Keep your older Scouts engaged by safely increasing the intensity of their outdoor experiences

Photo by W. Garth Dowling

Your Scouts have been hiking. They’ve been to day camp. They’ve likely been on weekend campouts, and many of them might have been to summer camp.

All of these are great, fun activities for Scouts who are just getting used to being outdoors. At some point, though, they’re going to be ready for more.

So … what’s next?

The key is to keep pushing the limits of your Scouts while continuing to minimize risk. (Good luck getting your Scouts to go out again if, the first time they try something new, they have a miserable experience.)

Consider these five options for upping your outdoor game, and most definitely consult the BSA’s SAFE Checklist while doing so.

Backpacking with overnights in the backcountry

Backpacking is the natural next step once Scouts have mastered hiking and weekend camping. What is backpacking if not an extended hike while carrying all the gear you need for camping?

Technically, backpacking is open to Scouts BSA members of all ages (as well as Venturers and Sea Scouts). However, not all brand-new 11-year-old Scouts are built the same.

When planning an entry-level backpacking trek, consider the fitness and experience levels of all participants. It’s not just about mileage. A few hours walking even a short distance uphill can be difficult for first timers.

Take elevation into account as well. A trek at altitude is a completely different experience than a trek closer to sea level. (For more on high-altitude adventures, read the mountaineering section later in this story.)

Conduct practice hikes months in advance — complete with loaded backpacks — and slowly increase the intensity. Encourage any Scout who isn’t involved in a personal fitness program to start one right away.

Interested in a truly epic backpacking trek? Try Philmont Scout Ranch.

A backpacking trip requires planning. Anticipating trail conditions, travel distances and campsite locations will help you and your group put together a plan that is right for the conditions you will face. (Photo by W. Garth Dowling)

Bike treks with multiple overnights

Most of your Scouts probably already know how to ride a bike. A cycling trek — also known as “touring” — is a great way to cover more ground than you could on foot.

Cycling on the road requires you to master certain skills and maneuvers.

If you aren’t an experienced cyclist yourself, local bike clubs can be a great resource. They exist to encourage and promote biking, so take advantage of them. They might even have trips already in the works that you can join.

Start organizing short rides months before your trek and increase your mileage each time.

It’s very difficult to carry all your camping gear on your bike, so consider recruiting some responsible adults to man support vehicles to carry gear, food, water and supplies to repair flat tires and other breakdowns.

Just like you wouldn’t go backpacking without a map, don’t embark on a cycling trek without a cue sheet that contains turn-by-turn instructions — along with mileage, landmarks and other useful information. Even though you’ll be traveling in a group (or multiple groups), every cyclist should carry one.

Cycling on the road requires you to master certain skills and maneuvers. (Photo by Timothy Fadek)

Canoe, kayak or raft treks

Paddling down one of America’s great rivers is another wonderful way to catch some gorgeous scenery. The challenge here is often with the vessels themselves — very few Scout leaders own a fleet of canoes just waiting for their troop to take them out.

However, your local Scout camp might have a lake with canoes or kayaks available for Scouts to use. This is a good way to practice paddling and get rookies used to the process.

Eventually, you’ll probably have to work with an outfitter or a Scout council to go on a multiday trek. Start fundraising now.

Make sure every Scout going on one of these treks is a strong swimmer. You might not plan on swimming, but someone will probably end up in the water. It’s part of what makes these adventures so fun — and also why everyone always wears a life jacket.

(When it comes to whitewater activities, a life jacket and a helmet are your most important pieces of safety equipment.)

Make sure your outfitter understands and complies with the Guide to Safe Scouting and BSA Safety Afloat. Scouts must wear helmets on rapids rated Class II and higher, even if your outfitter doesn’t require them. (And if your outfitter doesn’t require them, you should seriously consider getting a different outfitter.)

Unit trips on whitewater sections of rivers rated Class IV are allowed only with a professionally trained guide in each raft. Trips above Class IV are prohibited.

Interested in some truly epic whitewater experiences? Try The Summit Bechtel Reserve. Is canoeing more you style? Northern Tier has treks for you.

