Backpacking Merit Badge
Backpacking Merit Badge
Backpacking Activity Pin

Backpacking is an integral part of Scouting. In fact, some of your boys may have already earned the Backpacking merit badge, but through this “Backpacking Program Feature”, you can expand on those skills you have already learned, and prepare for your ultimate adventure which may include other activities:

  • Backcountry to learn extreme survival techniques
  • Searching for archeological Indian ruins using a GPS
  • Hiking to an Operation ON TARGET peak
  • Orienteering in unfamiliar backcountry
  • Survival desert hiking and learn survival skills
  • Rappeling a slot canyonRappelling into slot canyons and then hike out
  • Rockhounding hike to find gemstones using a GPS
  • Snowshoeing to a cabin destination
  • Fish on Boulder Mountain using a GPS to find lakes
  • “Geocaching” in remote areas while backpacking
  • Hike to interesting geological areas and take photographs
  • Backpack an interesting section of the “Great Western Trail
  • Canoeing expedition, with portage hiking trails between lakes
  • Hike and bike slick rock country in Moab
  • Have your Varsity Scouts come up with their ideas

This high adventure Program Feature is designed to give your boys a challenging experience. There will be a series of skills and techniques to learn in preparation for the ultimate adventure, where you might spend as much as a week on a backpacking trek. It is important to make backpacking fun for every team member.

We have listed here some safety backpacking and hiking tips you can review with your Varsity Scouts:

Safety and Planning

This section of Ken's post was updated to meet new safety requirements.

Though BSA no longer requires Tour Permits, you still need to plan and get that plan approved by your unit key 3 (chartered organization representative, committee chairman, and unit leader), by carefully following the Guide to Safe Scouting (see checklists in the appendix). Your plan may not address all possible challenges but can help ensure that appropriate planning has been conducted, that qualified and trained leadership is in place, and that the right equipment is available for the adventure.

Setting a Good Pace

How fast should the hike be paced? Not faster than the slowest team member. Keep some

Always keep together, don’t lose sight of each other.
Always keep together, don’t lose sight of each other.

space between hikers; 6 to 10 feet is about right. Space will allow safety (no stepping on heels or catching flying limbs in the face); it also allows for sudden stops and a good view of the surrounding environment. A steady even pace results in fewer rest stops and less chance that team members will overheat.

This is important especially if some of your boys are having a problem keeping up. Too frequent rest stops signal a too-rapid speed of hiking is taking place. Hiking with a pack is much different from walking without one. A pack on your shoulders alters your sense of balance. Its weight puts extra strain on your feet, ankles, and knees, especially when you’re pounding downhill. Take it easy at first until you become accustomed to the sensation of carrying a pack, and rest whenever you begin to tire.

Begin each day’s walk slowly, allowing plenty of time for your muscles to warm up and your packs to settle into place. Take brief rest breaks to refresh yourselves and adjust your clothing to meet changing weather conditions. Never hike to the point of exhaustion; you may need those reserves of energy to meet unexpected situations.

On a trek it is crucial to the boys’ well-being to adopt and put into practice proper trail procedures. Every Scout of the team should be aware of these procedures before you depart on a trek.

In 2004 a 14 year old young man while “horse playing around” fell from the Angels Landing trail during a Boy Scout outing. Officials said another Scout had bet the boy to crawl out onto a ledge and scratch his name into the side of a cliff. Adult leaders were lagging behind.
In 2004 a 14 year old young man while “horse playing around” fell from the Angels Landing trail during a Boy Scout outing. Officials said another
Scout had bet the boy to crawl out onto a ledge and scratch his name into the side of a cliff. Adult leaders were lagging behind.

Keeping the Varsity Scout Team together is essential in preventing anyone from becoming lost, but it is frequently neglected unless the team captain insists on it and each team member is committed to doing his part to ensure success. Every trek should be a team effort. Faster hikers should walk near the end of the line of hikers and give positive encouragement to the slower ones in front. The entire Varsity Scout team should hike within hearing of one another. The buddy system works well in any outdoor situation, not just aquatics. Before the trek, make sure everyone has at least one buddy; buddies can also tent together.

