There are lighter options that would make this hike a lot easier. Hyas Lake, Washington
Most Scout leaders give the Scouts a pack list or checklist to be used for an outing. I had developed a checklist that I thought covered everything needed, but was stripped down enough that the boys were not carrying more that they should, given their own weight and build. I still use this checklist today. Well, checklists are only so good.
When I was a new Scoutmaster, we had planned a November overnight outing to a rustic cabin at Camp Parsons, a Boy Scout camp on Hood Canal in Washington State. It was to be a diversion from our customary backpacking outings. The group was small and the cabin was less than a quarter mile walk from the cars, so we didn’t worry about a pack check. This was the first outing for one of the boys, and while the three bags he pulled out of the vehicle when we arrived caught my attention, the other boys helped him carry them to the cabin, so I wasn’t too worried.
When it came time to unpack and lay out the sleeping bags, I found out what was in his three duffels. His dear mother had used “the checklist” to help him get ready, and though everyone had used the same list, he had far more than the others. His footwear alone included regular sneakers (on his feet), rubber boots (for the beach?), new hiking boots, and moon boots worthy of Napoleon Dynamite. When he pulled out a new cheap plastic tent for emergency shelter, despite the fact that we were staying in a cabin, it was hard not to laugh. A sitcom couldn’t have written a script any better than the entertainment this poor boy provided for us two adults that night. It was not his fault - his mother was just following the “checklist.”
The Lightweight Lesson
We didn’t want this scenario to happen on a backpacking trip; the experienced Scouts in the troop had already been well trained in lightweight backpacking, but we needed to educate all the new Scouts (and especially their parents) about each item on the checklist: why it was on the list and what was appropriate to bring for backpacking. I put together a program called What a Scout Needs. We scheduled a presentation and invited both existing and upcoming troop members and their parents. I put together four options a Scout could use and laid them out on the floor:
- A heavy (or average, for most Scouts/adults) option, 35+ pounds
- A mid-range option, around 25 pounds
- A lightweight option, around 16 pounds
- Ultra-lightweight option, around 8 pounds. This was for demonstration and would only work when a Scout acquired the necessary backpacking skills to allow for such light weights.
All are wearing school clothes - they just changed their shirts. Tripod Flat, Washington.
I helped keep the Scouts and parents focused on the lightweight theme by taking a few minutes at each quarterly Court of Honor to present a lightweight topic, showing the normal option and the lightweight option. For repackaging, I showed a Costco-sized sunscreen bottle and the same product repackaged into a smaller container, for example. With this training, most Scouts attended outings with a full pack weight of around 16 pounds, including consumables and troop/patrol gear.
Though I'm no longer Scout Master, I still help with the troop. In March 2011, while teaching the Scouts how to build igloos on Mt. Rainier, I went to move a new Scout's pack. It weighed a ton! I asked what he had in there?! His answer: “The stuff on the checklist.” They were still using my old checklist, but without the training, it wasn’t very helpful. A week later, a dad approached me say that his son was about to join the troop, and asked if I would provide some direction on what both of them needed. These and other events were the impetus for these articles (Part I and Part II) defining what an item “means” when it is on the checklist.
Every parent wants the right gear for their child. You may find great equipment for a good price, but all that effort could be wasted with a poor purchase.
Leather hiking boots, big backpacks, Scout mess kits, heavy sleeping bags, and heavy tents might seem like the 'right' gear, but can quickly become a discouraging liability for any Scout or Adult, but especially a new Scout. - Doug Prosser
The big question is, “What is the right equipment?” And just as important, “Can I trust the advice I get at the store?” These articles lay out what most Scouts really need, and how to provide such items in a lightweight style. The advice you are given in-store or by “old school” adult Scouters often doesn't take weight into account. Be informed about your choices so that you needn't simply put all your trust in whomever is behind the counter at your local gear store. Adult Scouters often have a wealth of knowledge, but their gear advice may be stuck in the Scouting era they grew up in, and, consequently, can be heavy or over-built for you or your Scout.
