I am a thirty-seven year old guy who is getting back into backpacking, after a twelve year hiatus from the sport. I am absolutely amazed at how the equipment has changed so fundamentally, particularly within the last eight or nine years it seems. Within the last six months, Ive been reading all about this "ultra-light" and "light and fast" thing that seems to be taking over non BSA backpacking.
It is VERY interesting! I like it. However, I would also like to say that no matter how light the packs get, physical conditioning still reigns supreme in the end.
First I'd like to say that I proudly got my start with backpacking in the Scouting organisation back in the early eighties. During the eighties, from 83' thru 87' I was extremely heavily involved in BSA High Adventure. My BSA High Adventure resume is as follows:
1) Formally accepted to be a Philmont Ranger for the 1991 summer season, but cancelled Phil-contract at the last moment.
2) Philmont base camp staff-1986 (Philmont Base camp is at 6500' altitude)
3) Philmont Trail Crew (one month long)-1985
4) Philmont Rayado Trek program (fifteen days)-1985
5) Camp Daniel Boone Council High Adventure program, located in Haywood county, North Carolina. I was a camper in this program twice and a staffer/crew leader once. This program is located near Canton, NC and comprised of a 54 mile "expedition" in the Shining Rock Wilderness area of the Pisgah National Forest and canoeing on the French Broad River. Good but little known BSA high adventure program.
6) Multiple BSA sponsored "50 mile hikes" held in the winter during Christmas vacation. Fifty miles in five days. I loved those Christmas fifty milers. While everybody else was eating Christmas leftovers and watching the boob tube, I was out backpacking fifty miles in cold weather, sleet and wet North Carolina snow with fifty to eighty crazy Scouts and Scouters. A lot of whom would drop out of the hike BTW.
7) Numerous backpacking trips on my own, solo, including trips on the AT and down into Linville Gorge Wilderness area, NC several times.
8) Made Eagle rank in 1987
9) Assistant Scoutmaster in my old troop from 88-93.
I find this string of posts very interesting, partially because I disagree strongly that the mantra in Scouting is to go heavy on backpacking treks. My experience was that it was the exact opposite in formal BSA High Adventure programs.
When I was in Scouting back in the eighties, we always had shakedowns and the Philmont Rangers/Trail Crew Foreman were fanatics about ditching unneeded gear and equipment. Same thing in the Camp Daniel Boone High Adventure program...those shakedowns were pretty aggressive.
"What are you gonna need this for?" was a common derisive comment during a shakedown.
I will admit that back then it was basically impossible to get down to these ridiculously low pack weights some ultra-light guys seem to be getting to...say in the 20-25 lb range for a five day trip. But our packs were still reasonably lightweight back then, say in the thirty to forty pound range. That is not a bad weight, particularly when you are physically fit and with no serious health issues.
Personally, I believe that much of the problem with weight stems from lack of physical fitness. If you have no major health problems and are in shape, carrying loads up to forty pounds shouldnt be a problem even into your forties, if you are motivated to do so.
Being that the United States has become the fattest, most out of shape country in the world, I think the ultra-lightweight backpacking movement is a great thing.
I really shouldnt say this, but some of these posts have irritated me in a way. But when I was at Philmont, I had a lot of "behind the scenes" interaction with Philmont Rangers, Conservation staff, etc. And Philmont Rangers used to complain A LOT about "all the Scouters who come to Philmont but are so out of shape its ridiculous." Some of the Rangers talked about some of the Scouters like they needed to be shipped off to Marine Corp Recruit Depot, Parris Island, SC to be whipped into decent cardiovascular shape.
Not all Rangers were critical like that, but I heard it enough the two summers I was there. And not all the Scouters were out of shape, there were many would were in very good shape, in better shape than many of the Scouts.
But too many were just plain physically unprepared...I am just going to call a spade a spade here. If you are physically unprepared, drink too much beer, etc. no amount of lightening your pack weight in the world will prepare you for humping it up and down mountains at high altitude at a place like Philmont. You are not going to adjust to the high altitude well. Your feet and joints are not going to be able to handle the ground pounding if you are out of shape.
Nothing replaces prior physical conditioning. Being physically fit is part of "being prepared" and is what allows you to handle certain pack weights. Also, few who are not physically prepared will be able to handle the altitude at a place like Philmont, even if your pack weighs only fifteen pounds and your boots or trail shoes only weigh 1-2 pounds per pair.
It is a medical fact that out of shape, overweight (even moderately overweight) people are more susceptible to developing altitude sickness.
My extensive experiences with the BSA program...and with BSA High Adventure in particular...taught me several things:
1) most Scouts and Scouters are not interested in backpacking to begin with. Most of the Scouts in my troop did not earn backpacking merit badge...not even hiking merit badge. I earned both...and always wondered why more werent "into" high adventure programs like I was.
I found that the Scouts and Scouters at Philmont and similar BSA sponsored High Adventure programs were atypical to the overal Scouting program. In my experiences, most in the Scouting program were interested in stationary base camp type camping (summer camps, weekend camping, camporees, Jamborees and working on their rank).
2) BSA High Adventure programs like Philmont ARE NOT oriented for younger Scouts in the 11-13 year old range. While I am sure it has been done, I cant imagine an 11 to 12 year old on a Philmont trek. Very few 11-13 year olds are physically or emotionally capable of completing a Philmont trek. When I was at Philmont for two summers, the program was geared towards older Scouts in the 14-21 year range. The age limit for the hardcore Rayado Trek program was 15 and the age for the Trail Crew program was 16. Basically high school thru college age.
So discussing backpacking for really young Scouts in the 11-13 year old ranger I think is kind of silly.
3) Despite the above observations of the BSA as a whole, there are some Scouts and Scouters (minority within the BSA) who are intensely into backpacking. These are the Scouts and Scouters I got along best with...and respected way more than a lot of the guys I made Eagle with.
I had a Trail Crew buddy who dropped out of Scouting his Senior year and didnt make Eagle. He joined the Army and served as a infantryman paratrooper. I respected him way more than most of the guys in my hometown who made Eagle, simply because he was like me...he was a hardcore backpacker/outdoorsman and not a weenie.
I would also like to say this (pure personal opinion). I think that completing a five day, fifty mile backpacking trek should be formally added into the mandatory requirement to make Eagle. I realize a lot of Scouters at the National level would disagree with me on that, but thats my personal opinion. But unless a Scout is physically disabled in some serious way and physically cannot walk 50 miles, I stand by my opinion. For physically disabled Scouts, the mandatory fifty miler should be waivered to so they can still make Eagle rank.
I saw way too many Scouts make Eagle who were not good campers, much less backpackers. And were scared of the dark at age 18 when placed out in the woods, etc. Making completion of a five day fifty miler mandatory for making Eagle rank would weed out a lot of the "weenies" in the Scouting program.
I also think this would kindle more interest in backpacking within the BSA, because for some backpacking is an acquired taste. It is an activity that is enjoyed ONLY when you are reasonably fit!
Now that I have ranted and gotten this off my chest, I would like to say that I think the ultra-light backpacking movement is a great thing. As long as it isnt seen as a replacement for that most basic thing in backpacking...reasonable levels of physical fitness.