Philmont Fun: The Basics

My son’s Boy Scout troop planned a trip to the Philmont Scout Ranch in Cimarron, NM. For those of you, like I, that were not in Boy Scouts when younger, there are four official “high adventure” bases in Boy Scouts: Philmont in NM (land activities), Sea Base in FL (sailing/boating/water sports), Northern Tier in MI (canoeing in the boundary waters between US and Canada) and Summit in WV (land activities).

Philmont, In General

The idea is that your crew (a small group of between 7 and 15ish) of scouts, venturers (males and females from 14 to 21) and some adults picks an itinerary and submits it to Philmont. They will tell you if you are allowed to go on that trek. Treks vary in days out, mileage and difficulty. We took a 12 day trek (itineraries are here) but there are 7 day treks and many other configurations.

Think of a trek as playing a huge game of connect-the-dots with yourselves backpacking the distances between the dots. Each “dot” is a camp site that is either a trail-side camp or a staffed camp. Staffed camps have “programs” at them. These vary from camp to camp but can be everything from rock climbing to gun shooting to mountain biking to spar-pole climbing to conservation activities and more! Staffed camps also have “interpreters” that portray characters from times long ago (usually around the 1900-1930s). These interpreters are in period dress and do a terrific job of making weary backpackers feel right at home.

Food, Drink, Pooping and Peeing

Let’s get this out of the way in the beginning. These treks are out in the back-country (that means the wild!) where there usually is no plumbing. Let me tell you how we got food, water and what we did with the waste.

Eating

Philmont provides breakfast, lunch and dinner for you for your entire stay. When you are in base camp (see below), you eat in a cafeteria. Once on the trail, you get a bag that you share with another person on the trek. In the bags are a variety of foods. Check out the breakfast, lunch and dinner links if you’d like. These foods were things like energy bars, Gatorade drink mixes, jerky, crackers and such. The PDFs show them much better. You pick up these food bags from a commissary at various points in the trek so each day you may be carrying from 1-4 (or more) days worth of food with you.

Water

We had a number of options for water. First, some staffed camps had potable (good to drink) water. That was always nice because it was easy. Our next option was to use our gravity water filters that some of the adults brought to filter the water and make it safe to drink. If we couldn’t/didn’t want to do that, we could use the Katadyn Micropur tablets that the Philmont staff amply provided to us. These were the lowest on our desirability level since we had to wait 30 minutes for the water to be safe to drink. But, the chemicals were very good and didn’t taint the water with bad smells or taste.

The Rock

So, when food goes in, stuff comes out. At Base Camp, there is plumbing and such to use just like at home. But in the back-country, these accommodations are not available. For peeing, you go somewhere semi-private away from trail, water and camp sites and find a rock to pee on. So instead of saying “I need to go to the bathroom”, for a #1 you say “I need to go find a rock”.

The Red Roof versus the Cat Hole

OK. #2s are done in either a “Red Roof” (outdoor privvy/outhouse usually at staffed camps) or you dig a hole in the ground 6-9″ deep and go in that. You bring your own TP with ya and Philmont supplies the hand sanitizer.

Amateur Radio Use

I recently got my Technician’s class amateur radio license with the help from the wonderful people at NoVA Hackers. I did this so that if we were in the back-country, miles away from anything and certainly outside of the range of cell phone towers, I could use a handy talkie (portable radio) to call for help. While I didn’t need to call for help on this trip, bringing along the radio was fun.

I did a little research before going out to Philmont and found that they had registered several frequencies with the FCC. I took these and programmed them into my Baofeng BF-F8HP handy talkie before I left. I also added other frequencies (like the NOAA weather stations).

I found that Philmont (this year) used the 463.525MHz frequency on their main repeater for most everything from infirmary consultations to where their drivers were to nightly updates of weather. Most of the staffed camps had radio base stations that they used to communicate to base camp.

Some of the other camps used other frequencies for more local communication. For instance, the staff at Whiteman Vega were using 467.850MHz to communicate between the people at the Whiteman Vega base yurt and the staff that took people out on the mountain bike rides. Easier to radio in “Hey I have a person with a flat tire. Can you bring a spare out here?” than to walk your bike back.

As I said, I never needed to communicate over the Philmont frequencies but some nights at 630p local, my crew and I tuned in for what we dubbed the “nightly news”. At 630p base camp transmitted to the staffed camps:

  • How many crews were expected the next day
  • How many people were going to be at which activities (like horseback riding)
  • When buses were dropping off or picking up crews
  • News from around the world
  • Weather forecasts
  • And other things like STEM (Science Technology Engineering Math) topics

As these radio broadcasts were our only connection to the outside world for 12 days, they boosted our moods on long days and we enjoyed listening to them.

Our Trek

Our scouts decided that they wanted to do a strenuous trek of 86 miles. Now, let me preface this with 86 miles is the MINIMUM number of miles that you may log on the trek. My wrist step counter clocked me doing over 130 miles during this trip. We chose trek number 29. It is below in itinerary and description.

2015map_29
Itinerary 29 map and elevation
2015itin_29
Itinerary 29 description

Itinerary 29

This trek was less about doing “programs” at staffed camps and more about seeing some amazingly beautiful country in the Valle Vidal region north of base camp. You may also notice that we were at least 8 days without showers (the little “s” in the second column in the above pic). This wasn’t as bad as it sounds. Yeah, we smelled. Yes the scouts smelled worse. But it wasn’t terrible.

In the next blog post I’ll go into detail about our trip and post some pics.

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