Fifty Years of Backpacking with the San Diego Girl Scouts

Through a chance encounter on Facebook, I met Valerie Ross, of the San Diego Girl Scouts Council. SDGS has an incredible backpacking program, and Val is one of eight adult volunteers. This is the first time I’ve heard of a GS Council with this sort of program (please, somebody, prove me wrong). So I wanted to find out more about it. I’ll let Val take it from here.

“I started backpacking as a shy, gangly, fly-me-under-the-radar 16-year-old in 1976. My big brother led me into the Golden Trout Wilderness for my first-ever trip, and I walked out of the forest a week later standing 10 feet tall and confident that I could do anything. I never stopped backpacking, and never lost that feeling of exhilaration one gets from walking into the Sierras and feeling its power and grace. My two daughters grew up backpacking with me and their aunties, and as the years passed I noticed that I saw countless Boy Scouts in the wilderness but absolutely no Girl Scouts. (In fact, over the last 39 years, I’ve only come across one Girl Scout backpacking group that wasn’t associated with my Council). I wanted to change that.

“Eighteen years ago I took my Council’s (San Diego Girl Scouts) backpack training to meet the training requirement for taking my own troop backpacking. Some years after that, I became a Council trainer and helped develop the program we have today. SDGS currently trains 300-400 girls and adults each year in wilderness hiking and backpacking. We now have 8 trainers and every year we lead an average of 4 advanced trips (Sierras, CA central coast, AT, hut-to-huts, etc.).”

In 2013, a group of high school and college age girls from across the Council hiked the High Sierra Trail. They made a short video on top of Mt. Whitney. The best part of the video? “I can do anything!”

Again from Val: “This SDGS backpacking program actually goes back to the 1950s & 60s. It’s not new, but is a legacy that just keeps developing.

“One aspect of our program that I feel most responsible for (and proud of, to be honest) is our Youth Leadership program. After girls finish basic backpacking, we invite them to return to help train and lead our classes/trips. These girls are stunning – they train girls and adults right alongside the lead trainer, mentoring girls and demonstrating such confidence in public speaking, all outdoor skills & knowledge, and our wilderness ethic – that is, the way we have each other’s backs and look after our fellow hikers.

On the John Muir Trail, at Island Pass. Mt. Banner is in the background.

“As for the backpack trainings & trips – my goal is that by time a girl leaves for college, I want to know that she’s capable of any backcountry adventure she dreams up. And we’ve had any number of girls go on to become JMT thru-hikers, a PCT thru-hiker (this year’s class), Peace Corps members, leaders in their university’s outdoor adventure programs…. Each of these girls has a story to tell, too. We’re teaching these awesome young women down here in SD, and it’s such a joy to help them develop the skills and knowledge they need to realize their dreams. And, they go on to inspire the current corps of Youth Leaders, which is pretty cool.”

This year, the girls hiked 34 miles, along the John Muir Trail, from Mammoth to Yosemite. They too put together a short video. Notice the ranger station section at the beginning; the girls were working with the rangers, and the adults pulled back. As with any successful outdoor program, the youth need to take charge.

“So I know you just asked for a blurb, not a book. I don’t know which great tale to tell (years & years of them – scary helicopter rescues, poignant moments, hilarious ‘you know you’re backpacking when you’re cleaning your bowl with your underpants’ moments). But I can tell you this — the moments I live for, when I’m most rewarded, go something like this one: I was descending Forester Pass with a group of my girls in August, 2011 – a huge snow year. After hours of carefully navigating the sun cups and snowfields over the top, we stopped to rest at a promontory with views extending north – snow-covered mountains as far as the eye could see, truly a purple mountain’s majesty. ‘I never knew this existed!’ one of them whispered into the silence, and that’s it, in one sentence: the reason, the purpose and the joy of helping a girl discover something she will treasure for the rest of her life.

“And for those who are ready to try backpacking, my advice is to get out and do it. You can’t learn to backpack by reading about it. You have to get your feet dirty, be humble enough to make mistakes, and have the confidence to laugh when you’re learning. It’s important to be humble: realize that you’ll never know it all, and that there’s no room for arrogance in the backcountry. Be Safe is the other half of the motto Be Prepared, and both are essential. By accruing experience, and being patient with the process, you’ll gain an acumen that can never be achieved by just reading others’ accounts. So yes – absolutely – read articles, books, blogs and posts. But there’s no substitute for experience. Go with a buddy/group that you trust to teach you properly (or at least, give you a start); someone who will have your back (and you’ll have theirs). Then keep building – the more time you spend outside the more familiar you’ll be with nature’s rhythms and your own rhythms and needs, as well. Never stop observing, and never stop learning.”

For those of you who are youth leaders, whether in Boy Scouts, Girl Scouts, or a similar group, SDGS has some terrific resources . Check out their flyers for the three levels of classes offered to girls and leaders (Wilderness Hiking, Basic Backpacking & Advanced trips). This site also contains the training handbooks which go along with the courses; they have a wealth of information.

Programs like this for girls are shockingly rare. Please share this info, and this post. We need to grow a generation of strong, capable women. And if you know of similar programs, please let me know so that I can share your stories. Mighty Hiker Women, unite!