Scouting magazine

Pack light, pack right on your next backpacking trip

The Scouts hiking through the old-growth forests of Washington state’s Olympic Peninsula in 1914 had no guidebooks, because none had been written for the remote area yet. They couldn’t consult topography maps, because the land was still largely uncharted. If they followed a trail, it was along tracks left by elk and deer.

The 1911 Handbook for Boys suggested Scouts avoid long ventures, a nod to weighty canvas tents, cast-iron pans and heavy personal gear anchoring most troops to campsites accessible by automobile.

Yet there they were, 30 miles from the nearest road on a five-day attempt to scale a glacier-guarded peak no one had ever climbed.

The Mountain Hiker’s Manual, published in the 1920s by the Chief Seattle Council, described the principles of lightweight backpacking that made those early Olympic Peninsula explorations possible — and that can still guide us today.

Choose the right pack

“Your pack must weigh little of itself,” the manual explained. “It must fit you comfortably, and it must close securely and open easily.”

The first Scouts made do with canvas rucksacks or gear in a blanket roll draped over one shoulder. Technology has since brought forth dozens of design innovations, including padded hip belts to transfer weight from the shoulders to the hips. Many ultralight packs, made of strong, waterproof material, are designed to weigh 2 or 3 pounds and hold 60-plus liters of gear.

The right pack, though, fits the best. Use your torso length, not your height, to find your fit. Measure from the top of your hip bone to the bony bump of your spine at the base of your neck. This measurement can guide you to finding a comfortable pack. Put some weight in the pack and see how it feels before hitting the trail.

Carry enough, but not too much

You don’t want to end up in a tough situation on the trail because you didn’t pack enough. Following the Scout Basic Essentials can ensure you have the minimum you’ll need for every trip:

Beyond that, take only what you will use. Check out the gear lists in the BSA Fieldbook, The Boy Scout Handbook and the Backpacking merit badge pamphlet to get you started.

After every journey, review what you carried, as well as what you did and did not use. Keeping a gear and food notebook will help you see where you can make adjustments to cut out unnecessary bulk.

“The average weight of packs for mountain hikes has been 23 pounds,” The Mountain Hiker’s Manual explains, reasonable by today’s technologically driven standards.

Live in layers

The old-time manual advised Scouts to bring woolen shirts, sweaters and old pants or BSA breeches, then match layers to changing conditions. They slept in long underwear and wore sweaters to sleep for added warmth.

Wearing layers can keep you comfortable on an expedition. Wool is a great choice for staying warm, while cotton helps you stay cool. Nylon, fleece and breathable blends are lightweight options that can maintain warmth even when wet.

Layering can also cut down on weight. Instead of filling your pack with multiple pairs of the same type of clothing, you can pack a long-sleeve shirt to wear under a fleece pullover under a wool shirt, which you can peel off as your body starts generating heat during a hike.

Even if you’re backpacking in hot weather, bringing long-sleeve shirts and pants is a good idea. They can protect you from insects, brush and the sun, and you can take them off if you get hot.

You can also consider wearing the same outfit for multiple days to save on space and weight.

Downsize your kitchen

What you need for cooking depends on what you’re eating; one or two lightweight pots and a spoon could be sufficient for your menu. Some cook kits combine utensils, cookware and backpacking stoves into a compact system, weighing as little as half a pound.

Scouts can use staple ingredients to make nourishing rations of reasonable weight. Dehydrated and freeze-dried dishes add variety and reduce poundage when ounces really matter. One-pot meals featuring powdered mixes are also easy to pack and carry.

Remember that backpacking burns a lot of calories. Trail food can keep you going, so don’t skimp on energy-producing snacks.

Meal ingredients listed in The Mountain Hiker’s Manual totaled about 2 pounds per person per day. Scouts carried chipped beef and stewed mixed fruit for breakfast, pilot bread and cheese with raisins and dates for lunch, and meat stew and biscuits for supper.

Consider the cost

The quest to lighten your load can be constantly satisfying. But is it worth the expense to buy a titanium cookpot a few ounces lighter than the banged-up aluminum one you already have? Should you pay to replace a reliable tent with another that saves barely a pound? Your answer might be yes, especially if you will use those items many times. Just be aware that going with less can cost more and that good enough is often close to perfect.

Years from now, it will be the adventure you remember, not the pounds you did — or didn’t — have stuffed into your pack. Like the Seattle Scouts — who ascended above giant cedars and Douglas fir to be the first to stand atop that snowy Olympic Peninsula peak, which they named Mount Tom after a boy in their group — follow that most important principle of making the most of every outdoor experience.


Robert Birkby is author of three editions of  The Boy Scout Handbook, two editions of the BSA’s Fieldbook and the newest edition of the Conservation Handbook. Find him at robertbirkby.com