2021 merit badge rankings: Return of summer camps shuffles the list again

A Scout is resilient. So, too, are the summer camps where they love to spend their time.

After the pandemic forced most summer camps to temporarily shut their gates in 2020, these beloved Scouting destinations returned in full force in 2021.

For proof, just look to the annual merit badge rankings, where a number of summer camp staples reclaimed their positions high on the list.

In our 2020 rankings, we tracked a rise in the popularity of merit badges that could be earned at home. The top five from 2020 tell a fascinating story: Family LifeCitizenship in the NationCitizenship in the World, Citizenship in the Community and Personal Management.

But in 2021, the top five shuffled again as summer camp favorites like Swimming, First Aid and Environmental Science bounced back in a big way.

Speaking of reshuffling, we had a new No. 1 in 2021: Swimming. Fans of that merit badge are doing backflips today because their favorite badge is No. 1 for the first time since we started tracking merit badge rankings in 2009. Before 2021, only three merit badges had ever taken the top spot: First Aid, Cooking and Family Life.

And 2021 saw even more merit badge history: For the first time since at least 2009, a merit badge that is not Eagle-required has found its way into the top 10. And not just one — two elective merit badges made the list. Find out which ones below.

The actual top 10

In most years, all 10 merit badges in the top 10 have something in common: they’re required to earn the Eagle Scout Award, Scouts BSA’s highest honor.

That makes sense. These are the badges the BSA has deemed essential to a Scout’s journey, and so most Scouts and troops incorporate them into their plans for the year.

But things changed in 2021. For the first time ever, we saw an elective merit badge in the top 10. Actually, we saw two: Rifle Shooting and Archery.

2021 Rank Merit Badge
1 Swimming
2 First Aid
3 Environmental Science
4 Camping
5 Citizenship in the World
6 Cooking
7 Communication
8 Rifle Shooting
9 Personal Fitness
10 Archery

The alternative top 10

Just for fun, let’s remove Eagle-required badges from the list and look at our “alternative” top 10. This will tell us which badges Scouts choose most from the 100-plus options that remain.

Alternative Rank Merit Badge Actual 2021 Rank
1 Rifle Shooting 8
2 Archery 10
3 Fingerprinting 12
4 Leatherwork 13
5 Kayaking 14
6 Wood Carving 19
7 Fishing 20
8 Chess 21
9 Wilderness Survival 22
10 Canoeing 23

The bottom 10

Each year, we publish a list of the 10 least-earned merit badges. Our intent is not to criticize but to challenge Scouts to earn these rarest badges.

That’s a challenge for you Scouters, too. If you see a badge on this list that you might be qualified to lead, contact your local council about becoming a merit badge counselor.

2021 Rank Merit Badge
128 Truck Transportation
129 Veterinary Medicine
130 Journalism
131 Dentistry
132 Composite Materials
133 Stamp Collecting
134 American Labor
135 Surveying
136 Drafting
137 Bugling

The ups and downs

Which merit badges bounced back in full force in 2021? Which saw their fortunes fall? Check out the top 10 gains and losses from 2020 to 2021.

Top 10 gains

2021 Rank Merit Badge 2020 Rank Difference
38 Small Boat Sailing 98 +60
51 Pottery 101 +50
35 Metalwork 80 +45
62 Motor Boating 107 +45
53 Sculpture 96 +43
72 Rowing 113 +41
26 Shotgun Shooting 63 +37
46 Forestry 81 +35
49 Search and Rescue 84 +35
42 Horsemanship 73 +31

Wow, the winds of change have hit Small Boat Sailing. Well done, Scouts!

You’ll find all 10 of those merit badges at many council summer camps.

Top 10 drops

2021 Rank Merit Badge 2020 Rank Difference
104 Safety 50 -54
105 Genealogy 54 -51
90 Scholarship 41 -49
118 American Business 71 -47
68 Digital Technology 29 -39
69 Pets 32 -37
82 American Heritage 46 -36
91 Law 56 -35
54 Public Health 20 -34
81 Collections 48 -33

The trend here: Most of these merit badges are ones Scouts can earn more easily at home.

We should also point out that seven of these 10 badges — all but Digital Technology, American Heritage and Law — were on the 2020 list of top 10 gains. That means we likely can attribute their one-year spike to changes in earning behavior during the pandemic.

Public Health is one dramatic example of this. It was ranked:

  • 120th in 2019
  • 20th in 2020
  • 54th in 2021

A similar pattern happened with Safety:

  • 105th in 2019
  • 50th in 2020
  • 104th in 2021

The complete 2021 rankings

Blue means a merit badge is required for Eagle.

