5 miles. Doesn’t sound like much. On a highway you can cover that much ground while one song plays on the radio.
But load up a pack with everything you need for a weekend camping trip, get out of that car, put that pack on your back and start up a trail that winds and switchbacks up a mountain and it is a different experience. There are enough issues here to require breaking it down into smaller parts. Let’s call them gear, packing, hiking, selecting a camp, setting up camp, cooking, and contingencies. This post will focus on how it was. A following post will be about modern gear, and what I learned along the way.
Gear. In 1969, it was a canvas knapsack.
Designed by golden eyed demons, the Boy Scout knapsack was such a perfect device to torture a Scout that it was essentially unchanged for decades. It had no frame, no padding, no waist belt, and it was too small to hold what you needed. You tied your sleeping bag and tent to the outside to allow for more room. You took a poncho, a steel mess kit, a first aid kit, dry socks, a flashlight (2 D-cell batteries), waterproof matches, a metal mil-surp canteen and food. If you took no more than this, you might get it all in there. The Scout Handbook, ever helpful, and oblivious to the size of both the pack and the Scout, included some other items such as the Handbook itself, a mirror, rope, bug spray, extra shoes, map and compass, a knife, soap and cloth, toothpaste and toothbrush, and so on.
Being 12, you crammed all the things on the list into the pack, and had Mom drop you off at the Scout hut on Friday afternoon. The older Scouts, giant 16 and 17 year old Life and Eagle Scouts, awaited. They dumped your pack out, undoing the careful work of ten minutes. They then kicked the stuff in two piles. “Put this back in the pack, put that in the hut.” The pile for the hut invariably held something you would really need later in the weekend. The pile that got quickly stuffed back in the pack included some heavy hard item that would migrate until it rested against your spine and jabbed you with every step. The pack still weighed 40 pounds. You weighed about 105.
“Saddle up!” You formed up by Patrols. The Senior Patrol Leader led the group, the Scoutmaster brought up the rear. Patrols in the middle. Dressed in uniform, with a hiking staff, you had heavy boots, cotton socks, and almost half your body weight on your back. The older Scouts set the pace. The pack did it’s job, pressing so deeply into your bony shoulders that even now I can feel the straps wearing away the skin as we hiked. The line accordionned, as all group hikes do, so you were either trotting to catch up or stumbling over the boots of the Scout in front of you. By the time we got to camp, we were hot, tired, and footsore. And it was dark.
Likely enough, it was your flashlight that got left in the hut. We would spread out by patrol, put up a motley assortment of pup tents and scatter our gear inside. Get a cooking fire going. Building fire is a story in itself. Getting enough wood to feed it in a camping area used by many Scout Troops is another. With fire achieved, cans of stew or spagetti appeared to be burned and spilled. After dinner, a Troop campfire, songs and stories. Then off to the tents to tell dirty jokes and tall tales until sleep overcame us.
Breakfast might be pancakes and sausage. Cleanup was always an issue, and the bottoms of the pans, inside and out, were not going to be right until you got home to the kitchen. Sometime in the morning, the clouds would roll in, and the afternoon thunderstorm became inevitable.
Hiking in a plastic poncho added a new level of misery. The poncho was sort of a symbolic device to ensure you knew it was raining. It didn’t keep you dry. Rain ran in the top and sides. Any place secure enough to keep out the rain also prevented air flow, so your body filled that part with sweat. Summer showers are often short lived. So, once you and your gear was wet enough, the sun would come out and raise the temperature to sauté.
Late the second afternoon, you would arrive at the main campsite and repeat the events of the previous evening. Sunday morning, some dads would show up and we would pile into old station wagons, all our wet gear piled on top, and head back to the hut to be picked up by our parents.
My mother would make me strip and leave all my clothes and equipment on the back porch, then go shower and come back to take care of the stuff. We reeked of campfire smoke and sweat, and it was only worse in the winter, when all our winter wool had sat close enough to be singed for hours, marinating in clouds of pine smoke.
Basic skills were being learned, and learned the hard way. Fire with one match. Making do as a group with what you had, sharing food, clothes, a pocketknife, or whatever was needed to keep everyone going. First aid, usually on your feet, but on one or two more memorable occasions, something more serious. On those carefree hikes, going to the adults was our contingency plan. It seemed to work out, we always got home with all the Scouts we started with.
How to pack, what to pack, what not to pack. Cooking. Campcraft. Map reading. Lashing. Using an axe. Camaraderie. Leadership. The requirements for the early ranks included such things as 5 mile hikes, firebuilding, map and compass skills, 10 nights camping, cooking a meal. Every rank included a requirement called Scout spirit.
I had Scout spirit. I loved camping right from the start. I wasn’t any good at it, but I loved it. I began the learning and the experiences as a Tenderfoot Scout that still continue today. Those men and the older Scouts gave me gifts I will always appreciate.
The Scoutmaster teaches boys to play the game by doing so himself.
–Sir Robert Baden-Powell