Careful with Weight Limits
Another issue is that 11- and 12-year-old Scouts come in all sizes. At age 11, one of my sons was about 85 pounds and 5’3” while another was 140 pounds and 5’6” at the same age (with the same parents - don’t ask me how!). The clothing and pack sizes between the boys was different, but the weight they carried should be about the same. You couldn't expect my larger son to carry 25% of his body weight (see 25% rule below): that would have him carrying 35 pounds and his brother carrying 21 pounds! Though he was bigger, he was no stronger than his 85-pound brother at that same age. Size doesn’t equal strength. The larger boys are usually simply small boys in a big body and have no more muscle than the smaller boys, though, of course this changes with age. Please be careful overloading the larger boys, even though they think they can do it. Carrying as little weight as possible works for every size body.
Proud of their new “hood.” Igloo building, Mt. Rainier.
Please keep in mind as you assemble the gear for your Scout that their total pack weight should be no more than 25% of their body weight: this is the 25% rule. If they are 80 pounds, their fully loaded pack (including food, water, and troop gear) cannot be more than 20 pounds. We do not allow a Scout to carry more than 25%, and we actively encourage them to try for 20% or less. This weight limit should be part of every decision when purchasing a piece of equipment.
Lightweight backpacking is hiking and camping with everything needed to be safe, comfortable, and well fed while carrying a very small and lightweight backpack. - Don Ladigan, Lighten Up.
The information in these articles supplements the Three-Season Checklist I've already mentioned. This checklist is exactly what I hand out to Scouts and parents in preparation for a trip.
|Pack List for Overnight/Multi-day - Semi Lightweight|
|Worn Clothing:||What to Pack:||Kitchen:|
|Pants (no cotton if possible)||Sleeping bag (in plastic-lined stuff sack)||Freezer bag cozie|
|Wool blend socks||Sleeping pad - open or closed cell||Cup and spoon (minimal)|
|Hiking/running shoes||Ground sheet||Biodegradable soap (small amount)|
|Long sleeve shirt||Water bottle - full! (1 liter, max) see hydration|
|Misc. (Optional): Remember to keep weight down!!|
|Hiking Essentials, Packed as a Kit:||Personal:||Fishing rod and reel w/ lures|
|Navigation (map and compass)||Toothbrush and paste (small)||Hiking poles or staff|
|Sun protection (lip balm, sunscreen [small amount], sunglasses)||Towel (very small)||Baseball cap|
|Insulation poncho or rain suit (see Clothing Systems in Part II)||Lightweight trowel (for catholes), or skip and use stick/tent stake||Camera (lightweight and small)|
|Illumination (flashlight/headlamp)||Medicines (Do not leave any prescriptions at home! This is not a time to try to go without!)||Small Scriptures or copy of pages you are reading (very lightweight!)|
|First aid kit (5 oz max)||Gaiters|
|Fire (fire-starter and matches)||Packed Clothing: Lightweight!|
|Repair kit and tools (including small knife)||Base Layer (lightweight)||Food:|
|Nutrition (see extra food)||Long underwear tops and bottoms in light or midweight. NO COTTON.||Snack food - trail mix, candy (minimal if any, please!)|
|Hydration (extra water, 1 liter max) and purification tablets (lightweight)||Wool or wool blend socks (only one extra pair)||Breakfast - Patrol Assignment|
|Emergency shelter (troop tent?)||Insulating Layer (lightweight)||Lunch - Patrol Assignment|
|Whistle||Extra shirt (no cotton)||Dinner - Patrol Assignment|
|Toilet paper (very little)||Fleece sweater or sweatshirt (no cotton)|
|Garbage bag - large||Wind shirt (6 oz +/-)||Shared Troop Gear:|
|Duct tape (2 ft max)||Protective Layer (lightweight)||Water filter/purifier|
|Shell jacket (rain) - important!||Tent w/ground sheet|
|Wool/fleece mittens/gloves||Stove and fuel|
|Fleece or wool hat|
|Bandana (yes, it has many uses)|
Because gear and technology change so rapidly, I hesitate recommending anything specifically, except for those rare items that have stood the test of time and are likely to be readily available no matter when. I do not directly endorse any products, named or not, and I make no claims whatsoever - suggestions only. Though I've tried to keep this as general as possible for a wide readership, some suggestions are more specific to the types of trips MY Scout group takes - your needs may vary dependent upon the troop size, outing length, destination, etc.
