I joined scouts on my 11th birthday. My first campout was three weeks later. I had camped with my family a bunch of times but this was the first time away from them. My best friend, Michael, joined the troop with me and we were tent mates for our first campout. On that first night we nearly got lost – in the hundreds of acres of corn – next to our campsite. We were trying to get back to camp from the creek where we had been fishing and it got real dark. The SPL was with us and he had a good head on his shoulders. He never showed if he was scared or not but he had the brains to know to stay calm. Thank the Lord we saw the campfire reflected off the tree tops a way off so we were able to orient ourselves back to camp. Michael and I had a little 3-man dome tent that we never setup before. We snuck in a bag of sour creme and onion potato chips and a 2 liter of pop (Apple Slice – It was October of 1985) in our tent and ate merrily away trying to keep our munching sounds to a minimum because we both were told not to have food in our tent. 🙂
A scout’s first time out on a troop campout is probably one of the most vivid memories he or she will have for the rest of his or her life. Ask anybody who was a scout. They may not remember much else but they do remember that first campout. Why do you suppose that is? You could get pretty scientific with it and say all the senses are peaked to level 11. You could go with that it was their first time away from home and they built some confidence. Whatever the reason, it’s imprinted on the brain for a very… very long time.
Right now in the United States there are a lot of scouts signing up, transferring or crossing over from Webelos into a brand new troop. For some adults, this is their first time camping and it may be just as big of an experience as what the kids go through. Regardless these next few campouts will make or break it with most. Some scouts and scouters may come back and say “never again!” while others may have just started a scouting journey that will last the rest of their life. We as leaders sometimes forget the impact of the first campout. Here are some things to keep in mind to prep the scout, the scout’s parent(s), and even the troop to have a successful first time campout for new scouts.
- Parents can be more nervous than the scout: For some this may be the first night away from home. That’s nerve racking on most parents, especially if the weather isn’t sunny 100% of the time. If you can keep the parents calm, the scout will be calm… typically.
- The scout and parent won’t be prepared: Your troop should be prepared. The new kid or new adult may not have had any experience camping. Allow for extra time and equipment. Make sure your scouts bring a couple extra disposable ponchos, flashlights, and water bottles to hand out. Your SPL and Patrol Leaders should be ready to “be that scout” to save the day. One day they may forget something. I still forget stuff and I have been doing this for years.
- Set expectations up front: Make sure troop rules are well known and in print (or online) to hand out to parents and scouts before campouts. Typical equipment lists, things to bring and not bring, times for lights out, etc… Facts should be friendly. There should be plenty of time for clarifying questions. Remind your seasoned scouts that they were new once too and someone helped them out so give the new kid some breathing room. Something as simple as that will help make sure the new scout is having fun.
- Be prepared for a lot of questions: As a leader you could be getting a lot of questions before, on and after a campout. Do yourself a favor and write those questions down so you can add it to a “Top Questions Asked” document you can have available. Also… make sure you delegate as many questions to your youth leadership (SPL, Patrol Leaders, etc). They need practice fielding questions and it also gives you a chance to see what the scouts are thinking. It also gives you a chance to see if you need to adjust training.
- Homesickness is brought on by stress: As sure as the sun comes up, if that brand new scout becomes stressed out, homesickness sets in quicker than poison ivy. Spiders in the tent – “I want to go home.” It’s super hot and humid – “I want to call home”. Have some quick activities or games to play to redirect the scout. Again… leverage your youth leadership. Make sure they are planning games or activities and including the scout.
- Good food = Good times: It’s amazing how food will make or break a campout. If you can get the new scout cooking (can be simply stirring a pot of noodles) on the first campout you have given the scout some confidence, kept them active, their contribution is valued, and you had an additional hand in the kitchen. There are plenty of simple meals to make (hint… look at my other posts).
- Keep it simple: If you plan every minute on a campout you are kidding yourself. Plan on a couple easy things to do for those on their first campout. Your SPL and Patrol leaders should be solving this at their monthly Patrol Leaders Council (PLC). You as a leader may need to assist both at the PLC and on the campout because the new scout may get left behind by accident.
- Cabins are a simple fix: Cabins can be a great weekend campout especially when the weather is known to be volatile. They are great for hard core winter or summer activities. Be careful though because according to ScoutsBSA regs, cabins can’t be counted as nights camping for camping merit badge.
- Deliver on promises: Don’t oversell the new scout on what is planned for the next campout. It could have been an incredible weekend BUT… if you didn’t do the one thing mentioned that the scout had his/her heart set on it could be disappointing.
- Knock out at least 1 requirement: There is nothing that builds more confidence in the scout than some success on the first campout. It typically signals that fun was had, the scout learned something and was successful at it. The parent is usually pretty happy and relieved when the scout immediately states “I passed this requirement and I had a lot of fun” when they see each other at the end of the campout weekend.
One thing to remember about those first time campers… As they remember everything about their first campout, they will remember you as their adult leader. To me.. that is pretty cool! Keep it simple and good luck out there scouters!
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The author, Tony Zizak, is a long time scouter, Eagle Scout, and the scoutmaster of Troop 119 Ellettsville, IN. He has been to scout camps across the country and was a certified Program Director, Aquatics Director and a Scoutcraft Director. As a youth Tony received his Vigil Honor and served as a Lodge Chief for Tseyedin Lodge #65. Reach out to him for any questions you may have on this article.