Prepping for Philmont Backpacking

Prepping for Philmontphilmont

If you’ve never been to the Philmont Scout Ranch, you are missing out on truly incredible backpacking experience. It is a 12 day trek through the mountains of Northern New Mexico. You will hike from 7,000 to 12,000 feet. You will make pit stops at multiple locations filled with all kinds of adventure from mountain climbing, shooting, archery, fishing, music, crazy games, Native American lore, survival skills, trail building, etc.

But it is hard. You need to be physically ready. Especially if you are an adult leader.

Both treks I have been on were around 90 miles. And some days were incredibly hard because of the elevation changes, lack of oxygen, 40-50 lb. backpacks, heats, cold, rain, etc. That sounds like a torturous hike, but trust me it’s fun, and those times of pain are interspersed with so much beauty.

The pain can be lessened by being


Here are my recommendations.

1. Go on as many prep hikes as possible.

  • Learn Your Gear. 

The prep hikes not only prepare you physically, but they help you become

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comfortable with your gear. Every trip I have gone on, the prep hikes helped me readjust my gear. I ended up ditching certain items and buying others. I learned how to pack properly for better weight adjustment. I knew where all my pouches were on my backpack. That might sound crazy, because you probably thoroughly inspected your bag before buying or lending. You will find until you start using it, you don’t really know it.


  • Practice Philmont skills.

Getting the bear bag in place. Disposing of food with a sump. Cleaning up. One piece trash. Smellables bags. These are all the things you have to do on the Philmont hike to keep you safe from animals and to keep the reservation pristine. If your first exposure to these skills is Day 1 on the trail, it can be overwhelming. It gives you a lot of confidence when your foot hits the trail

  • Food & Water.   

    Water is crucial to the hike, and there are times you won’t have access to instant potable water. In those instances, you have to use chlorine/iodine tabs or a filter. Practicing these are important. If you are using a pump filter, you learn if it works. You understand how water is going to taste if you use the purifying tablets. Every hike I’ve done we’ve done a combination of both. My preference is the filter pump, because of the taste, but both have their advantages. Learn before you get there.

  • Physical and Mental Endurance.

    When you do prep hikes, make sure you do at least one really hard hike. Our group has done a very hard hike as our last prep trip. Outside of altitude (this is hard to simulate on the East Coast), it was harder than anything on Philmont. Both times we did around 19-21 miles in 2 days. There were multiple elevation changes. The trails were old and not switchbacks like Philmont. You’ll learn to be thankful for well-made trails and switchbacks. Everyone was instantly sore and crawled out of their vehicles when they arrived home. It gave everyone an indication of their fittest level and what they needed to do the last couple months prior to the trip.

2. Prepare for altitude.


If you live in an area that is below 5000 feet, you need to do some things to

Pikes Peak


prep for altitude. This is very hard to do. There are breathing restriction masks you can buy and exercise with. I’ve seen people in my neighborhood running with those, but I have never personally tried them. From things I’ve read, I heard they don’t really prep for altitude. There is more than oxygen restriction that happens at high altitude. Your body changes to adapt and this primarily occurs in your blood. This is hard to simulate. Here are three things that I believe really helped me with altitude.

  • Exercise Prior.

Make sure your cardiovascular fitness is adequate, but make sure to train occasionally in oxygen-deprived states.

  • Drink.

As soon as we landed in Denver, we made our team start drinking more water than usual. If you feel a headache coming on just drink more. This helps the body generate more red bloods which are crucial to thinner air.


  • Acclimate early.

On both my trips we arrived in the area at least two days early. We spent a day in Denver/Colorado Springs, and then a day traveling to the Philmont Ranch. Denver is 5000 feet. Cimmaron, NM is around 7000. Being in those conditions a couple days seems to have helped. The big thing we did both trips that shocked our system into adapting was taking a trip to Pikes Peak. Pikes Peak is 14,000 feet. I’ve taken the cog railroad up the mountain twice to its peak. Both times, I felt weak and lightheaded, and a little anxious. Some of the boys even acted intoxicated. The trip is short and you are back to the 5-6000 range pretty quick. But I believe that short exposure made a big difference in our trip. We never had anyone in our trip succumb to any altitude issues.

Wrap Up

If Philmont or any large backpacking trip is on your agenda, be prepared.  Trips like these create amazing memories, but if could be a miserable one, if you don’t take simple steps to prepare.

If you’ve done Philmont or something similar, how did you prepare (especially physically)?

First-Time Sleeping Bag Purchase

So, You Need To Buy a Sleeping Bag

Sleeping Bag Memories

You remember those days when your best friend invited you over for the Friday night sleepover. You scrambled around your room looking for things to bring in your little backpack. You reached under your bed and pulled out your cozy little spiderman sleeping bag. It was a little ragged for wear because you slept it in every chance you got. It may have been a hand-me-down with a stuck zipper that had to be coaxed just right to close. When you got to your friend’s house you were surrounded by cool gear. One friend had a bag with NFL logos, another MLB teams, some had superheroes like yours.

