There’s probably no activity more key to Scouting than a backpacking trip. In fact, you’ll probably participate in dozens of backpacking adventures during your Scouting career, but none of these are more important than your FIRST few backpacking trips.
Written by Eagle Scout and pro outdoor journalist, Owen Clarke.
Cole here — I asked Owen to share his experience on ScoutSmarts, as he’s a true expert in backpacking and outdoor adventuring. Get ready, this article will be a real treat!
So, if you’re getting ready to embark on one of your first few backpacking trips, be prepared to learn some essential knowledge! In this article, I’ll break down everything you need to know about backpacking, including what to bring, the right mindset, and what you can expect on the trail.
Afterward, we’ll cover FIVE backpacking fails, FOUR things to expect on the trail, and then I’ll share THREE of my own wildest backpacking adventures. Finally, we’ll go over some Frequently Asked Questions! Are you ready? Let’s dive into it! 🙂
Owen Here — I remember my first backpacking trip to this day. I was 11 years old, and my troop went backpacking at Fall Creek Falls State Park in Tennessee. I built my first fire, navigated using a map and compass, and cooked and ate my first dehydrated meal. Like me, you’ll probably remember your first backpacking trip for the rest of your life!
What is Backpacking?
Let’s start with the basics. Backpacking is the process of hiking while carrying all your camping gear on your back. Backpacking trips can be a single night, or they last multiple weeks (and even months!) but they always involve at least one night spent in the wilderness.
Most backpackers bring tents, hammocks, or other shelters, but you can also backpack and sleep in huts or other pre-existing wilderness shelters. While backpacking, you’ll carry all your gear with you on your back. This includes your tent, food, water, clothing, medication, and anything else you need to get through your hike!
Owen Here — Backpacking is also one of the 130+ merit badges you can earn in Scouting. Check out our Backpacking Merit Badge Guide for more info on this challenging (but rewarding!) merit badge.
Choosing the Right Backpack
What you bring on your first backpacking trip is important (and we’ll go through a detailed packing list below). But NOTHING is more important than the pack you choose to carry all your gear. You’ll be wearing your pack all day long, for multiple days, so choose your pack wisely.
Finding the right pack is all about fit and size. Your pack size is based on your torso length, not your height. So, measure from the top of your hips to the bony bump on the back of your neck. This measurement will help you find a pack that fits you correctly.
Remember, as a young scout, you’ll need to leave some room for growth! A pack that’s slightly too big won’t be a huge problem. Be sure to add some weight to your pack and see how it feels before purchasing it!
Scout Backpacking Tip — When loaded, your pack should weigh no more than 20% to 25% of your body weight (30% at most). That means if you weigh 150 pounds, a 30-pound (loaded) pack is a solid choice.
What to Bring Backpacking
Your first backpacking trip will be a success if you pack properly. But that’s not just physical packing, it’s mental packing, too!
The Best Backpacking Mindset
Backpacking is a difficult and exciting activity. Your mindset is just as important as (if not more important than) what you carry with you in your backpack.
When you head out on your first backpacking trip, you should BE PREPARED. That means being prepared with the right gear (below) and a flexible, capable mindset to roll with the punches and address any obstacle that comes your way.
Owen Here — On a troop backpacking trip to the Appalachian Trail, I was tenting with another scout who had a learning disability. During the night, a heavy rainstorm caused a nearby creek to rise. We woke up in several inches of water!
My tentmate freaked out, and I had to calm him down to stop him from flipping the tent over. This is just one example of why being prepared with a calm, cool mindset will help when backpacking!
Backpacking Gear Packing List
What you bring backpacking will vary depending on the length of your trip and the terrain you’re heading into. If you’re going to Philmont Scout Ranch, for example, you’ll be on a weeklong trek. For a two-day, one-night weekend trip, your kit might be much smaller. Below are some essentials:
- First aid kit
- Tent, hammock, bivvy sack, or another form of shelter (w/ rain fly)
- Spare clothing and socks (avoid cotton, choose moisture-wicking materials instead)
- Rain gear
- Water bottle
- Water filtration device
- Bug spray
- Sunglasses and sunhat
- Headlamp w/ spare batteries
- Trail food
- Lighter, matches, or another fire-starting source
- Map and compass
- Camp shoes (sandals or Crocs)
- Toiletries (toilet paper or wet wipes, toothbrush, toothpaste, floss, etc)
- Mess kit (spork, bowl, mug)
- Backpacking stove w/ fuel
This list just contains the bare necessities for shorter backpacking trips though. To see a full list of additional Scout camping essentials with links on where to get these reliable, tested products, check out Cole’s Ultimate Scout Camp Packing List!
