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What a Beginner Needs for Backpacking: Part 2

Clothing, Footwear, Group Gear (Water Treatment, Stoves and Fuel, Shelter). Basic training for the beginner and/or young backpacker, with a focus on Scouts.

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by Tad Englund | 2012-02-21 00:00:00-07

Read Part 1: The Lightweight Lesson, Essentials, Backpack, Sleeping Bag and Pad, Personal Kit.


These articles were written to follow my “Three Season Hiking Checklist” which as Scoutmaster I would give to the Scouts prior to each outing. The articles discuss each item on the list, in order, and are designed to help those new to backpacking make educated decisions about the gear they carry. Though I mention Scouts often, it is largely because I originally wrote this for them, but the information is valid for others as well!

Three-Season Hiking Checklist

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)  

Part II covers the stuff that seems to take up a lot of room and weight in a backpack, as well as what to wear while hiking.

I was involved in Scouting as a boy. Looking back, my pack was heavier than the ones made today, because the pack frame was made of wood! My tent was a floorless “pup tent” made of heavy canvas. My mother made my sleeping bag out of an old, worn out sleeping bag (batting), oiled duck cloth (outer shell) and new flannel (inner shell). It was was a tough heavy bag, so tough I didn’t even need a ground cloth. With an extra pair of jeans, a collapsible Sterno stove (the thing never worked right), a flashlight that seemed to have a five-minute battery life, and some canned food, I had all ever needed. That was also all I carried. Most of my buddies carried similar stuff.

Boy, how things have changed! The gear options for backpacking today are enough to make your head spin, or at the very least burn a hole in your wallet. Do your homework before shopping to get the most bang for your buck.

What a Scout Needs for Backpacking - 1
From school to trail. Thorp Lake, Washington


How to dress your Scout for the outdoors? As Don Ladigan says in his book, Lighten Up! “Hikers expect a lot from their clothing. It has to insulate them from cold, ventilate in hot weather, and shield them from rain, snow, wind, and sun. A hiker’s clothing has to do all this whether the hiker is moving and generating heat or standing still and cooling off.”

We live in the Pacific Northwest, and dealing with moisture is a way of life, but there are also times when it's warm and dry. This swing in weather conditions can happen on the same outing. What do you need to make sure your Scout is warm and dry, cool and comfortable? Things in the clothing industry have dramatically changed in the last decade or two, but one thing has stayed consistent: cotton is rotten.

If there is any possible way to avoid it, please do not send a Scout into the backcountry with any cotton clothing. This includes jeans or cotton T-shirts. Wearing cotton is a recipe for disaster. Cotton gets wet easily from either rain or sweat, and it takes forever to dry out, sucking the heat out of your body. It's also heavy and uncomfortable to wear when wet.

What a Scout Needs for Backpacking - 2
When his cotton jeans got wet, not even his belt could keep them up. Luckily, we found this bungee on the trail and put it to work. Please: no jeans.

Luckily there are much better options that are as cheap or cheaper to wear. The new “technical” fabrics that are out now wick moisture away from the skin, keeping you cooler in summer and warmer in winter.

To help accomplish the “warm and dry, cool and comfortable,” we use the basic layering system:

Base Layer

  1. Underwear- The Scout should already have a pair of underwear on when they come to an outing. Odds are, they are made of cotton. I don’t know how to avoid cotton underwear for Scout-age youth, but try and get as much poly or nylon blend as you can, for all the issues discussed above, in addition to preventing chafing. For those so inclined, you can get merino wool or Capilene (Patagonia brand) underwear. Both are fantastic, both are expensive. For most outings (overnights), there is no need to bring an extra pair of underwear. I know there are mothers out there crying “Heresy!” - but in thirty years, though I’ve tried to encourage them, I have yet to have a Scout change their underwear on a short outing. Why carry something that will not get used? The pair they are wearing is enough, and they will have a backup with the long underwear (discussed below) they are bringing anyway.
  2. Long underwear- NO COTTON! Get both a bottom and a long sleeve top. You can use these for Scout outings as well as all other cold weather activities (snow sports, tubing, soccer, football, etc), so get something that fits. Please read the label before you purchase them. Polypropylene is the most prevalent fabric for long underwear, made by many manufacturers. Long underwear also comes in merino wool (my preference), nylon, and polyester. In cooler weather long underwear can take the place of regular underwear, no need to bring an extra pair of both.
  3. Wool or wool blend socks- As Will Rietveld and Janet Reichl wrote, “Cotton is hydrophilic (water loving) and absorbs three times more moisture (from sweat) than most synthetic fibers, it doesn’t insulate when it’s wet, and it takes 14 times longer to dry compared to synthetic fibers. Water is a good heat conductor, so when your socks and feet get damp they will lose heat up to 25 times faster than when dry.” Cotton socks are a major source of blisters while hiking.

