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Ultralight Backpacking for Scouts?

Posted on 10 July 2012 by MikeD

Ultralight backpacking may be the biggest change to hit Scout backpacking since the development of the hip strap. While still slightly contentious among some traditional Troops, Ultralight is increasingly accepted as a viable alternative to carrying the entire equipment list developed by traditionalists. Many experienced backpackers have already made the transition and Ultralight principles are showing up in popular basic backpacking courses and in many hiking groups.

Ultralight practitioners promote the idea that a Scout can lower his pack weight by purchasing newer and lighter equipment, eliminating potentially unnecessary items, sharing equipment among the group, and using things for multiple purposes. It’s not unusual for an advocate to get their pack weight down from the traditional 40-50 lbs to as little as 15 pounds by carefully weighing each item and continually seeking improvement. Their goal is to maintain the same level of comfort and safety at a significantly lower pack weight to improve their hiking experience.

Weigh everything in your backpack down to the last ounce!

Ultralight backpacking is a continuing commitment. Packs are designed to carry minimum weight, tents are replaced by tarps, sleeping bags might be just a blanket or quilt, boots become light trail runners, and clothing is limited to the bare minimum. Food is often eaten cold to save on fuel weight and many will even cut off the handle of their toothbrush or the straps on their backpack to save half an ounce. (These people are called ‘ounce counters.’)

Since the heaviest items are the most expensive, initially many Scout backpackers try to lighten their loads by counting ounces on smaller cheaper things in their pack. Or they try leaving extra clothing, food, and equipment at home. This is a nice idea but you can’t make a big weight difference with small sacrifices. The only way to significant lower your pack weight is to replace your backpack, tent/shelter, and sleeping system – often called the “Big Three of Backpacking” and pay the price at the cash register.

The “Big Three” accounts for a lot of your pack weight, but not all of it. If you want to minimize your load and move towards Ultralight, here are some additional rules for lowering what you carry:

1. Weigh everything
2. Take less stuff
3. Choose equipment carefully – Emphasize multi-use items
4. Know the difference between wants and needs
5. Continually try new and lighter things – experiment on practice hikes
6. Load lightening is a gradual process of trial & error so set goals every year and meet them

There are lots of groups and web sites that cover the subject. Possibly the most comprehensive is BackpackingLight.com. They publish a newsletter, review products, and act as a clearing house for information. As an added bonus, the editor is an Eagle Scout.

Some adult leaders have not totally embraced the concept of Ultralight backpacking due to the initial cost. There is also resistance because Ultralight means the margin for error is reduced and the risk of encountering problems might be higher. Difficulties are created when traditional (heavy) equipment is integrated with an Ultralight system. For example, you can’t, in an emergency, ask a hiker with an Ultralight pack to carry a heavy tent or sleeping bag that belongs to someone who is not also Ultralight. There is also an argument over footwear. Ultralight footwear is more like tennis shoes than boots (trail runners), built for speed but not ankle support. Many adults think that teenage boys need the support of regular boots to protect against sprains.

Despite the opposition from some quarters, most Ultralight concepts are here to stay. Equipment is getting better and lighter. Adult training is more enlightened and the boys are much less inclined to push themselves by carrying super heavy loads on their backs. As a result, the best advice for new backpackers is to start thinking about pack weight early in your hiking career and invest in the best and lightest equipment possible, even if you have to purchase it used off Craig’s List or EBay. The lighter the load, the farther you can walk every day.

For lots more information about Scout backpacking, visit 50Miler.com.and/or request a free copy of “Backpacking for Boys.”
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Mike Dubrall writes about backpacking, snow camping, and other high adventure outings at 50Miler.com. His email is miked@50miler.com or you can be connected through the “50miler.com Outing Resource Center” on Facebook.

 

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MD Snow Shoe Trip

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Five Degrees of Snow Camping

Posted on 08 March 2012 by MikeD

The following is a Guest Article by Mike Dubrall. Mike “Uncle Dub Zero” Blogs and writes informative articles on backpacking and snow camping at 50Miler.com. 

