Merit Badge History: Snowboarders carve their name into BSA lore with Snow Sports merit badge

Scouts from Troop 187 of Breckenridge, Colo., grab some air. (Photo by Trevor Clark)

Snowboarding has been carving out its place on the powder ever since 1965, when a Michigan engineer fastened two skis together for his daughters and forever gave the world a new way to travel downhill.

While alpine skiing had been an Olympic sport since 1936, snowboarding wouldn’t join the Winter Games until 1998 — 62 years later.

As the world watched snowboarding blast onto the scene in Nagano, Japan, Don McChesney surely must have been smiling. For years, McChesney, then the director of the BSA’s Boy Scout Division, had been receiving letters from Scouts and Scouters about snowboarding.

The crux of these letters: “Why isn’t there a merit badge for it?”

“We shared these letters with members of the national advancement committee, and they took serious note of it,” McChesney told Scouting magazine in 2001.

The BSA had offered the Skiing merit badge since 1938, with Scouts able to complete the requirements through either downhill (alpine) or cross-country (nordic) skiing.

But snowboarding? No such recognition was available. That is, until the introduction of the Snow Sports merit badge in January 1999. The badge, which replaced the Skiing merit badge, could be earned in one of three ways: downhill skiing, cross-country skiing and snowboarding. (Snowshoeing was added as a fourth option in 2016.) 

Let’s pause here for one moment to point out that the Snow Sports merit badge slid onto the scene in 1999 — just one year after the sport’s Winter Olympics debut in Nagano. 

And the Skiing merit badge snowplowed into the BSA’s offerings in 1938 — just two years after downhill skiing became a sport in the Winter Olympics.

These two badges, each released at the pinnacle of their sport’s popularity, demonstrate how the BSA responds to the times. Even as our movement upholds the timeless values that families appreciate, we still adapt to the ever-evolving needs and interests of modern young people. 

Photo by Trevor Clark

Calling on the experts

When the BSA debuts a new merit badge — or revamps an existing one — they turn to the experts. 

In the case of the Snow Sports merit badge, these experts were professional snowboarders Brandon Bills, Mark Edlund and Lane Clegg. They helped BSA volunteers and professionals come up with requirements like this one, which is requirement H today: “On a moderate slope, demonstrate an Ollie, a nose-end grab, and a wheelie.”

These experts’ hard work paid off with a badge that Scouts enjoy each winter. 

More than 5,000 young people earned the badge in its inaugural year of 1999. In the years since, about 7,000 Scouts per year earn the Snow Sports merit badge.

According to the pandemic-altered merit badge numbers from 2020, Snow Sports MB ranks 57th out of the 137 available merit badges. Not bad for a badge most Scouts can only earn during three months of the year — if they have access to snow at all.

Photo by Trevor Clark

‘Move over, skiing’

The headline in the January-February 1989 issue of Scouting magazine is intentionally incendiary: “Move Over Skiing, Snowboarding Is Winter’s New King of the Hill.”

The story tells of an Explorer post trying “winter’s newest recreational sport.” A decade before the Snow Sports merit badge and nine years before the Nagano Olympics, Scouting magazine told how “snowboarding is now so rad that 200,000 people from Vermont to California are hooked on the nation’s fastest-growing sport.”

Rad, indeed.

The article explains how someone rides one of these snowboards: feet perpendicular to the board with the shoulders leaning forward. And it explains that snowboarding, once considered “merely a fad” is “here to stay.” 

With a merit badge for snowboarding — developed thanks to some particularly vocal snowboarding Scouts — young people can carve out a fun outdoor hobby they can enjoy for life.

Scouts snowshoe on Mount Hood in Oregon. (Photo by Michael Hanson)

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About Bryan Wendell 3281 Articles
Bryan Wendell, an Eagle Scout, is the founder of Bryan on Scouting and a contributing writer.