    Wool (merino wool), wool blend or CoolMax are far better fabric choices than cotton. They cost more, but they last longer. I don’t know too many Scouts who have wool socks at home, and purchasing specialty socks is not high on many parents' priority list, but if you purchase a couple of pair, they will last most of your Scout's hiking career. For short outings, they will only need the pair they are wearing and a pair for sleeping. Hiking for two days in the same pair of good quality socks is no big deal and just like underwear, they won’t put on the extra pair anyway. Wear clean socks for sleeping, as you'll have warmer feet. We use one pair dedicated only for sleeping (I use thick wool or fleece socks). For an outing of four or more days, you can send an extra pair: three pairs total.

    Liner socks are a thin (non-cotton) sock wore inside the above discussed socks. With the newer socks out now, I find I don't need the liner and haven’t used one for 10 years. Some might say, “Well, that won’t work for me.” Please give it a try - you might be pleasantly surprised. If you must use a liner, use only wool or synthetic. One pair is all that is needed, wash them out after hiking and they will be dry or dry enough in the morning.


What a Scout Needs for Backpacking - 3
Making clothing adjustments for winter. Mount Rainier.

Insulating Layer

  1. Extra shirt- No cotton shirts! Besides the shirt they are wearing to hike in, this “extra” shirt can/should be the long sleeve underwear top from the base layer above. If wearing the long underwear top for hiking, use a poly blend short sleeve shirt in warm months or another long underwear shirt for cool months. A lightweight fleece (100 weight) shirt/pullover works well when a little more insulation is needed. Please do not have your Scout wear their Scout shirt uniform. Lord Baden-Powell stated in The Scouter (1913): “I don't care a fig whether a Scout wears a uniform or not so long as his heart is in his work and he carries out the Scout Law." To reiterate what I said in Part 1: 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.
  2. Pants- Some Scouts hike in our area hike in long pants, others like to hike in gym shorts with or without long underwear underneath (see base layers above). Either way, do not wear cotton, especially jeans! If jeans are absolutely all you have (or all you showed up in), by all means, wear them. Better than the alternative. But remember: in wet weather, they are always a mess, and the Scouts wearing them are always cold. I suggest thin, quick drying hiking pants. I personally don’t like the “convertible” type (zip off legs) because they feel like I’m walking with two small Hula Hoops around my thighs. Lightweight synthetic pants are the best. You can purchase a used pair at Goodwill or a thrift store in great shape for less than $5 (that’s cheaper then jeans).
  3. Down, synthetic or fleece sweater or sweatshirt- Please NO cotton sweatshirts. A down sweater can very expensive, so I won’t discuss it here. A synthetic filled pullover or sweater is a good option for a Scout. They can handle wet weather a little better than down, they pack smaller than fleece and hold up fairly well, but they are also expensive. Fleece is a great material. It is relatively inexpensive and is good for insulation. Fleece has two drawbacks: it's heavy and bulky, but I don’t know of any alternatives that will insulate and hold up to the wear and tear of Scouts. A good 200 or 300 weight fleece will work. They are hard to pack small, but a great value. You can find one of these for next to nothing at your local thrift store.
  4. Windshirt- A windshirt is a very lightweight thin nylon or nylon/polyester type jacket that weighs less than a shirt. They are not waterproof, making them highly breathable. They are designed to block the wind while hiking and in camp so you can stay warm when a heavier jacket isn’t necessary. They should weigh no more than 9 ounces, preferably less. They will keep you amazingly warm when warn over a long sleeve shirt or fleece jacket. They are an integral part of the layering system.

