Traditional Scouting 101 – Introduction to the Patrol System

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“What in the world is this ‘Patrol System’?”

When I first seriously started studying Scouting and its history, I kept running across references to something called the “Patrol Method” or “Patrol System”. They weren’t just simply referring to a method of organizing Scouts, which is what I thought Patrols were for at first. They were discussed as if this was something of the utmost importance to Scouting. Frequently, I’d see quotes like this one from Baden-Powell:

“The Patrol System is the key to success in Scout training.”

Reading the works of early Scouting authors, it seemed as if they couldn’t stress enough how important it is for Scouts and Scouters to know what the Patrol System is and how to apply it correctly. However, when I started out in Scouting, I was never taught about the Patrol System or saw good examples of it being carried out in real life. This might be your past experience as well. But when I began to learn what it meant and how to properly put it into practice, I began to have a deeper understanding of Scouting itself than I ever imagined. The times I applied it to my own Patrol as Patrol Leader and to my own Troop as Assistant Scoutmaster, it began to make a noticeable difference!

Baden-Powell was right when he said that you can’t have a real Scout Troop without a real implementation of the Patrol System. The Patrol System is the method by which true Scouting is carried out. Everything in Scouting should be seen through the ‘Patrol lens’. The Patrol is the core unit of Scouting. You can have Scouting with just one Patrol, but you can’t have Scouting with anything less than a Patrol.

If I do nothing else with this website, I want to make the Patrol System common knowledge to Scouters worldwide. Perhaps that is too ambitious of a goal, but I am too excited about this for anything less! So, in this post I’m going to give a ‘nutshell’ introduction to the structure of the Patrol System, the Patrol spirit that is cultivated through this structure, and how this all looks in the different relationships between the players in a Scout Troop. Over the next few articles after this one, I’m going to flesh out each of these topics in more detail.

Let’s look at the basic ‘specs’.

The Patrol is a formal group of around 6-8 Scouts. Each is led by one of their own who has the title and authority of the Patrol Leader. To assist in leadership responsibilities, this Patrol Leader chooses another Scout to be the Assistant Patrol Leader.

The rest of the Scouts in the Patrol have responsibilities and roles assigned by the Patrol Leader according to their natural talents: (e.g. Quartermaster, Scribe, Gamemaster, etc.) These different positions can be changed or replaced over time according to whatever scheme makes the Patrol run more efficiently during all of its activities.

The activities the Patrol comes together to take part in are: Troop meetings, separate Patrol meetings, Troop outings (e.g. service projects, camping trips, etc.), and separate Patrol outings. Having defined times during which the Patrol acts as a unit (both with the rest of the Troop and by itself for separate activities) allows the Patrol to develop it’s own special micro-culture. In addition, since everything the Troop does is done as a collection of Patrols, the Patrols run the Troop representatively through their Patrol Leaders who meet together regularly as the Patrol Leader Council (also referred to as the Court of Honor by some outside of the United States).

How does the Patrol develop Patrol spirit?

The ‘micro-culture’ of a Patrol that I referred to earlier has a special name: the Patrol spirit. The most obvious way Patrol spirit develops is simply when the Patrol spends a lot of time doing activities, facing challenges, and overcoming them together. When they camp as an individual unit, they must depend upon each other for basic life necessities. When they compete with other Patrols in various competitions at the meetings, they have to work as a team if they want to win.

Secondly, Patrols should have visual representations of their values and their unit. Patrol flags, Patrol calls, Patrol signatures, and other symbolic and practical features are the tools by which this is cultivated. In addition, Patrols should have either temporary or permanent locations that they call their own in the form of special Patrol camping sites, Patrol dens, and Patrol corners (for gathering together as a Patrol during the Troop meetings.

Patrol spirit is also caused by the Patrols possessing a real form of autonomy. Obviously, as part of a Troop and possibly a larger organization, they do not have completely free reign. There is higher leadership with certain requirements. However, underneath these structures they should posses a real freedom to shape the Scouting experience for themselves in the way they desire.

Next, Patrol spirit sky-rockets through competitions between different Patrols. This is perhaps one of the methods most deeply-rooted in human nature, and by not utilizing this to the utmost, you are missing one of the most powerful tools of Scouting. There should be friendly competition between Patrols in everything from games to training exercises. The best competitions force every Scout in the Patrol to be constantly engaged in order for the Patrol to win. Although the reward of some competitions may simply be the gratification of victory, there should be other special honors and privileges as well.