Five Backpacking Trail Fails (Don’t Do This Stuff!)
1. Carrying Too Much Weight
Hauling too much weight in your pack is probably the #1 thing scouts should avoid when backpacking. As mentioned above, your pack shouldn’t weigh more than 20% to 25% of your total body weight. Philmont suggests 30% as a decent high point, but in general, aim to carry as little weight as possible.
Remember, a pack that feels a bit heavy when you start hiking is going to feel much, much heavier after you’ve hiked a few miles. Because of this, always make it a point to drink lots of water as you trek along for 2 important reasons: 1) You stay hydrated, and 2) Your backpack gets lighter! 😉
2. Poor Food Planning
This “Trail Fail” can be broken into two categories, 1) Taking the wrong food and 2) Taking too much food. Candies and other sugary snacks provide energy, but it’s short-lived. You’re going to crash later! Healthy snacks that deliver sustained energy are a much better choice.
Check out our list of “The 5 Best Scouting Trail Snacks” for our favorite delicious and nutritious trail food options!
Also, when backpacking, avoid heavy foods like fresh fruit and canned food, which weigh much more than they’re worth in energy. Shoot for 2,000-3,000 calories (or no more than 1.5 pounds of food) per day for each scout. You’ll have enough energy for the trail without too much weight on your back!
3. Expecting Others to Lead
Every Scout backpacking trip will be led by a trip organizer (whether a Scoutmaster, a fellow scout, or both), but you shouldn’t just blindly follow. As a Scout, you should be self-reliant and know as much about the route and plan as the trip organizers.
Be supportive and helpful, but also ask questions, review the planned route (with your own map and compass), monitor weather conditions, and know the names of the trails, junctions, water sources, and exit points. This is a huge part of being prepared, and could save your bacon if you get separated!
4. Cotton, Cotton, Cotton!
Cotton is a killer on backpacking trips. It’s easily soaked with sweat or rain, it doesn’t dry quickly, and it’s a bad clothing choice whether in hot weather or cold weather. Instead, stick to fast-drying, moisture-wicking synthetic linens or (in cold weather) wool. Here’s an example shirt on Amazon!
5. Starting Your Hike in the Hole
When you hit the trail, you should be hydrated, well-fed, and full of energy. Sometimes, scouts will have a light breakfast, ride to the troop meeting spot, wait for a few hours, ride a few hours to the trailhead, and THEN start hiking. By that time, the little energy you had from breakfast is long gone!
Start hydrating and energizing the night before, and drink water often all day before the hike starts! On the same note, avoid sugary cereals and juices right before a hike. You’ll crash and burn before you get started.
Instead, eat heavy proteins and/or complex carbs the morning before your hike, and try to keep snacking at the meeting point and on the way to the trailhead. Remember, don’t start your hike in a hole! 😀
Four Things to Expect On The Scout Backpacking Trail
1. Wrong Turns
It doesn’t matter if Bear Grylls is leading your troop, everyone is going to take a wrong turn now and then. Be prepared to retrace your steps to the proper trail junction, and orient with your map and compass as often as possible to ensure you don’t get off track!
Even in the driest of seasons, you could run into some wet weather. Always pack proper rain gear on any Scout backpacking trip, even if there’s 0% chance of rain in the forecast. That includes a rain jacket, a pack cover, and a rain fly for your tent.
3. Bug Bites
Like rain, bugs can bite almost any time of year. You might not deal with mosquito bites or ticks in the winter, but you can still come across spiders and other creepy crawlies.
The easiest way to deal with bugs is to bring bug spray. Apply it often, and apply it thoroughly. Long pants and long sleeve t-shirts help, too!