A total of 21 merit badges must be earned for the Eagle Scout rank, including these 13 merit badges:

  1. First Aid
  2. Citizenship in the Community
  3. Citizenship in the Nation
  4. Citizenship in the World
  5. Communication
  6. Cooking
  7. Personal Fitness
  8. Emergency Preparedness OR Lifesaving
  9. Environmental Science OR Sustainability
  10. Personal Management
  11. Swimming OR Hiking OR Cycling
  12. Camping
  13. Family Life
2021 Rank Merit Badge 2020 Rank Difference
1 Swimming 13 12
2 First Aid 9 7
3 Environmental Science 12 9
4 Camping 10 6
5 Citizenship in the World 3 -2
6 Cooking 8 2
7 Communication 7 0
8 Rifle Shooting 22 14
9 Personal Fitness 6 -3
10 Archery 24 14
11 Citizenship in the Nation 2 -9
12 Fingerprinting 14 2
13 Leatherwork 23 10
14 Kayaking 21 7
15 Citizenship in the Community 4 -11
16 Family Life 1 -15
17 Personal Management 5 -12
18 Emergency Preparedness 11 -7
19 Wood Carving 27 8
20 Fishing 17 -3
21 Chess 15 -6
22 Wilderness Survival 19 -3
23 Canoeing 26 3
24 Art 16 -8
25 Space Exploration 30 5
26 Shotgun Shooting 63 37
27 Mammal Study 35 8
28 Climbing 43 15
29 Lifesaving 58 29
30 Astronomy 39 9
31 Geology 38 7
32 Nature 53 21
33 Photography 18 -15
34 Basketry 40 6
35 Metalwork 80 45
36 Indian Lore 42 6
37 Game Design 37 0
38 Small Boat Sailing 98 60
39 Pioneering 52 13
40 Weather 28 -12
41 Geocaching 59 18
42 Horsemanship 73 31
43 Robotics 66 23
44 Welding 74 30
45 Orienteering 67 22
46 Forestry 81 35
47 Fish & Wildlife Management 72 25
48 Aviation 33 -15
49 Search and Rescue 84 35
50 Automotive Maintenance 45 -5
51 Pottery 101 50
52 Engineering 36 -16
53 Sculpture 96 43
54 Public Health 20 -34
55 Fire Safety 34 -21
56 Music 25 -31
57 Signs, Signals, and Codes 76 19
58 Chemistry 44 -14
59 Animation 78 19
60 Hiking 55 -5
61 Sustainability 31 -30
62 Motor Boating 107 45
63 Oceanography 79 16
64 Soil and Water Conservation 70 6
65 Scouting Heritage 47 -18
66 Moviemaking 60 -6
67 Electricity 51 -16
68 Digital Technology 29 -39
69 Pets 32 -37
70 Pulp and Paper 86 16
71 Reptile and Amphibian Study 91 20
72 Rowing 113 41
73 Bird Study 87 14
74 Disabilities Awareness 49 -25
75 Cycling 68 -7
76 Archaeology 106 30
77 Traffic Safety 61 -16
78 Snow Sports 57 -21
79 Public Speaking 65 -14
80 Electronics 85 5
81 Collections 48 -33
82 American Heritage 46 -36
83 Salesmanship 69 -14
84 Woodwork 99 15
85 Nuclear Science 92 7
86 Crime Prevention 64 -22
87 Painting 97 10
88 Animal Science 103 15
89 Railroading 83 -6
90 Scholarship 41 -49
91 Law 56 -35
92 Reading 62 -30
93 Coin Collecting 75 -18
94 Fly Fishing 109 15
95 Backpacking 122 27
96 Sports 89 -7
97 Architecture 105 8
98 Radio 90 -8
99 Insect Study 119 20
100 Programming 77 -23
101 Entrepreneurship 94 -7
102 Mining in Society 88 -14
103 Plumbing 104 1
104 Safety 50 -54
105 Genealogy 54 -51
106 Graphic Arts 111 5
107 Dog Care 82 -25
108 Exploration 127 19
109 Home Repairs 93 -16
110 Textile 115 5
111 Inventing 118 7
112 Farm Mechanics 128 16
113 American Cultures 100 -13
114 Medicine 95 -19
115 Golf 110 -5
116 Whitewater 126 10
117 Gardening 102 -15
118 American Business 71 -47
119 Plant Science 121 2
120 Skating 120 0
121 Scuba Diving 131 10
122 Model Design and Building 130 8
123 Athletics 124 1
124 Water Sports 133 9
125 Landscape Architecture 129 4
126 Theater 123 -3
127 Energy 112 -15
128 Truck Transportation 114 -14
129 Veterinary Medicine 108 -21
130 Journalism 125 -5
131 Dentistry 116 -15
132 Composite Materials 135 3
133 Stamp Collecting 132 -1
134 American Labor 117 -17
135 Surveying 136 1
136 Drafting 134 -2
137 Bugling 137 0

Special thanks

Thanks to the BSA’s Garfield Murden for supplying this year’s rankings!

About Bryan Wendell 3283 Articles
Bryan Wendell, an Eagle Scout, is the founder of Bryan on Scouting and a contributing writer.