Philmont Nostalgia

Date: Tue, 25 Nov 2003 12:30:57 -0500 (EST)
From: George Davis
Subject: RE: [Philmont]: Nostalgia?

My Philmont experience was as a 15-year old in the mid-60s, on a Council-contingent crew. I weighed 150 dripping wet - and I was one of the bigger members of the crew. One of the crew (the advisor's son) just made the age break, and couldn't have weighed more than 110 pounds) - he didn't have any problems that I recall, and he carried his share. My pack, leaving base camp with my share of crew gear, food and water, was 39 pounds (26%). I still have my frame and pack (cotton duck cloth with NO water resistance) - which alone weigh 2 pounds more than my "new" gear. The "hip belt" (this was a new idea back then) was home-made from an old BSA web belt - no padding. Crews still cooked on wood fires, so we had to carry a hand axe and folding shovel. Philmont "standard issue" tents were BSA canvas ("Explorer" or "Voyager" model if I recall correctly). They were HEAVY, had no floor, no screens, and just a flap for a door. They were the same tents my home troop used for local camping. The only way to split the tent up was for one to carry the canvas, and the other to carry poles (2 big aluminum telescoping) and pegs (the angle iron type, 9 around the bottom of the tent, 4 for guys in back, 2 for guys in front - total 15 heavy pegs). Both parts were heavier and bulkier than their "modern" equivalents.

The trail food was primative by comparison with what is available today - in terms of taste, selection, bulk and weight. We carried 3 - 4 days rations, and made liberal use of the swap boxes (mostly to get the ingredients for dutch oven cobblers in camps where ovens were available - every night that we could, including at Baldy Camp for a birthday party!). And we didn't have all the new synthetic fabrics or multi-use clothing. My poncho was heavier and bulkier than my present rain suit. We wore (gasp!) cotton T-shirts and socks on the trail (and they stunk just as bad as your coolmax and Thorlo when we came off the trail - but then again, we didn't even THINK of bringing them home). No Thermo-rests or Ridge-rests (we used our ponchos for a ground cloth (no floors in the tents either)). We all had the frying pan part of army-surplus mess kit (the long handle allowed us to sanitize in boiling water), and the large spoon from the BSA vittle kit. No plastic or Lexan. Water was carried in aluminum canteens. No such thing as "turkey bags". Waterproofing our gear was by using the plastic bags that Wonder bread came in. A dry cleaning bag sort of worked for the sleeping bag - if you were REAL careful not to tear it. "Hiking boots" were just work boots that weighed a ton.

Unless you could afford down, sleeping bags were heavier and bulkier than bags with the same comfort rating today.

My home troop was not big on backpacking, but the only "special" gear I remember buying for Philmont was the army-surplus mess kit, and the "Cruiser" frame for the pack that I already had.

We never heard of cell phones, GPS, digital cameras, or multi-purpose tools. Radios were big, bulky, had limited range and more limited battery life, so they were not even discussed. No such thing as a head lamp, and flashlights required at least 2 D-cells (and for 10 days, you needed at least 1 set of spares).

No water filters - purification by boiling (preferred) or halazone tablets (yuch!).

Start with a lighter pack/frame, tent, clothes, rain gear, sleeping bag, mess gear, boots, food, water containers and flashlight. Get rid of the axe and shovel, but add stove, fuel, water filter. It seems like the only thing that weighs the same is water (a big part of total weight - if only we could figure out how to re-hydrate de-hydrated water before use!).

The bottom line is that I don't see why pack weights are 5-10 pounds (or more) greater than what I had in the "old days", unless the crews are taking alot of "comfort" gear along. Comfort is nice, but don't complain about the weight if you "have to" take it. We had an extensive gear-check day before leaving home, at which time a lot of excess was removed. Even then, a lot got left in the base camp gear locker after our ranger was done doing the gear check.

The only problem that I had was blisters - big ones on the balls of both feet. My fault for not breaking the boots in better. The only formal back-country program that I remember doing was at Indian Writings - and we got there with the "help" of burros. Side hike up Baldy - with a hailstorm on top (we decided it made more sense to "hunker down" just below the summit than to head down in the storm). But what a view after the clouds passed!

Some other advantages of the "old days":
We traveled from Long Island, NY by bus. East of the Mississippi, this was mostly on toll roads. West of the Mississippi, it was mostly on US and State Highways (pre-interstate completion). 12 days out and 6 days back. Saw alot of the country - Niagara Falls, Indianapolis Speedway, Chicago, stockyards behind the hotel in Dubuque IA (noisy cows and trains all night), Badlands, Mt. Rushmore, Devil's Tower, Yellowstone, Tetons, Colorado Springs, etc. This had the advantage of being at 5000+ feet for about a week before getting to Philmont.

