The Backpacking Merit Badge: Your Ultimate Guide in 2021


Backpacking is a challenging but rewarding activity that every scout should try at least once. If you’re trying to learn this awesome skill and earn your Backpacking merit badge, this guide will teach you everything you’ll need to know to trek safely, be prepared, and have awesome backpacking trips!

Before we get into all of that though, what is backpacking? Backpacking is basically hiking combined with camping. Everything you’ll need for a multi-day trek, you’ll carry with you in your one backpack. Since you’ll be far from civilization, you’ll need to be strong and prepared to succeed!

If you have Eagle-required merit badges to earn, you also should check out my Difficulty Ranking Guide to Every Eagle-required Badge. There, you’ll also find the links to my other merit badge guides, as well as a description and summary of each badge’s requirements. I’m certain this resource will be helpful to scouts on their road to Eagle!

Also, remember that ScoutSmarts should just serve as your starting point for merit badge research. In school, we’re taught not to plagiarize, and the same is true for Scouting worksheets. Answer these questions in your own words, do further research, and I promise you’ll gain much more from every merit badge you earn!

While the Backpacking merit badge won’t be easy, it’s 100% worth taking on. Some of my best memories have been on the backpacking trail, and I want to share what I’ve learned with you! First, take a second to read through all the requirements. Then, we’ll get started! 🙂

What Are The Backpacking Merit Badge Requirements?

  1. Discuss the prevention of and treatment for the health concerns that could occur while backpacking, including hypothermia, heat reactions, frostbite, dehydration, insect stings, tick bites, snakebite, and blisters.
  2. Do the following:
    2a) List 10 items that are essential to be carried on any backpacking trek and explain why each item is necessary.
    2b) Describe 10 ways you can limit the weight and bulk to be carried in your pack without jeopardizing your health or safety.
  3. Do the following:
    3a) Define limits on the number of backpackers appropriate for a trek crew.
    3b) Describe how a trek crew should be organized.
    3c) Tell how you would minimize risk on a backpacking trek.
    3d) Explain the purpose of an emergency response plan.
  4. Do the following:
    4a) Describe the importance of using Leave No Trace principles while backpacking, and at least five ways you can lessen the crew’s impact on the environment.
    4b) Describe proper methods of handling human and other wastes while on a backpacking trek. Describe the importance of and means to assure personal cleanliness while on a backpacking trek.
    4c) Tell what factors are important in choosing a campsite.
  5. Do the following:
    5a) Demonstrate two ways to treat water and tell why water treatment is essential.
    5b) Explain to your counselor the importance of staying well hydrated during a trek.
  6. Do the following:
    6a) Demonstrate that you can read topographic maps.
    6b) While on a trek, use a map and compass to establish your position on the ground at three different locations, OR use a GPS receiver unit to establish your position on a topographic map and on the ground at three different locations.
    6c) Explain how to stay found, and what to do if you get lost.
  7. Tell how to prepare properly for and deal with inclement weather.
  8. Do the following:
    8a) Explain the advantages and disadvantages of the different types of backpacking stoves using at least three different types of fuel.
    8b) Demonstrate that you know how to operate a backpacking stove safely and to handle liquid fuel safely.
    8c) Prepare at least three meals using a stove and fuel you can carry in a backpack.
    8d) Demonstrate that you know how to keep cooking and eating gear clean and sanitary, and that you practice proper methods for food storage while on a backpacking trek.
  9. Do the following:
    9a) Write a plan that includes a schedule for a patrol/crew backpacking hike of at least 2 miles.
    9b) Conduct a pre-hike inspection of the patrol and its equipment.
    9c) Show that you know how to properly pack your personal gear and your share of the crew’s gear and food.
    9d) Show you can properly shoulder your pack and adjust it for proper wear.
    9e) While using the plan you developed for requirement 9a, carry your fully loaded pack to complete a hike of at least 2 miles.
  10. Using Leave No Trace principles, participate in at least three backpacking treks of at least three days each and at least 15 miles each, and using at least two different campsites on each trek. Carry everything you will need throughout the trek.
  11. Do the following:
    11a) Write a plan for a backpacking trek of at least five days using at least three different campsites and covering at least 30 miles. Your plan must include a description of and route to the trek area, a schedule (including a daily schedule), a list of food and equipment needs, a safety and emergency plan, and a budget.
    11b) Using Leave No Trace principles, take the trek your have planned and, while on the trek, complete at least one service project approved by your merit badge counselor.
    11c) Keep a daily journal during the trek that includes a day-by-day description of your activities, including notes about what worked well and thoughts about improvements that could be made for the next trek.

