Backcountry Skills

  • Navigation – Before you begin hiking, always remember to check your map. To do this effectively, you must first orient your map. Orienting the map involves using a compass to align the map with true north. To find true north, you must account for declination (the angle difference between true and magnetic north). Declination changes depending on where you are on the globe; here is a map showing the degrees of declination for the lower 48 states:
    • The declination at Philmont is right around 10o east which means we set our compass at 350o. Once the dial is set to 350o, align a straight edge of the compass with a grid line on the map so that the compass, not the compass needle, is aligned with north on the map’s 7 compass rose. Then rotate the map (with the compass lying on it) so that the compass needle is pointing toward the N on your compass dial (known as “red in the shed”). Now the map is oriented and you can accurately decide which trail to take to your destination.
  • Starting the Hike – The navigator should set a hiking pace that is comfortable for each crew member. Good communication between the back and front of the crew will help keep the crew hiking at a comfortable pace without getting separated. Crew members should be spaced out approximately every 8-10 ft. but a crew should never split up. Before a crew begins hiking, the navigator should ask the question: “Is anybody not ready?” The reason we phrase the question this way rather than, “Is everybody ready?” is because with the latter question all you would hear would be 11 voices saying “yes” and the one “no” would be drowned out.
  • Hiking Etiquette – You will come across many crews over the course of your trek; knowing how to properly interact with them will help make your trek much more enjoyable. Additionally, proper hiking etiquette within your crew will help mitigate unnecessary tension and stress between crew members.
  • Pace – Your crew should choose a pace that keeps the crew together and allows the crew to hike for extended amounts of time without needing to stop and take a break. If one crew member is significantly slower than the rest of the crew, have them hike near the front of the crew so that they can easily communicate with the navigator/pace setter.
  • Spacing – It is common for crew members to hike too close together at Philmont and as a result, crew members are not able to see the views and wildlife all around them. It is recommended that crew members are spaced out about 8-10 ft. to allow them to look around and enjoy the views as well as stop in time if the person in front of them were to all of a sudden stop on the trail.
  • Breaks – Crews should take breaks when needed. Anyone in the crew should feel comfortable calling for a break and there should be two kinds of breaks: a five-minute or less break and a 20-minute or more break. The reasoning for the two different breaks is the lactic acid buildup that will occur in your muscles after resting for more than five minutes. Lactic acid will leave your muscles feeling sluggish and you will exert much more energy if you hike during lactic acid buildup. After 20 minutes, the lactic acid will dissipate and your muscles will be able to move unrestricted. Additionally, make sure to never step on the critical edge of the trail, especially when taking breaks. The critical edge is the outside (or downhill) edge of the trail and stepping on it will weaken it and lead to the erosion of the trail.
  • Passing a crew – If you encounter another crew heading in the same direction you are hiking, take a five minute break. If you approach them again, take another five minute break. If you approach them a third time, ask if you may pass. If you do pass the other crew, do not stop for at least 45 minutes to prevent the two crews from leapfrogging one another.
  • Another crew passes you – As stated earlier, a crew hiking behind you will probably ask if they can pass you. If they do, let them hike in front since you may not have seen them the other two times they approached you. Once passed, taking a five minute break is a good idea just to give the two crews spacing.
  • Right of way – When two crews meet on a hill and are hiking opposite directions, the crew hiking uphill has the right of way and the crew hiking downhill should step off the trail allowing the other crew to pass. The reasoning for this is that it is harder to get your momentum going uphill then downhill.
  • Pack animals – Cavalcade crews or crews with a burro always have the right of way. Listen to the directions of the Horseman or Wrangler for which side of the trail to move to.
  • Stream crossings – Cross streams and bridges one person at a time. Unbuckle your hip belt and sternum strap so that if you fall in, you can quickly escape your pack and avoid drowning. The navigator should continue about 30 ft. up the trail and wait for the rest of the crew. When the last person crosses the stream they should call out “All across” then the navigator will ask the question: “Is anybody not ready?” before hiking on.
  • Trekking poles – If you decide to use trekking poles on your trek, make sure to use rubber tips to save our trails from erosion. Trekking poles can reduce the impact on your knees by up to 25% while backpacking but we have found that trails erode much quicker when the sharp tip of the poles are exposed.


About Philmont Scout Ranch

Philmont Scout Ranch, the Boy Scouts of America's premier High Adventure™ base, challenges Scouts and Venturers with more than 214 square miles of rugged northern New Mexico wilderness. Backpacking treks, horseback cavalcades, and training and service programs offer young people many ways to experience this legendary country.