Traditional Scouting 101 – The Challenge of the Wilderness

[N.B. This is the third post in a series on this blog called “Traditional Scouting 101”. It builds logically on the previous articles. If you haven’t read them yet, you can do so here: Part 1, Part 2. Thank you for reading! Please take a moment afterward to leave a short comment with your thoughts on this subject. Also, if you like what you’ve read; please share this article with Scouts and Scouters you know.]

Today, I let my imagination take me back in time to the 29th of July, 1907.

I went back to that humid morning when Baden-Powell and a small group of boys boarded a little motor boat that was to take them a few miles out to a small island called Brownsea. I became one of those boys.

I was well-dressed, of course. My parents made sure of that. I had taken care to comb my hair neatly that morning; I surveyed myself in a mirror with a touch of satisfaction. A nice jacket and hat completed the look. I was off to see Baden-Powell – one of the most famous heroes in Britain! I was chosen to be a part of his special “scout” camp where I’d learn scouting skills directly from him and get to hear first-hand about his dangerous espionage adventures!

As that little boat cut through the waters of the foggy harbor, I couldn’t stop grinning and imaging all the cool stuff I was about to do. I shut my eyes really tightly and opened them again just to make sure I wasn’t dreaming. This was actually happening! In my mind, I saw myself treading silently through the woods sneaking up on an ‘enemy’ encampment. I pictured my brothers and I carefully following the tracks of a ‘spy’ through the soft underbrush in the failing light. I could just hear Baden-Powell giving expert advice explaining how he was able to live out in the woods for days at a time!

Baden-Powell with Scouts at the Brownsea Island Camp
Baden-Powell with Scouts at the Brownsea Island Camp

This imaginative trip got me to thinking: what did Scout camping mean to the first Scouts?

Some subjects just keep growing the more you learn about them. The wilderness is one of these. Many, many books have been written about the outdoors from just about every angle imaginable: practical skills, philosophy, education, religion, etc. But a comprehensive study of all that is beyond the scope of this series. I’m pretty sure you’re already convinced of the benefits of camping: physical exercise, team development, character building, etc.. That’s a good academic discussion. But what really matters to us is: what did the wilderness mean to early Scouts?

In the last post, I talked about how boys really haven’t changed fundamentally. Adventure, danger, independence, character, and manliness are still just as appealing to today’s youth as they were to yesterday’s. Culture can change many things for both positive and negative, but it can never change the basic principles of human nature.

So, with this premise nailed down, we can now build upon it. History makes the next point quite clear: early Scouting got something very right and consequently had a massive impact on countless lives!  So if we can look back and rediscover what the wilderness meant to early Scouts, we can define what real camping looks like and why.

Scouts on a Hike
Scouts on a Hike

There are many discussions out there as to why ‘modern’ camping is done *wrong*, but I think it’s a much more productive approach to rediscover a clear picture of how Scout camping is done *right*! To that end, this post is all about discovering the real underlying vision for Scout camping that was so beneficial and attractive to early Scouts. To start with:

The wilderness presents a challenge to be overcome.

Scouts don’t think about Henry David Thoreau or John Muir when they think about going out into the wilderness. They think about the explorers, pioneers, and the soldiers. Whatever other advantages there are to camping, it’s the challenge that captures the imagination. Spy out an enemy encampment? Absolutely! Discover secret, unmapped places? No question! Cross an impassable river or climb an un-scalable mountain? I’m in!

This was just the spirit of camping that Baden-Powell offered Scouts. At Brownsea Island, the program was full of challenges, hard competitions, and fast-paced games involving a variety of Scout skills. Each night, a Patrol had to go far out to a prearranged spot and set up a bivouac camp under the leadership of their Patrol Leader. Their sentry skills would be put to the test as ‘enemies’ tried to sneak up on them.

Basically, Baden-Powell’s program was the real deal – the same kind of real scout training in woodcraft, observation, and etc that he taught the fresh recruits in the army. Scouting wasn’t just a cheap imitation of cool, real-life stuff. Scouting was scout training! Baden-Powell didn’t ‘dumb-down’ his scout training techniques. On the contrary, he greatly expanded on the scope and application of the training with his unique concept of the ‘peace scout’.

Scouts building a survival shelter
Scouts building a survival shelter

Once Scouting was officially established, new Patrol Leaders were taught how to design quality scout camp programs centered around a particular theme or challenge with games to practice and competitions to test. Scout handbooks and Patrol Leader handbooks provided many ideas and inspiration for different activities, goals, and themes.

These kind of adventurous outings were what defined the Scouting experience. This was what Scouts did, and everything about being a Scout centered around this – being out in the field, facing challenges, and doing stuff. Often, Patrols held their own meetings, hikes, and camps separately from the rest of the Troop. Indoor Troop meetings only existed to handle Troop business and to plan and prepare for the next outing.

As time when on, many urban Scouters started applying these ideas to city fieldwork as well. These activities couldn’t capture all of the value of the ones out in the wilderness, but they followed the same spirit. They weren’t meant to replace the wilderness treks; but they provided a way to do Scouting in between trips to the country. The outdoor trips were the highlight of Scout-work.

To Scouts, camps aren’t just sight-seeing trips, relaxing getaways, or skill-training courses. They are all of these – but first and foremost they are adventures with real challenges.

In the next post, I’m going to discuss how Scouts can recapture this spirit of Scout camping by developing top-notch camp programs and what those look like in real, traditional Scouting.

Scouts Cooking
Scouts Cooking

[N.B. This post was originally going to be 3 times as long. However, when I got to over 3,000 words in writing, I realized I was going to sacrifice quality and readability by trying to fit too much in one post. Instead, I’m breaking up my discussion of the wilderness in traditional Scouting into several articles.

I really hope you find these articles helpful and inspiring! If you do, please take a minute to pass them along to Scouts and Scouters you know. Also, if you haven’t already subscribed, be sure to put your email in the little box in the right-hand sidebar. That way, you won’t miss the next post in this series!

Thank you all for your support of traditional Scouting!]

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1 Comment on "Traditional Scouting 101 – The Challenge of the Wilderness"

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Mick Monk

Fantastic, only just read this one, will get to the others. I tried to run the real stuff for years and to encourage others to do the same, this puts it into words and just must get the message over to those that are running watered down Scouting in today’s world. Well done and Thankyou.