Most scouting programs sponsor year-round outdoor activities. Some pause briefly while the dead of winter runs its course while others seem to enjoy the challenge of cold weather camping. Anyway, its a safe bet that the bulk of outdoor activities take place during the spring, summer and fall months -- "Three season camping," as the experts call it. Your initial efforts at collecting gear should concentrate on those mild months. Sure, a set of mukluks and a warm parka are nice on those sub-zero days, but a pair of comfortable, well fitting, mild-weather hiking boots will see a lot more use.
What follows here is one man's opinion on how to equip a beginning Scout. Of course, these recommendations are based on the solid opinions and experiences of an old man and have nothing to do with the latest fashion fads. Therein lies the challenge of a parent, balancing the fashion consciousness of youth against the sensibilities of old age. It may take a few uncomfortable turns to let children see the light but, what the heck, as long as it doesn't produce long term disability or emotional impairment, experience is the best teacher. After all, we can only guide them, we can't make them march in rigid lock step the rest of their lives. Well, off my soapbox and onto the meat of the matter.
Stay away from cotton or cotton blend "sweat socks". They become clammy when wet, take forever to dry and can cause blisters like there's no tomorrow. Best are wool or wool/synthetic blends. Reasonably thick, they'll cushion and protect the foot even when they're damp. Get them in gray or dark colors and they'll not show the dirt that gets ground into them when your kids go running around camp without shoes. Personally, I don't like tube socks. They always seem to bunch up around the instep and rub my foot in the wrong places.
A thin pair of synthetic blend liner socks helps eliminate friction that causes hot spots and blisters. I usually wear a pair of thin dress socks but also have a couple pairs made of polypropylene material for serious footwork. Two liners and three pairs of regular socks will usually do for a weekend trip. I like to have a complete change of spare clothing with an extra change of socks in case my feet get wet. However, I've seen kids go an entire weekend without changing socks despite the insistence of leaders that they do so. Go figure.
Almost as important as hiking shoes are comfortable shoes to wear in camp. I like to pack a pair of moccasins or "Aqua Socks" to wear while relaxing after a long day's hiking. Nothing feels better than putting on a pair of comfortable old friends at the end of the day. They should slip on and off easily for those late night trips to "the facility."
My personal choice of clothing construction materials is a cotton/polyester blend. Its no accident that Scout uniforms are made of these materials. Uniforms also come in earth tones that resist showing outdoor dirt and grime. Cotton/poly work clothes are an excellent second choice for outdoor activities where Scout uniforms aren't appropriate. I also favor loose fitting clothes that allow freedom of movement, circulate air in warm weather, and trap heat in winter.
For extreme cold weather conditions nothing tops wool or synthetics for both under and outer wear. I also like to pack a sweatsuit to wear as pajamas to extend the comfort range of my sleeping bag and double as my spare set of clothing. I can wear a sweatsuit almost anywhere in public without the stigma of being caught in my "PJ's". Naturally, my camping sweatsuit is a cotton/poly blend material to keep me warm even if I happen to sweat
For warm weather activities cotton/poly or synthetic shorts with a mesh liner are cool, comfortable and allow campers to forgo packing underwear, much to mother's dismay. A comfortable T-shirt completes the warm weather ensemble.
Kids can somehow manage to sleep on the hardest surface but they still need insulation from the cold. Even on a mild night the earth can suck the heat right out of a body in short order, even if it's wrapped in a good sleeping bag. A closed-cell foam pad will provide insulation from cold surfaces and weighs mere ounces. It can also be used as a sitting pad for keeping butts off the damp grass when lounging around the campsite and they're indestructible unless you use them for fire fuel. Of course old folks like myself need some extra assistance in the form of a thick, soft, open cell foam pad for both sittin' and sleepin'.
Avoid air mattresses. The good ones are heavy and expensive, the cheap ones leak and hiss, and they all conduct the cold in winter. As far as pranks go, pulling the plug on your buddy's air mattress ranks right up there with putting a rock in his pack at every rest stop on a hike. Kids will be kids. If you must sleep on air, the Therm-a-Rest brand provides a unique combination of air mattress and foam pad that's compact and self inflating. While I haven't used one, they have received good reviews from my friends who own them. My friends also report that inflatable pads and mattresses should be kept away from the flying hot embers found around campfires.