Items to Show Up In
- Pants - Hiking pants. No cotton jeans. See Pants in Part II, Clothing section.
- Socks - No holes.
- Shoes - Sneakers. Hiking boots are usually unnecessary. See Footwear in Part II for more information.
- Shirt - A non-cotton troop or patrol t-shirt works well. Please do not wear the Scout uniform shirt; the patches, pockets, pins, emblems, and shoulder epaulets are not conducive to hiking with a backpack and thus should be avoided. See Base Layer and Insulating Layer in Part II for more information.
Packing is easy when you don’t carry more than you need. Cowboy camping in the desert, Dusty Lake Washington.
Essential Hiking Gear
These essentials should be carried on every outing (list obtained from Seattle Mountaineers). All of the essentials (except for the garbage bag, water bottle, and extra clothing), should fit into a small ditty bag; mine is about the size of a grapefruit.
- Maps - if not provided by the troop, get either a Greentrails map or a USGS 1:24,000 scale of the area you are hiking
- Compass with adjustable declination - Affordable suggestions: Suunto M-2D, Burton8010G, Suunto M-3D (I carry this one). Don’t be tempted to purchase a cheap one; a good compass will last a long time. Sighting mirrors are usually unnecessary, though clerks or Scouters often push them.
- Sun Protection:
- Sunscreen - repackaged in a small dropper bottle (an eye dropper bottle or similar).
- Sunglasses - absolutely necessary. Go light and cheap. Fashion is not an issue, there is no one out there to impress.
- Insulation: extra clothing. See Clothing Systems in Part II. The Scouts will not need more than what they are wearing and the warmer insulation layers that they will be carrying. For day hikes, adjust (that is, bring less) accordingly.
- Illumination: LED headlamp/flashlight. With headlamps/flashlights, the smaller and lighter, the better. I suggest an LED headlamp (hands-free and easy) that won't turn on easily inside a pack. Do not pack extra batteries - LEDs last a long time and have long battery life. If the batteries are old or you are going on an extended outing, put fresh batteries in before a trip and skip carrying extras.
- First Aid Supplies: Everything together should weigh no more than 5 ounces, in one small Ziploc. The Scouts should be trained on how to use what they are carrying and what nature provides to augment their small kit. To plan for every possible emergency, one would need to bring an entire emergency room. Knowledge is the most important thing we carry.
- A few Band-Aids in various sizes
- 2 to 4 butterfly bandages or Steri-strips
- 4-6 ibuprofen
- 2-4 Immodium
- 2 3x3 or 4x4 gauze pads
- a small piece of moleskin and a small amount of medical tape, rolled on to a piece of plastic straw
- Medications: An outing is not the time to “see how it goes” and stop taking necessary medications.
- Matches - a small amount of regular matches in a Ziploc is enough to start a fire. About five REI Stormproof matches in a Ziploc are also handy in case of emergency.
- Lighter - Mini Bic only.
- Firestarter - a must, but the best are homemade.
- Cotton balls coated in Vaseline, carried in an old film canister. Half of a cotton ball will burn for 3-5 minutes.
- Dryer lint works great and is the cheapest, with an unlimited supply. Carry a few loads' worth in a Ziploc.
- The only commercial products I’ve found worth the money are Wetfire and Spark-Lite Tinderquick, but they are hard to find. NO: Magnesium firestarting tool. They burn at 5400F, but only for about two seconds, and they ruin knife blades.
- Flint sticks - they come in all sizes and are great if you know how to use them, but they are not worth much if you don’t know how to work one. IF you purchase, buy the lightest available and practice at home before bringing it.
- Waterproof container- All fire stuff should be put in a lightweight waterproof container, like a Ziploc bag. NO: The small orange container with the compass on top is worthless. They are heavy for what you get, the compass is inaccurate, and I dare you to try and light a match with the flint thing on the bottom - don’t get suckered into buying these kinds of useless items.