Protective Layer

  1. Shell jacket/poncho- Waterproof and breathable! News flash - it rains in the Northwest. Care is needed when looking for a rain shell. Do not purchase an expensive jacket for your Scout: the danger of something bad happening to it is too high. Look for a lightweight and inexpensive jacket, in that order. You will get wet from the rain outside or from sweat on the inside. Young Scouts don’t sweat much, so breathability isn’t as big an issue as it is with adults. Secondhand stores are a great place to find a hiking jacket. On the right day, you might even score an expensive WPB jacket for $15 or less! If you can find a poncho that will fit your Scout with his pack on and weighs less than 12 ounces, get it and have them use that for their protective layer.
  2. Wool/fleece mittens or gloves- Fleece or wool keeps your hands warm even in the rain. It can get cold enough even on a summer evening/morning to need a thin pair of gloves handy.
  3. Wool/fleece hat- A beanie, toque, or skull cap is one of the most important things to have in your pack. It’s a myth that we lose 75% of our body heat through our head, but you do lose heat from exposed skin. It is important to have something to help keep the heat in, and evenings in the mountain can get cold. I wear my hat almost every evening to bed, in my sleeping bag. The simpler the better – a snowboarding-style “Court Jester” hat is uncomfortable for sleeping and tempting for other Scouts to grab at: leave it at home.


Shoes- Yes, shoes! Get a good-fitting sneaker-style shoe. It is best to have a shoe that is a half to a full size larger then what your Scout normally wears. Feet swell during a hike, and if there is no room for the now larger foot, problems arise. Please monitor your Scout's shoe size. I have had too many Scouts complain that their feet hurt from too small shoes that they have out grown. There is no need to wear hiking boots, especially not leather ones! Boots are for those carrying over 50 pounds, ice climbers or glacier travel with crampons. Don’t use the excuse of weak ankles; boots don’t help protect your ankles. Studies have shown that they could be the cause of some ankle related problems. It wasn’t until I got out of boots and into very lightweight trail runners that my ankle problems went away.

Most Scouts can wear their everyday sneakers and do just fine. Don’t spend extra money on shoes, and especially not on hiking boots.

What a Scout Needs for Backpacking - 4
Notice the shoes: joggers or trail runners. Mirror Lake (and more) Washington.

Gore-Tex or other waterproof/breathable (WPB) shoes should not be needed and are not worth the extra cost to purchase. We live in the Northwest, and wet weather is inevitable. A good wool sock and a light, breathable shoe, if wet, will keep your feet warm. This combination can also dry out in thirty minutes to an hour. WPB shoes will eventually get wet inside, and once wet, will take forever to dry out, because the water is trapped behind the WPB membrane. In hot weather, the same WPB shoes don’t breathe, so your feet get wet from sweat and again they stay wet, because they can’t dry out - not a good situation for your feet. Stay with trail runners or a regular jogger, and you will be the most comfortable.

Odds and Ends

Bandana- A bandana is a quintessential multi-use hiking item. It can be sun protection when worn around the neck or head, used to pre-filter dirty water before treating, used as a pot holder/first aid sling/triangle bandage/etc. They are inexpensive, so one should always be in your pack. This should also be the only cotton item in your pack, just wash before packing.

Miscellaneous and Optional (Remember to keep the weight down!)

  1. Hiking poles or staff- Hiking poles are not necessary for most Scout age youth; they seem to either get broken or lost. They can be a trip saver for adults, though. I loaned a pair to an adult who said his knees would have given out on the way down a mountain trail if he hadn't had the hiking poles. They add stability, balance, and take some of the strain off your legs on the descents. I have a pair and use them on occasion, depending on the trail.

    Most important: keep them lightweight. Collapsible poles are convenient for pack stowage, and poles can be used when setting up a tarp.

  2. Baseball style hat or cap- In summer this becomes a necessity for sun protection. A nylon type is best and lightest. The cotton baseball cap is too heavy and hot. A hat is also a good way to hide a bad hair day on the second day of an outing and on the way home.
  3. Swimsuit- Lightweight nylon running shorts work great. Thick, long basketball shorts are far too heavy, don't dry quickly, and are a tripping hazard. A regular swimsuit with a liner can also be worn as a pair of shorts (saving the need to bring an extra pair of underwear). The swimsuit needs to be very quick drying.
  4. Gaiters- Summer-weight gaiters keep dirt, sand, and small rocks out of your shoes and should be made of thin, lightweight, breathable material. Most Scouts don’t use them, but they are nice to have if you find that even the smallest pebble will cause you irritation. I recommend the Dirty Girl brand, despite the name. They are very lightweight and work great.
  5. Camera- With the advent of digital cameras, the old Scout staple “disposable” camera has gone by the wayside. Unless your Scout is a photo buff and can adequately care for a camera, I advise against sending them out with a camera of any value. Don’t let the “my phone has a camera” be an excuse to bring a phone - there is no use for Scouts with phones in the backcountry, and my troop didn’t allow any type of electronics on an outing.
  6. Fishing rod and reel w/lures- If your Scout is so inclined and wants to fish, get good quality, packable equipment. Your Scout will not have any fun if they have poor quality equipment. Packable is important so that the rod isn't broken before it leaves the vehicle or while on the hike in. A short, two-piece rod can work if it is short enough.
  7. Small Scriptures or reading material- Purchase a small paperback edition, cut the binding off so the pages are separated, and your Scout can bring only the pages they are reading without having to carry the whole book.

