Defining a 50-Miler

In doing research for this post, I found there are a lot of differing opinions about what the Boy Scout 50-Miler Program is all about. In a nutshell, the award recognizes a Scout who travels 50 miles in at least five days. Some describe it as a self-supported, high-adventure activity only for older Scouts or Venturers. Others dismiss certain modes of travel such as bicycling or horseback riding. Most agreed it should be hard.

Scouting 50 Miler

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One of my Scouting mentors once told me: "There is your way, my way, and the Scouting way. Stick with the Scouting way." In fact, the official BSA Guide to Advancement is clear on this subject:

"No council, committee, district, unit, or individual has the authority to add to, or subtract from, advancement requirements" (Guide to Advancement, page 2).

As I dove into the requirements and award application documents to "stick with the Scouting way," I was left with these key questions left to answer:

  • Does the 50-miler require the scouts to carry their own gear (self supported or unsupported)?
  • What modes of travel are approved and can you use more than one?
  • Is a 50-mile trek limited only to older scouts?

To answer the first two questions, I wrote directly to the National Council of the Boy Scouts of America and received this reply from Keith Christopher, Outdoor Programs/Properties Department Manager:

The intent of the 50-miler award is for Scouts to cover 50 miles in a minimum of 5 days. Scouts at Philmont qualify when they cover the minimum 50 miles and do the service project. Look closely at the patch and you can see a boot (for hiking), a bike wheel (for biking), a canoe paddle (for floating) and a horseshoe (for horseback riding). It is not intended that they carry all of their food and supplies, and I really can't see where that is implied in the requirements. As a foot note (sic), horseback riding and biking were added about 12-15 years ago.

It is acceptable to combine more than one mode of travel as long as it is not motorized.

Thankfully, Keith's message clears up most of the confusion (although I'll admit that referring to the patch design to clarify the requirements is somewhat obtuse). Thankfully, the website US Scouting Project references a note they received from the BSA about clarifying the award in the future:

There's a note in the publishing files for the award application and requirements book - so that "on horse" and "on bicycle" will be specifically included in descriptions of the fifty-miler requirements in the future.

Does it need to be Self-Supported? Find out!

Boy Scouts Backpacking

Does the 50-Miler Need To Be Self-Supported?

Short answer: No.

The reference in the requirements to use pack animals should be clear enough on this issue. In addition, if the 50 miles is to be covered on mountain bikes on single track (as an example), carrying a weeks worth of food and gear is simply not safe or recommended. Other modes, such as kayaking, pose similar risks. Having gear hauled for you is perfectly permissible, if that is what works logistically for the trip. Transporting participants in a motorized vehicle, even from venue to venue, however, would disqualify them for the award.

This really opens up the possibility of planning a trek with supply drops, gear shuttles, or other support aids that can help scouts of any age or ability level as may be appropriate.

Even a trek at Philmont, which is the quintessential trekking destination for Scouts, accommodates a wide-range of possibilities that qualifies Scouts for the 50-Miler Award. Dutch oven dinners, food pickup points, and activity stopovers (e.g., rock climbing, fishing, blacksmithing) are not counted against the award, and indeed would be impossible to pack in without extra support. Creating your own Philmontesque trek could involve the logistics of gear couriering, meal or food delivery, and organizing program outposts. None of these logistics takes away from the purpose of the 50-Miler Award or diminishes the achievement of covering 50 consecutive miles.

Depending on the makeup of your troop, organizing a support team is a great way to encourage and sustain young Scouts along the entire trek. Older, more experienced scouts are certainly more able to complete a self-supported trek. For younger scouts, the process of slogging along, day-after-day, to finish 50 miles can be a challenge in itself and yet takes nothing away from the spirit of the 50-Miler Award.

If you are looking for a Scouting award that recognizes more difficult trekking requirements, such as self-supported backpacking trips covering high mileage, please check out the BSA National Outdoor Badge.

Travel Approved Modes? Find out more.

Scouts Canoeing

What modes of travel are approved and can you use more than one?

The official clarifying statement from BSA makes this one easy. The modes include:

  • Bicycling
  • Paddling
  • Horseback Riding
  • Hiking (to include, but not limited to backpacking)

You can use one or more of these modes in your planning. Organizing and planning a trip to include hiking, backpacking, paddle sports, horses, and even pack animals (to say nothing of all the behind-the-scenes logistics) is quite an undertaking. Sticking to one mode is certainly appealing from a simplicity point-of-view, but adding the variety can provide necessary advancement opportunities and stimulation to keep the Scouts going day after day.

The 50-Miler Program has no pre-requisites, no prescribed methods or models to follow. To earn the BSA 50-Miler Award, both youth and adults must complete no less than 50 consecutive miles using the approved modes over a minimum of five consecutive days. On a Philmont trek, for example, it is the mileage that is stressed in their Guidebook to Adventure, as they only provide for three hours of service. All 12-day Philmont itineraries meet the distance and day requirements. The word consecutive is used specifically with this award to indicate the mileage and timeline be continuous or unbroken. This doesn't mean that the 50 miles must be split up into neat chunks of five 10-mile days. It does mean that there shouldn't be large breaks in activity, like splitting up the trek between two weekends. This is the crux of the trek. Even the service project can be postponed or amended, but not the trail mileage or days.

The service component is important because it supports the ideals and aims of Scouting. The ideal plan would be to complete all 10 hours on the trail or waterway, but the Program allows the Scouts to be flexible on the timing if conditions warrant.