Requirement #1: Safety

The saying, “Safety first” is fitting, since the first requirement for the Backpacking merit badge is all about safety! 😉 While backpacking is a fun activity, a lot of injuries can occur on the trail, so basic first aid skills are a must. Let’s discuss the most common health concerns to be prepared for:

1) Discuss the prevention of and treatment for the health concerns that could occur while backpacking, including hypothermia, heat reactions, frostbite, dehydration, insect stings, tick bites, snakebite, and blisters.

Hypothermia

Hypothermia is a common risk in high-elevation backpacking and is caused by one’s core body temperature falling below 95°F. While symptoms of mild hypothermia include shivering and confusion, in more dangerous cases the victim could fall unconscious and their vitals could shut down.

Fun Fact: Eating a healthy, well-rounded diet can help to prevent hypothermia! Because hypothermia is caused by one’s body losing heat faster than can be replenished, having the right amount of calories and nutrients will give your body the necessary fuel to stay warm.

If you notice someone is hypothermic, remove their wet clothes and immediately warm them using extra blankets, fire, or with body heat. Warm liquids also help. Do not suddenly re-warm the victim by placing them in a hot shower though, as this could lead to rewarming shock.

Heat Reactions

There are 3 main types of heat reactions to be aware of. These reactions can either be caused by extreme heat/humidity, or by dehydration/loss of salt. Below, I’ve listed out the most common heat reactions by increasing severity:

  1. Heat Cramps: Heat cramps are sudden muscle spasms that occur when the body has insufficient salt or water. These are minor, and will typically subside within half an hour once the victim is hydrated. However, cramps can be a symptom of more severe heat reactions.
  2. Heat Exhaustion: Heat exhaustion can be caused by high temperatures paired with either water or sodium depletion. Symptoms include thirst, headache, dizziness, vomiting, a feeling of weakness, and loss of consciousness.
  3. Heatstroke: Heatstroke occurs when one’s body temperature exceeds 104°F. If untreated, heatstroke can lead to seizures, confusion, loss of consciousness, and even a coma.

In the case of heatstroke, contact emergency medical services by calling 911. To treat other types of heat reactions, rest the victim in a cool, shady place and have them drink lots of fluids with sodium and electrolytes.

To prevent heat reactions, stay well hydrated, wear sun protection, and avoid strenuous activity during the warmest time of day. Since proper hydration really reduces risks, I’d also recommend carrying an easily-accessible water bladder (Amazon referral link) whenever backpacking.

Frostbite

Frostbite occurs when extremities, such as fingers and toes, begin to freeze. Skin in the affected areas will turn blue, then white. If you notice frostbite setting in, evacuate to a warm area. However, do not rewarm a frostbitten area unless you can keep it warm, as reexposure can cause worse damage.

Since frostbite is best prevented by keeping warm and ensuring proper blood circulation, always pack reliable, temperature-appropriate gear when backpacking. Also, take note of wind speeds, as wind chill accelerates frostbite onset (seen in the chart below):

To warm a frostbitten area, run it under cool water. Then, slowly increase the water temperature as the injury defrosts. To avoid frostbite, make sure to keep your fingers, toes, and ears warm and well covered with your blood circulating, especially in cold winds and snow.

Dehydration

Dehydration occurs when the body does not consume enough water. Some symptoms of dehydration include a flushed face, lack of sweat, or feeling of weakness. This is a potentially fatal condition that can result in lowered blood pressure, dizziness, and fainting.

