My son and I on a Scout outing, with our Exos packs on.
I have fond memories of hiking and camping during my one and only year in Webelos, back in the 70s (yeah, man). So when my nine-year-old son asked to join his buddy in Webelos three years ago, I was excited. I am just a big kid at heart, and now that I have my own money, I wanted to do this camping thing right! To get ready for going on Boy Scout backpacking trips, which wouldn’t be for another year, I went out to the local retail store and went crazy. I bought Osprey packs for me and my son, a “light” (7 oz) stove, aluminum “lightweight” pots, a “lightweight” two-man tent (4 lbs 14 oz), “ultralight” (2 lbs 7oz) Slumberjack 40 degree (yeah, right!) sleeping bags and… well, you get the idea. If it had the word “light” in it, or better yet, “ultralight,” I bought it. And I always got the lightest piece of gear. I mean, if it’s the lightest in this famous store, it must be the lightest out there, right?
For our first father-son trek (before any troop outings), we picked a four-mile, 1200-foot elevation gain hike to a spring on the Mogollon rim here in Arizona. My “lightweight” gear weighed in around forty pounds, and my nine-year-old’s was twenty pounds for this super-long-extended trip (less than twenty-four hours). Boy, was this backpacking thing tough!
My son crossed over to Boy Scouts, and the troop backpacked more often than when we first joined Scouting. I was used to seeing these eighty- to ninety-pound kids hauling a thirty-five- to fifty-pound load up and down the trails (for me, that would be equivalent to a ninety-five-pound pack!). I continued to struggle on steeper hikes and longer trips. My son is a trooper; he was carrying around 35% of his body weight on a regular basis.
After a brutal three-day trip that had us starting off with heavier-than-normal packs, because no one was sure of what the water situation would be, I thought “there has to be a way to carry less gear and still enjoy camping, I mean I already bought all this lightweight stuff.” I discovered Backpacking Light, and my life and my hiking/camping enjoyment has been changed forever! My son and I have become enlightened, and it has helped me to enlighten his troop.
A troop outing, in the olden days (a few years ago). Ouch!
I now tell the boys two things about lightening their loads. One, being prepared doesn’t have to mean being equipped for every single possibility, and two, ultralight gear doesn’t always have to be ultra expensive. Let’s face it, these boys don’t have a lot of their “own” money, and Mom and Dad just don’t understand if they haven’t hauled a fifty-pound pack up and down a mountain for three days. A lot of these kids have inherited their gear from an older sibling, and most of that stuff was considered heavy back then! I have had the boys make tea light alcohol stoves, aluminum can cooking pots, do-it-yourself tarps and have even sent them to Taco Bell to get their free ultra-ultralight spork.
Every new Scout that comes into the troop has to hear “The Speech” about the big three. I tell them, and their parents, that they need to get as good a durable light pack as they can afford and a good sleeping bag that is under four pounds, preferably three pounds or less. At first we couldn’t do much about number three, the shelter. We had what we had. The boys had to trudge around with an eight-pound Coleman 7 x 7 dome tent.
But the boys have learned, as I have, to really look for multi-use items and to make some of their own gear. The latest favorite is the poncho-tarp. We don’t get a lot of rain when we hike, but when we do, it is heavy. The boys are getting more comfortable with sleeping under a tarp if it is raining and under just the stars if it is not. Forget those expensive and heavy Nalgene bottles; use the bottle of water you just bought at 7-Eleven. Contrary to Mom’s philosophy (sorry, but we still love ya!), you don’t need four pairs of socks, three pairs of pants, three long sleeve and short sleeve shirts, a winter jacket, and a wind breaker for a three-day trip.
Our campsite, a Bivy (Ti Goat), a Double Rainbow and a sub-five-pound Eureka.
Going light is especially important for the younger boys starting out, because if hiking isn’t fun, they won’t continue doing it. Let’s face it: carrying 35-40% of your body weight on your back for two or three days isn’t fun. But going light isn’t just for the young, it helps us “old people” quite a bit. Forget some of the often cited advantages of going light: the faster pace, the better maneuverability, and more opportunities to observe nature… a forty-pound pack kills my knees, and a fifteen-pound pack doesn’t!
BPL has really enabled me to make going lighter a continuous process, and it doesn’t have to break the bank. I comb through all the articles, looking for new ideas to try and nuggets of wisdom I can share with the boys. No, it’s not a cheap hobby, but it’s less expensive than being a two-channel stereo audiophile, and better for you. Just like audiophiles, most BPL subscribers treat their gear with kid gloves, so when you go to the Gear Swap forum, (if you are diligent and fast enough) the used items you pick up are often as good as new. Gear Swap really changed how I built up my UL kit (thanks all you early adopter gear heads) and it lets me help the boys who don’t have many resources. I can surf for something that wasn’t “light enough” for a BPL’er, but is a blessing for some of these younger boys.
My son and I have our packs down to fourteen pounds or less, including clothes, water, and food for most of our two- to three-day hikes. It is fun to flabbergast other troops, passing by those boys and young men leaning forward carrying monster packs, often sticking up a foot or more above their heads. They see us and often say, “We’re going up for three days, you just going for the day?” “Nope,” we reply, “we are heading up for three days too. See you at the top.”