- Repair Kit and Tools:
- Knife - with knives, like flashlights, smaller and lighter IS better. There is no need for a fixed blade (straight) knife that requires a sheath. I have only carried the Victorinox Swiss Army Knife “Classic” model (the little one) for the last five years, it weighs 0.7 ounce, and I only use it for the scissors. A single-blade pocket knife that weighs less then 2 ounces is more than adequate. NO: multi-bladed/multi-gadget knives or multi-tools (e.g., a Leatherman). Unnecessary for Scouts or adults and very heavy to boot.
- Repair Kit -
- 2 to 3 feet of duct tape, rolled on a shortened plastic straw.
- Small sewing needle with an eye big enough to accept your dental floss. Stick it into/thru a cut down business card or a small piece of foam to protect the tip.
- A couple of safety pins.
- About 20 to 25 feet of string (not rope nor even parachute cord).
- Nutrition: extra food - one protein bar (or similar). You are rarely so far off the beaten trail to need more than this.
- Water bottle - The “standard” 1-liter Nalgene weighs 3.8 ounces, and a cleaned 1-liter water or pop bottle weighs 1.3 ounces. Skip the Naglene. I carry a wide mouth 1-quart Gatorade bottle. For most of your Scout's hiking, he will not need to carry more than 1 liter of water at a time, but he may need containers that are large enough to hold 2 quarts of water or more for some outings. Choose a collapsible 2-liter bottle - they are very light and can be rolled up when not in use. NO: “Camelbak” style water systems. Too heavy, difficult to refill, subject to punctures, result in Scouts carrying too much water weight.
- Water purification - AquaMira or similar drops/tabs, to avoid the taste of iodine. I also recommend and carry the SteriPen UV Water purifier, though this may be a bit pricey for most Scouts. NO: Pump systems. Too heavy. More information on Water Purification in Part II.
- Emergency Shelter: A large garbage bag, 33 gallon or bigger. These work for a number of things, including an emergency shelter or rain coat. Always have one in your pack.
- Whistle: Get a good plastic one. The whistles that come on a pack's sternum strap aren’t worth much more than playing a one-note song; they are just not loud enough to be of any value. Get a “real” light plastic whistle, most outdoor or boating stores have them.
November morning at Camp Parsons, Kitsap Peninsula, Washington.
I have never had a Scout show up for an outing with everything except a backpack. Thus I do not list “backpack” on my packing checklist, though a backpack is one of the most important purchases you’ll make. It is best to purchase the backpack after you have acquired the other Big Four (backpack, sleeping bag, sleeping pad, and shelter) items, as well as the other equipment your Scout will be packing. When you have made these purchases, you will know the size of pack needed. Otherwise you may purchase a pack that is too large or too small in volume.
Picking a pack for an eleven-year-old is not easy, especially if they are on the shorter side of the growth chart. There aren’t many packs made for their size, and they might grow out of it quickly, so take growth into account when buying. There will be times that your Scout will be wearing their backpack for four to eight or more hours at a time; you will want it to fit correctly and be comfortable.
Backpacks typically come in the following weights: traditional weight (4 to 8+ pounds), lightweight (2 to 3.9 pounds), ultra-lightweight (1 to 2 pounds) and super-ultra-lightweight (under 1 pound). Scouts and their parents have no need or use for the traditional weight or size pack, so we will not discuss them . Please avoid them. If you know about super-ultra-lightweight packs and where to get one, you probably don't need to read this article, so we will not discuss them either.
Three important things to consider when looking for a pack are:
- Size - Packs are sized to correspond to a person’s torso size, and vary from one manufacturer to another. Though there is no true standard in pack sizing, at least some effort is made to follow torso sizing, so having that accurately measured is important. You can go online for instructions; REI and Backpacking.com have good videos on how to measure for a pack. Pack sizes can range from XS to XL, depending on the manufacturer. If women's or youth sizes are offered, those may be a better fit to a Scout's body, and women's packs often have more closely spaced shoulder straps (helpful for smaller Scouts). Just don’t tell the boy it’s a women’s pack, and he’ll never know. I have seen many a macho boy wear a women’s pack unknowingly, thinking they were the top stud.
- Weight - Pack weight makes up part of the “Big Four.” The weight of an empty pack is very important. You should not need nor purchase a pack weighing more than 3.5 pounds, for you or your Scout. Some of my Scouts carry excellent packs that weigh 1.8 pounds. You might not find them at the big box retailers; you might need to do some research, but they exist and are worth the effort to find.