Fun Fact: While not as dangerous as dehydration caused by strenuous exercise, being regularly under-hydrated can cause tiredness, irritability, and a poorer immune system response. That’s why it’s recommended to drink around 8 glasses of water each day!

To treat dehydration, encourage the victim to rest and replenish their body with water and electrolytes. Sports drinks like Gatorade are especially good for this! Make sure to hydrate the victim slowly to avoid water intoxication and electrolyte imbalance.

Insect Stings

There’s no great way to prevent stings. However, if a stinging insect lands on you, try to blow it off instead of slapping it, and it will be less likely to sting you. If you suffer from a sting, pull out the stinger with tweezers and disinfect the area.

For a more serious sting or reaction, especially for individuals with bee allergies, see help from a medical professional immediately. Often, you’ll need to inject someone who’s experiencing an allergic reaction with their Epipen to prevent anaphylactic shock.

Tick Bites

Ticks are small parasites that burrow into skin and drink blood. These pesky critters can commonly be found in tall grasses around fields and forests throughout most of the continental US. Often, tick bites are harmless, but some can pass on illnesses.

If you find a tick on your body when camping, you should immediately remove it. Here’s how: 

  1. Using a pair of fine-tipped tweezers, grasp the tick as close to your skin’s surface as possible. 
  2. Then, gently pull the tick straight out by pulling steadily.
  3. Be sure not to twist the tweezers to avoid having parts of the tick break off under your skin.

Gently wash the affected area with warm water and soap, applying alcohol to the wound to prevent infection. Save the tick in a container of rubbing alcohol. Several weeks following removal, if you develop any illness, immediately visit a doctor and show them the tick you saved.

Venomous Snakebites

Fortunately, only about 20% of snakes are venomous.  However, if you’re bitten by a snake, you should immediately get out of danger. Once out of danger of further bites, call 911. Describe the situation, the appearance of the snake, and how your bite is feeling. 

Fun Fact: Non-venomous snake bites are called “dry bites.” These can either be from snakes without venom, or from venomous snakes who don’t release venom. Surprisingly, in 30%-50% of cases, venomous snakes don’t inject venom in their bites!

If there is burning pain at the site of the wound, tell the 911 operator and ask them to dispatch an ambulance, ASAP. Most emergency rooms and ambulances have anti-venom drugs which could prove life-saving. When treating a venomous snakebite, every second counts.

While waiting, keep the bite below the level of your heart and try to remain calm. If possible, try to identify the shape of the snake’s head. Venomous snakes typically have triangular heads and slit-like eyes. To avoid being bitten in the first place, watch your step and never provoke wildlife.

Blisters

Blisters appear as bubbles under the top layer of skin. They can be filled with pus, water, or even blood. Blisters often form from the friction of material rubbing against the skin, which is why poor-fitting shoes are a common cause. Camping in wet clothing can also cause chafing and blisters.

If you find you’re developing a blister, or notice an area that is rubbing uncomfortably, apply a moleskin to the irritated section of skin. Blisters are naturally reabsorbed by the body, so by preventing rubbing the blister will heal and go away on its own.

Avoid popping blisters unless they’re so large that you can’t comfortably get around, otherwise. You can puncture a blister with a sterile needle. Popped blisters risk infection, so thoroughly disinfect and bandage the area. Also, remove the bandage at night to let the area dry.

Some Final Backpacking Safety Tips

Before we dive into the next set of requirements, you should know that the most important element for safety on a backpacking trip is being prepared. By preparing the right gear, trek plan, and mindset, you should have no issues on your upcoming backpacking adventures.

To help you be prepared to avoid possible backpacking mistakes, I’d highly recommend watching the quick video below (7:19). In it, the speaker covers some great tips that have personally helped me out a lot too! You can skip to the 55-second mark to dive right in. 🙂

Requirement #2: Packing

2a) List 10 items that are essential to be carried on any backpacking trek and explain why each item is necessary. 