Divide Group Gear

In addition to safety, one of the greatest advantages of traveling in a Varsity Scout team is that your pack will be lighter than if you were alone. Of course, each boy must tote personal gear; clothing, eating utensils, etc. But tents, cook kits, stoves, food, stove fuel, and the like can be divided evenly among all the team members.

As you gear up, set aside those items that will be used by more than one Varsity Scout, and then divide them up in such a way that everyone has a pack that is light enough to be carried comfortably. Desert backpackers need open, airy shelters that shade them from the sun. Long-distance hikers need tents that are light in weight and yet appropriate for many variations in weather.

Contemporary designs and fabrics have made possible a variety of dome-shaped tents. Their configurations help them stand up to wind, rain, and snow, and the spaciousness of their interiors makes them great for two to four of your boys.

Expect the Unexpected

An injury that doesn’t happen needs no treatment.
An emergency that doesn’t occur requires no response.
An illness that doesn’t develop demands no remedy.

Anything can happen in the wild outdoors and often does. You should take measures designed to prevent accidents and injuries from occurring. Consider all reasonably foreseeable problems and then devise a plan to minimize the risk to manage a crisis. Backpacking safety is a matter of foresight and good judgment.

Obviously, the best way to stay safe in the outdoors is not to get into trouble in the first place. That requires team planning, leadership, and good judgment. As long as you keep your wits about you and clearly consider the consequences of your actions, you’ll be able to enjoy even the most remote wilderness areas safely.

Every Scout was well prepared for this climb up Mt. Timpanogos for Operation on Target
Every Scout was well prepared for this climb up Mt. Timpanogos for Operation on Target

The preparations you make before a trek can do a lot to ensure your Scouts are safe in the backcountry. Thorough planning means your Scouts will have clothing, camping equipment, provisions, and survival gear they’ll need. You will have thought through the route you intend to follow, checked weather forecasts, practiced any special skills the outing will demand, and left a complete trip plan with responsible people who will search for you and your team if you are overdue in returning home. Since your chances of getting into difficulties are greatly reduced when you travel with others, you must have at least four participants (2 adults and 2 youth, BSA rules) in your group. In short, you’ll have done everything you can to foresee and avoid problems before they can occur.

Carry a Whistle

WhistleEach of your boys needs to have a whistle around his neck at all times, day and night. When you are injured and can’t walk, when you are lost in the woods, when you have drifted away from your scout buddy, a loud whistle sound is the best way to get attention in a hurry.

Carry a GPS and Satellite Phone

It is important to have your own GPS and know how to use it, also a satellite phone is essential on a primitive 50 mile backpacking hike. If available, a mobile walkie-talkie on a frequency monitored by the Forest Service is advisable. I have a HAM handheld radio and it works even better for reaching others. Remember to take extra batteries and keep everything in a waterproof zip-lock baggie. Be sure you have a fully charged cell phone, in a plastic waterproof zip lock baggie, in the OFF position. In an emergency, you can get on high ground sometimes and find a signal.

Insure you have an excellent topographic map of the area you are traveling in. Have your Varsity Scouts keep track of where they are on the map. Remember that a mile on a trail seems a lot more like three miles on the streets. Each of your boys should have a good compass with them. You can learn about and take azimuths when available to pin pinpoint your location.

Keep in mind, the main purpose of the compass is to orient the map. Limited visibility will hamper attempts at locating land marks and will only be useful on overlooks or on high ground where other terrain features might be visible. Become familiar with map reading and the process of azimuths and back azimuth techniques. This is a great reason to learn how to use a GPS. You only need three satellites to pinpoint your exact location, day or night, overcast or sunny skies.