- Volume - If you have pared down your equipment, you won’t need a large pack. A small volume pack will also encourage your Scout to bring less, saving weight. Optimum volume would be between 2400 cu in (39 liters) and 3600 cu in (59 liters). You should not look at anything larger than a 3500 to 3900 cu in (~65 liters). There is no need for anything larger, even in winter. Again, it is best to get most of your Scout's other gear before you purchase a pack, because the volume needed will be dictated by the size of the gear to fit in the pack. Don't purchase a pack with such a small volume that you must strap or dangle things from it. It seems like every troop has someone who does this, and it invariably brings to mind the classic idea of a hillbilly, bobbing down the trail, clanking. Everything should fit inside the pack with the exception of maybe a sleeping pad, rolled tightly under the pack lid.
Top of the world - or at least Thorp Mountain. Mt. Rainier in the background. Notice the water bottles - lightweight and reuseable!
Backpacks come in three main types: frameless, internal frame, and external frame. Frameless packs require additional knowledge for weight and proper packing, and are probably outside the scope of most new Scouts. You are most likely to find internal frame packs to meet the above recommendations for size, weight, and volume.
Please do not be tempted to purchase a pack cover, also sold as a rain cover, opting instead for a pack liner. We use a trash compactor bag or a kitchen size garbage bag. These are inexpensive and work the best. You can also use a large 33-gallon garbage bag to cover the pack at night, the pack will fit completely inside.
Sleeping bags can be a difficult purchase. Temperature ratings are usually set arbitrarily by the manufacturer, though Europe has a standard temperature rating process called “EN 13537,” which is reliably accurate. Unless you see the official EN 13537 rating, take temperature rating with a grain of salt. Low quality bags abound, but the manufacturers of these often overstate their temperature rating. High quality bags can be very expensive, but are usually more accurate with temperature ratings. Temperature rating is simply a starting point, and how it applies to your Scout depends on if they are a warm or cold sleeper and the circumstances they will most likely encounter on overnight trips.
The next issue with sleeping bags is whether the filling or insulation should be down or synthetic. Some people think that you shouldn’t use a down bag in wet weather; or that synthetic is warmer when wet. My take on this: I never want to sleep in any kind of wet bag. I work to keep my bag dry at all cost, and so should you, which largely eliminates moisture as a factor in this debate.
Nice warm sleeping bags. Cowboy camping, Umtanum Canyon.
Now, cost and how rough a normal twelve-year-old is are factors - big factors! A good down bag costs a lot more than a synthetic bag, and while down is lighter, it is also more fragile. My boys all had synthetic bags until they were sixteen years old. Their first bags were purchased used, and I didn’t worry about how my boys treated them. Of course I knew how they’d be treated - I was a twelve-year-old Scout once. We try to teach the Scouts respect for their gear and attempt to curtail any blatant disregard, but we also understand that some of their brain function got turned off when they turned twelve. Now, if your son is like my nephew, you could give him a $300 down bag and it would still look new, fifteen years later. It’s your call (and money), and you know your Scout best.
Either way, down or synthetic, you should try to get a bag that weighs less than 3 pounds, and is preferably closer to 2 pounds. Just as a reference, some of the highest quality 20F bags weigh around 1 pound 13 ounces. When you get more comfortable with backpacking in general, you might want to look into backpacking quilts. They are even lighter than a sleeping bag and can be more comfortable, especially for hot sleepers.
Make sure that, whatever type of bag your Scout has, when in their pack it should be in a tight plastic bag (plastic trash compactor bags work best), for moisture protection. At the very least, stuff the sleeping bag in its own stuff sack that's been lined with a plastic bag (plastic on the inside).
There are three basic types of sleeping pads and each has their own merits (below). Pad lengths range from a short, torso size to a full length 6'8” size. Why, a parent may ask, would someone want only a torso sized pad? To save weight! You can put your empty pack under your legs for insulation. Why carry more than you need to? This works for both Scouts and adults, and they are totally comfortable while sleeping and on the trail (carrying less weight). A 5-foot Scout doesn’t need a 6.5-foot sleeping pad.
