Starting on the Trail to Philmont

My son and I are headed to the Philmont Scout Ranch in Cimarron, New Mexico in six months. Once there we will spend 12 days backpacking with other scouts from NeutronLad’s troop. In total, three adults and six scouts are going.

We’ll be backpacking approximately 60-80 miles while at Philmont. The variability comes from the difference between the official mileage and what we walk once we’re there (the latter tends to be longer).

This is a pretty hardcore adventure. Each day we’ll hike between 5-8 miles over rugged, high-altitude terrain. Each day’s trek takes us to a new location where we’ll do some sort of program (horse riding, shooting, conservation work, etc.). It will easily be my longest backpacking trip; my previous record – set when I was in my late-20s – was 3 days of backpacking in Alaska.

The Alaska trip kicked my ass. I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t a little nervous about Philmont.

That said … I’m in far better shape at 48 than I was at 28. Twenty-eight-year old me didn’t run. I rarely biked. I infrequently walked. I occasionally swam. Hell, six years ago I couldn’t run a 1/4 mile without getting winded.

These days I can comfortably run three miles at just under 10:00″/mile pace. I can probably go a little faster and a little longer but I’m mindful of my healed ankle. I regularly walk 6-7 miles a day. I did the mile swim at summer camp and while it was hard, it didn’t totally kick my ass. All in all, I’m in pretty decent shape for a fortysomething. The thing is … Philmont requires more than being in decent shape. For example, in the recommended exercise plan for Philmont, they suggested climbing stairs for 1 hour twice a week because most of what we’ll be doing at Philmont is climbing and descending hills. It requires a lot of lower-body strength … and despite all my jogging, I don’t think I’m up for doing stairs for an hour just yet (let alone with a backpack).

To get to where we need to me, my son and I need to put in a lot of time preparing ourselves for the trip through harder work outs, better eating, and lots of hiking.

Thus, the #TrailToPhilmont.

Getting Physically Ready

There are a number of things we’re doing to get physically ready for the trip.

  • Crew workouts: The crew meets three times a week for an outdoor workout at the stadium of a local college. We run the track for 30 minutes and then do stadium stairs for 30. I expect the stairs workout to get longer as the spring goes on and we get stronger … and start wearing our backpacks.
  • Supplemental walking: My daily walking goal is six miles. That will increase as winter turns into spring, and get more challenging as I start wearing on my backpack on those walks as well.
  • Physical trainer and strength training: My wife and I went to a personal trainer until the college we work at suspended the program. Now it’s back and we’re restarting our training. My focus will be on strength training, since that’s the thing I dislike doing on my own.
  • Swimming and cycling: I’m still figuring out my exercise routine, but I want to swim at least once a week, twice if I can do it. Similarly, once the weather warms up I want to get in some longer trail rides.
  • Losing weight: Weight loss has been a fuzzy goal for a while. It’s been a nice to have that came in second to being able to run a 5K again or swimming a mile. Now though, I need to lose weight for Philmont: one of our activities (horseback riding) requires us to be under 200 lbs. That’s been my quasi-goal for years, so I’m making getting to 195 lbs. my real goal. I’m at 216 lbs. right now, so I need to lose 21 lbs. by mid-June. That seems doable, especially given my exercise routine. My approach is to exercise more and be mindful about my eating (healthier snacks, somewhat smaller portions, and a lot less beer).
  • Losing the muffintop: My original weight-loss goal was less about a number and more about a feeling: I want to wear my backpack without the “muffintop” of my belly hanging out over the belt. That’s still my goal.
  • Don’t injure the ankle: I need to do all of this without putting undue strain on my healed right ankle … while simultaneously making sure I strengthen it enough for the trip. Practically speaking, this means that my running limit is at 3-5 miles; I’m not going to train for a 15K or half-marathon.
  • The solution for chaffing: This may be the single most important thing on the list. Chaffing is a huge issue on the trail and that I and the scouts have struggled with. I need to figure out the best ways to avoid this so we can enjoy – rather than suffer through – our time in New Mexico.

Getting Gear Ready

My son’s been in Scouts BSA for nearly three years and during that time we’ve gone on a heck of a lot of camping trips. We’ve got car camping down to a science … but backpacking is still new to us. We have a few trips under our belts, but we need to get as comfortable with backpacking as we are with camping. To that end I’d like to go on at least one backpacking trip a month from February through June … more than one if we can swing it.

Even if we can’t – the snows of February may foil our efforts – we still need to get in hiking-time with our packs. As I alluded to above, we need to wear our packs during our workouts so we get used to carrying the load. I’m taking my new Osprey Aether 85-liter AG pack, which I purchased over the summer after I figured out that my original 65-liter pack wasn’t going to be big enough. The new pack is, obviously, larger than the old one and I need to get comfortable with it.

I’m going to need a new sleeping bag, but I already know I want the Nemo Disco 15 sleeping bag … I just need to save up the cash to buy it. It’s claim to fame is that it supports side sleepers like me – I tried it out in the store and it felt great. I also packs down smaller than my current sleeping bag, which will be important for Philmont.

It’s not just sleeping bags and backpacks though. We need to break in our boots – NeutronLad and I got our Philmont boots in December and slowly started breaking them in. There’s a bunch of other gear that we need to figure out and it’s stuff you might not normally think of like socks, underwear, shirts, shorts, gloves and jackets. Ok, you might think of those, but you might not think of them in a Philmont context, where we get two shirts for 12 days and where the underwear can’t chafe. It’s the sort of stuff we need to figure out now and start using on spring backpacking trips so that we’re truly prepared for the trip west.

We also need to understand – really understand – how to pack our backpack. That may seem straightforward, but we take a lot of gear to Philmont and every ounce matters. Understanding how to fit it all in the pack (or hanging off it, as the case may be) is a big deal.

Getting the Mentally Ready

Philmont (and backpacking in general) is as much about mental preparedness as physical. Skills-wise, there’s a lot I need to do to get ready:

  • Cooking on the trail: NeutronLad has done this; I haven’t done it since Alaska. I need to get in some practical cooking time between now and June.
  • Getting Better at Navigation: Hiking in Pennsylvania is pretty easy – just follow the trail blazes. In Philmont, there are no trail blazes so all of us need to be able to read and orient ourselves using a map and compass.
  • Learning Wilderness First Aid: Philmont requires two of us to be trained in CPR and wilderness first aid for the trip. I’m already trained in CPR; my friend and I are going to a wilderness first aid class in May.
  • Picking the books: We can’t bring electronics to Philmont save for phones for the leaders. That means no Kindle … which means I need to think very carefully about which books on the 2020 summer reading list are going with me to Philmont.

Clearly, there’s a lot to do, but we’re off to a good start. The crew’s three-times-a-week workouts haven’t had 100% attendance because of school and commitments, but its already paying dividends for the people who’ve been able to make it. I’m looking forward to the next six months as the crew starts to come together as a team and we all continue our journey on the #TrailToPhilmont.

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We get to see a lot of beautiful sunsets as part of our evening runs.

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