When it comes to whitewater activities, a life jacket and a helmet are your most important pieces of safety equipment. (Photo by Celin Serbo)


Once you’ve mastered backpacking, consider mountaineering. BSA-approved mountain travel falls somewhere between backpacking on a trail and technical mountaineering, which often involves glacier travel and ascents requiring the use of ropes, anchors and technical expertise. (The latter is possible, too, but requires supervision by multiple adults with advanced training.)

Mountaineering may require the skills of route finding, wilderness camping, and ascending snow and ice.

Standard mountain travel may include nights of camping at high elevations. It draws on a mastery of backpacking, wilderness navigation and risk management. Most of all, it demands maturity and good judgment.

Researching a mountain trip before leaving home will give you a sense of the lay of the land. You can then figure out the hiking trails that will lead you to your destination and to designated sites where you can camp along the way.

Strenuous activity at high elevation is very, very serious business. You — and everyone else on the trek — absolutely must be in top physical condition and also able to recognize the signs of acute mountain sickness, high-altitude cerebral edema and high-altitude pulmonary edema. BSA wilderness first-aid training is recommended.

Mountaineering may require the skills of route finding, wilderness camping, and ascending snow and ice. (Photo by Beth Wald)

Ski touring for multiple days and nights carrying gear

Perhaps you’ve seen a good cross-country skier skimming over the snow. The traveler kicks forward on one ski, glides on it a moment, then kicks the other ski ahead. One motion flows into the next, and soon the skier is out of sight.

Cross-country skiing is one of the most aerobically demanding sports you can participate in and requires at least the same level of physical fitness as hiking.

It probably won’t surprise you that it might not be that easy for everyone. If your Scouts have some experience on skis, that’s great. Even if they do, lessons from an expert on cross-country skiing will definitely help. A smooth, efficient technique makes cross-country skiing a blast. Poor technique results in tired and possibly injured Scouts.

Like canoes and kayaks and rafts, it’s doubtful anyone in your unit owns enough ski equipment for the whole troop to use. Rent some and get used to it on short day trips. Once the Scouts get acclimated, you can start to explore the possibility of longer treks.

Keep in mind that extended travel in the backcountry on skis requires some additional considerations and preparation. You’ll want to practice carrying a pack, going uphill and downhill, and everything in between. You’ll want to practice on established trails and in fresh powder.

Hut-to-hut ski treks are great. You get the experience of trekking across the snow during the day combined with the luxury of spending the night in a shelter.

Northern Tier offers some of the best cold-weather treks in Scouting.

Cross-country skiing is one of the most aerobically demanding sports you can participate in and requires at least the same level of physical fitness as hiking. (Photo by Trevor Clark)

What not to do

We appreciate you wanting to try something new with your Scouts. We like the idea of thinking outside the box. We really do. Just don’t think too far outside the box.

Extreme or action sports and associated activities that involve an unusually high degree of risk and often involve speed, height, a high level of exertion and specialized gear or equipment are not allowed in Scouting. These activities include but are not limited to:

  • Parkour
  • Cliff diving or jumping
  • Tree climbing
  • Free or solo climbing
  • Aerobatics while snowboarding, skiing, wakeboarding or mountain biking
  • Parachuting, BASE jumping or wingsuiting
  • Parasailing or any activity in which a person is carried aloft by a parachute, parasail, kite, flying tube or other device
  • Participation in amateur or professional rodeo events, council or district sponsorship of rodeos, and use of mechanized bulls or similar devices
  • Jumping with bungee-cord devices
  • Bubbleball, Knockerball, zorbing, Battle Balls, bubble soccer, bubble football, and similar orb activities in which participants collide or roll around on land or water
  • Flyboarding/jet-boarding
  • Highlining
  • Trampolines and trampoline parks (exception: commercial facilities that meet or exceed current ASTM Standard F2970-15)

Before planning any outdoor adventure, always review the Guide to Safe Scouting, and specifically the Activity Planning and Risk Assessment section.

One more thing: Plan your adventure

The BSA’s Adventure Plan is a tool to guide unit leaders — Cub Scouts, Scouts BSA, Venturers and Sea Scouts — through all stages of adventure planning. Also, be sure and check the BSA’s SAFE Checklist: Supervision, Assessment, Fitness and skill, and Equipment and environment.

About Aaron Derr 466 Articles
Aaron Derr is the senior editor of Scout Life and Scouting magazines, and also a former Cubmaster and Scouts BSA volunteer.