Troop Gear

Our troop provides Water Filtration/Purification, Stoves, and Shelter (Tarps/Tents), which makes trips easier for the Scouts and parents.

Water Filtration/Purification

There are a number of water treatment systems on the market. Some work better than others and some are better for Scouts than others. For the most part, your system is needed for drinking water. For cooking, you normally boil the water, and by doing so fix any potential problems.

I will leave the debate over whether the fear of backcountry pathogens is excessively exaggerated or a real issue for a different time. Washing one's hands, especially after relieving yourself, is the best prevention for backcountry illnesses. I will simply present the various options as how they apply to Scout outings.

No matter what system you use, you will need to have one for every three to four people, otherwise you will be waiting too long for “your” turn, making water stops last much longer than necessary. For large groups, weight and size multiplies by the number of “systems” needed to facilitate the group's water needs.

  1. Chemicals
    • AquaMira- Aquamira Water Treatment treats drinking water using chlorine dioxide. It is probably the leader in this group. You can purchase either drops or tablets. I think the drops are better; there's no taste and it takes less time to activate. I haven’t found a local source, though the company is located in Bellingham, but you can get it online. I recommend this brand.
  2. Tablets
    • MicroPur or AquaMira Tablets- Takes about 30 minutes to 4 hours to activate, works on anything in our area (Pacific Northwest). Some people notice a slight chlorine taste, but nothing strong like iodine tablets.
    • Iodine Tablets- These have been around forever. I remember the first time I tried them: as a twelve-year-old I swore I would rather have whatever was in the water than to drink that foul tasting stuff. I never used them again. Lucky for me I never had to find out what the alternative was. Iodine takes 30 minutes for efficacy, and the bottle is usually heavy.
  3. Ultraviolet At this time, there is only one major player in the UV backpacking water treatment market: SteriPen. These are almost foolproof and the Scouts like using them. Most outdoor stores have them and can hopefully help correctly educate you about the product. I highly recommend using this form of water treatment over any of the others, because of the ease of use, product size/weight, and effectiveness. They are battery operated, so care is needed, and I recommend having a backup (I use AquaMira as my backup). Follow the manufacturer's specs on batteries - only use what they recommend, or you might/will have issues. With older SteriPens, take batteries out when not in use, because they could slowly discharge while hiking. With the newer “Opti” versions, they have less trickle drainage, so you can leave them in during an outing. Always store the units with the batteries removed.
  4. Pump Filters- These filter, but do not purify, water. With that said, they get rid of all the nasty stuff that can cause problems in the backcountry. They have been around for a long time and are effective, but they are heavy and more work than the other options now available. Weight and the amount of water that can be filtered in a given time frame should always be taken into account. Always follow the manufacturer's specs on long-term storage. The First Need is the only true “purifier” pump on the market right now. It's a great pump (I own one), but heaviest of all pumps and not necessary for backpacking in the Northwest.
  5. Gravity Filters- Gravity filters are like pump filters without the pump system. They are usually just the cartridge with a couple of hoses and a source water bag. These can be very lightweight and work well for base camping. Always follow the manufacturer's specs on long-term storage. This would be my choice if the SteriPen wasn’t available.

Stoves & Fuel

Our troop provides the stoves for the Scouts to use, so they don’t need to purchase a stove. This information is for those in other troops or adults looking for a stove.

Care needs to be taken when operating any stove. BSA requires adult supervision over any stove use. If you plan on attending an outing, please know how to work the stoves that will be in use. I have had more trouble and dangerous issues with adults not knowing how to use the equipment than Scouts not knowing. Again, please learn how to properly use your and the troop's equipment before the outing!