4. Bad Attitudes
Whether it’s from wrong turns, rain, bug bites, or any other obstacle on the trail, even the best scouts can get cranky during a long backpacking trip.
Be prepared to deal with grumpy scouts (and maybe even Scoutmasters!) while backpacking. Everyone is exhausted during backpacking trips, so bickering, unfortunately, isn’t uncommon. Just stay positive, encourage the people around you, and always be understanding and courteous to your fellow scouts! 🙂
My Top Three Backpacking Experiences
1. Juliana Trail—Slovenia
When I was just beginning my career as an outdoor journalist, I had the opportunity to be the first person to solo hike the Juliana Trail, a 167-mile route through the Slovenian Alps.
It was a fascinating journey, hiking through remote mountain valleys and rugged alpine passes (and even a couple of abandoned WWI bunkers!) for 17 days. You can read more about my adventure at Outside Online.
2. Chicago Basin—Colorado
This remote alpine basin is home to four 14,000-foot mountains! It’s so far off the beaten path that you have to take a historic steam engine from the mountain town of Durango, Colorado to reach the drop-off point. From here, you’ll hike seven miles up into Chicago Basin at 11,000 feet. Here, the awe-inspiring mountains of Windom, Sunlight, Eolus, and North Eolus tower above you!
Owen Here — I climbed these mountains as part of a goal to solo climb every mountain over 14,000 feet in Colorado last year! If you don’t have the time or money to ride the train, you can also backpack around 13-15 miles from the Purgatory Flats Trailhead, which is what I did.
3. Philmont Scout Ranch—New Mexico
I’ve been on countless backpacking adventures since I finished my Scouting career… but nothing compares to my experience backpacking at Philmont! Philmont remains the most exciting and rewarding backpacking trip of my life, even over a decade later.
Check out our in-depth guide, “Philmont Scout Ranch Explained: Your Best Prep Guide In 2022” to learn more!
Frequently Asked Questions
How long should a beginner backpacking trip be?
First-time backpackers should aim for a one-night trip. You could hike anywhere from 5 to 20 miles on this first trip, but stick below 20 miles. That way, you’ll never be more than 10 miles from either trailhead, which is a good idea if you’re a beginner and maybe still testing out new gear, like your boots and backpack.
Can you go backpacking without training?
Backpacking isn’t a technical activity like rock climbing or scuba diving, so you don’t need training. However, you should know basic wilderness skills, such as how to start a fire, how to pitch your tent, how to navigate using a map and compass, how to cook meals, and how to perform basic first aid.
Be sure you’ve practiced these skills with your troop and attended a few car camping trips before you head out on your first Scout backpacking trip!
What is the difference between backpacking and hiking?
Backpacking involves hiking, so the two activities are closely related. Backpacking is the process of hiking while carrying all your camping gear on your back.
So, every backpacking trip is a hike, but not every hike is a backpacking trip! A trip is only “backpacking” if you’re spending at least two days hiking and one night camping.
How much weight should you carry when backpacking?
How much weight you carry when backpacking depends on the length of your trip and the number of Scouts and Scoutmasters in your group. However, never carry more than 30% of your body weight in your pack.
Aim for somewhere between 20% and 25% of your body weight, but never go above 30%. That means, if you’re 150 pounds, your pack should never weigh more than 45 pounds. Ideally, it should be lighter.
How much food and water should you bring when backpacking?
Again, this will depend on the length of your trip. Bring food for three meals each day, and don’t forget to add some tasty trail snacks! A helpful tip when planning meals with your patrol is to stick between 2,000 and 3,000 calories per Scout per day (including snacks).
For water, a good rule is to carry 1 liter (or one full Nalgene water bottle) for every two hours of hiking. Three liters should get you through most days on the trail, but be sure to bring a water pump or other filtration system to pump more water each day.
Backpacking is a thrilling, challenging Scouting activity. While backpacking, you’ll have opportunities to learn many other useful skills, like fire-starting, first aid, navigation, shelter-building, cooking, and plant & animal identification, to name a just few!
Once you become comfortable backpacking, your chances for adventure are almost ENDLESS. Choosing the proper backpack, bringing a positive mindset, and packing properly will help you get started. Now get off the computer and get ready to go hit the trail! 😀