Philmont Dad: 7 Things I Learned on My Trek
Updated: Jul 16, 2021
I recently returned from an epic Philmont adventure with my sons, ages 14 and 19. Our trip had its peaks and valleys—natural wonders, lots of rain, heartwarming campfires, blistered feet, tons of gun shooting—but it was one of the most memorable experiences I’ve ever had with my boys. It was so gratifying to unplug from our daily lives in Austin and be with a crew of laid-back but determined dudes in the mountains.
We worked amazingly well as a team and explored more than 70 miles of natural wilderness in 12 days while carrying our survival essentials in 30-pound backpacks. That’s quite an accomplishment for teenage guys, but even more for this 50-year-old mostly indoors dad.
I’ll admit I was apprehensive about undertaking such a physically challenging wilderness endeavor. People usually train for a year for Philmont, but I’d been spending that much time sitting on my ass in lockdown during a pandemic. I went to Philmont as a Scout in the mid-80s, but going as a middle-aged man required a whole different level of Being Prepared.
Here are a few things I learned from my trek that will hopefully help others who are planning to go to Philmont for the adventure of a lifetime.
Trekking Poles: Before the trip, I dove deep into backpacking blogs and message boards about Philmont prep—trekking poles were often mentioned as optional items. I’d deem them essential. They helped pull me up muddy mountains and prevented me from slipping down rocky trails (and destroying my knees) on the descents. On tough steep hills, I found myself developing a yoga-like rhythm with them—the reliable patterns of breathing, stepping, and sticking allowed me to focus on the repetition more than the difficulty and pain in my legs.
Rain: I expected it to rain during our trek, but I didn’t plan for five straight days of constant showers. It didn’t dampen our spirits, but it drenched our clothes and gear. The only item I didn’t pack that I slightly regret is a thin pair of rain pants. It’s tough to sit down for a meal or campfire without them. Speaking of fires—we got resourceful and used the heat of the flames to dry off our shirts and socks. My son called them sock dogs. If that option doesn’t work (it was about 80% effective), I’d suggest bringing another pair of dry socks and ensuring your double-lined pair aren’t too loose or tight in your boots, otherwise...blisters. That was my least favorite part of the trip.
Campfires: On another campfire note, I’d strongly suggest building one every night. In fact, they were usually the highlight of my day. I really enjoyed shifting my focus from knee pains and blisters to sitting around the fire hearing everyone tell stories, crack jokes, share insights, talk about world history, rate movies, etc.
Journaling: As a writer this comes naturally to me, but it’s worth making the effort to document all the amusing, unexpected, and even frustrating details that happen each day. Those are the things that aren’t always captured in photos, and they tend to slip through the cracks after a few days. One of our crew members used his Philmont Passport to jot down short phrases and quick sketches on the pages next to the campsite’s date stamp.
Critters: I’d been expecting to see bears, mountain lions, and other exotic creatures of the American West, but there was a surprising lack of wildlife on our trek. No complaints about not having a bear encounter, but I expected to see wilder animals than deer, chipmunks, and birds. We did see a couple horned toads, though. And fortunately, we didn’t see a single mosquito (in the North Country).
Activities: We arrived at camp by early afternoon most days, so we had enough time to settle in and take advantage of the fun activities at the staffed sites. After lugging a heavy pack up and down mountains for several hours, it was tempting to kick back and claim we were “too tired” to tackle another endeavor. But then we realized we had free time in New Mexico with easy access to a gun range, blacksmith shop, sawmill, gold mine, and horseback trails. It’s worth making the effort to forge those future memories (and photos).
Contributing: It takes a few days to establish a trail rhythm and routine, but once it’s there it becomes a welcome alternate reality from normal daily life. Instead of being annoyed by the inability to microwave a quick meal or toss the trash in the garage, we embraced and enjoyed the different pace. Screen time was replaced by story time, and inconveniences like carrying group gear, putting up a bear bag or rain fly, and gathering firewood became part of contributing to the crew. It’s rewarding to do tasks out of a sense of community instead of obligation, which might be the biggest takeaway for returning to civilization.