  1. Alcohol- BSA’s policy on alcohol stoves- “Prohibited Chemical-Fueled Equipment - Equipment that is handcrafted, homemade, modified, or installed beyond the manufacturer’s stated design limitations or use. Examples include alcohol-burning “can” stoves, smudge pots, improperly installed heaters, and propane burners with their regulators removed.” There is an ongoing debate on this issue about what is a “handcrafted” vs “manufactured” alcohol stove. There are a few alcohol stoves that are commercially manufactured and sold commercially, but it can also be said that they are handcrafted. I am not going to give an opinion either way, but I will say I have seen Scouts have far more dangerous issues with white gas stoves than with alcohol stoves. I think white gas stoves can be as dangerous, if not more so, than any homemade alcohol stove. To stay on the safe side of the liability issue, I make no recommendations for your Scout group. For short, personal outings, these are the lightest, best stoves - “and that’s all I have to say about that.” (Forrest Gump)
  2. Canister
    • Upright- This is probably the best stove to purchase for backpacking with Scouts. There are a number of manufacturers to purchase from, but the “gold standard” is the SnowPeak Gigapower (or SP 100). If you don’t have access to this stove, there are many others with good reviews.
    • Integrated canister- The older versions of the integrated canister were great in concept, but they had a few drawbacks that kept them on the fringe for lightweight backpackers. With new competition coming from MSR and Primus and modifications JetBoil has made, the newer versions of all brands are worth taking a look at.

      Please read Will Rietveld and Janet Reichl's three articles on the subject Lightweight Integrated Canister Fuel Cooking Systems for more information.

      Though integrated canister stoves may be good for your own personal use, they may be too limited and expensive for troop use. Scouts should cook with the “Patrol Method,” and a stove's flexibility in this case is important.

    • Remote canister- Remote canister stoves are basically an upright with a hose attached to the canister. They are heavier than their upright brothers, so for a new Scout/Scouter you should get the upright.
  3. Multi fuel/white gas- If you are buying your first stove or you can only afford one stove, this is not the type you should buy. There are a number of multi/white gas stoves on the market. They are heavy, bulky and more dangerous than the canister stoves. Their main advantage over canisters is in very cold (20°F and lower) temperatures. Some white gas stoves can be good for group outings where a cooking in a large pot is needed, but “large groups” doesn’t fit the BSA “Patrol Method” (small units), so you shouldn’t need this type of stove for that type of outing.
  4. Wood fire stoves- Wood fired stoves are beyond the discussion for new Scouts - there are a few cool products and DIY projects out there for more experienced Scouts.

With any stove and Scouts, this must be said: NEVER USE A STOVE IN YOUR TENT! (Cooking in a tent is beyond the scope of this article.)

Tent or Tarp?

A number of years ago, the parents in our troop got together to discuss the damage to their personal tents when used by the Scouts on outings. They decided to solve the problem and purchase the necessary number of tents for the whole troop. This solved the damage to their tents, and all in all the boys took pretty good care of the new ones. The big problem was that the new four-person tents weighed 10.5 pounds each!

What a Scout Needs for Backpacking - 5
You’d smile, too, if your dad carried this 10-pound four-person tent for you!

The thought was that when the tent, fly, and poles was divided up, the tent's total weight wouldn’t be an issue. Well, it’s hard to divide a three-piece tent between four Scouts. We did it by having the fourth carry the canister stove and pot. Still, the tent body by itself was almost 5 pounds. It didn’t work well when all four Scouts sharing the tent weighed less than 100 pounds each, limiting the total weight they could carry (remember the 25% rule from Part 1).

We fixed the heavy tent problem by purchasing commercially-made three-boy (two-man) tarps that weighed 1 pound for the tarp and 1 pound for the heavy-duty, Scout-proof aluminum pole. The total weight for three boys was 2 pounds! When looking at shelter, think outside the box (tent). We saved over 8 pounds per shelter!

I do not expect (or advise) anyone to purchase a four-season, expedition grade tent for Scouting or regular backpacking outings, so I will not discuss them here.

In this section I also assume your Scout will use troop equipment, so the below information is for the adults who accompany the Scouts.

Three-Season Tents

Three-season tents come in all weights, shapes, and sizes. There are single-wall, double-wall and net tents. As Ray Estrella reported in his State of the Market Report on Two-Person Double-Wall Tents:

“A double-wall tent is preferred by the majority of backpackers because:

  • Condensation is not as large an issue, as the inner walls keep one from brushing against the wet outer walls. The inner tent will also keep condensation from falling onto you and your gear.
  • The double walls provide some insulating value, making the temperature slightly higher inside.
  • In bad conditions, a double-wall tent offers more protection with greater ventilation.
  • In nice weather, many double-wall tents allow the inner to be pitched alone, giving a view of the stars and the feel of “sleeping out” without the hassle of insects.
  • Once the weather has cooled enough to eliminate insect issues, many double-wall tents offer a Fast-Fly set-up, allowing the fly to be set up with just the poles and a footprint, eliminating the weight of the inner.