Eventually, you grew up and forgot that bag, but you are a sixth grader now and get invited camping. It’s the only bag you still have, but there’s no way your fragile middle school ego risks taking something that will make him an object of ridicule.

You talk to mom and dad about something new for your camping adventure that won’t embarrass you in front of your friends. They buy you a big fluffy cozy bag.


photo credit: nina.jsc counting fish, not sheep via photopin (license)

Now you are a parent, and you are stuck in the situation of buying a bag for a son or daughter that will be functional (and not embarrassing).  Please don’t make them go on their first trip with their Dora the Explorer bag.

I’ve got a couple tips for you.

1. Don’t go big. Don’t buy your standard big fluffy bag. They look cozy and can be cheap, but they are hard to pack, too bulky, and surprisingly not great if it gets cold.

2. Think like a backpacker. You or your kid may never walk off into the woods for a couple days. But still, think like a backpacker. Backpackers avoid bulk and weight like the plague. Everything should be compact and light. This is how you want to approach bag shopping. A backpacking bag creates options down the road, plus it is easy for the kid to carry and store. Believe it or not, you don’t have to break the bank to buy one.

3. Look at temperature ratings. Good bags have a temperature rating. Look at how cold it go. Most will display it as “up to 30F or 20F or even 0F. Goes as low as you can comfortably afford. Realize that the temp rating doesn’t necessarily mean you will be warm and cozy at that temp, you just won’t go into hypothermia. You or your kid will be fine sleeping at 32F with a 30-degree bag, but you won’t enjoy it.

4. Go poly not down. Down feathers make very warm lightweight bags, but stick with the artificial stuff. It’s cheaper and easier to care for. If the down bag gets wet, it’s ruined. If one day, you decide to do some serious backpacking, you can treat yourself with down. Just not for the starter bag.

Pro-tip: Get a sleeping bag liner. These are cheap (around $10), and look like a thin full body sock. They add 10 extra degrees of warmth to a bag, and when the camping is hot, it is all you need. Also, you can wash them much easier than a sleeping bag. Cleaning and caring for a bag is a post for another day.

There’s much more I could write about the tips of bags like whether to get mummy bag, or just the regular cut, but these tips should help. You will have Happy Smiling Kids that can camp and use into adulthood.

If you are a camper, what are your recommendations.

The Famous 10 Outdoor Essentials

Camping Essentials

New campers make one of two mistakes, they bring too much or not enough.

The “too much” are usually scared of being under-prepared, and squeeze every conceivable item into a bulging trunk.

The “too little” are over-confident and have seen one too many survival shows.

Believe it or not you can be a minimalist and fully prepared.  Over the decades, Scouts and camping enthusiasts have paired everything down to the 10 Outdoor Essentials.

You can find multiple variations of the 10, but we are going to list out those in the recent Boy Scout of America handbook.

BSA’s 10 Outdoor Essentials

  • Pocketknife / Multi-Tool.  Make sure this one is sharp and clean, and preferably with a couple gadgets.  Not too heavy that it weighs your pants down.


    • Rain Gear.  This can be something light like a poncho.  My favorite rain gear that is jacket that is packable.  The one I use is a Cabela’s Rain Jacket that packs into a small stuff sack.  Here’s something similar from Amazon:


  • Trail Food.  The amount you carry is based on the length of a trip.  Fruit is good, because you don’t have to deal with packaging.  Make sure to pack out any trash you create.


  • Flashlight.  If you have to have one flashlight make it a a headlamp.  This is extremely useful, especially if you need 2 hands to pitch your tent in the dark.


  • Extra Clothing.  My rule with clothing is to never use cotton.  If it gets wet ( and it will) it takes forever to try.  There are so many lightweight options here.  Zip-off pants are perfect for any trip.


  • First-Aid Kit.  You don’t have to go overboard on this one.  The BSA handbook recommends the following: adhesive bandages, gauze pads, roll of tape, moleskin, soap or sanitizing gel, antibiotic ointment, itch cream, scissors, tweezers, gloves (latex free), CPR breathing barrier, pencil & notebook.


  • Sun Protection.  A small tube of sunscreen is perfect, but nothing beats a hat and a neckerchief to keep the sun off your head.  A bandanna has multiple uses as well.


  • Map & Compass.  Don’t rely on your smart phone for GPS and compass.  Go old-school here.  On a hike get a topographical map, and don’t buy a supercheap compass.  Here’s one I recommend:

    • Matches / Fire Starters:  If you choose matches, make sure they are waterproof.  A flint and steel combo is a good option as well.

  • Water Bottle:  A full liter nalgene bottle is perfect for camping.  Water bladders with hoses are a good option as well.  Popular brands are Camelback and Platypus.

This is the perfect 10 for a day hike and should make up your kit every time you go into the woods.  Shelter and sleeping gear are necessary if you spending the night.  Planning is essential on any trip to the woods, whether a day hike or a weekend campout.  With the essentials and a little preparation, you can enter the woods confidently.

Here are some examples of other essential lists:

REI Essentials List

ReserveAmerica List