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The building blocks of the Patrol System are relationships.

The Patrol structure and the way the Patrol spirit develops creates a handful of distinct relationships between the players in the ‘game of Scouting’. To make the most of the Patrol System, I believe it would be helpful to elaborate on a few of these. In this introduction, I will elaborate on two, saving the rest for a future post in this series.

First of all, because the Patrol Leader’s leadership is genuine, the Scoutmaster relates to him in a special way. The Patrol Leader is given more confidence in communicating Troop matters. The Patrol Leader also gets more direct training from the Scoutmaster in leadership skills. When the Scoutmaster wishes to communicate things to the Patrol members as a group, more often than not he will relay that information through the Patrol Leader. In short, the Patrol Leader’s position is clearly marked by the way the Scoutmaster relates to him.

In like manner, the Patrol Leader also has a special relationship to the members of his Patrol. His position is respected by going to him first in matters related to Scouting instead of going to an authority higher up in the chain of command. His orders are to be followed implicitly if they do not violate a higher authority, and even his requests are given a higher weight. It doesn’t all go one way, though. The Patrol Leader should also be held to a higher standard by the members of his Patrol in the way he practices Scouting. Scouts should expect their Patrol Leader to set a high example of character and work ethic and to constantly put the needs of his Patrol ahead of his own.

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This is the Patrol System in a nutshell.

In this brief overview of the Patrol Method, I stressed how vital the Patrol System is to Scouting. I talked about what a Patrol is: its structure and what it looks like. I explained how it was purposefully designed to grow something called “Patrol spirit”. Finally, I discussed how this system plays itself out in a couple of relationships in the Scout Troop.

I hope this painted a clear, broad picture of what the Patrol System is in Scouting. I want to take each of these subtopics and talk about them in much greater depth in the following posts. In the meantime, I’d love to hear your suggestions, experience, questions, and insights regarding the Patrol System. Many of you have much more experience applying these principles in the real world than I could hope to have. I would be honored to hear what you’ve learned. If you post in the comment section below, it will enable others to read and glean ideas from your experience.

Thank you again for reading this post. If you found it worth anything to you, please take a few minutes to put these concepts in your own words and explain them to at least one other person in the following week. Together, we can spread knowledge of real Scouting via the Patrol System!

As always, you can share this article on social media. And if you want to be notified when I publish a new article here, just put your email address in the little box in the right-hand sidebar of this page. If you do so, you can also download a beautifully-designed ebook of Scouting quotes as a thank you from me for following along with this website and actively supporting traditional Scouting.

Scout on!

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5 Comments on "Traditional Scouting 101 – Introduction to the Patrol System"

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Joe in Malvern
Good stuff. I’m an adult leader of a Cub Scout pack. Cubbing makes sense as preparation for the patrol system. I’m not sure the current BSA headquarters office staff understands the patrol system since their material is designed as a passive classroom model of material to learn and tests to pass, in exchange for various tokens. The real value of scouting is learning to act as an independent team. And another thing: this concept is pretty much how America was governed in the colonial era and early years of the Republic. Substitute “town” for “patrol” and it’s a fair description… Read more »

My father earned his Eagle Award in 1928. When I was chosen by the members of my patrol to be Patrol Leader in 1980, he gave me advice on how to instill Patrol Spirit, something he felt was lacking in our troop. I put his advice into practice and within a year we went from the lowest performing patrol to the top performing patrol in the troop, and consistently placed in the top three during patrol competitions at the district level.
None of us was individually the best at anything, but our Patrol Spirit and teamwork carried us through.

Stu Fischbeck

Hey Enoch – glad to see you’re able to post articles again! I always enjoy and find great value in your material.

Angus Simpson
I’d like to say that I agree with the author on the importance of the patrol method. I have first hand practical experience to show that this works. I am a troop scouter in Ontario, Canada and run my troop this way. I re-started the troop about 18 months ago with two scouts. Now we have three patrols and 16 scouts, with much higher growth than neighbouring troops. This system holds the interest and excitement of the scouts both new and experienced. The older scouts have real responsibility and are challenged and engaged while the younger ones have the opportunity… Read more »

[…] recent Eagle Scout turned blogger Enoch Heise has a wonderful post on the real basics and purpose of the patrol. Not too many months ago (from an adult’s perspective), Enoch was an SPL. Now as newly minted […]