Had dinner at Stan Musial's restaurant in St. Louis (the Arch was 2/3 done). (For you youngsters, he spent 22 years with the Cardinals, .331 career batting average, elected to the Hall of Fame with 93.24% of the votes in his first year of eligibility, after retiring in 1963. Once hit 5 home runs in a double header against the Giants, including 2 against future HoFer Hoyt Wilhelm. First player with 1000+ games at 2 positions (left field and 1st base)). "The Man" spent an hour with us - photos, autographs. And the food was good. Even a baseball fan from NY could appreciate that attention. He was an active supporter of Scouting, and I remember that half of the trophy cases had Scouting rather than baseball memorabilia.

It wasn't just Philmont.

4 advisors (mostly teachers on summer break) for 4 crews on 1 bus (pre-youth protection).

Total cost of the trip (30 days, all meals, lodging, Philmont, bus, admission fees, excluding personal gear, film and souvenirs) - $250.

Was it fun? Yup.

Was it a character-building experience? Yup.

Was it a "once-in-a-lifetime" and "mountain top" experience? Yup.

Would I go back if the opportunity arose? Yup.

In a heartbeat.

Even if I had to fly.

And lose a few pounds first.

And I'd take the new gear (most of it, anyway).

And any Scout who is fit and can pull his weight.

Please don't forget that just because a Scout can carry his weight doesn't mean that he can pull his weight. And it is very possible for a Scout to pull his weight even if he can't carry the same weight as everyone else. There is much more to a trek than just carrying a pack. If you don't believe that, you have a LOT to learn.


George Davis
SM T-206, River Vale, NJ

Date: Tue, 25 Nov 2003 18:04:42 -0500
From: "Dr. Bob Klein"
Subject: Re: [Philmont]: Nostalgia?

George: A very large percentage of the Phanatics on this list were also long-ago trekkers at Philmont with very similar experiences to those you describe below. However, I will add that many of us recall some serious unpleasantness that came side-by-side with the great experiences. But nostalgia is a wonderful thing - it's certainly what got many of us to eagerly return to Philmont 15, 20, 25 or more years later, with our own Scouts and sometimes sons and daughters.

I think it is important to recognize that this is a "Best Practices" forum that operates at a very varied set of levels. We can answer the most basic questions from novice Scouts and Advisors, or can give anyone in the country a run for their money on the highest level nuances of wilderness backpacking.

Are we over the top on the constant pounding of "THE way to do Philmont"? Sure, that's what phanaticism is all about. The WHY, however, is perhaps worth a few comments. That being, even the one-time Advisor, and certainly all the multi-attending veterans, can give you chapter and verse on all the disastrous errors we have seen and/or in some cases personally experienced at Philmont. Crews that over-trekked and had a miserable time from start to finish. Crews that under-trekked and sat around bored or constantly got into trouble as a result. Crews that got hopelessly lost, or Crews that split into multiple sub-groups, all of whom got hopelessly lost. Crews that came atrociously outfitted, to the point where Health and Safety was a real issue. Crews that contaminated water sources, trashed latrines, bailed out on service projects, left trash everywhere, cut switchbacks, and otherwise completely ignored the Wilderness Pledge and Outdoor Code. Crews that ignored bear safety, and sometimes paid for it with injured Scouts and/or Advisors - and dead bears. Crews that imploded, with members (including Advisors) who fist-fought with each other, verbally attacked and physically threatened staff members, and spread discord in every camp. And on and on.

It is important to recognize that for many Scouts prior to about 1975 or so, Scouting was often a full-time extracurricular activity, one of only two or three activities (certainly it was right up there for me). That is certainly not the case anymore. I have 70 Scouts in my Troop, and it would be a stretch to say that Scouts is a #1 activity for more than a handful of them. More often, it's down the list at #3, 5, 7, or lower.

I suspect the same is true of most Troops. For many attendees, Philmont is the first (and often the only) long-term backpacking trek they will ever participate in. And for some attendees, Philmont is the first backpacking they have ever done, of any length, period. What we knew through standard Scouting experiences as boys, is not so common anymore. For this reason, it is often necessary to conduct crash-training in backpacking protocols, and to get Scouts to UNlearn what they "know". For me at least, I always try to avoid stating "Do it this way because I say so" and instead train and explain to death. Scouts who understand the why's of what they're doing will be far more motivated, and as a result almost certainly will have a far better experience. Do you need a thousand bucks worth of gear and a 35 pound pack filled with the latest technology to have a good time? Certainly not - but sensitizing everyone to the benefits of physical training, equipment choices, backpacking protocols, Crew operations, etc., will help ensure that all will have a great experience. And that is, in the end, why many of us contribute our time and knowledge here - to ensure that everyone else will have the kinds of experiences we personally have previously enjoyed, and hope to again some day soon.

Off to a basketball game - Go Hoyas!

- Dr. Bob Klein, SM-111, Arlington, VA

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