My journey into ultralight backpacking was an interesting experience. I took one of my first ultralight trips with a group of emotionally disturbed young boys. I was in North Carolina working with Cameron Boy's Camp, a therapeutic wilderness camp/school for troubled boys.
These boys come to camp from very difficult family situations and, as a result, they are often unable to function in normal society. The camp groups them by age, and they live in primitive campsites of wood-framed tents they build and maintain themselves. Each group - six to ten boys and their three Counselor/Teachers or 'Chiefs' - is responsible to plan their own program together, based on the needs and desires of the group.
As the boys build trusting relationships with their Chiefs and each other, they learn to clearly express their frustrations, rather than acting them out. When they do act up, natural consequences (like being late for meals) are a powerful learning experience. As boys learn to work together to build a tent, chop wood, or pack a canoe, they learn social skills they can use back home with their families.
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In preparation for a backpacking trip, we took the boys canoeing and camping on North Carolina's Great Pee Dee and Lumber Rivers. Notice how the paddles and gear are organized in a neat row. This trip was a huge factor in preparing our group for a good backpacking trip.
Without lightweight gear, nor the time or budget to go shopping, we relied on technique and smart packing to limit the weight. The only packs that fit our little guys were these old external frame packs.
We broke up hiking with fun activities like playing at the pond and on the rope swing. An excuse for the younger ones to rest without feeling like a hindrance as well as nipping some building tension, everyone loved the rope swing.
Looking for our first campsite. The winter sleeping bags (all we had) weighed nearly five pounds each, requiring us to really buckle down on other things without skimping beyond safety for the boys, who were our number one concern.
Our last campsite. Notice how the backpacks are laid out along a log to keep things organized, which was tremendously helpful when it came to knowing where everyone's gear was, getting settled at night, and packed up in the morning.
Year One with the Frontiersmen
I had an interest in taking my group, the Frontiersmen, backpacking from the very beginning. In fact, a short backpacking trip was planned when I joined the group. The idea was to go on canoeing trips over the summer, then try to catch the fall colors for our backpacking trip.
Unfortunately, the group was in no shape for a wilderness excursion. Things were plenty wild enough around camp. In my first week, we found ourselves holding down three boys that wanted to fight, while they and the rest of the group were screaming obscenities at each other for two hours straight. Every group goes through periodic 'Cain-raising' phases, as new boys test the system. Eventually, natural consequences kick in, and the boys decide it's not worth it. In the meantime, however, things were just too chaotic to go off in the backcountry.
I escaped the craziness for a while on a vacation with my brother, Daniel, and friend, Jerry, to Alaska. We planned a two-night backpacking trip, carrying traditional gear. The trip was fun, but on the second day I reinjured a knee I'd hurt while playing with the boys. We bailed on the trip and spent the rest of the time doing shorter day hikes. I didn't know much about ultralight backpacking, but I made up my mind that I'd lighten my pack next time.
Year Two with the Frontiersmen
Going into my second spring at camp, things had stabilized a lot, as most of our group were the same boys from the year before. We got the guys camping on an island in the middle of a lake. With the group coming together a bit more, we canoed down the Lumber River for about five days. The trip was a huge success. Logjams and low water forced the guys to work together more.
Next, we did a three-week canoeing trip on the Pee Dee River, which was also a big success.
Meanwhile, I had discovered Lightweight Backpacking and Camping by Ryan Jordan and was diligently trimming my pack weight. Sue, my new co-Chief, gave me a homemade tarp tent; I replaced my old Therm-a-Rest and eliminated extra stuff I didn't really need. I also bought a new Gregory Z-55 pack to replace my twenty-year-old Gregory pack that weighed around seven pounds.
After the Pee Dee trip, we counselors felt we could handle backpacking. The guys were functioning very well together and some were on their way home. The problem was it was now fall, and with Thanksgiving, Christmas, and various camp activities, we wouldn't be free to take a trip until January. It was then or never, because I was leaving at the end of the month. Obviously backpacking in cold weather had its challenges, but I thought if we used the lightweight principals I was learning, it might be possible.
Planning the Trip
I also felt that another trip would help the group maintain cohesion. Two of our older boys had left as well as two counselors. Austin and Alex were eleven years old and were both doing pretty well at camp. The other four, Daniel, Howie, Nic, and Hunter, were all nine years old and were fairly new to camp. The newer boys hadn't really bought into the idea that camp was part of the solution to their problems. I was often the only one holding the group together, and I wanted them to come together as a team before I left.