Now that you’re prepared to handle the basic injuries you could encounter on the trail, it’s time to discuss what to pack and what to leave behind. A big part of backpacking is packing lightly but effectively. You want to be prepared and bring the essentials — while keeping your pack lightweight.

Next, we’ll go over what you should carry and also how to minimize the weight of your pack before you hit the trail. Keep reading to find out the ten things you should absolutely have with you for your next backpacking trek or Philmont expedition!

Ten Items To Carry On Any Backpacking Trek

  1. Navigation
    • It’s not uncommon to get lost during a hike. If this happens, you’ll want to return to the path as soon as possible. Make sure you pack a map, compass, and GPS to keep track of landmarks and help keep you on the right path.
  2. Headlamp and extra batteries
    • It’s best to only hike during daylight hours. However, if you find yourself moving after dark, you’ll need a reliable headlight with sufficient battery because accidentally stepping into a ditch, hole, or other dangerous places can cause serious injury.
  3. Sun protection (sunglasses, sun-protective clothes, and sunscreen)
    • Daylight is your friend, but UV rays are not. UV rays can easily cause sunburns, which are painful, damaging, and can lead to other dangerous health conditions. It’s important to reapply sunscreen at least every two hours and remember that sun protection also includes things like hats and sunglasses.
  4. First aid (including foot care and insect repellent as needed)
    • Minor cuts can become infected when left untreated. Bring the necessary gear for cleaning and bandaging wounds. Also, pack some fever, allergy, and pain relief medicine. Your feet are your livelihood on the trail so to avoid blisters, make sure you keep them dry and immediately treat all cuts, scrapes, abrasions, and rashes.
  5. Knife/Multitool (plus a gear repair kit)
    • An all-purpose knife can do everything from help you prepare food to cut your way out of a sticky situation. Plus, a gear repair kit will make sure that the precious items you choose to pack remain functional.
  6. Firestarter (matches, lighter, tinder, and/or stove)
    • Fire is a backpacker’s best friend, providing warmth, light, and heat for cooking. Starting a fire by hand can be next to impossible, especially in damp conditions, so make sure to pack appropriate fire-starting gear.
  7. Shelter (can be a light emergency bivy or even a small tarp)
    • Even if you do not plan on camping overnight, shelter is vital when out on the trail. It can give you cover from an unexpected storm and provide shade if you prepare a meal in the open air.
  8. Extra food (beyond the minimum expectation)
    • While you might be planning on backpacking for just a few hours, it’s important to pack enough food to last for some time in case you get lost. Dry meals are a great option to just leave in your pack, as they can be fully prepared by adding water, are lightweight, and take up little space.
  9. Extra water (beyond the minimum expectation)
    • Dehydration is one of the quickest ways to make a backpacking excursion go awry. A person can only survive without water for about three days so make sure to carry extra in the event of an emergency.
  10. Extra clothes (beyond the minimum expectation)
    • Temperatures can change rapidly from day to night, especially at high elevations. This requires a good supply of clothing layers. Also, you should always bring quick-drying clothes made of synthetic materials (not cotton!) when backpacking in the cold.

By carrying these 10 essential items, you’ll be well-prepared for backpacking. Combined with the know-how you’ll be learning in this badge, the items on this list will help you to be ready for almost any sort of emergency. 😀

Since backpacking and camping have a lot in common, you should also check out my Packing List for the 21 Scout Camping Essentials. If you have any extra room in your pack, bringing some of the camping essentials like a whistle, towel, or length of nylon rope could be a great call!

2b) Describe 10 ways you can limit the weight and bulk to be carried in your pack without jeopardizing your health or safety. 

