Philmont Equipment Philosophy

provided by John LeBlanc, who revised his posting to the Philmont mailing list for inclusion here.
Chris from Houston, Texas writes:
>  First of all Scouts, whether Philmont 
> bound or not, should be learning good  techniques for supermarket 
> backpacking. Techniques they can use long after  they have hiked over Baldy.  
> Overusing Philmont food packs for shakedowns is,  in my opinion,  like using 
> MREs on your weekend scout excursions. 
>  Secondly,  I think you take some of the surprise out of the trek if you know 
>  what's coming up at every turn.  There is something to be said for a crew 
>  getting to camp and pulling out dinner packs and trying to figure out how to 
>  cook them by program time (Maybe they should try this on "Ready, Set, Cook" 
>  on the Food Network!). 

First, please don't take this as criticism of what you do or how you do it. It is simply some thoughts I have been mulling around and I include myself in the group. Also don't take this as criticism of what the administration at Philmont is doing because I think they are doing the most they can with what they have and are constantly trying to expand the program to include more scouts. For that I commend them. I post it only as thought provoking ideas.

With that being said, Chris brings out some very good points above.

I am preparing to take my wife and daughters on a 21 day, 130 mile canoe trip this summer in Canada. That is a lot of food to pack. 160 pounds of it to be exact. I could plop down my plastic and order all fancy freeze dried stuff and probably cut that weight to 100 pounds, maybe. All we would have to do is boil some water, pour it in the packet and eat!

Somehow we want that trip to be more than just a pop tart, instant cup of soup journey.

We choose not to go the instant route. Everything, I mean everything we are using comes from the local supermarket. Some will be dried when purchased like flour and cornmeal, others we will dehydrate ourselves like celery and onions and cooked ground meat. A lot of it will be repackaged to fit our needs

None of it will be in "kit form" that is take it out, read and follow the instructions and have an instant meal. We think better of ourselves than to do this. Also I was never given high marks in school for "listens to and follows instructions" and have the report cards to prove it. I still am a much more creative person than that.

What is more important is that my two daughters are getting the experience of buying the food in a regular grocery store, packaging it properly and converting it into something we can carry without refrigeration for weeks and then cook it into healthy, nutritious meals that are pleasant to eat and not a "bowl of gruel".

I think the experience is well worth the extra effort.

I remember talking about doing a backpacking trip some years back at a scout meeting when some were pretty unsure we could do it unless we ordered "special food". They were absolutely amazed at how well we did using "supermarket food".

In reading the Philmont listserve and talking to those who have recently gone to Philmont, there seems to be a pervasive idea throughout that you have to train, train, train and buy, buy, buy to do Philmont.

There comes a point in time when all the training will make the actual Philmont trek seem like a letdown, a "we have already done this into oblivion" thing. Don't fall into this trap.

Anticipation and the great unknown are the two things that drive adventure. At 55 years of age, those two still drive me. I learned them and learned them well at Philmont. Don't spoil that for your scouts by over training.

It seems like people think Philmont is like a major football game in that all this training must occur and all this special equipment and clothes must be purchased.

There is not a normal active scout that can't do Philmont "as is". I can't say that for most of the adults and I do suggest you do two things. First, loose some of the excess baggage we carry around each day and second go take a hike! Take them every week. Take them every week for the rest of your life. Your life will be longer and more rewarding if you do.

A majority of people on the Philmont listserve say the scout uniform is not an OK clothes item for trail wear and that cotton shirts are dangerous. That is sad. They recommend Polyester for "safety" reasons. Their reasoning is that nylon dries quickly in case it gets wet.

Safety? What is safe about a polypro jacket a flame gets too close to? What is safe about nylon shorts a flame gets too close to? What is dangerous about a cotton shirt or wool ragg sweater that is kept dry in the PhilRain by personal skills and determination? The answer to all three of these questions is a resounding nothing!

Someone on the Philmont listserve asked if a wool ragg sweater would be just as good as a polypro. I think it would. It would not be the same, maybe not do the exact same thing, but it would do what one wanted it to do. There was an outcry and one would think if one wore wool they were going to die of hypothermia.

