Okay, so you’ve got a brand-new unit with brand-new Scouts. Fun City! But you also have no accumulated assets. No tents, no cooking gear, no water jugs, no axes, no rope barrel, no merit badge books. How will you deliver the program? Well, as the friendly green letters on the cover of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy say, “Don’t panic.”
You don’t have to hold up on the adventure just because you don’t have any stuff, or a wad of cash to buy it. You can start right where you are. You can take kids on an adventure – the Scout Way.
First of all, teach them all the cool stuff about building fires and cooking on them. You don’t need chemical stoves if you’ve got wood or charcoal. For that matter, “utensilless cooking” doesn’t have to be just a stunt or a sign-off for advancement. You can do it for real, and it’s good eating. When I was a boy, my troop hated doing dishes. We all decided to become expert in primitive cooking, so we didn’t have to clean up as much. And since wood fires were what we cooked every meal on, we also learned quickly about soaping the bottom of pans to make them easier to clean.
Not only that, but you can still find plans in old Scout books about how to make your own cooking gear out of tin cans. They are food-grade safe and just as good as the fancy stuff that costs the big bucks. Making your own can be an enjoyable activity in troop meetings.
As for tents, sleeping under the stars (a.k.a. “meadow-crashing”) is still recognized by BSA – and still just as fun as it ever was. For rainy possibilities, you can use cheap ripstop nylon tarps from Walmart for both ground cloth and covering. Not to toot my own troop’s horn, but we boys back in the late ‘60s also didn’t like schlepping around our troop’s tents. All we had were the big ol’ canvas tents with wooden poles. So we bought a bunch of plastic sheeting and created our own shelters to our own designs. To keep from punching holes in plastic that will tear out (there being no grommets to attach lines to), put a coin or pebble in the corner, then scrunch the material around the object. Tie a light line (e.g., binder twine) around the neck thus created using two half hitches, and stretch the other end to a stake. And there you have it. You can make anything you can imagine. You can also use big ol’ army ponchos and show them how to make a Vietnam-era “hooch.”
As you go along, budget some of your unit income for new gear. After a while, budget for gear maintenance and repair. Eventually, you will have all the best stuff you can imagine, though you may still bring out the old primitive stuff just for fun. DO NOT, as I saw one group do in a unit organizing meeting years ago, start out by discussing how to raise money to buy a fershlugginer trailer. Show some self-respect and learn how to camp first, for heaven’s sake.
When it comes time to invest in gear, look for the stuff that will last. Also, look for sales and discounts in places like Campmor and REI. Decide on a design that you like and that has been around a while, so you can buy more later to the same pattern as your unit grows and gear wears out.
Keep in mind, too, that there are two major styles of camping. “Jamboree” camping uses all the heavy stuff and plants itself down as if you were going to stay a week. It takes a lot of space to store and to haul. “Trail” camping emphasizes minimum impact and light weight and is ready to move on an hour’s notice. You may not be taking 11-year-olds backpacking yet, but until you get around to investing in wooden patrol boxes and cast iron cookware, you might make a virtue out of a necessity and emphasize having a light footprint.
Just as your unit starts with no gear, so every kid who joins your unit starts with no gear, unless his family is already a camping lot. Scouting being expensive to start with – registration, uniform, handbook, and dues can be a big bite right off – you need to be able to counsel parents about the minimum needs to go camping.
Good boots are essential for hiking and backpacking. Yes, kids grow, sometimes very fast, so parents may not want to plunk down too much for a pair of feet covers; however, a truly active program will require good footwear.
Backpacks are important, but not so much right off. A good day pack, with a belly belt, is good enough for day hiking; add a duffel bag to hold overnight gear, and you’re ready for anything short of a backpacking trip. When it does come time to buy the first backpack, I always counsel parents to go for an external frame pack. Outdoor stores will always try to steer you to the internal frame packs, because they’re what the cool kids use – and they’re MORE EXPENSIVE. But they’re also more difficult to pack correctly, and you can make yourself miserable carrying an incorrectly-packed internal frame pack. Get a nice, inexpensive youth backpack with a lightweight external frame for that first backpacking trip.
Sleeping bags are kind of essential, too, though teaching kids how to make a bedroll can be fine. (When I go to summer camp to sleep in a cot all week, I usually don’t take a sleeping bag. I prefer sheets and a blanket. It’s more comfortable, and what with the humid Indiana summers, I can still stand to crawl into the same sheets at the end of the week.) A 3-season bag will do for most purposes. Any design will do, though an active troop which will eventually go backpacking will necessitate a stuffable one.
Beyond that, you don’t need much. Eatin’ irons (cup, bowl, spoon) can be cadged from home. A litre-sized soda bottle is as good as a Nalgene water bottle. Lots of stuff can be improvised. I tell parents to look ahead to birthdays and Christmas as opportunities to build up your Scout’s camping gear in a steady way. Grandparents can help in that way, too. The object is to get out there, not fuss over having all the right-looking stuff.
As for uniforms, I’m all for them, even as I recognize that they’re expensive. I always emphasized “full uniforming” (that means pants, too), but I didn’t bludgeon people with it. My most important statement was how I was dressed: I was always in complete and correct uniform, to give the Scouts an example to follow. You can sometimes get old uniform parts from other units or from thrift stores. As your unit goes along, encourage parents to donate shirts and pants and so on to the unit. After they’re cleaned (and sometimes, mended), you can sell them to any kid who needs them for a dollar per piece.
Designing a troop t-shirt for camp wear is also a way of keeping uniforms from wearing out too soon due to hard use. A $10 t-shirt is a lot cheaper than a $40+ uniform shirt, and it doesn’t need patches, either. At campouts and service projects, you all look like you belong together, too.
The bottom line is, don’t obsess over all the stuff you don’t have. Learn to “improvise, adapt, overcome.” Don’t wait until you have all the stuff some other unit has. Learn to have fun right away, and then it will always be fun.
And remember that other old Scout saying:THREE-QUARTERS OF “SCOUTING” IS “OUTING.”
Part 3 will publish Sunday March 17th.
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Art Collins has been in Scouting, man and boy, for over fifty years. He has led many different units and many different programs. As an ordained minister in The United Methodist Church, he has fostered Scouting as ministry in local congregations, as well as at the Conference and General Church level. His current Scouting position is as the International Representative for Hoosier Trails Council and as a member of the Council Executive Board. His current ministry position is Retired.