However, there are some disadvantages when compared to a single-wall tent:

  • Traditionally, a double-wall tent is going to be 25% to 50% heavier than a comparably sized single-wall tent.
  • A single-wall tent packs down much smaller than a double-wall, allowing a smaller volume backpack to be used.
  • A double-wall tent takes twice as much time to set up as a single-wall shelter, though there are some exceptions to this.
  • A single-wall has its interior protected while setting up in a downpour…"
Whether double- or single-wall, make sure it's lightweight (less than 4 pounds for a double-wall, some single-wall two-person tents weigh as low as 2.5 pounds). Also keep an eye out for weather protection, ventilation, ease in setting up, rain fly coverage, and vestibule size (storage size). You won’t find many 2.5-pound tents at the big box stores, as they are made by cottage manufacturers, but they are out there and worth the time and effort to find them.


When we talk about tarps, we are not talking about the blue ones sold at the hardware store (though they or even a simple plastic sheet work just fine). We are talking about a flat or shaped tarp made of very light waterproof fabric. Like tents, very lightweight high-quality tarps are usually made by cottage manufacturers, though larger companies like Sierra Designs and MSR have a few options worth looking at. Do some research on tarps before you purchase one; your time spent will be rewarded by a smarter purchase.

What a Scout Needs for Backpacking - 6
Lightweight tarps work even in the rain. Sierra Designs Origami 3.

A tarp's advantages are:

  • Lightweight: some weighing less than 7 ounces!
  • Ventilation: condensation is rarely, if ever, an issue for a tarp.
  • Stability: given their low profile, tarps can handle wind better than most tents.
  • Flexibility: there are a number of options in how you can pitch them.
  • Cost: generally cost less than a tent.

One of the best experiences when using a tarp is to wake up and watch the sunrise from the warmth of your sleeping bag without anything blocking your view.


There are a lot of pots and pans and kits out there right now. Cost and what you can afford are the biggest deciding factors, but remember the lightweight rule. Titanium fits the weight bill best, but it is the most expensive. Stay away from stainless steel - too heavy. Aluminum/aluminum non-stick is probably the best for Scouting. It conducts heat well, is reasonably priced, and can take a beating.

Don’t get a pot bigger than you will need. If you purchase a kit, only take one pot and lid, sized for your needs on that trip. I take a 0.7-liter kettle when I am cooking for myself (which is most of the time) or a 1.3-liter pot when cooking for two. Make sure your pot fits your stove: some of the canister stoves have very small pot supports and will not safely support a larger pot.

Don’t get snookered into buying a kitchen kit with all the bells and whistles, you just won’t or shouldn’t use all that stuff. A pot, lid, and spoon are all you need. The rest is just extra weight and fluff.


Well, there you have it.

When I started this article I figured it would be a few pages long, just some quick notes about the items on the checklist. Ha! These are my “quick notes about the items on the checklist.” You could write a book about each topic covered, and many have. Most Scouters could also write a book about the mistakes they've seen regarding each topic covered. Still, these articles should give you a firm foundation of basic information to make informed and smart buying decisions. Please use this information to help make your Scouts time in the outdoors enjoyable.

To help make your new Scouts experience the best possible, get involved in their life. Basically that means “to be there,” not as a hovercraft, but as an observation balloon. I have never heard a retired parent say “I should have spent more time at the office.” Business can wait, kids don’t.

A little about me:

I have been involved in Scouting as an adult for almost 30 years, as a Scoutmaster, Assistant Scoutmaster, Varsity Coach, Venture Advisor, on a Troop Committee, etc. I have had all adult Scout training through Woodbadge, and all my certifications are still current. I give this information only to show that I have a thorough knowledge of how Scouting works and the concepts behind it. I also understand the real world. I try to work both of these worlds together for the benefit of my family, myself, and those I associate with.

I am the father of eight children, four boys and four girls, most of them grown and out on their own.

Through 30 years of backpacking solo, with family, and especially with the Scouts, I have learned a bit of what works and what doesn’t. Most important, I’ve learned how not to ruin a trip or your back with an overweight backpack. According to my family, I spend an inordinate amount of time researching and testing backpacking gear. My recommendations are based on my own experience, involvement as an equipment tester for a few undisclosed backpacking equipment manufacturers, thousands of hours on forums and discussions with industry experts, and years of trial and error (mostly error).

