The Trail to Philmont, April/May 2021

April and May are a blur. To recap, in January and February, four members of our crew decide not to go to Philmont. In March, we teamed up with another crew in New Jersey, giving us a total of 13 members. We didn’t join up with a crew though; we joined up with a Patriot’s Pass Council. They’re a Philmont machine that sends hundreds of scouters and dozens of crews to Philmont every year. Suddenly, we were in catch-up mode as we tried to learn everything they had to share, started meeting with our new crewmates, and continued our preparations.

The spring months saw us get out on two backpacking trips on the Appalachian Trail in New Jersey. The first, in April, took us from Culver’s Gap south to Rattlesnake Mountain – about 14 miles split over two days. It was a cold trip and our first trek with the New Jersey contingent. In May, we went out again, this time hiking from Millbrook Road north to Rattlesnake Mountain.

During April’s cold trip, I took solace in the idea that our May trip would be warmer. It wasn’t.

On the May trip, it rained most of the weekend, and temperatures were in the 50s during the day. Thankfully we got a break in the weather in the evening, so we were able to set up our tents and dining fly without the rain, but it started up again after dinner. It continued on and off through the night, and we spent the next morning walking through consistent light rain.

It sounds miserable, but I’m grateful for it. Our previous training backpacking trips had been dry (maybe cold, but dry). This gave us a chance to test our rain gear and identify shortfalls. In my son’s case, that meant discovery that the waterproofing in his jacket wasn’t up for sustained rain, and his rain pants – which had no zippers along the legs – weren’t easy to get on and off. I realized that my raincoat hood + baseball cap approach made it difficult to hear and that I really needed a brimmed hat for the trip (which I’ll probably end up need much more for the sun than the rain).

Gear-wise, April and May saw us continuing to fill gaps. Back at the start of the Trail to Philmont, I bought an MSR Hubba Hubba NX 2 Tent. It’s a two-person tent that weighs 3 lbs. 14 oz. It’s a great tent, but a little heavy. That was initially ok because I was going to be sharing it with another adult leader at Philmont, but after merging with the NJ crew the adult leaders decided we’d be sleeping in individual tents.

Suddenly, 3 lbs. 14 oz. felt like a lot of weight. Looking for alternatives, I bought and camped in the Big Agnes Tiger Wall UL 2 Solution-Dyed Tent, a single-person ultralight that weighs 2 lbs. 8 oz. It’s a good little tent, and true to its ultralight promise, but the fabric (because it is an ultralight) felt too flimsy for me. Afraid that I was going to Kool-Aid Man my way out of the tent one morning, I traded it in for an REI Quarter Dome Tent. It weighs 2 lbs. 6 oz., which is a little lighter than the Big Agnes, but the material felt a little sturdier. Just as importantly, it fits me – with the Big Agnes, I felt like my 6’2″ was touching the top and bottom of the tent when I was sleeping. The REI Quarter Dome tent gives me just enough headroom. My son and I love this tent (he’s used it on two non-backpacking campouts this spring/summer) so I expect it’ll get a lot of use after Philmont.

Another big win was buying REI’s 650 Down Jacket 2.0. It’s lightweight, warm, and doubles as a pillow. My son, a skinny lad who’s perpetually cold in the morning, loves this jacket because it warms him up so quickly, and then keeps him warm. It’s now essential backpacking and camping gear for him.

I also picked up new boots, which turned out to be more of a challenge than I thought. I bought a new pair of Vasque Breeze AT Mid GTX Hiking Boots, which are the same make/model that I’ve been wearing for the last year. The challenge is (and continues to be) breaking them in. Prior to our May hike, I thought I was good to go, but then I developed a sizable blister along the back of my right foot … even while wearing hiking socks. It was totally my fault; I got cocky and assumed the boots were good to go, when clearly they needed more work. I also failed to pay attention to the discomfort I was feeling. I figured I could just push through it, when I should have stopped and seen what was going on.

On the exercise front, I continued with physical therapy for runner’s knee. Jogging and morning walks, combined with PT and strength training, continued to be the order of the day. It paid off; by the end up May, my runs were up to 5 miles, and my 6-mile goal was looking more and more doable.

All in all, we packed a ton of preparation into April and May, moving us ever closer to our Philmont goal.

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A view of Pennsylvania from the New Jersey portion of the Appalachian Trail. Credit: Ken Newquist

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