Speaking of wool ragg sweaters, I have on my wall a photograph of one of my heros. It is Sir Edmund Hillary standing atop Mt Everest, the first man to do that and guess what he is wearing? A wool ragg sweater just like the one in my closet and just like the one in the Philmont Tooth of Time Traders catalog. They and are very functional and they keep you warm when you need it and they don't burn if you held a blow torch to them. The only drawback to them is they smell just like the sheep they come from and if one is from New Zeland that is probably not such a bad thing afterall. I know after a week on the trail I'd rather smell like a sheep than myself anyway.

Quite personally, I am glad that when I Phirst went to Philmont as a 14 year old scout that we only had one meeting with parents and leaders and only one meeting with the scouts and leaders before going. I did not even know about the trip until late April. Fully 95% of the scouts were from other troops and I did not know them until I was at Philmont. We got to know each other really fast and we pulled together like scouts do even today.

We were given a list of about 10 little things we might want to bring along. The sum of all of them was less than $20.00. Moleskins and lemon drops were on the list as was a wide brimmed hat. I also took what I already had including sleeping bag, Yucca Pack, G I canteen, socks, boots, scout shorts, cotton BSA sweatshirt, official BSA poncho and the dreaded cotton underware, but being a Texan I wore a new Stetson.

We rode a commerical Greyhound bus all 1600 miles to get there except that last jaunt on an old, old school bus from Raton. No charters, no jets, just 28 hours of "leaving the driving to us" and greasy hamburgers at small town bus stops.

It was my first time away from home and it was a real adventure. It was wrought with surprises daily. On our first night we had a bear in camp. We had followed the rules and had no problems. I got face to face with that thing at about sixteen inches from inside my sleeping bag and whispered "shoo bear"as a last resort. I just knew I was fixing to be eaten alive that first night. Was I scared? You betcha I was. That was part of the adventure too.

We made cooking crews out of people we had hardly seen before. No, we were not a fine tuned machine, but we learned how to get along with others. How to make do. How to use what was at hand and how to cook what was issued to us. Some of it we had never seen before. Some we had. We did not have practice sessions cooking PhilFood. Had they sent one of those Seidels Veg-A-Rice packets they issued every day to us to practice on, I dare say not many would have gone. That stuff was nasty.

I am Cajun and Cajuns do know what to do with rice to "supercharge" it. Seidels did not!

We also learned that powdered eggs are just that and it depends on how one prepares them and not that they are powdered that effects their taste.

Someone wrote me recently about standing around a cooking fire holding one's ponchos over the cook and fire to shield it from the rain and the smoke coming through the neck hole so much it made tears run down their face, That my friends is a cooperative effort and I have been there, done that at Philmont.

We learned what bacon, scratch biscuits and eggs tastes like at Abreu. We learned how good hot chocolate was that had been watered down to be stretched so each could have enough to warm them up in the cold rain and took the time to savor the aroma and the experience instead of rushing through a cold breakfast so we could make it to the destination in time for the program.

We were the program!

One of the Scouts on our trek still has a Catholic priests flat brimmed Boy Scout Campagne hat and I am sure one of that priests decendants has John Rath's 10X Beaver Stetson hat. They bonded in friendship and swapped hats even though there was probably about 70 years difference in their ages.

We caught trout, lots of trout in the Rayado with sitcks and string and dug up bait we put on a hook we brought from home. We did not check out flyrods, we caught fish!

One thing that may not have been the proper thing to do, but I am still proud of it was I was part of the group that sneaked into the back door of the commissary and snitched two pounds of real USDA butter to cook those trout in when the nerd that worked there would not give us a half pound we asked for because it was "not on your food list".

I still savor that experience and no matter how much I envy those who have had the opportunity to work several years at Philmont, I still think we won! At least we had a fish fry and that guy was not invited like we were going to do if he had helped us by issuing us just a little butter to cook the fish with.

Have you ever tasted Brook Trout fried whole in pure butter? You need to do that sometime. I suggest you buy the butter by the way. We would have bought it also but Philmont did not sell food back then.

We learned that Pinyon Pine smoke really smells good. We learned to keep cotton sweat shirts dry with a poncho even when something else might have been better.

In short we learned technique instead of "things". That technique has stayed with us far longer than how to buy more stuff.

It is absolutely astounding to me at what is listed as "gear one needs" to go to Philmont. After all Pholks, Philmont is simply a walk in the foothills compared to mountain treks and long distance backpacking or other expeditions.