My old backpack weighed 7.5 pounds empty. I now hike with a base weight (everything, including my pack, except food and fuel) of around 7 to 10 pounds depending on the trip. My hiking situation is much better than it was when this whole thing started. I hike farther, faster, lighter, and now I really enjoy what I do!


"What a Beginner Needs for Backpacking: Part 2," by Tad Englund. (ISSN 1537-0364)., 2012-02-21 00:00:00-07.


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What a Beginner Needs for Backpacking
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Addie Bedford
(addiebedford) - MLife

Locale: Montana
What a Beginner Needs for Backpacking on 02/21/2012 16:39:53 MST Print View

Companion forum thread to:

What a Beginner Needs for Backpacking

Luke Schmidt
(Cameron) - MLife

Locale: The WOODS
Great on 02/21/2012 19:01:30 MST Print View

Great write up Tad! Thanks for putting it together. I like the idea of having some articles that are more accessible for someone who's not a gear geak.

Warren Wilkinson
(icensnow) - M

Locale: New England, USA
Sierra Designs Origami 3 on 02/22/2012 10:37:39 MST Print View

Thanks for this overview geared (pun intended ;-) to adults new to backpacking, and adults introducing kids to the activity. It shows how one can start enjoying the outdoors without spending a fortune. The rest of the site takes care of the fortune part :-).

I noticed the venting at the peak of the Sierra Designs Origami 3 tarp. Current versions of the tarp don't seem to have this.

Thomas Glennon
(Eagletrek007) - MLife
Nice Primer to Backpacking with Scouts on 02/22/2012 12:00:09 MST Print View


Thanks for the second installment. Had to laugh at the "bungee belt". Just went through "the wet jeans won't stay up" experience this past wet weekend. Still trying to convince some of my folks that nylon pants are the way to go.

Re: Stoves From my personal experience I've found remote cannister stoves to be a better choice for scouts based on safety (no overheating the cannister), better heat management/fuel management (better fitting wind screen), and stability (less of a chance to spill that boiling water).

Trek On!

Sean Barnette

Locale: Mid West
Fantastic! on 02/22/2012 12:07:55 MST Print View

What a fantastic article!! I recently taught the backpacking portion at IOLS, and I largely used your article as a basis for my lesson plan. I do have one question however...I have heard that you are not allowed to bring a tarp to Philmont. You must bring a tent! This seems a bit ludicrous to me, and I am wondering how we might be able to convince Philmont to change that particular policy. Thank you for your service to Boy Scouts, and thank you for a very educational and well written article!

John L Collins
(WVCubDad) - MLife

Locale: Not too far off the Tuscarora Trail
Very nice article on 02/22/2012 13:37:11 MST Print View

This is great stuff!

We are having a winter campout (okay, more of a rain event in the Eastern Panhandle of WV than snow) this weekend and we did a gear shakedown this past Sunday during our Troop meeting. Lots of cotton clothing, we made suggestions on what to take instead, heavy tents (will have to work/fund raise into lighter ones) and a bunch of heavy metal messkits. As with much of Scouting, it's a process to get the pounds off, although I must say my son's pack was 19.8 pounds with water but no food (since they hadn't finished the menu or shopped yet!) I'm ashamed to say mine was significantly heavier and I've been going through it and slashing left and right. I should be down by his weight in time to head out tomorrow evening.


Tad Englund
(bestbuilder) - F - MLife

Locale: Pacific Northwest
"What a Beginner Needs for Backpacking" on 02/22/2012 22:08:15 MST Print View

Luke, yes its good to have a primer every once in a while, we all started at different times, glad to see its helpful.

Warren, I think the vent is still there on the SD Origami, it might be hard to tell from there website, but they list a vent in the spec's.

Thomas, about jeans- show them the picture of the bungee and maybe they will get the hint.
I like the upright canisters because they are a little more "fool" proof- less things for the "adults" to figure out, kids have now problem. We do use the Coleman Xtreme and Xpert stoves for winter camping; much safer than a white gas stove.

Sean,I would review the Philmont Threads to get a read on the tarp/tent Philmont thing. I've heard they are making some changes but I don't know what the "rule" is.

John, hope you enjoy the February rain. Keep working on getting your own weight down. I've seen parents try and lighten their child's weigh by increasing their own. Don't redistribute, work on lightening everyone's load.

