Five Things We Learned from Philmont’s Director of Camping

Philmont is back!

It’s been an up-and-down few years for one of Scouting’s signature locations. In 2018, a wildfire disrupted the summer season. The 2019 season, however, was awesome. Then came 2020, when the COVID-19 pandemic forced more cancellations.

And now, as Philmont Scout Ranch prepares for summer 2021, we’re happy to report that officials are expecting one of their largest seasons ever.

Steve Nelson, Philmont’s director of camping, recently sat down with the hosts of Scout Life magazine’s #Trekat2 live Facebook show to discuss the possibilities at Philmont this summer … and beyond.

You can watch the entire interview here. Below are five things we learned from the conversation.

Philmont Scout Ranch is basically a town of its own.

Philmont consists of 140,000 acres in the Sangre de Cristo Mountains of New Mexico. There are hundreds of miles of trails and roads, 37 staffed camps, many more primitive trail camps, 300 head of horses, a herd of cows, about a hundred burros, a herd of buffalo, one of the BSA’s premier training centers and one of the country’s best outdoor retailers. All of this requires around 1,200 staffers to maintain.

“Philmont is a small city that has high-adventure opportunities and training opportunities for families and Scouts across the country,” Nelson says.

Photo by W. Garth Dowling

New treks take Scouts through the area of the 2018 fire.

Since the turn of the century, Philmont has experienced two large-scale fires. In 2002, the Ponil Complex Fire burned 92,194 acres at Philmont and the surrounding areas. The 2018 Ute Park Fire burned 36,740 acres, including most of Philmont’s central country.

In 2021, some Treks take participants “through the burn scar for the first time since the fire in a safe and thoughtful manner,” Nelson says.

Timber stand improvement is a collection of practices meant to improve the overall health of a forest, thereby reducing the risk of another serious fire. Since 2018, Philmont has quadrupled the size of its summer forestry program and began operating forestry crews to address the conditions that can result in catastrophic wildfires.

New protocols will help reduce the risk for trekkers this year.

COVID-inspired modifications include more outdoor dining areas to allow people to spread out while eating, and more handwashing stations for people to use before they eat. They’ve also installed more than 60 trail campsites to give participants more ability to spread out, even in the backcountry.

“Think about having 5,000 people in backcountry at the same time at any one point,” Nelson says. “Can they have adventure by themselves? We try to make sure that happens. Crews will be socially distanced from others. We want to give lots of people the ability to spread out in the backcountry.”

Some of Philmont’s backcountry camps are more than just camps.

They’re “living history.”

“Staff living in those areas are living as if it were the 1890s or 1860s,” Nelson says. “They are in interpretative clothes and living as it if were actually those times.

“Scouts really get a great history of the area as they go through the trails. One day they may be at a mountain man camp and the next day at a homesteader camp or a logging camp or a mining camp.”

Some of the backcountry camps now have commissaries to allow people to resupply with trail food along their trek. Several other camps have been completely remodeled. Metcalf Station, for example, which was built on the site of an old railroad town, now has a brand-new railroad depot.

Photo by W. Garth Dowling

Philmont offers more than backpacking. A lot more.

Philmont offers some of the best backpacking opportunities in North America. This we already know. What you might not remember is everything else it has to offer.

Several of the backcountry camps offer horseback riding. The Cavalcade Program gives crews the chance to spend eight days in the backcountry on horseback. The Ranch Hands program allows Scouts and Venturers to work with the horse department staff, taking care of the ranch’s horses and burros.

World-class conservation efforts and training happens at Philmont as well. Staff and visitors work on trail building, trail maintenance, campsite building, forest management and wildlife management. Roving Outdoor Conservation School teaches participants about conservation and resource management.

Family Adventure Camp started at Philmont a few years ago and has since expanded to other high-adventure properties.

And Backcountry Sneak Peak is a series of hikes that get progressively more and more difficult, giving guests a taste of the Philmont backcountry experience.

“There is such a variety of things that happen,” Nelson says. “There’s something that everybody is going to enjoy.”

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