Our troop would alternate summer activities. During odd years we would go to a Council organized scout camp. We would participate in all sorts of activities and the boys would earn a bunch of merit badges and advancements. It was a good experience and relatively easy to pull off. On even years we would backpack for a week in the high mountains someplace in Utah. Those trips where much more work but have always been the most memorable for myself and the boys I visit with.
We would start our preparation for a backpacking trip six months prior to the trip. Before Christmas I would give the parents ideas of items they could buy their scouts that would come in handy on the trip. As soon as the snow started to clear we would start our preparation.
Our March campout was usually in the west desert learning how to use a map and compass. There is a geographic oddity in the desert of central Utah that we referred to as Chimney Rock. The rock was cylindrical in shape and stood a few hundred feet above the desert floor. It could be seen in the distance from a rise in the road. As the road descended back to the desert floor it would disappear until you were very close. We would drop the boys off with the rock in the distance and have them work as a team hiking cross country in the direction of the rock. They would take a bearing with their compass at the start of the hike and follow that bering until they could see the rock again. Once they could see the rock again they would take a second bearing. They would cross ravines, climb ridges, and work through stands of trees on their hike. The challenge was to have the first and last bearing match. We would spend the rest of the camp out doing compass courses in light and darkness and, of course, playing on the rock.
In April and May the boys would learn the basics of backpacking and how to use the gear they would be taking. As the weather warmed and the snow cleared from the lower parts of the mountains the hikes would become more strenuous and closer to what they would face on the big trip. We would teach them how to read a map in more detail. They would learn how to use a GPS and try to find some geocaches. The idea was simply to prepare them "line upon line" for what was to come.
June was our test month. We would try to do a two night trip and the boys would try out everything they had learned. This gave them a chance to find any issues that needed to be handled before the big trip.
July was usually the month we did the trip. I preferred July for a couple of reasons. First, the trails in the high Uintas would normally be clear. Second, the summer monsoons usually started in earnest the last week of July and lasted through most of August, leaving the first few weeks of July relatively dry. Parents and boys would spend countless hours checking and rechecking their gear and trying to keep their packs light enough to be manageable. The night before we left the boys would bring their packs to me and I would quiz them on what they had and where it was. Some things had to be readily accessible like your rain poncho, plastic tarp, and sanitation kit (trowel and TP). I would also make sure everything was inside plastic bags and packed correctly.
Our route for each trip was carefully planned. This is one of the few times when the boys had almost no say in where we went. To choose a route I would first consider what I believed the boys were capable of. That was usually different from what they believed they were capable of. I would consult guide books and other scout leaders for ideas. I would talk to the Forest Service and find out what trail conditions were. I would look at electronic versions of the topographical maps to see what kind of terrain we would be crossing. I would contemplate when in the summer we would be going and where the trails would be open. I would consider whether an in-and-out or through hike would work the best. And I would prayerfully consider what the Lord wanted for this particular group of boys.
My favorite kind of hike is a through hike - one in which we would have somebody drop us off in one location and arrange to meet us someplace else in five days. The look on the boy's faces when the vehicles drove away at the trailhead was priceless. They were truly on their own. There was no car to come back to. The only way home was forward. For the first time in some of their lives they were on their own. They each had a map, a compass, and a plan. Now it was time to put it all together.
What my boys didn't realize is that they never really were on their own. Their route had been carefully planned and most difficulties anticipated. They possessed in their packs the tools they needed to survive the week. My pack and those of the other leaders contained a number of extra items just in case something unexpected happened. The trails I had chosen were known to have lots of traffic so getting help was possible. And I had alternate trails identified in case we needed to cut the trip short.
The payoff of these trips came on the last night. Before going to bed that last night we would get together under the stars and review the week - the successes and failures, challenges and trials, and how they felt about the what had happened. I always amazed me to hear these young men as they recognized that they could do hard things and that some hard things are definitely worth doing. Many would have a new found appreciation for their parents and the daily sacrifices made in their behalf. Nearly all had a deeper appreciation for the Lord's handiwork and His love for them.
On the final day we would meet our ride home. For the first time in five days lunch would not be freeze dried. After lunch we would load up and head home tired, smelly, and different people than we were just a few days before.
I've though many times about these trips. They were hard. Hard to plan and hard to execute. It would have been much easier to go to a scout camp, sing the songs and perform the skits, get a few badges for making a basket and a leather knife holder, and head home at the end of the week with lots of ribbons. But I think doing these trips taught myself and my boys something about life.
Life is hard. The trails we follow in life sometimes seem to be endless and without a clear destination. Many times we can't seem to grasp where we are and what our destination will be. But we are not on our own. We have the tools we need to get to our final destination. We have a map in the words of the scriptures and prophets and apostles. We have the Spirit to keep us headed in the right direction. There is an eternal plan to what sometimes seems like a random journey filled with hardships and setbacks. And we have a Savior to show us the way and pick us up when we fall. And when we reach our final destination we will be different people because of the journey we have been through. The reward waiting for us there is beyond our comprehension.
"And God shall wipe away all tears from their eyes; and there shall be no more death, neither sorrow, nor crying, neither shall there be any more pain: for the former things are passed away... And he said unto me, It is done. I am Alpha and Omega, the beginning and the end. I will give unto him that is athirst of the fountain of the water of life freely. He that overcometh shall inherit all things; and I will be his God, and he shall be my son." (Revelation 21:4,6-7)