Philmont should be an introduction to adventure, not life's premier.

Philmont is a great experience, but if it is as good as you get from life, you are missing out on a lot of good things. It should give scouts experience in developing skills and using technique on how to do with what they have, not how to operate their "Philmont Kit".

I shudder to think of what my experience would have been back then had we had the same meals and had "practiced" cooking them until we could do it blindfolded. After eating the Seidel's Veg-A-Rice, I might have backed out of going. It was that bad. I still remember it and that was 31 years ago. Some bad things just stick with you.

Some of the adventures I bit off and really enjoyed in my life since Philmont would not have been possible without the cooking skills, navigation skills and how to get along with people you hardly knew that we learned back then.

One of my wife and my first adventures after we were married was an 83 mile canoe trip through the lower canyons of the Rio Grande along the Texas-Mexico border. We had no maps and could not find anyone who had been before us to talk to. At the time only a handful of hardy people had gone before us. We went anyway. Today that is still a great adventure into some really remote desert country. Back then one could not even get a map of the place. Maps of Mexico are still hard to come by.

Ever tried map and compass skills when no map is available? It can be done. Make your own map. I learned that at Philmont by copying a wall map onto a blank sheet of paper with a pencil. There wern't any copy machines there either. If you wanted it bad enough, you learned how to do it.

Where is the sense of adventure today? I'll tell you. It is gone for the most part. Now we have "programs" and "hired guns" to present them to us. A few years ago WE were the program. Instead of having it presented to us, we participated in our own program.

When I talk of a raft, canoe or kayak trip, I am always asked what outfitter I use. Many shudder when I tell them I am the outfitter. They think you have to always pay someone to take you on adventures. There is too much "Disney World" mentality today

Gathering the wood, building the fire, keeping it burning in the PhilRain, seasoning the meat acceptable to all tastes, cooking the vegetables was the program of the evening. If we did not keep the fire going, we ate cold food. We kept the fire going!

Some said that it took too long to prepare the food. Well what more is there in life than food, clothing and shelter? As Willie Nelson sings "let's get back to the basics of life".

In doing that we learned to get along, something that I think is lacking in today's society. I was finished public school before I even heard of someone shooting someone else at a school.

Somehow our need for instant gratification today is missing the boat.

Do scout leaders not see that a trek IS a teaching tool or is it they are focused on the end of the tunnel so much they miss the journey all together?

Do we all have to be "better" or "faster" than the other crews? Do we have to win the race but loose the adventure?

I posted some information on "quality pulleys" and got some interesting comments and I am really relieved that I did. I am glad that there are some who still think "if it works for us, it ain't broke and doesn't need fixing". Thank goodness that thought is still around.

Taking the Bear Bag thing for an example. We did not have pulleys, caribiners or even a cable at the campsite. We did not even have a bear bag to put the "smellables" in We had cooperation.

First someone had to donate their poncho to the cause. We took turns doing this. You then had to share anothers poncho to sleep on because that was your ground cloth.

Then you gathered all the food into a pile and wrapped it up in the poncho like a hobo does in a bandana.

Then a couple of ropes were thrown over the limbs. While several pushed the bundle up, several pulled the ropes and somehow we got it high enough. Then there is the lesson learned when "I forgot this" is heard and there was not a "little bag" on a string thing.

I was the little guy. I was the one always hoisted on the tall leader's shoulders to stick the "forgotten item" inside the bag without taking the whole bag down.

It was posted about 6 months ago that the reason one needed 100% nylon hiking shorts was for safety reasons in case they got wet. Also to keep them dry they needed a special rain suit and ponchos were not good at all. Can't todays youth be taught not to wet their pants? Or are today's leaders not good teachers? Or is it example setters?

If one buys all this stuff to send a kid to Philmont I am sure it would cost several thousand dollars to do it. What are we teaching our youth? You have to spend money, lots of money to be happy and have fun? Is that the picture we need to paint?

What ever happened to the "improvise" method that was so thoroughly illustrated and written about in my Scout Handbook?

Are we getting to be a helpless society too dependent on finely specialized "things"?

Let's keep Philmont a Scout Ranch and not a Disney World.

John LeBlanc

Eagle Scout Class of 1959
<> [address updated 2may07]

See also:

This Web page is maintained by Selden Ball at Wilson Lab.
Please send any comments or corrections to