BSA’s Wood Badge course turns 75, remains as relevant as ever

Scout leaders go over their lesson for the day during Wood Badge training. Photo by Michael Roytek

In more than 20 years of writing about the BSA, I’ve heard participants claim the “pinnacle” of their youth experience as anything from earning the rank of Eagle to taking a trip to a high-adventure base or even spending a week at summer camp with their friends.

But when it comes to the adult Scouting experience, there’s only one pinnacle: Wood Badge.

Wood Badge is an advanced leadership training course open to Scouting volunteers and participants ages 18 and older. Leaders from Cub Scouting, Scouts BSA, Venturing, Sea Scouts and Explorers all have something to gain from Wood Badge.

“If you ever thought about Wood Badge, I would suggest don’t wait,” says Renee Estrella-Wells, a 2017 participant. “Take it as soon as you can. I have made friends that I am sure will be lifelong friendships. I have learned many new tools that I can apply in my life, family, work and Scouts. … It truly is a life-changing experience.”

What is Wood Badge?

Most councils offer a Wood Badge course at least once per year, either over two weekends or over consecutive days during one week. Participants are divided into patrols and learn how to better handle leadership skills such as listening, managing conflict, leading change, mentoring and project planning.

Participants leave with “tickets” — long-term projects designed to help them realize their personal vision of their role in Scouting. For example, one of the tickets might be to grow Scouting in some way or to encourage other leaders to take Wood Badge themselves.

Photo by Michael Roytek

How did Wood Badge begin?

The first Wood Badge course ever was held at Gilwell Park in England in 1919. It lasted nearly two weeks, and the participants experienced a course devised by Scouting founder Robert Baden-Powell.

Much of the course involved learning practical Scouting skills, such as patrol jobs, ceremonies, flag courtesy, campcraft, pioneering, nature lore, signs and signals, Scout games, compass work, map making and drawing. Participants also took an eight-hour hike in the forest under “sealed orders” — meaning they didn’t learn of the destination until the hike began.

Like today’s course, the 1919 version included two parts: the in-person training and the application of the training in your home unit. Participant John Wilkinson, for example, went on to help develop Scouting in Ireland and Albania.

When did Wood Badge come to the United States?

Seventy-five years ago!

Wood Badge finally made it to the U.S. in 1948. Author Kenneth Davis wrote extensively about the BSA’s adoption of the Wood Badge program in his book, A History of Wood Badge in the United States.

After thriving overseas for decades, it took a Baden-Powell visit to Schiff Scout Reservation in New Jersey in 1935 to sow the seeds for American Wood Badge. Baden-Powell remarked that the 470-acre Scout camp — more than eight times larger than Gilwell Park — would make a great location for an American version of the course.

The first U.S. Wood Badge course was held at Schiff in July and August 1948. The course director and Scoutmaster was William “Green Bar Bill” Hillcourt, known as the “Scoutmaster to the World.”

Has Wood Badge changed since then?

Yes!

The Wood Badge program has evolved over the years, including an update in 2020 designed to make it more streamlined and accessible.

“The new course creates a warmer, friendlier, more inclusive and welcoming environment for participants,” says Randy Cline, an Eagle Scout, Silver Buffalo recipient (2009), and a nearly 50-year Scouting volunteer from Mechanicsburg, Pa., who chaired the Wood Badge Update Task Force. “It should attract more participants.”

Photo by Michael Roytek

But, what can Wood Badge do for me?

To this day, Wood Badge remains the highest level of Scout leader training available.

But don’t take it from me. Take it from Scouters who have experienced the course for themselves.

“You will find things about yourself you never knew before,” says one.

“So much takeaway that you will be able to use in the future not only in Scouting but in everyday life,” says another.

“Wood Badge changed my life to the point that I made significant changes in order to support my personal vision and Scouting plan,” says one participant who works for a company that itself specializes in workplace training. “I gained self-confidence, realized untapped skills and became a better person.”


About Aaron Derr 454 Articles
Aaron Derr is the senior editor of Scout Life and Scouting magazines, and also a former Cubmaster and Scouts BSA volunteer.