This past summer, after wrapping up his first year studying statistics and mathematics at the University of Vermont, Ben Palladino had to make a different kind of calculation.
He could find a restaurant job, earning some extra cash during a summer where such seasonal work was easy to find. Or the 19-year-old could get an early start on his bucket list and hike the entire Appalachian Trail.
“I knew I would be very bored if I stayed home and worked a mediocre part-time job,” Ben says. “And I realized it would be difficult to find another large chunk of time in my life to do the trail, so the summer was the perfect time for me to try.”
He did more than try. While a typical thru-hiker takes five to seven months to walk the trail’s entire length, Ben conquered the 2,200-mile journey in just 97 days — finishing atop Mount Katahdin in Maine on Aug. 21, 2021. He averaged about 23 miles of hiking per day and took no “zero days,” which are what hikers call rest days.
Ben hiked the Appalachian Trail alone, but the Eagle Scout from Troop 133 of Indianapolis (Crossroads of America Council) encountered a number of hikers with a familiar story.
“While talking to other hikers on the trail, I met many who are also Eagle Scouts,” Ben says. “It seemed like Scouting was something that had connected many people with backpacking.”
That got us wondering: What is it about Scouting that helps prepare a person for this ultimate test of mental and physical endurance — a goal achieved by only 25% of those who attempt it? How does being a Scout get someone ready to walk all the way from Georgia to Maine, hiking 10 hours a day for 97 days straight?
We caught up with Ben, who is currently in his sophomore year of college, to ask just how Scouting helped him conquer the Appalachian Trail. Here are five takeaways from our conversation.
Lesson 1: Learn to deal with unpredictable weather
Ben says bad weather is a storyline thundering throughout his Scouting career. Troop 133 endured rain, mud, snow and freezing temperatures on its many outdoor adventures.
“What I always remember from these campouts was having to clean up camp when the weather was terrible,” Ben says. “I never wanted to pack up a tent in the rain or clean dishes when it was below freezing, but it was something we had to do.”
That resilience prepared Ben well for the mental demands of the Appalachian Trail’s changing weather, which included storms and freezing temps. Scouting also helped Ben know what to pack for a variety of climates, helping him stay comfortable no matter the weather.
Additional reading: Scout Life tips on staying warm with the right winter gear.
Lesson 2: Keep yourself organized
For more than three months on the trail, Ben’s entire life — his bedroom, his kitchen, his living room — were stuffed into his backpack.
That made organization crucial. Fortunately for Ben, he remembers helping the Troop 133 quartermaster organize gear before campouts.
“It was vital to keep everything organized so that campouts ran smoothly and there were no issues with gear,” Ben says. “It was also important to keep your bag organized when we went on campouts so you knew where everything was.”
By having a well-organized backpack on the Appalachian Trail, Ben was able to quickly set up camp or grab something from his bag if the weather took a turn.
Additional reading: Scout Life guide to packing a backpack
Lesson 3: Learn to pack light
Ben will always remember his first backpacking trip. It was a troop outing to Morgan-Monroe State Forest in Indiana.
He made the mistake many first-time backpackers make: He crammed way too much stuff in his pack.
“By the end of the weekend, my legs were destroyed. I felt like I couldn’t walk anymore,” Ben says. “I had packed too much stuff and weighed myself down.”
The next time Ben went backpacking with his troop, he packed less and had a much better experience. Ben had those lessons firmly imprinted in his mind when he was packing for the Appalachian Trail.
“I had a nice and lightweight pack that rarely slowed me down,” Ben says. “This lesson was probably the most important thing I learned from Scouting that helped me succeed on the trail.”
Additional reading: Scout Life tips for picking the best backpack
Lesson 4: Leave No Trace
As Scouts, leaving a campsite better than we found it is second nature.
“Leave No Trace was something that always seemed like common sense to me, because Scouting emphasized it so much,” Ben says.
After camping trips, Ben and his troop would scour the campsite, looking for any piece of microtrash to make sure they hadn’t left anything behind. When they went hiking or backpacking, they packed out all trash — carrying it with them until they saw a trash can hours or even days later.
On the Appalachian Trail, with its mix of former Scouts and non-Scouts, Ben was reminded that not everyone grew up with a commitment to leaving a place better than they found it.
“I was surprised at how many other hikers on the trail didn’t seem to understand these basic principles,” he says.
Additional reading: Scout Life’s advice about outdoor ethics
Lesson 5: Stay mentally strong
As a new member of Scouts BSA working on the Scout rank, the Eagle Scout Award can seem impossibly far away.
As a thru-hiker starting the Appalachian Trail in Georgia, the same can be said about Mount Katahdin in Maine.
“When I started the trail in Georgia, the end seemed really far away,” Ben says. “I knew it was gonna take time, and I had to focus on what was in front of me.”
Every time Ben crossed into a new state, “it was like advancing in rank. I was getting one step closer to the goal.”
Through it all, Ben says Scouting helped him remain physically strong and mentally awake.
“I met a lot of people on the trail who struggled mentally and countless people who quit primarily due to mental reasons,” Ben says. “Scouts had prepared me very well mentally.”
Additional reading: Scout Life dives deep into the Scout rank
(Bonus!) Lesson 6: Have a strong support system
When Chris Palladino and his wife first heard of their son’s desire to hike the Appalachian Trail, Chris figured Ben would eventually scale back his plan a bit. Maybe he’d hike half of the trail and then return home to relax for a few weeks.
After all, what college student wouldn’t appreciate a little down time before returning to school?
“To his credit, he made a pretty convincing argument that he likely wouldn’t get another opportunity like he had this summer,” Chris says. “Plus, he was in fantastic condition and had no work obligations or other commitments. Most importantly, he put together a very strong plan.”
Ben had outlined all of his equipment and food needs. He crafted a detailed spreadsheet that showed his specific benchmarks on a day-to-day basis. He identified what shelters he would stay at, the towns where he would resupply, where he would stay at hostels and where he would do laundry.
“His plan was so detailed, he calculated not only his exact mileage for each day, but how much elevation gain he would have every day,” Chris says. “And I don’t think he deviated much more than half-day to a day from his original plan.”
After seeing the plan, Chris was confident that Ben would complete his goal. Part of that confidence comes from watching Ben excel in Scouting.
“Scouting taught him the value of being prepared and to properly plan for things,” Chris says. “Equally important was the mental toughness that Scouting provided Ben.”
Chris says Ben also experienced plenty of camping hardships — bad weather, equipment malfunctions, food problems and more.
“Knowing how to deal with those situations gave him a significant advantage in completing this journey,” Chris says. “Ben has a proven track record of setting goals for himself and finding the determination to reach them.”