Who should attempt a 50-miler? Find out!

Who Should Attempt a 50-Miler?

According to the BSA Trek Safely module, "[any] trek should reflect the maturity, skill level, and fitness of each member." By properly planning ahead, you can build a 50-mile trek to meet those parameters and meet the needs of Scouts ages from 11 to 18, depending on the makeup of the participants.

This year we planned our 50-mile trek for a very diverse group of Scouts of varying builds and abilities. We arranged several months of weekend camping and backpacking trips to get our new scouts to First Class and prepare everyone for the 50-miler in the summer. All the Scouts who met the pre-trip "shakedowns" and training (e.g., completing Trek Safely along with Safe Swim Defense and Safety Afloat for the canoeing portions) were allowed to participate.

Planning? Learn how to set goals.

Boy scouts hike Arizona Trail

Planning and Goal Setting

The 50-Miler Program can be used as a motivational tool. Let's say the Scouts planned for a week-long, 35-mile canoe adventure in the summer, but as a mentor you suggest that if they add just a few more miles and kick in a little service project, they could earn this really cool award as a bonus. In other words, the award doesn't need to be the goal in itself (although it could be) but a side benefit from careful planning.

One element of any backpacking trip is factoring in safety contingencies. For example, if a problem should arise on the trail, you should have planned "emergency exits" and fail safes in place. A lot can happen on a long-distance trek and it is important to plan for setbacks. When I've planned our 50-mile treks, I look for trails with multiple access points. In Arizona, one of the most accessible trails is the Arizona Trail (AZT), an 800-mile (1,287 km) nationally recognized scenic trail that weaves through multiple towns and is crossed by hundreds of roads and trails.

Like many long-distance trails, these access points not only provide convenient emergency exits, but also allow for periodic supply drop-offs and base camps for activity centers.

How does one advance? Learn more.

Scouts Mountain Biking

Advancement Opportunities.

Another requirement for the award is to have the Scouts plan for any advancement opportunities. Our troop had already been working on the Hiking Merit Badge, which requires a few 10-mile hikes and one 20-mile hike. The Scouts decided that they wanted to complete the 20-mile hike on our summer trek. Thankfully, the Hiking Merit Badge and the 50-Miler Award do not prohibit this type of "double-dipping," so long as the hike is not applied to another merit badge.

The Scouts' final plan outlined a week of adventure beginning with hiking, followed by canoeing, and finally self-supported backpacking. We planned for a "rest" day where we completed our service project and worked on the Archery Merit Badge. At another base camp, we met up with the Forest Service who taught portions of the Forestry Merit Badge. During the canoeing day, we completed activities for the Canoeing Merit Badge, having done most of the skill qualifying during earlier encampments. The variety and advancement opportunities made the mileage requirement seem less demanding.

The Importance of Good Food

If an army marches on its stomach, a Boy Scout troop runs like a berserk zombie horde incessantly craving food that will never satisfy. A few years ago my troop completed a 50-mile trip that was strictly about backpacking, with dehydrated or freeze-dried meals. After a few days into the trek the Scouts were near a food mutiny. Even though I felt we were eating in high style, I quickly learned that some backpacking meals are an acquired taste, particularly for the uninitiated. Thankfully I was saved from lynching by a surprise BBQ provided by one of the adult volunteers who met us on the final night at a rendezvous point. That BBQ was a turning point for me in planning future 50-mile trips.

Since that first attempt, I've decided that breaking in young Scouts gradually to the idea of simple trail meals is more important than full immersion. As I mentioned before, using road crossings and "emergency exits" as a planned camp allowed us to plan evening dinners and morning breakfasts together with a volunteer who trucked in a camp kitchen and delicious food.

How long? Learn how to manage time.

Time Control Plan

Time Control Plan

Develop a Time Control Plan

The last tip I want to share in helping with the planning aspect is including a time control plan (click for blank template). I have found that a time control plan is a great way to predict how long you will complete sections of the trail. This has been invaluable in coordinating logistics issues such as food drop-offs on a 50-mile trek.

A time control plan also includes important trail features such as water sources, trail intersections, stream crossings, and other landmarks. This is helpful for everyone to determine where we are at any given time, how far we have left to the next landmark, and how long it will take us to get there.

For our troop, we designated a navigator each day who was responsible for managing the time control plan and leading the trek. Questions like "are we there yet?" or "how much longer?" were directed to the navigator to answer.

For younger or less-experienced scouts, a time control plan can be completed all in advance and reviewed daily with each crew leader, to help build essential skills. The plans should also be shared with participating in any way with logistics. Older or more experienced scouts can help create the time control plan as part of their morning routine.

Using the time control plan along with a map and compass is a great way to reinforce navigation skills and build confidence with the scouts.

I like to create time control plans on a grid showing elevation on the Y axis and miles hiked on the X axis. These grids can be printed on small index cards that can be quickly reproduced and used in the field.

Final Thoughts

If you've ever contemplated completing the BSA 50-Miler Award with your Boy Scout group, all I can say is just go and do it! I highly recommend it. In fact, I strongly believe that all Boy Scouts, even as young as 11 or 12, are capable of completing such a trek, and nothing is more rewarding than watching these young men prove to themselves that they can do hard things. For those scouts who complete the trek, the "50-miler" becomes an anchor for new adventures in the future.

This post was written by former Trail Ambassador and Scoutmaster Derek Hansen.

November 18, 2013 — Brian Fryer