Flash Floods

Watch the weather forecast upstream before heading into slot canyons
Watch the weather
forecast upstream before heading into slot canyons

Threadlike streams can become raging rivers in a few minutes or even seconds. It is important to be alert to the possibility of flash floods and take steps to avoid a dangerous encounter. Pitch your tents on higher ground. During and after periods of rain, stay away from natural drainage areas. Always know where you are and how to get to higher ground. Watch for indicators of flash flooding, such as an increase in the speed or volume of streamflow.


The summits of mountains, crest of ridges, slopes above timberline, and large meadows are extremely hazardous places to be during lightning storms. If you are caught in such an exposed place, quickly descend to a lower elevation, away from the direction of the approaching storm. A dense forest located in a depression provides the best protection. Avoid taking shelter under isolated trees or trees much taller than adjacent trees. Stay away from water, metal fences, and other objects that will conduct electricity long distances.

Altitude Sickness

Since altitude sickness is caused in part by a too-rapid rise in elevation, acclimate yourself gradually to the high country. Spend a layover day part way up to give your body time to adjust. Take antacid tablets. Get enough rest and drink plenty of liquids.

The victim may develop a headache, feel a lack of energy, lose his appetite, and sometimes become nauseated. If an antacid tablet and increased liquid intake are not effective, descend to a lower elevation. The symptoms will soon disappear.

Foot Problems

Taking a break
Rest stop and get out the Moleskin

Foot care is essential. Instruct your boys to speak up when they start having a hot spot develop on their foot. Blisters, foreign objects in their boot—all can cause misery for everybody if not taken care of immediately.

Blisters occur when skin is irritated, usually by heat or by friction. Hot SpotFor backpackers, blisters on the feet are the most common and the most troublesome problem encountered. Keep your feet clean and dry. Wear boots that fit properly and are well broken-in. Change your socks frequently. Toughen your feet with short hikes before embarking on an extended trek.

MoleskinA “hot spot” on your foot signals the beginning of a blister. Stop immediately and reinforce the tender area with moleskin. Put on dry socks. If a blister does develop you may need to drain it. Clean your foot with soap and water then prick the edge of the blister with a sterilized needle. Protect the wound by cutting a hole the size of the blister in a piece of moleskin, and use it to encircle the blister. Several layers may be necessary to take the pressure of the boot off the tender skin.

Avoidable Accidents

Most avoidable accidents occur when horseplay is involved, late in the day in camp and not on the trail. Fatigue, mild dehydration, and altitude effects may impair your boys’ performance and judgment. Rock throwing, improper use of equipment, foolishness in hanging the bear bags, climbing steep rocky ridges, running through campsite, climbing trees, and carelessness around fire lays frequently cause accidents. To avoid them, individual and group discipline should be maintained.

Purify All Drinking Water

All water from all sources—including springs, streams, and wells—must be purified. This rule must be strictly enforced. Your own well-being is at stake

SteriPENThe innovative Hydro-Photon Steripen water purifier was introduced in 2000 and was the first to use ultraviolet light to destroy viruses, bacteria, and protozoa, including giardia and cryptosporidiosis. It is battery-operated. In fact, the Environmental Protection Agency has set standards that require ultraviolet water purifiers to eliminate 99.9% of all viruses.

Several companies also manufacture water purifier tablets made of stabilized chlorine dioxide. These get rid of contaminants and are easy to take with you. Water filters without pumps are also available. These can connect to water bottles or hydration bladders, and can be used in any available container or in open water.

Otherwise, to purify water is to bring it to a boil or boil it for a couple of minutes at higher elevations. Water purification tablets or iodine crystals will effectively kill most water- borne bacteria and viruses that cause disease. To treat cold water, you’ll need to double the contact time to destroy giardia that may be present. This means that you must let a quart of water stand for at least 30 minutes after adding a tablet or two, or 2 to 4 capfuls of iodine solution, before drinking.

Ken Cluff
Ken has produced over 100 issues of the Varsity Vision newsletter. He has performed this service for over a decade, without fail, each month. Ken’s newsletter is not only full of incredible event ideas and information for coaches to share with their teams, but the visuals he uses are breathtaking, many of which Ken took on Varsity events all over the state. His pictures take you there.

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