Therm-a-Rest, ZRest (new- ZLite) CCF pad. Frenchman Coulee, Washington.
- Closed Cell Foam (CCF) - CCF is by far the lightest and cheapest way to go, and it is what most of the Scouts carry. CCF pads are not subject to punctures like the other pad options, making these a no-brainer to recommend. Most of our Scouts carry a ZRest or RidgeRest made by Therm-a-Rest, others carry the 3/8-inch blue firm foam pads. CCF is easy to trim to the size or shape of your Scout. Because sleeping pads often get strapped to the outside of the pack, a CCF pad can take a lot more abuse then those listed below without affecting its performance. This would be my first choice for a Scout, who usually isn't heavy enough to warrant the thicker padding of the other options.
- Self Inflatable - Many manufacturers, colors, sizes, shapes, weights, etc. Try to stay under 1.5 pounds! If you are looking to go this direction, remember that thicker is heavier. Carrying a 4-pound pad is not worth it; there are other options for comfort. Keep reading.
- Inflatable / Air Mattress - Today there are a number of options in this area, but they mostly fall into two categories: Insulated and Non-Insulated.
- Non-Insulated Inflatable Pads - Without insulation, these pads are vulnerable to convection and radiation heat loss. Take care if choosing them, because that heat loss can be a liability, even in summer. I do not recommend these for Scouts in our location (Pacific Northwest).
- Insulated Inflatable Pads - Insulated air pads can be the most comfortable way to go. That comfort comes at a higher price, the need for TLC, and the need to actually blow them up. Insulated inflatable pads have down or synthetic fill or a “reflective barrier.” Given their cost and comparative fragility, I do not recommend purchasing an inflatable pad for a Scout.
Ground Sheet - In our troop we try and sleep under the stars (cowboy camp) as much as possible, so having something to protect your sleeping bag from getting dirty is a good thing. A 7 x 3 foot piece of 3 to 4 mil plastic is all that is needed. You could also cut down the sides of a heavy duty, super large plastic garbage bag. A sheet of Tyvek works very well if you have access to that, though it will be noisy the first few times you use it. A ground sheet is also necessary for tarp camping.
Cowboy camping on 3 and 4 mil plastic ground cloths. Frenchman Coulee, Washington.
Utensils - At most, all your Scout needs is a cup (cheap plastic ones work great), a Lexan (unbreakable plastic) or titanium (pricier metal option) spoon, and maybe a bowl (a used margarine tub), but nix the bowl if they are freezer bag cooking. NO: Mess kits. A mass of wasted metal, they are not worth the weight.
Soap - People have far more digestive problems in the backcountry from lack of personal hygiene then any water borne illness. I recommend a natural, liquid soap like Dr. Bronner’s, repackaged into a small dropper bottle. A purse-sized hand sanitizer can be brought along as well, but soap is more effective.
Toothbrush - A small, light toothbrush, stored in a Ziploc sandwich bag.
Toothpaste - A travel size is more than a Scout will use in a year, but repackaging is not really an option. Tooth powder or baking soda in a tiny Ziploc is even lighter. Alternately, have your Scout make “toothpaste dots.”
Small trowel - For digging a cathole, though a stick or tent peg works just as well and is one fewer item to pack. If the trowel weighs more than 2.5 ounces, don’t bring it. Use a stick.
Toilet paper - Don’t send the whole roll! About 6 to 8 feet should be far more than needed for an overnighter. Fold it up and put it in a Ziploc.
When my third son turned eleven years old, for his first outing the troop planned a short 1.5-mile hike up to a beautiful small lake. I “allowed” him to pack his own pack, thinking “if he overpacks, he’ll learn for the next trip.” His pack weighed about 35 pounds! I should have stepped in to help him out, but at that time I was trying a different parenting style. Please don’t make the same mistake. Let your Scout pack their own pack after they have been trained on how and what to pack (remember the 25% rule).
In Part II of “What a Scout Needs for Backpacking,” we will complete our discussion with:
- Clothing - underwear to outer shell
- Other optional items
- Troop Gear
- Water Filters/Purifiers
- Shelters - Tents and Tarps
Troop 697, still smiles after four miles. Manastash Lake, Washington.