The History of the Wilderness in Scouting – WoS Pt. 2


Last week, I introduced a new series on Scouting Rediscovered called, “The Wilderness of Scouting.” In this series, I want to explore what the wilderness is and what its role in Scouting is. I would also like to explore how technology fits into that picture.

Screenshot from 2013-05-22 04:35:28To start out with, it is very important to have a good understanding of what is meant by “the wilderness”. Just about everyone knows that camping and outdoor activities have been held in very high regard throughout Scouting’s history. But as time went on, people in Scouting started to get different pictures of what this looks like. To some, camping in the wilderness is hiking into camp, cooking over a fire, and getting along without any comforts of civilization. To others, there is no need to take such an extreme minimalism. As backpacking and camping have grown in popularity, there are numerous gadgets and high tech equipment that make camping in comfort a lot easier.

So how did there get to be such a diverse view of what camping in the wilderness looks like? Well, one explanation could be in the origin of camping as a recreation. Originally, camping was something that was mainly limited to either soldiers or wilderness explorers. While they used whatever equipment they could to further their goals, technology hadn’t advanced to the point of being able to specially aid them in making camping easier.

Scout Camp87As time went on and the explorers of the human race continued to push into more hostile environments where unexplored territory remained, 20th century technology caught up and was able to aid them. For example: synthetic apparel and portable gas powered stoves came into use. However, there was also a new and growing portion of the population (Boy Scouts among them) who saw various benefits of backwoods camping and started to turn it into a recreational activity. The technological advancements that aided the ‘authentic’ explorers could now be profitably marketed to the average consumer.

Many (if not most) recreational campers readily adopted these improvements to the comfort and enjoyableness of their hobby. Some others, however, began to contend that these “improvements” actually lessened the benefits of the outdoor camps. These “traditionalists” for the most part became the minority. But one group that was slow to change was the Boy Scouts. It was here that the traditional mode of camping was preserved.

That is… until the 1970s. A top-down modernization was implemented in the BSA. Along with many other changes aimed at making Scouting more relevant and modern, Camping itself was no longer required to earn Eagle. However, the decisions of a few didn’t change the mindset of the many. Between 1972 and 1978 the BSA lost over one third of its membership.

Screenshot from 2013-05-22 04:41:42Things were definitely not looking bright for the BSA unless they turned things around quickly. So a veteran and respected Scouting traditionalist, William Hillcourt, came out of retirement and single-handedly rewrote the entire Boy Scout Handbook. Many of you might recognize his pen name: “Green Bar Bill”. Along with his work on earlier Scoutmaster handbooks, Mr. Hillcourt was probably most well known for his frequent contributions to the “Boys’ Life” Magazine.Screenshot from 2013-05-22 04:35:49

Mr. Hillcourt was a personal friend of the late Baden-Powell and in the new edition of the handbook, he brought back many of the traditional requirements and spirit of the original handbooks. Back came all of the traditional backcountry skills as requirements.

It is certain that many, many Scouts and Scouters found something so important in traditional camping that it was worth it to them to divide over the issue. At any rate, it is very fortunate for us all that things did not continue the downward trend. Once these traditional aspects were returned, Scouting started to grow again and continued to do so until today.

Scout Camp54Now today, the vast majority will acknowledge the general benefit of keeping Camping in the Scouting program. However, we still have the controversy as to what that camping should like like. Traditionalists will argue that added comforts and other ways of ‘watering it down’ will greatly decrease the benefits of camping in Scouting. How do we know if they are right?

Well, in order to know what camping should look like, we need to know very specifically and clearly what exactly is the benefit of camping in Scouting. What is so beneficial about bivouacking in the woods that it was worth it to thousands of Scouts and Scouters to divide over the issue?

That is what I intend to cover thoroughly in the next post of this series!


I hope you enjoyed this post! And I definitely hope you will hang around to hear the next part of this series. This is an issue that is very important to the long-term survival of Scouting, and I would love it if you would explore this topic a little more deeply with me! Do you have any thoughts or comments? Please leave them in the comment box below!

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2 Comments on "The History of the Wilderness in Scouting – WoS Pt. 2"

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Mark West

I think one of the biggest problems facing today is our obsessive concern about safety/risk management. This obsessive concern has only further served to eliminate traditional camping and wilderness methods. Eliminating the fun of Scouting by restricting who can use which wood tools, restricting the use of a pocket knife to older Scouts, not letting boys rough-house, not letting boys run around, and finally most importantly not allowing our Scouts to get dirty and come home dirty.


Mark West says it all. Certainly it’s killed it in the UK.
But much of it is perceived and not really required. Look carefully and you will find you can still run most of the original methods and ways.