Agree with the commentary about way better options than Philmont for getting outdoors (at a whole lot less cost than Philmont). Been pushing back with Mark Anderson and the leadership team at Philmont to understand all the crazy rules. They are still incredibly close minded. Here is the text of the latest responses to my questions. My response is also included. Not sure they are interested in adopting any new ways. Very disappointing that these folks call themselves Scouts.
From Mark Stinnett, Chairman, Philmont Program & Risk Management Task Force, Philmont Ranch Committee Chairman, BSA National Outdoor Programs Committee
1. Can someone please confirm if there are now rules that prohibit turkey bag cooking, cooking in the foil packs, and cooking in ziplock bags?
Yes. These practices are not permitted at Philmont for a variety of reasons.
Regarding “cooking in the foil packs,” the foil food packages issued by Philmont are not designed or approved for direct cooking in the packages. Ziplock bags are also not designed or approved by the manufacturer for direct cooking. Although we are aware that some backpackers choose to disregard manufacturer warnings about such use, we do not teach or condone that sort of safety violation and health risk at Philmont.
Turkey bags or oven bags, of course, are appropriate for cooking, and we at Philmont are certainly familiar with their use by many backpackers on short-term outings. However, Philmont does not permit their use by crews on its treks for two important reasons, one related to safety of campers and the other to sustainability.
Use of turkey bags, multiple cooking bags, and similar creative cooking methods are all done solely to reduce cleanup time and to slightly reduce the weight of cook gear to be carried. However, these methods create an increased risk of bear problems in Philmont’ campsites by increasing cooking odors in the campsite and by leaving a food residue on the bag that then becomes a continuing and ongoing source of residual food odor. That food odor problem then persists so long as the bag is in the crew’s possession. The only two methods for disposing of the used cooking bags are to pack them out or dispose of them at one of Philmont’s staffed camps. Most Philmont staffed camps do accept garbage from crews, which must then be hauled out, usually by a commissary truck. These vehicles typically do not visit a staffed camp more than once a week, and in some cases, not that often.
While this may not seem like a big issue for a single crew like yours, it becomes a major problem for Philmont with hundreds of crews and many thousands of campers each summer. Philmont has made concerted efforts in recent years to promote sustainability and reduce the use of vehicles in its backcountry. Allowing crews to carry and use disposable turkey bags or oven bags multiplies backcountry garbage exponentially. This creates a safety issue for the crew, which has to carry the used
bags (with attractive food odors) until they are disposed of at a staffed camp or at base, and for the staff in the backcountry camp, which has to collect and store an even greater amount of odorous garbage from passing crews until such time as it can be picked up by a vehicle. Increased trash in backcountry camps requires increased vehicular traffic to pick up and haul out that garbage, and also results in increased filling of our landfill.
On balance, Philmont management, with the full support of our volunteer Ranch Committee, has determined that the overall benefits of bear safety for all crews and protection of Philmont’s environmental resources outweigh the perceived benefits to individual crews of slightly less weight to carry and easier cleanup after meals. We have found over the years that the Scouts attending Philmont are quite capable of managing the weight of crew cooking gear and individual bowls and cups, and that time spent washing dishes after a single cooked meal each day has not interfered with the Scouts’ abilities to partake of Philmont programs.
2. Do I understand correctly that Philmont is now requiring two 8-quart pots and one 6-quart pot per crew?
No. Philmont recommends such equipment for each crew, but recognizes that some crews, because of size, experience or their own equipment, may be able to make do with different sizes or numbers of pots. However, Philmont does teach and require crews to use a 3-step method for dishwashing, which requires immersion of dishes in boiling water for sanitization before the next meal. For most crews, complete immersion of personal eating gear will require at least one 8-quart pot. If your crew members all have bowls and cups that can be fully immersed in a 6-quart pot, your crew may be able to get by without an 8-quart pot.
This procedure has been reviewed and adopted by Philmont’s Health Lodge Task Force, comprised of Philmont physicians, program staff and volunteer leaders. Again, this is a safety issue for Philmont because of the nature of its operation and the large numbers of campers it accommodates. In some past years, Philmont has had issues with the occasional outbreak and spread of viral illnesses. Experience has taught us that these types of problems are effectively reduced through use of the dishwashing techniques required by Philmont. Once again, while an individual crew might deem these techniques to be excessive or unnecessary for themselves, we must consider the greater good of the thousands of campers using Philmont each summer.
3. Is Philmont insisting that all food be dumped and cooked directly in the pot?
Yes. Philmont food packaging is not designed or approved for cooking directly in the package.
One of your initial emails suggested that use of the foil packs or Ziploc bags for cooking “do not generate very dirty pots that then require introducing grey water waste into the environment.” As with most such issues, a value judgment must be made as to which method poses the least problem for the particular environment involved. For the reasons described above, Philmont has made the determination that cooking in pots, with disposal of waste water in sumps provided in most camps for that specific purpose, is the preferable course for the Philmont environment. While you or your crew may make a different value judgment that is entirely appropriate in some other environment in which you hike, while hiking at Philmont, we do expect and require crews to abide by Philmont policies. This requirement is no different than what would be expected of crews hiking in any national park, national forest, wilderness area, or state or private property, all of which have widely varying policies and requirements for users to follow.
