Friday, July 3, 2009

How To Backpack With Other People's Children

May 30-31, 2009 – Girl Scout Backpack Training Weekend 

 All this hiking for fun and for Girl Scout donations – it’s time to volunteer some time with the girls themselves! My Council has a backpacking interest group that plans and conducts backpacking trips. Any Girl Scout who is middle school age and up can take the training course and then go with this group on trips. They don’t have to have a parent or a troop leader accompanying them. It’s a great solution for girls who can’t talk anyone else into going with them.

The training consists of a preplan session and then an overnight trip. The purpose of this trip is not to put in any set number of miles, but to practice carrying stuff. This particular session had begun a while back with a preplan session but then the trip got rained out, so the weekend of May 30-31 was a makeup session. There were 9 girls, 5 adult troop leaders (including one male), another adult volunteer learning how to teach the skills, a lead trainer (Jessie) and two assistant trainers (Kathy and me), for a total of 18 people. The adults were there to learn the skills and also to learn how to teach them, so we were training them and having them train the girls at the same time.

 A mostly undeveloped Girl Scout-owned property was our site for this venture, so we were inside an old building for our packing session and then the girls were going to choose a spot for setting up camp. We met at about 9:00 a.m. and were ready to start hiking at about 6:00 p.m. Yes…that’s 9 hours! Remember, the goal was not to go a set distance – the goal was to understand what should be carried to be safe and have fun. Unlike adult backpackers, who learn to be self-sufficient and are capable of carrying all their own belongings, girls are often too small to carry all that they need. The focus of the training is really “group backpacking,” i.e., how can we distribute the weight so that no one is overburdened and everyone can go on the trip?

Jessie brought a hanging scale and we spent the day sorting the items that everyone had brought, making sure that each person had what they needed to “survive” a night outside. For example, each person needs a quick-drying top and a quick-drying bottom layer (other than what they were wearing). Well, most kids (and most adults) own cotton clothing and not quick-drying, hiker-friendly stuff. Jessie had garbage bags full of clothing that the participants could borrow. (We all know that backpacking can be an expensive hobby when first getting started and everyone had brought lots of borrowed stuff. The interest group also owns backpacks, sleeping bags, etc. that can be borrowed.)

As each set of essential personal items was evaluated (clothing, sleeping system, rain gear, etc.), they went into each person’s backpack and it was weighed. Each participant had to first show the item to make sure it was what they thought it was. How many of us have quickly packed a shirt, only to find it was long underwear when we got to camp? Everyone also had to constantly show their full water bottles (which kept getting empty throughout the day.)

We added items, weighed packs, added other items, weighed packs.

Next the group gear was checked out. How many stoves are absolutely essential for a group of backpackers? Answer: two (one plus a backup). Any more than that are luxuries that can be revisited after we get all the essentials taken care of.

How many tents are needed? We set up all the borrowed tents and we figured out that two large tents (6-man?) and a 4-man tent were sufficient. (The guy had to tent alone.) We divided up tent parts, poles, tarps, keeping the weight distributed. In Girl Scouts you should not assume that you are going to carry just your own stuff! And so it went.

Food was actually one of the last things to be included as luxury items, and a big lesson was learned about what type of food is good for backpacking (lightweight = good). At the end of this session we actually had everyone carrying less than their 20% of body weight estimate. I would not have believed it if I hadn’t seen it myself. Even my pack was lighter than when I pack all my own stuff.
Finally we could consider true luxury. Most of the girls chose not to include other luxury items after weighing in their food – I was impressed that they got the concept of less is better. My luxury item? My own tent…

At last we were ready to go forth. We walked for maybe 10 minutes and someone felt a blister coming up – a teachable moment, so we had everyone sit down and remove shoes and socks for a foot check. (Most were wearing sneakers and cotton socks.)

Another 15 minutes of walking and the girls chose a “primitive” site which happened to have an established fire ring, picnic tables and a Port-A-Jon – squeals of delight! The adults were not quite so happy because there was no water source, no close trees for hanging bear bags, and assistant trainer Kathy uses a backpacking hammock – where could she hang it? But we let the decision stand. Kathy was not at all unhappy to hang her hammock out of earshot of the crowd.

Note: boiling water on two backpack stoves for 18 people to eat supper takes a while. I had time to take a lot of sunset pictures.

 After supper the entire group of students went off to hang the bear bags in the dark, while Jessie and Kathy and I sat around and chilled. They were gone a REALLY long time.

About 6 o’clock the next morning I heard a rumbling sound. The wind began to pick up and rain began to pitter-patter. We were out in a field, but there were trees close enough that we were not concerned about being struck dead, but we got a good soaking.

Now here was a very good teaching opportunity – how to pack up camp when everything is wet. When the rain ended, the girls and adults sleepily poked their heads out and began to boil water for breakfast. Enthusiasm was in shorter supply than yesterday.

Kathy had not shown up from her hammock site, so we snuck up on her and shouted “Good morning!” First her feet emerged, then the rest of her. She looked entirely too well rested.

Everything got packed up in relatively the same order as yesterday and we “hiked” back towards yesterday's headquarters, but today we pretended that it did not exist and that we were still on the trail. We rehearsed “what-if” scenarios of injured hikers, damaged equipment, and we actually did treat one girl for bad blisters.

By mid- afternoon we were all done and glad to be heading into air-conditioned vehicles and going home. But before we left, we stood in a big circle for an informal evaluation (something Girl Scouts are good at) and answered questions like, “What did you like the best? What was the funniest thing that happened this weekend? What would you bring next time?” and so on. All of the girls were looking forward to the next time. They were a great bunch and I hope to backpack with them again.

Girls (boys too) need adults who can teach them outdoor skills. Often their parents and even their troop leaders don’t have these skills and may be uncomfortable with the outdoors. Girl Scouting makes it possible for both the girls and the adults to explore these topics in a safe and positive manner. I am very grateful for what I have learned in Girl Scouting and I am thrilled to be able to pass it on.

The world is mud-luscious and puddle-wonderful. ~e.e. cummings


Anonymous said...

At some point, each backpacker has to be independent. How do girl scouts learn that? Their own tent, bag, food ...
To not depend on others and when they grow up, to not depend on a man to carry some of their stuff.
I realise that it's more than scouts can teach but it's important.

smoky scout said...

Hi Danny -

Good question! This is something that GS does teach - we call it progression. The primary goal is to get them to want to go backpacking at all. If they are interested, they continue to learn skills, including carrying more weight. The girls gradually carry their own stuff as they grow. With a guideline of carrying 20% of body weight, the two smallest girls with us were limited to about 15 pounds of gear, and they didn't own any ultralight gear (most of their stuff is borrowed or not really meant for backpacking.) Again, if they like the experience, then they begin spending money on gear, keeping the weight light and eventually carrying all their own stuff.

North Country Trail said...

You are so right, kids do need just that. They need to be taught.Thank you for sharing that story. We always have liked following your blog.