When looking at all of these necessary items, you may be concerned that they’ll weigh you down and make your trek much tougher. No need to fret! Below are 10 of my best tips for backpacking lightly without sacrificing health or safety:

Ten Ways To Limit Backpack Weight And Bulk On A Trek

  1. If backpacking with friends, coordinate. Share the load and make sure nobody is carrying duplicate items.
  2. Choose a streamlined backpack that fits close to your back and doesn’t have unnecessary sections. Having a good backpack that distributes weight well won’t lessen your load, but it’ll surely make it seem lighter and more stable!
  3. If you buy gear that comes in packaging (for example, bulky first aid kits) take out the items you need and store them in plastic bags instead. This really cuts down on weight!
  4. Use rocks or roots to anchor your tent instead of carrying around tent stakes.
  5. Choose synthetic, fast-drying clothing over heavier cotton and denim. My Scoutmaster told me that tip could save your life if you get caught wet in freezing temperatures!
  6. If you’ll be backpacking for longer than a day, choose a refillable water bottle and purifier over a bulky water blatter with tons of straps and cords.
  7. A bandana is extremely multi-purpose: it can serve as sun protection, a rag for cleaning, and a potholder for cooking. Try to have alternate uses for everything!
  8. Find a suitable hiking stick on the trail instead of bringing along trekking poles.
  9. Pack lightweight clothing layers that trap heat in, instead of bringing along a bulky jacket. Clothing additions tend to take up the most space, so be wise in your packing!
  10. When choosing sleeping gear, find smaller, lightweight versions of sleeping mats, pillows, and cooking gear. I’ve seen scouts overpack in these departments most often.

There are plenty of other methods to make your backpack lighter and your trek much more pleasant. I encourage you to look at all of the stuff you’re packing and brainstorm ways to decrease the weight. If you get creative with it, optimizing your pack is actually super fun! 😉

Requirement #3: Planning

3a) Define limits on the number of backpackers appropriate for a trek crew. 

Traveling in a trek crew is a great way to minimize risk. Not only does a group allow you to watch each other’s backs, but it allows for a more manageable distribution of tasks and equipment. Plus, it’s always a lot of fun to have some trail buddies to crack jokes with and get to know better!

On the flip side, traveling in too large a crew can be a safety hazard. A group that’s too big can be difficult to manage, and not everyone will want to go at the same pace. Additionally, larger groups are more likely to cause unwanted damage to the wilderness.

So, how large should a backpacking trek crew be? In general, trek crews of around 5-6 people are ideal for backpacking. This group size provides protection while still being manageable. Finding a middle ground between too big and too small is key.

3b) Describe how a trek crew should be organized.

Organizing a trek crew starts at the top, with an experienced patrol leader assigned to manage the group. Before the excursion, this patrol leader should consult with all of the adults involved and monitor trek crew members to ensure that everyone is ready and in the loop.

Beneath the patrol leader, there are several vital roles to be filled by the crew. Some essential duties include navigation, cooking, cleaning, trash management, and location safety. Effective crews often rotate these duties to give everyone in the group a chance to gain experience in each task.

Quick Tip: Make a duty roster just like you would on a typical camp! This is a great way to keep track of everyone’s duties and makes rotating roles a much easier task. The roles you’ll need to track could differ based on your trek type, but be sure to think them through before departing.

The patrol leader will make sure that crew members fulfill their responsibilities and work together to solve problems. Ultimately, everyone doing their job and working together as a team will ensure a successful backpacking experience! 🙂

3c) Describe how you would minimize risk on a backpacking trek.

There are many ways to minimize risk on a backpacking trek. First, it’s vital to have a detailed schedule and an emergency support plan before beginning the hike. We’ll go more into detail about this in a little bit, but the idea is that safety comes first so you’ll need to plan accordingly.

Backpacking involves much more than just “walking” so it’s also essential to get in good shape before the trek. Make sure to exercise regularly and know your limits so that you’re prepared to face physically demanding situations (or stop when you’re in danger of overexerting yourself).

Quick Tip: A great way to get ready for a backpacking trip is with practice hikes. You could even earn the Hiking merit badge at the same time! When I was a scout, we often went on several practice hikes prior to a backpacking trek so we could get in shape and break in our gear.