Snow camping is a popular winter activity for sturdy Boy Scouts.  Every year, thousands venture into snow covered fields and conduct a variety of maneuvers, all designed to prove that they can survive and thrive in cold conditions that cause their parents to mutter about hot tubs and hotel rooms.   However, while cold weather outings can be challenging, not all winter outings can be called snow camping, no matter what your leaders tell you.

Winter is a great time for Scout outings.

Snow camping requires, at a very minimum, that Scouts build shelters in the snow and sleep in them.  These could be tents, Ice or Hop Houses, Quinzies, Snow Trenches (sometimes called Ice Coffins) or the most popular of all – the classic Snow Cave.   Anything less than spending the entire night in one of these shelters  is just a winter outing with snow involved.

To clear up any confusion, here are the degrees of snow camping clearly defined – from easiest to most difficult.

Zero Degree: Staying in a cabin. Gentlemen, this is not snow camping.  No matter how many times you go outside and walk around in snowshoes or how cold you get making snow angels wearing only your shorts, it’s not called snow “camping” when you sleep in a “cabin.”  Even your little sister knows this.  Give it up and try again next winter.

First Degree: Car Camping.  Adults drive you up to the mountains and park near the snow.  You get to pitch tents or dig snow caves right next to the cars and keep all your shovels, extra tools, snacks, water, and tarps in the trunk, grabbing them as needed.  Adults sit in a Winnebago preparing hot chocolate and there is no need to dig out a cooking area because there is a propane stove in the back of  the truck.  Often you have KYBOS nearby, but you have to be brave enough to use them, partly because of the frigid temperature inside.

Second Degree: Tent Camping.  After arriving, Scouts pack up their equipment and leave the parking area to find a campsite.  Travel from the cars can be via snow shoe, cross country ski, or by booted foot.  Upon arrival at a suitable location, snow is cleared or smoothed and tents are erected with “dead men stakes” covered by snow.  Gear is stowed in the tents and the group works together building  a common kitchen area and latrine before heading off to explore the frozen lake.  After dark, Scouts climb into their tents and hope that the temperatures outside do not drop below 30 degrees or that it doesn’t snow too much.  If it does, they shiver in their sleeping bags and think about real snow caves.

MD Snow Cave

Digging a Snow Cave is much more difficult than just erecting a tent - but is usually more comfortable.

Third Degree: Cave Camping.  Scouts load their backpacks, fasten on their snow shoes, and carry all their equipment across the snow and away from the parking lot until the desired separation is achieved – usually when the weakest camper drops from exhaustion.   (The longer the hike, the more adventurous the outing.)  After testing the snow with an avalanche probe for hidden large rocks and other surprises, Scouts spend hours sitting or lying on tarps digging caves using snow shovels, saws, and their gloved hands.  During the afternoon, volunteers takes turns sculpting a kitchen area near the shelters.  Someone makes sure the cooking stoves are constantly lit and that snow is being melted into drinkable water.  After dinner, everyone climbs into their cave, lights their glow stick, and settles into a soundless trance until morning.

Fourth Degree: Cave or Tent Camping as part of an extended trek.  This is full metal jacket snow camping and only for the strongest and most prepared youth in the Council.  In addition to carrying a heavy backpack full of food and supplies across the snow on snow shoes, Scouts have to get up early every day

MD Snow Camping Levels of Difficulty

Leaving the vehicles for several days is the most challenging kind of fourth degree winter outing.

(when it’s really, really cold), break camp, and start moving so they arrive in camp in time to create new shelters and melt snow for drinking water before it gets dark.  On top of the significant physical and psychological burdens, everyone has to navigate across a frozen and alien geography where trails and landmarks are covered in snow, rending most maps almost useless.

Of course additional points can be earned when something difficult happens an any of these outings.  For example, when a storm unexpectedly dumps two feet of snow on your shelters overnight collapsing tents or forcing campers to dig out of their caves in the morning.  Likewise, when adults inexplicably insist that everyone buckle their snow shoes  after dinner for a night hike in sub-arctic temperatures.

Now that you have a snow camping barometer, what kind of winter camping does your unit do?
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Mike Dubrall writes about backpacking, snow camping, and other high adventure outings at 50Miler.com.. His email is miked@50miler.com and you can friend him on Facebook.

 

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