4. Will the patrol be permitted to cook meals using methods of their own choosing provided that does not introduce additional waste?
Crews are taught by our rangers and are expected to follow Philmont’s policies as outlined above. Obviously, Philmont has no direct control of what crews choose to do after their ranger leaves them.
5. What MANDATORY items must the crew check out from PSR? Are we to leave our tents, cooking kits, dining flys, water purification filters and such home?
There are no mandatory items that a crew must check out from Philmont, so long as the crew brings with them the required crew gear as outlined in the 2013 Guidebook to Adventure. The vast majority of crews coming to Philmont do not have all of the required equipment on hand, so Philmont makes certain items of crew gear, such as tents, dining flies, etc. available for crews.
Having said that, certain items of equipment that a crew might want to bring would not be acceptable. For example, some crews want to save weight by using “tube tents,” which are little more than an extended garbage bag with no flaps or doors at either end. Such “tents” are no longer acceptable at Philmont because of bear safety precautions initiated years ago. Philmont now requires campers to sleep in a genuine tent with a flap that closes. Likewise, some campers arrive and announce that they want to sleep in hammocks. Philmont prohibits use of hammocks for the same bear safety reasons.
5. Who will decide if gear we bring is a suitable substitute for PSR gear?
Initially, that is the responsibility of the crew’s assigned ranger. If an issue arises, ultimately the Philmont Director of Program (Mark Anderson), following policies adopted and approved by the Program and Risk Management Task Force of the Philmont Ranch Committee and the Philmont Health Lodge Task Force, has that responsibility.
As set forth in the Guidebook to Adventure, these issues are best addressed before the crew arrives at Philmont.
6. I also asked questions about using our own larger bear bags, bear bag hanging systems that does not require harming the PSR trees by trampling on their roots and wrapping rope around their bark, paint strainer bags for sumping, and smaller 6 and 4 qt pots for cooking.
Crews are not required to use Philmont bear bags if they bring an adequately sized and strong enough substitute. Crews are expected to use the bear cables installed in most campsites for hanging their bear bags. Without more information on your “bear bag hanging system,” I cannot say whether it would be acceptable or not. However, if it involves hanging your crew’s bags somewhere other than the pre- installed cables provided for that purpose, the answer will be probably not. If you have a description you could provide, that would be helpful.
Paint strainer bags for sumping are not encouraged because they simply add another bag to the garbage load for each cooked meal. The “sump frisbee” Philmont provides to crews for this purpose is more environmentally friendly because it is reusable. The Philmont professional and volunteer staff certainly recognizes that paint strainer bags are lighter weight than the sump frisbee (which, of course, is not “heavy” by any stretch of the imagination). However, this is a perfect example of how Philmont has made a decision in favor of sustainability rather than convenience or preference of an individual crew.
These are the types of decisions that allow Philmont to continue to serve more than 20,000 campers every summer.
As discussed previously, 6 and 4 quart pots are permissible if the crew can meet the sanitization requirements using a 6 quart pot.
7. The issue here is not the request from our crew to use a specific method for their cooking. It is the attitude at PSR that they know the only “correct” way. . . . I would rather have expected PSR to embrace best practices from their many visiting crews. But alas, the attitude at PSR is that PSR knows the only correct way. Your insistence on a specific cooking technique is just one more example of this culture that has permeated PSR. I would ask you to stop and reevaluate your “rules” in light of the aims and methods of Scouting. We are supposed to be here to Explain, Demonstrate, Guide and Enable our youth using the principles of shared leadership. The PSR “Big Boss” style really has no place in Scouting. Philmont is supposed to be the premier backcountry experience in BSA. Might I suggest you and your staff embrace the constructive creativity of our youth rather than squashing it with your rules?
As Mr. Anderson said in one of his messages to you, for most matters relating to backpacking techniques, Philmont is not a trial site for new methods. Philmont’s policies and practices have been developed, through experience, over many years to assure a safe and quality experience for many thousands of campers each summer. To successfully operate a camp and backpacking operation of Philmont’s size requires choices that may not seem “the best” to a particular individual or crew, but are made with the overall operation in mind. An individual crew that wants to use different methods or follow its own “rules” may correctly feel that it isn’t causing any problems for Philmont, but if that was multiplied across several thousand crews, Philmont would be seriously impacted. Many Philmont policies and “rules” consider issues like sustainability and environmental protection on a ranch-wide scale that an individual crew simply doesn’t have to face. Philmont does – and those policies have allowed Philmont to continue to offer quality programs to almost a million Scouts over 75 years. If I may quote a line from an old Star Trek movie, “the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few.”
Philmont is visited annually by many advisors who have significant skills and expertise in particular program areas, such as climbing, horsemanship, shooting, or as in your case, backpacking. However, Philmont does not make exceptions to allow those individuals to demonstrate their expertise outside the established Philmont program parameters. For example, an expert mountaineer serving as a crew advisor must still sit through Philmont’s climbing safety program, must still climb with a belayer, and must still use the specific rock routes established by the Philmont program staff. An experienced horseman must still wear a helmet, must still ride in a single-file line with other inexperienced riders, and must still follow directions of Philmont’s wranglers. They follow the same rules as all other campers, even though they themselves have the skill and expertise to do the activity differently, or even better. With rare exceptions, our “expert” advisors understand and appreciate the need for policies in an operation like Philmont’s and embrace the program opportunity provided for their Scouts.
