the teaching roles. They give our “trailhead talks,” tell stories (“This is what happened when I got separated from the group that time and I didn’t have my whistle with me,” is a whole lot more effective than just “Remember to carry your whistle all the time,”), make themselves available to help newcomers set up shelters or read maps, and entertain with their own food experiments. Parents are actually a greater challenge than kids when it comes to getting a workable kit. Parents are welcome to participate on trips, and many do. Parents tend to worry more (of course, it’s their job) about “what ifs” and want to pack too many redundancies, large quantities, or overkill equipment.
We have to insist that parents allow their youth to assemble and pack their own kits, with, if necessary, an older (or just more experienced) youth to help them sort it out. But with the adults, we have to do as many BPLers have found is necessary with their hiking buddies, and lead more by example than direct instruction. On our first weekend trip for this season, a one-nighter, I had a mom who had hardly even been camping before, let alone walked over a mile from the car, who felt she needed, just for herself, a four-person tent and what looked to me like a week’s worth of food. What didn’t fit in her pack went into a hand-carried grocery bag. She still had a good time and wants to at least send her son on future trips, and she was able to observe other people on the trip happily managing with much less.
A couple of our traditional, “I know what I want to bring, and I can carry it just ﬁne,” parent volunteers, Pecos Wilderness 2010. Note the climbing rope - we had nothing on our route for which a rope would be useful, but being a cautious dad, he brought it “just in case.”
At one end of the spectrum, we have experienced parents wanting to carry the same massive kit they’ve had since the 1980s, and by contrast, parents like the one who asked me to recommend a shelter she could use for her family of four on Camp Fire canoeing trips and share with her older daughter without too much weight when the two of them came backpacking. Following my suggestion, she had a TarpTent Hogback shipped out within a week. Most parents are supportive, especially when they learn that it is better to wash out some recycled soda bottles for water instead of buying a bunch of $10.00 Nalgenes, that we really do recommend kids share a shelter, or that ponchos/DriDucks/closed cell foam pads are not just cheaper, but better for our purposes than their expensive cousins.
One of the most important effects of our BPL membership, though, is its effect on me personally, as the program coordinator. I have a lot of responsibilities in this job, including outreach, recruiting, and arranging for training of adult volunteers, working out - with the group - the destinations and a calendar, preparing and conducting Orientations for new participants, making sure the trips have leaders and assistants, leading trips myself, accounting for trip expenses, helping families locate gear, reporting to the Council and to the group, working with the Council to maintain and update our equipment library, organizing skills meetings, scouting out new destinations, and more. As a backpacking enthusiast, it would be a whole lot easier for me to simply go backpacking a lot, with my husband for companionship (yes, we do that too), than shepherd this whole varied group of teens and families out with me, even after my own three kids are all grown up. I do enjoy watching all these people, especially the teenagers, enter a new world of forest and meadow and mountaintop and learn to make themselves at home there. Every time I visit BPL, I can hang out with a whole community of folks whose enthusiasm is infectious; I feel supported and know that the volunteer effort it takes to keep this program and all these kids finding the magic of the backcountry really is worth it.
Pecos Wilderness 2010. These kids have their kits a lot more streamlined than what we used to carry!