I spoke to Chief Tim, our Assistant Director, to see if we could plan a quick backpacking trip. There wasn't really time to plan a major trip to the mountains, and it would have been too cold to be practical anyway. Tim suggested we do a two-day trip around the huge chunk of backwoods that the camp owned.
The guys were excited about the idea of backpacking. This motivated them to put more effort into keeping the group functioning well. If a boy was getting out of line, another would say, “We can't act like this if we want to go backpacking.”
The camp didn't have any truly lightweight gear, and we didn't have the time or budget to go shopping. I was mostly relying on technique and smart packing to keep weight down. This was where Lightweight Backpacking and Camping came in handy.
Another group had already claimed the newer backpacks for a trip on the Florida Trail, so the only packs that would fit most of our little guys were old, external frame packs. They actually worked out pretty well, as they were fairly light and simple for our boys to pack.
I nearly choked when I saw the winter sleeping bags. With the bags weighing close to five pounds, I realized we would have to skimp any way we could. However, we couldn't go too light. A cardinal rule of being a good Chief is to always look out for the needs of your group. If you're not taking good care of them, you're destroying the trust you've worked so hard to earn.
I used the 'Super Ultralight' chapter of Lightweight Backpacking and Camping to give me ideas. Eventually, we came up with the following list for each boy to carry:
- One extra hoody (one was worn)
- One Red Ledge waterproof/breathable raincoat (more as a windbreaker)
- Extra socks
- Two water bottles
- Foam pad
- Sleeping bag (-10 government surplus)
- Plate and spoon
We had Austin and Alex, our two oldest boys, carry a tarp and large pot. Chief Sue and I would carry all the other gear, a few extra clothes for emergencies, and the food.
Learn by Doing
It was very much a 'learn as you go' trip. My friend and previous co-Chief was gone, so I had to run the group and train Chief Sue, who was new. Neither of us had taken a group backpacking at camp. Besides that, none of the camp's previous groups had gone this light before, and we were figuring it out as we went. This was where support from the boys was huge. Our boys were smart, and they knew we didn't have all the answers. Instead of getting nervous about this (which often happens with such kids), the boys jumped in, and we figured things out together.
We got some awesome help from Chief Tim and Brian, our supervisor, in packing up, but mostly it was the boys' project. I made it clear: if they wanted to go, they had better pull their weight. The boys helped plan the meals and pack them in bags. They helped find gear in the warehouse and got it organized. With a list, they then pulled together their personal items and packed them. In spite of the constraints we had to work with, the heaviest pack for an older boy was around seventeen pounds (including water), with the younger boys carrying about twelve pounds. The boys had some trouble adjusting their packs' fit, but no complaints about weight. Unfortunately, I didn't get to try out my new Gregory pack. I just had too much group gear to haul. I did go extremely light on personal gear, though. Sue and I each had our packs maxed out carrying all the stuff the boys couldn't. There was no way we could have done this trip with traditional backpacking gear.
On the Trail
On the first day, we hit the trail in high spirits. The boys were proud to be backpacking. The attitude of accomplishing something big gave them an extra motivation they often lacked. I had pitched this trip idea to them as the coolest, most challenging trip a group could take. We hiked slowly, stopping to find walking sticks and explore. For a while we alternated between yelling encouragements and jokes up and down the line with singing crazy camp songs.
The only real glitch of the trip was more an accident than bad behavior. One boy flicked mud into Alex's face with his walking stick. It was a LOT of mud. I could see it in his eye as he tried to blink it out, so I got out an unused water bottle and had Alex lie down, irrigating his eye using most of the 34-oz bottle until it was clear. Alex handled it well and said he was good to go. The eye wasn't red or anything, so I guessed there was no need for a doctor.
The rest of the group was somewhat annoyed, however. They were all concerned about Alex and felt that the boy with the stick was unkind in not showing more concern for someone he'd just hurt. I suggested he apologize and maybe ditch the stick, since his flinging it around was a safety hazard. Needing to move on from this, I got the group hiking quickly, coming upon a rope swing nearby. This proved just what we needed to help everyone relax.
By late afternoon, the smaller boys were tired. They didn't complain, but they let me know they wanted to rest soon. When I told them the campsite was near, they plowed on. I was proud of their attitude. One reason we had to reach this specific campsite was that we'd cached water there, as water in the creeks was considered unsafe.
Our campsite was located near Big Sam's Lake, a popular spot for the groups to go fishing. We split into two teams at the campsite, and Sue took some of the guys to dig a latrine and rig up a bear bag. A couple of other boys helped me set up the tarp. I realized we'd forgotten stakes, so I had two of the boys to sharpen sticks instead.