I see two extremes in sleeping bag selection. First is the Scout who brings a "slumber bag" to campouts. You know, the ones with cartoon characters emblazoned all over them. Besides setting themselves up for ridicule, these things just aren't made to withstand the rigors of camping. Second is the kid who brings an overly large, heavy, canvas and flannel bag that might be more appropriate for a guided hunting trip in the Canadian Rockies during late November.
The majority of Scout camping activity occurs during the milder months. A well made, light weight sleeping bag is usually enough for ordinary trips. When you're ready for winter camping you can always supplement it with blankets, a quilt, or an extra sleeping bag. I've made do for years on my few cold weather trips each year by placing one mild weather bag inside another and wearing a sweatsuit and warm, dry socks to bed.
Avoid down filled bags like the plague. If you've ever washed a down filled bag or jacket you'll realize just how useless these things are if they happen to get soaked. They take forever to dry and have the insulating efficiency of a bag of rocks until they dry out and fluff up, which might take a couple of days. Stick with synthetic filled bags. They're cheaper and can remain functional even if they get soaked in a downpour or canoeing "accident". I prefer bags with a nylon cover and liner and 2-3 pounds of synthetic fill. Remember, your kid is going to have to carry this thing for the next couple of years. I'd also opt for a bag that comes with a "stuff sack". Stuffing a bag into a sack is a lot easier than trying to roll one up and produces a better looking package. Stuffing distributes the wear to help the bag last longer and the empty stuff bag can be filled with extra clothes and used for a pillow to rest your weary head on.
Likewise, there's a certain amount of outdoor romance associated with drinking from a tin cup. The classic "sierra cup" is the quintessential outdoor utensil and you can always use it as a pot to heat soup or coffee. In the over twenty years that I've owned my sierra cup I've NEVER used it as a pot. If I'm hungry or thirsty I'll always want more than I can put in that puny cup. Besides, you've got to bring along a pot to cook supper in anyway. I've also discovered that a metal cup quickly cools down coffee or cocoa to the temperature of the whatever you set it on. At first fill its too hot to hold. You quickly and carefully put it down and, next thing you know, the contents are chilled. Go figure. In the wisdom of my old age I've tossed an insulated plastic cup in my pack. I got the type that has a snap-on lid to keep out foreign objects and critters while still allowing me to sip my beverage. It works great and I even use it as a packing container for my candle lantern. I still carry the sierra cup to use as a prop for photographs when I want to look especially outdoorsy.
I also have a plastic plate to hold my meal while I eat it. It insulates better than an aluminum plate, doesn't dent, weighs only an ounce and, unlike paper plates, it can be used over and over.
I use a 1 liter soda bottle made of PET, that miracle plastic that soda and water bottles are made of. They're available in any grocery store in a variety of sizes. Mine fits neatly into a pocket of my pack. Every couple of trips I simply replace the bottle with a new one.
Now don't rush right down to the local discount store and buy any backpack. The kid will be eager, but wait a while. A duffel bag with a carry strap will probably suffice for the first couple of camping trips. Talk with your Troop leaders about which type of packs they prefer and the types of trips they take. After all, they're the experts with whom you trust your kids; Their opinion should be worth something. Shop around, look into used equipment and watch for sales. Good packs can be had for a reasonable price if you are patient and willing to search. First criteria is to make sure that it fits. An ill fitting pack can be murder on a long hike. Keep in mind that the kid's gonna grow and styles will change. If he sticks with this outdoor stuff he'll probably outgrow his first pack anyway. The second time around he can get the pack that's going to take him through middle age. That's what my parents did over 30 years ago and I'm still carrying that frame.
The problem in nighttime illumination is not whether you can signal the space shuttle in orbit or light up a mountain a half mile away. Rather its the ability to find the latrine and see that rock just a step away before you trip over it.
In the wisdom of old age I've learned to survive quite comfortably with an inexpensive, dual AA cell, pocket flashlight that only weighs a couple of ounces. Its always in a handy pocket of my pack and is slipped into a pants pocket at dusk. I don't think I'll ever buy another traditional D-Cell flashlight for camping. The AA Mag-Lite brand or any of its imitators are excellent choices. I'm glad to see that manufacturers are finally creating storage space for extra bulbs inside the unit.
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