My own troop is blessed to have multiple mountain backpacking opportunities available. Several of our adult leaders are consummate backpackers with hundreds of nights of backpacking experience under their belts. On our troop outings, we use some of the same techniques you advocate (our own bear bags with lighter 550 parachute cord to secure them, 6 quart pots for cooking, paint thinner bags for sumping). However, when we do our own Philmont trek this summer, we’ll be using Philmont’s bigger bear bag ropes, 8-quart pots and sump Frisbees because we are also an experienced Philmont troop. We
recognize that Philmont’s policies are there for a reason, and that when we camp and hike at Philmont, we are expected to use the “Philmont method,” even if that isn’t the same method we use back home. Using the EDGE method you referenced, we find that Scouts are well able to understand the need for some tradeoffs between individual crew preferences and the overall camper safety and sustainability issues for an operation the size of Philmont.
This is not at all an issue of Philmont management being “close-minded” or believing that “the Philmont way is the only way.” Rather, we believe that “the Philmont way” is the best way for Philmont, and freely acknowledge that it is not the only way, and certainly not the best way, in other places. Philmont program techniques and teachings are evaluated regularly by experts, and new methods of doing any of our programs (climbing, shooting, backpacking, camping, blacksmithing, archery, mining, really anything) are continually incorporated with consideration given to individual and overall camper safety, protection of Philmont’s scarce resources, and delivery of a quality adventure experience for the many, not just the few.
-------- My Response
Thank you for your responses. I appreciate the explanations. But by far the most important action I need to ask of you and the Philmont staff is to update the Philmont web site to make the answers you have provided clear to ALL crews. That is not currently the case for these particular questions.
I respectfully disagree with you reasoning behind use of turkey bags. The advantages of the turkey bag go well beyond cleanup. The turkey bag enables full hydration of the meal and avoids burnt-on reside in the pots. The Philmont technique of pouring boiling water into a second pot to hydrate the meal rarely if ever fully hydrates the meal and requires unnecessary extra space and weight for a second large pot. Use of turkey bags also permits the crew more time to participate in program rather than meal preparation and cleanup. Philmont includes foods in literally every one of their food packages that leave significant smellable residue. So I find your residue arguments against turkey bags a bit hypocritical.
Just as some foil packs are and are not rated for boiling, so are Ziplock bags. The Zip'n Steam steam bags informed crews use are fully rated by the manufacturer for boiling. So I would be very careful making statements such as "Ziplock bags are also not designed or approved by the manufacturer for direct cooking."
Crews should not be permitted to deposit garbage at staff camps. This practice is inconsistent with Leave No Trace principles that we are trying to to teach to our scouts. Insisting on Disposing on Waste Properly will help motivate the scouts to do a better job to Plan Ahead and Prepare. This latter point is a LNT principle not because scouts need to be preparing to go backpacking. It is there because scouts need to be preparing to minimize their backcountry impact. Dropping the practice to allow crews to deposit waste at staff camps would also help you meet your objective to minimize your vehicular traffic.
Our strainer bags are reused. In fact, only one strainer bag is used by each crew for their entire Philmont trek. They are no more "smellable" than the Philmont frisbee.
I would call your attention to the bear bagging system initially proposed by Al Geist many years ago. I personally demonstrated a very similar method to the chief ranger and his staff a few years ago. It employs a releasable hook for the bear cable, a block and tackle system with much smaller line, and is tied off with a jamming method that eliminates the need to harm trees. The mechanical advantage of the block and tackle also eliminates the need for a second set of ropes for the "oops" bag.
Many state and national parks will restrict the types of fires, group sizes, specify human waste practices, and approve certain bear bag containers/methods. But I have yet to come across any park that insisted on policies of pot sizes, cooking techniques, specific sizes of ropes, tent types (short of insisting on clustering all campers for bear safety), etc. The statistics for the Grand Canyon for last year were over 300,000 backcountry campers restricted to far fewer backcountry campsites than are available at Philmont. And the GCNP is a far more sensitive environment than Philmont. The Great Smokey Mountains National Park is probably the most comparable to Philmont in that is is about four times the size and has about four times the annual backcountry user load, albeit with a similar count of established campsites. The user density for most of the state parks is off the scale when compared to Philmont's 22,000 campers. Yet I cannot name a single one of these state or national parks that require the degree of intervention you and Mark Anderson are prescribing for Philmont. And despite backcountry lore, I find our trained Boy Scouts to be far better stewards of the environment than the majority of the users I have encountered on my many trips to state and national parks. So Philmont should really not be having as much trouble as would appear to be the case from the Philmont "rules." I would encourage you to dig a bit deeper to find the root causes of the sustainability challenges at Philmont rather than regulating the symptoms.
Ultralight Backpacking Instructor
LNT Master Educator