I had brought my new Equinox poncho tarp to try out, but I could easily imagine it getting ruined by careless boys. I told the guys to watch out for it, and almost took it down, but when Chief Sue and her crew came back, the guys with me spread the word to watch out for Chief's new toy. “Be careful of Chief Luke's tarp - it's delicate, and he really likes it.” This personal concern was appreciated, and it was better than they'd treated tents in the past.
Cooking was a bit of a challenge, because we'd left the grill we used on canoeing trips. We could have propped the pot on rocks, but there were none, so we improvised. We made tripods out of walking sticks and belts to hold up a crosspiece for a pot to hang from.
Before bed at camp, groups always have a 'pow-wow,' or an evaluation of what they learned and accomplished for the day. That night, the boys were clearly feeling good about themselves, and we encouraged them to keep it up and make it the best trip ever.
Good People Make for Good Stories
We had a funny incident when we started hiking the next morning. One of the boys, who shall remain anonymous, had a pair of jeans that were quite a bit too big. “Chief” he called back, “my pants are falling down.” “Don't worry,” I said “your hip belt should hold them up.” He disappeared around a corner, then I heard a panicked “CHIEF!” I got around the corner, and there he was with his pants around his ankles. The other guys tried not to embarrass him as he got himself put back together. I helped him adjust his hip belt so it didn't push his pants down anymore, and we had a good laugh together.
We hiked through a creek bottom most of the morning. I showed the group how to purify water with iodine tablets or a filter. I also tried out a rope swing over the creek and got my feet wet. “Chief, you got a problem with water,” Austin teased, “you dumped your canoe on the Pee Dee and now you get your feet wet!” He was referring to the fact that I'd been the only one to tip a canoe on our trips so far. That accident was particularly memorable because the sleeping bags were all in my canoe.
We were making great time, so we took it easy. We spent a lot of the afternoon exploring around a pond. The guys had fun balancing on a fallen tree and playing around the water.
When I called a halt we gathered up in a circle, like we always did when it was time to make a plan of action. To keep things organized, I laid out the campsite plan for the group. I pointed out the fireplace and the two trees we'd rig the tarp off. I then instructed the boys to lay their packs along a log in a neat row.
The boys now had a routine for a backpacking camp and moved more quickly and with less required instruction than the previous day. We made bear bagging a group activity; everyone had a few tries at throwing the rope over the branch about twenty feet up. Of course most of the boys couldn't throw that high, and if they could, they got the rope tangled up. It made for a pretty entertaining show.
Our campsite was looking good when my old co-Chief Aaron (who'd become a supervisor) came by to check on us. He'd put a lot into the group, and it was fun for him to be part of our success. He gave me a package of cookies for the guys as a sort of celebration. We certainly celebrated. There were more cookies than we really needed, and we let the boys splurge a bit.
That night around the pow-wow fire, we asked the boys what they thought of our trip. They all expressed a real feeling of accomplishment. They'd all felt like the little runts of camp when the older boys pulled off adventures and we hadn't. The boys also pointed out that we'd done this trip without any big problems. I agreed it was an awesome trip and bragged on the boys because I was truly thrilled with them. They'd helped us Chiefs plan and pack for a trip none of us had done, they'd trusted us while we figured things out on the fly, they'd encouraged one another when they got tired, and they'd shown initiative in helping meet the needs of the group. I could not have asked for more out of them.
The trip had been exactly what I'd wanted. It had challenged the guys to put more effort into helping each other than they otherwise would have done. As a result, the guys realized what they could accomplish by working together, and they would hopefully feel more confident in seeking help at the camp.
Aaron and Brian had both put a lot of hard work into helping get the Frontiersmen off the ground, and they were happy to see us backpacking. After two years of hard work, it was a fantastic way to end up. I told one of my friends, “We went backpacking; I can die in peace and go to Frontiersmen Heaven.”
About a week later it was all over, I said my good-byes and moved on to a job in Colorado. Over the last few months, the boys and I had become very close and leaving was hard. We'd come a long way together: campers that used to treat me like dirt were bawling that I was leaving.
I'm grateful to Aaron, Sue, Brian, Tim and all the other awesome staff at camp for all the work they did to make the trip possible and to make Frontiersmen a good group. I'm also glad I had Ryan Jordan's book to make our trip a logistical possibility.
I've lost track of most of those boys, though I know two have since graduated from camp and seem to be doing very well at home. Another was pulled out a bit prematurely, but his mom also reports good progress. Since then, I've done plenty of longer, lighter, and more scenic trips. But the one I'll always consider my most significant was the six to eight miles I covered with the Frontiersmen.