The last risk minimization tactic I want to discuss is being vigilant while backpacking. When on the trail, stay well-hydrated, keep an eye out for potential dangers, and treat any injuries immediately. If something catches your attention, speak up and let the rest of your crew know.

3d) Explain the purpose of an emergency response plan.

An emergency response plan is a protocol put in place before a trip that gives you direction on what to do if something goes wrong. This way, if a serious incident occurs like an injury or missing member, you won’t have to waste time figuring out how to react.

All trek members should have a copy of the emergency response plan before the trek begins so everyone is on the same page and knows what to do. You should also give the emergency plan to an adult who is not on the trek so they can help in an emergency situation.

For more info on building out a full emergency response plan, check out the Emergency Planning article put out by our National Parks Service. This is a great resource that I personally referenced when writing this article. There, you’ll learn even more helpful tips for planning a safe trek!

Requirement #4: Outdoor Ethics

As humans, we produce a ton of trash. While it’s easy to discard waste on a typical campout, things work a little differently on the backpacking trail. Since we’re constantly on the move, we need to avoid creating as much garbage — and either pack out or burn the waste we do make.

In this section, we’ll go over how the Leave No Trace principles apply to backpacking, how to transport waste, and how to minimize your impact while camping. Since the wilderness is a gift, ensuring you know these skills will help you to preserve it for future generations of trekkers! 🙂

4a) Describe the importance of using Leave No Trace principles while backpacking and at least five ways you can lessen the crew’s impact on the environment.

Part of being a scout and a responsible citizen is enjoying the backcountry while preserving it for others. The best way to do this is by adhering to the principles of Leave No Trace! Below are five easy ways that you can limit your impact on the environment while on a backpacking trek:

  1. Travel in small groups (and stay on the trail).
    • Limiting foot traffic helps decrease damage to the terrain. Larger crews can cause unnecessary destruction to paths since they involve squeezing more scouts in a limited space.
    • Additionally, taking shortcuts and going off trail can cause erosion and make the hiking experience less safe for future backpackers. Always stay on-trail, especially if the off-trail section is a steep area.
  2. Camp (and light fires) on durable surfaces.
    • Pitch your tent in pre-defined camp areas or on durable ground where you won’t suffocate living vegetation or disturb inhabiting animals.
    • The same goes for lighting fires. If you’ve earned your Firem’n Chit, try to only light campfires in preexisting fire pits or on durable surfaces like rock or packed ground. Avoid lighting fires in meadows or too closely to trees.
  3. Plan ahead.
    • Research the area you’re planning on backpacking in and make sure you’re not planning your outing when there’s high traffic or during other delicate seasons. Also, make sure to pack the right amount of supplies and food to minimize waste.
  4. Dispose of waste properly.
    • One of the tenets of sustainable camping is “Pack it in, pack it out.” This saying basically states that you brought in the trash, so the right thing to do is to pack it out with you too.
    • It’s alright to burn your trash, but only when disposing of food or 100% paper products. Burning plastics will leave a nasty glob at the bottom of fire pits, and can release toxic fumes.
  5. Leave what you find.
    • No matter how beautiful it may seem, taking plants, rocks, or any other trail treasures damages the habitat. Remember, “Take nothing but pictures. Leave nothing but footprints.”

These are some great examples of how you can practice outdoor ethics while backpacking, but I encourage you to think of even more! For inspiration, check out my guide to requirement 1b of the Second Class rank, which describes how you can put the Leave No Trace principles into action.

4b) Describe proper methods of handling human and other wastes while on a backpacking trek. Describe the importance of and means to assure personal cleanliness while on a backpacking trek.

It’s best to limit your bathroom breaks to times when toilet facilities are available. However, as you can imagine, this will not always be possible on a backpacking trek. :/ So, here are the most important things to remember if you need a bathroom in the backcountry:

For urinationYour urine has little impact on the environment, but still make sure to move away from the trail and other gathering areas. Choose to ‘go’ on rocks, pine needles, and bare ground, when possible.