Sandra Powell
(trailrunner87511) - MLife
Newbie question on 02/23/2012 07:55:10 MST Print View

Can you describe a freezer bag cozie and how to make one? I assume it is to keep food warm longer? Thanks!

Thomas Glennon
(Eagletrek007) - MLife
RE: Newbie Question on 02/23/2012 09:28:23 MST Print View

Cozie pouches can be made from various items such as closed cell foam, craft foam or reflective bubble wrap by Reflectix. They can be sewn, taped, or glued together depending on the material you use. Reflectix bubble wrap is sold in various size rolls at your "big box" stores. A quick trip to Youtube will provide videos on how to make them. I made some as give-aways for my Wood Badge patrol.

Zombie Bobwhites Forever!!!!

Edited by Eagletrek007 on 02/23/2012 09:43:01 MST.

(cuzzettj) - MLife

Locale: NorCal - South Bay
RE: "What a Beginner Needs for Backpacking" on 02/23/2012 16:20:11 MST Print View

Just an additional suggestion that I have been using for a while to get away from the bulky fleece. Buy wool garments on Ebay! I usually pay between $8 and $20 for merino wool sweaters. Yes, some are V-necks or have that awesome argile pattern on them. However it has been a great way to set the kids up with good/light sweaters that work in the layering system. Just be careful of the 50% wool/50% polyesteer ones. They tend to be lighter but are 3 season at best.


Tad Englund
(bestbuilder) - F - MLife

Locale: Pacific Northwest
Re: Newbie question- Cozie on 02/23/2012 16:47:50 MST Print View

Sandra, thank you for asking the question, that's how we all learned this stuff- either by asking or reading the answers to the questions others asked.

Here are some threads on Cozies

Tad Englund
(bestbuilder) - F - MLife

Locale: Pacific Northwest
Re: What a Beginner Needs for Backpacking on 08/06/2012 18:46:34 MDT Print View

I am teaching a course on this next month and thought it might be good to bring it back up here.

Edited by bestbuilder on 07/14/2014 18:09:54 MDT.

Eric Blumensaadt
(Danepacker) - MLife

Locale: Mojave Desert
PACK?? on 09/13/2012 16:48:07 MDT Print View

Did I miss your mention of packs in a senior moment or will you address this in a later article?

Tad Englund
(bestbuilder) - F - MLife

Locale: Pacific Northwest
Re: PACK?? on 09/14/2012 14:13:40 MDT Print View

Eric, it is discussed in Part 1 of this article (this was Part 2):
What a Beginner Needs for Backpacking Part 1

Thanks for reading

Edited by bestbuilder on 09/14/2012 14:15:15 MDT.

George Ramsdell

Locale: Pacific Northwest
Great Article on 11/06/2013 10:17:34 MST Print View

Very informative article, I am Scoutmaster south of you in Snohomish WA!

Tad Englund
(bestbuilder) - F - MLife

Locale: Pacific Northwest
Re: Great Article on 11/07/2013 15:11:47 MST Print View

Thanks George. Feel free to share the link to this and the first article (referenced above) with the parents in your troop or whomever.

William Giles
(wgiles51) - M

Locale: Central Illinois
Socks on 07/14/2014 16:43:25 MDT Print View

My everyday sock choice is Acrylic. Acrylic socks have most of the benefits of wool, and are more common and less expensive. Since this article often refers to twelve year old boys, I think that Acrylic socks would be a good choice. For many years, I wore steel toe boots at work five or more days a week. I had wool socks, but they were usually hot and scratchy (before Merino wool). I long ago came to the conclusion that cotton socks were worthless and also blister factories. I finally started wearing Acrylic socks and found that my feet stayed warm, the socks dried out fairly quickly and they were comfortable. I haven't had a blister on my feet in years and suspect that these socks might have something to do with that. The fabric in the heels gets thin after a few months and I retire them. When I buy socks (or most clothing, for that matter), I always look at the label to see what materials are in them. Most of the socks that I see are cotton or cotton synthetic blends. I can usually find Acrylic steel toe boot socks in the big discount stores. A bit of foot powder might also be in order.

Tad Englund
(bestbuilder) - F - MLife

Locale: Pacific Northwest
Re: Socks on 07/15/2014 16:12:23 MDT Print View

William, thanks for reading the articles.

Good suggestion on the inexpensive socks for younger set. They might be more apt to wear them also (wool doesn't look as cool).

For me, I prefer wool. I have been wearing wool socks for so long (everyday, year round)I don't feel hot wearing them anytime of year. But then again, everyone tells me I'm a little different not just with my socks.