Scout Snow Camping Requiem?

Snow camping is the most unforgettable of all outings. Scouts carry a pack into the backcountry on huge snow shoes. They spend the entire day digging a snow cave big enough for their sleeping bags. Then they cook and eat in an icy kitchen area and if they are lucky, there is a full moon so everyone can take a hike after dinner and experience the eerie sights and absolute silence of a winter’s night in the mountains. It is the hardest outing of the year. However, the difficulty and the anticipation, not to mention the otherworldliness of camping in a wintery wilderness, also make it the most memorable. For many Scouts, their first night spent in a snow cave is a defining moment – and the tipping point between boyhood and manliness.

That’s why it is so distressing to think that snow camping for local Scouts may soon be a thing of the past.

Avi and Kam building a snow cave
Will their little brothers have the chance to build a snow cave?

This week at Roundtable there was a training session about winter camping. The goal was to provide an easy first step for Troops who were thinking about camping in the snow and needed help getting started. About 20 leaders showed up and the interaction was good. The majority of attendees had a lot of experience with winter camping, and the few neophytes in the room got a ton of information and insights into planning and executing a safe and fun winter outing. Everything was great, until we got to the Q&A at the end and a hand went up in the back.

A veteran Scouter and experienced snow camper asked, “I was just wondering how other units handled adult recruitment,” he started. “Seems like we have been having a harder and harder time getting adults to go snow camping with us. And of course, if we don’t have enough adults to drive and help mentor the Scouts, we can’t go.” This remark set off a chain reaction of comments among the experienced leaders in the room, who all admitted they were having the same problem. One unit had cancelled their snow camping outing last year because there weren’t enough trained adults. Another said they had to beg Troop alumni to come back and camp with them, even offering bribes like restaurant gift certificates and money for gasoline. A third acknowledged that they had 20 boys ready to go this year, but only two adults and they didn’t know how they were going to handle it safely.

Mitchell Snow Camping
Drinking hot chocolate during high adventure snow camping

It’s a much discussed problem. As older, experienced outdoor leaders move on or get pushed out of Scouting, they need to be replaced. However, younger men in the program are less interested in high adventure activities that require expensive equipment, time consuming training and conditioning, risk management skills, and personal deprivation. So, as Troops cancel their snow camping outings for lack of trained leaders, the younger Scouts are unable to repeat the most exciting and empowering adventures of their older brothers. This is a growing problem.

Is there a solution? Possibly. What do you think? Can we continue to enable young men to experience the sights and sounds of a winter morning after crawling out of their snow cave – or is it OK to replace high adventure outings like snow camping with easier activities like car camping in Yosemite.
Please leave a comment and, especially, a suggestion of how to address this issue.

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10 thoughts on “Scout Snow Camping Requiem?”

  1. One thing that comes up is that snow camping means different things to different people. For some Troops, it is basically car camping in the snow. For others it includes a hike on snow shoes with all their equipment to find a location where snow caves can be dug. So maybe there isn’t just one answer to this problem.

  2. It seem to me that “requiem” perhaps overstates the issue. My belief is that the more things change, the more they stay the same. Getting adults to support snow camping has always been difficult – but rewarding too!

    Historically, our Troop had difficulty recruiting adults for snow camping largely because it was incrementally difficult compared to backpacking (which is more difficult than car camping!). Further, the training to be qualified to lead a snow camp outing was more difficult and often occurred toward the end of a typical adult tenure in the troop. (Interested adults would typically do basic training in their first year or two, then basic backpacking (& Core) often the following year, then OKPIK in a subsequent year. The net result was a small cadre of qualified, trained volunteers. For a while, I was the only OKPIK trained adult in our Troop so my health and work schedule governed whether we’d have a snow outing. While we always had a few “first timer” volunteers – often curious thrill seekers – it felt like pulling teeth to get a back-up leader largely because of the time commitment for training. Yes, we’d bring back alumni to help as well.

    I should acknowledge that on more than a few occasions Keith volunteered to come with our Troop on weekend snow outings in addition to his duties as OKPIK chair. His knowledge and enthusiasm provided a crucial spark within the Troop that made snow camping one of the favorites among our Scouts – and adults too! I can recall going from five Scouts to 20-25 in subsequent years.

    As to personal equipment, my experience was that those interested would somehow beg, borrow or otherwise obtain the necessary, specialized personal gear (sometimes a borrowed ski suit!) but that was rarely the constraining factor in my experience. Some of my stuff came from off season yard sales at Tahoe!