In some areas, urine may draw animals attracted to the salt, so the Leave No Trace website recommends diluting your pee with some water. However, I wouldn’t necessarily recommend doing this if you’re packing in your water and only have a limited supply.
For solid wasteThe best option when you gotta go #2 is to dig a hole that’s at least 4 inches wide and 6-8 inches deep. When picking where to dig, be sure to choose a spot at least 200 feet (70 steps) away from camps and bodies of water so as not to contaminate either of these locations.

Pro tip: If the ground is too hard, or you don’t have a trowel and can’t dig a hole, another option is to move a large rock to the side and replace it once you’re done!

Another thing to keep in mind is to try to minimize your TP use. Some areas recommend that visitors pack out their TP in plastic bags. In either case, make sure that your spot is packed down and well covered afterward. It should look (and smell!) like no one was ever there.

After creating any human waste, make sure to clean your hands thoroughly, either with soap or hand sanitizer. For more info on relieving yourself in nature, REI has a super helpful article that goes into a lot more detail, so check it out if you’d like!

In any case, it’s vital that you stay clean and keep your campsite clean for others. This really helps to prevent sickness during trips. Ensure that all gear, such as knives and eating utensils, are sanitized before and after each use. Have a system for cleaning dishes, and use hand sanitizer often! 🙂

4c) Describe what factors are important in choosing a campsite.

Now let’s talk about actually choosing a campsite. It’s best to find an area that’s easy to reach and evacuate in case of an emergency. Having a general direction to travel will also make your trek much easier. Once you pick the area, it’s time to narrow down your campsite choice!

Something else to keep in mind is to avoid disturbing the habitats of wildlife in the area. It’s essential to pick a place where you can build a fire safely, without the threat of starting a forest fire. Ideally, your campsite should be near a water source but not in an area that’s at risk of flooding.

Requirement #5: Clean Water

When hiking for several hours with a large pack on your back, you’re going to need a lot of water. Having clean, potable water is easily one of the most essential parts of backpacking. Water is pretty heavy though, so in this section, you’ll learn how to purify it in nature!

First, we’ll discuss how you can find clean sources of water when on a backpacking trip. Later, we’ll go over why staying hydrated is extremely important. Keep in mind that this information can be very useful outside of Scouting as well!

5a) Demonstrate two ways to treat water and tell why water treatment is essential.

Since drinking untreated water can cause illnesses like vomiting or diarrhea, it’s important to purify it so that it’s suitable for human consumption. When camping or backpacking, three methods of water purification are typically used:

  • Boiling (kills bacteria but leaves dirt/particles)
  • Iodine droplets (kills bacteria but leaves dirt/particles)
  • Filtration removes bacteria and dirt/particles)

Demonstrating two of these purification methods should be fairly straightforward. Simply find some clear fresh water and boil it. Then, depending on your equipment, you can either drop an iodine tablet into your remaining water or run it through a pump filter.

Here’s a tip: When finding water to purify, it’s important to choose the cleanest source of water, possible. You should avoid trying to purify murky water unless it’s a last resort, and instead try to purify water from moving streams or large lakes.

Because untreated water carries bacteria that can make backpackers sick, you should bring along a purification method while backpacking. Keep in mind though that boiling and iodine tablets won’t remove heavy sediment in your water, so always use a water filter, when possible.

5b) Explain to your counselor the importance of staying well hydrated during a trek.

Dehydration is extremely dangerous, especially when hiking far away from water fountains and civilization. We’ve already gone over the symptoms and treatments for dehydration in requirement 1, so feel free to reread that section if you need to brush up on some details.

The main takeaway is that your body requires more water when participating in strenuous physical activity. Insufficient water intake can cause dizziness and weakness, so make sure to stay hydrated. Also, keep an eye out for any signs of dehydration in both yourself and others in your crew.

Requirement #6: Navigation

Staying aware of your location and the path you need to take is vital while in the backcountry. Many of the trails you backpack won’t be as well-worn as your typical hiking trip, so keeping note of landmarks and distance is extremely important.