    As to group gear, again this has always been a challenge. In the past we were fortunate to have the pooled resource provided by Gene Livingston. Gene’s garage and side shed had dozens of pair of snowshoes, sleds, tents, and stoves available for any Troop to check-out. Troops generally paid Gene a nominal fee which he used to maintain the equipment stock. Gene was unusually dedicated and his entire garage was taken-up by the stash. This is a lesson that should be remembered by anyone contemplating the establishment of a pool of equipment. Anyway, after Gene’s untimely death, his son managed to turn over the snow equipment stash to another individual to manage. I am told that this resource is still available, but do not know the contact details.

    So I come back to my first point, that by its nature snow camping remains difficult and challenging but at the same time quite rewarding. The more things change, the more they stay the same….

  3. Snow Camping is a truly unique experience for people who grow up in places like the Bay Area and don’t have any life basis to understand what “living” in the snow is like. There is nothing like the total silence as dark comes on, and you move into your cave for the night. It at that point you realize your conmfort is completely defined by how well you built your own shelter. That’s personal responsibility at a very real level.

    It’s tough to get Adults to want to go unless they already love being in the wilderness. If they love it in the summer, then it’s not that big a leap to talk them into a new experience in the winter. Although ways to remove barriers like equipment costs would help. I think snow camping participation is built up in the summer for most.

  4. The first step in getting adults to go snow camping is the same as getting scouts to go, and that’s getting them into backpacking. With some basic backpacking experience snow camping becomes much more enjoyable, and it’s easier to “convince” an adult (or scout) that snow camping would be a great outing when you are on a pleasant backpacking trip. Just as older scouts sell outings to the younger scouts, the experienced adults need to sell the outing to the less experienced adults. It takes time, but if you start working on adults when their son enters the Troop, by the time he is old enough to go on the high adventure outings the parent is also ready to go.

    The cost of snow camping is exceptionally high for a person with no backpacking gear, but for someone with summer gear the costs don’t have to be prohibited. It’s not too hard to round up some warm clothes of our own, or visit a used clothing store to get something suitable. Granted they might not be the lightest or most high tech items, but they’ll do. Even if a person doesn’t ski, they undoubtedly have a friend that does and most of us don’t mind loaning out some of our stuff. I think the specialty items like snow shovels and snow shoes should be purchased by the Troop. Or maybe two or three Troops could all go in together. After the initial expense Troops could rent them out for a small fee and recoup their investment after a few years. As these items are fairly indestructible they would last decades. To put this type of burden on the Council would be pretty difficult with the large number of Troops wanting to use them.

  5. Many, thanks for the comments. I was talking to one of your guys who said he went snow camping when he was 12 years old. So I am wondering if you think one recommendation might be to open snow camping to younger boys instead of limiting it to Venture (13 years and First Class), which has been more of the tradition. Also wonder how many training meetings you schedule for your younger snow campers, if any. Thanks again.

  6. This is the opposite of our situation in Troop 888. In fact our troop does 2-3 snow outings a year and is led by our youngest adult leaders. Just got back from our first trip of the year last weekend. To be honest I have not heard this issue but really a issue of SPL and PLC that outlines the interested activities. Are we sure the issue is trained young adult leaders or just lack of interest by youth? If a troop does not have enough trained leaders the Committee should do a check in resource assessment with the SM/ASM to see if the need to be recruiting and working with the membership chair, outings coordinator and committee chair. But then again what is your definition of young? I can tell you that snow camping, shoeing and sports is one of our many activities that has attracted alot of new Scouts and many new Dad’s are interested in more training.

    Regards,

    Mark Smith – Troop 888

  7. I realize that the equipment is expensive, if a central site could be set up and coordinated by the counsil for the lending of equipment (snow shoes, sleds, snow boots even old snow clothes that the boys grow out of at a alarming rate) between troops and when it would be available, married with a better connection with REI and Mel Cottons who could be approached for special deals that could be made available for local troops on rental equipment during our Snow Caving season that would be awesome also.

  8. I second the comment that, at least for adults who do not have snow clothing (do not ski), it requires too much of an expenditure for equipment that only gets used once a year and for a few years.

    Hiking high adventure also requires equipment but it can be used year-round.

    Training is not the issue for me.

  9. Gear is expensive for this almost single purpose use, so more resources/info within the district for borrowing/renting would be great.

    And if you think it is hard trying to convince dads to step up, what about trying to figure out creative ways to convince teen female Venturers (and their moms!) to “want” to go toil in the snow and not freeze to death on this “fun” outing.

  10. Like a lot of things that are new to people, we might do a better job of selling the snow camping experience. Then perhaps more dads would be willing to get the training.

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