For this section, you’ll need to show that you can read a topographic map, pinpoint your current location using a map or GPS, and act appropriately if lost. If you’ve already completed your Tenderfoot rank, you should fly right through these requirements!

6a) Demonstrate that you can read topographic maps.

Topographic maps are detailed maps that use lines to show elevation. These markings make it easier to plan a route around steep slopes and find your location in relation to a landmark.

While topographic maps aren’t too complicated, you may need to spend some time familiarizing yourself with how to understand them. Here’s a great video explanation (3:48) by REI explaining how to read topographic maps:

Now it’s your turn to practice! You can use this .gov site to download a topo map of an area close to you and point out some landmarks. What are areas of high and low elevation? How can you tell? Discuss with your counselor to show that you can understand and read topographical maps! 😀

6b) While on a trek, use a map and compass to establish your position on the ground at three different locations, OR use a GPS receiver unit to establish your position on a topographic map and on the ground at three different locations.

Now it’s time to put your topographic map skills into practice! The easiest way to do this requirement would be to use the maps app on your cellphone if you have service. If not, work with your fellow scouts to use a compass to establish your position. You got this!

6c) Explain how to stay found, and what to do if you get lost.

Fingers crossed that you’ll never get lost on a backpacking trek. However, if you do get lost, you’ll want to stay calm and use the acronym S.T.O.P. The S.T.O.P. method gives you steps that will help you find your way back. Here’s what each letter stands for:

  • Stop: Stop where you are and remain calm. Wandering further could get you even more lost.
  • Think: Now, it’s time to think. How did you get to where you are? Did you take a wrong turn? What was the last recognizable landmark that you saw? Can you retrace your steps?
  • Observe: Look at your surroundings. Try to spot any landmarks that could lead you back and listen for voices.
  • Plan: Make a plan to backtrack or get to a known location. Try to conserve energy and keep yourself comfortable. If all else fails, make yourself easily identifiable and signal for help.

Also, immediately after realizing you’re lost, call for help as loudly as you can. The rest of your troop could still be within earshot, so this is your best chance for being quickly found. A whistle is great to bring along on hikes for this reason, as it’ll allow you to easily make a loud distress signal!

If you’re ever lost, never abandon the trail. Always try to remain in the same place, as this will increase your likelihood of being found. Also, if it’s close to nighttime and the elements are harsh, creating a good shelter that’s out of the wind is first and foremost.

Requirement #7: Weather

7) Tell how to prepare properly for and deal with inclement weather.

Preparing for potentially unpleasant weather before you go backpacking is crucial to a successful outing. This includes checking the forecast in advance — postponing if necessary — and packing appropriately.

By having an idea of inclement weather conditions you may encounter, you’re giving yourself time to get changed into the proper gear and seek/set up shelter. If you do find yourself caught unexpectedly in poor weather, however, try to remember the following:

  • Move away from any tall trees or objects. Lightning tends to strike the highest points.
  • Descend from high areas and get to an area where you’re protected from the wind and rain.
  • Try to remain warm and dry in order to limit your chances of hypothermia.
  • Stay calm.

When on the trail, a bad storm can be pretty scary. Just remember to stay calm, follow safety measures, and reassure your crew. As long as you follow the basic safety steps listed above, you should be just fine. 😉

Congrats on Finishing Half of the Backpacking Merit Badge!

Awesome work, scout! You’re halfway to earning your Backpacking merit badge. This is a major step in your Scouting career, and you should be very proud of your hard work and dedication!

Once you’re ready to continue on to part 2 of my Guide to the Backpacking merit badge, click here!
(Currently in progress — Thanks for your patience!)

Also, if you’re interested in the difficulty rankings for every Eagle-required merit badge, you can check out my full guide here! PS: The article also links to my other ultimate badge guides that’ll help you to complete your merit badge worksheets. 😀

Cole

I'm constantly writing new content because I believe in Scouts like you! Thanks so much for reading, and for making our world a better place. Until next time, I'm wishing you all the best on your journey to Eagle and beyond!

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