Wilderness Survival

Puma Point seemed like the perfect spot for our Wilderness Survival campout. It’s in a beautiful area – near Lake Chabot – with lots of trees and vegetation. BBQs and stone pits are on hand for fire building. Hardly any other campers are close enough for us to disturb with our cheers, singing and late night activities. Most important, there is lots of space for Scouts to spread out and build shelters using the downed branches, leaves, brush, poles, and logs piled nearby. (To earn the merit badge, boys have to, among other things, build a shelter and spend the night in it without a sleeping bag.)

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We arrive in the afternoon and everyone gets to work. More than 30 boys are running around, lashing poles together to construct frames, grabbing branches from the pile, spreading leaves on the ground for insulation. There is tons of creativity as teams discuss the tradeoffs between tarps and leafy branches for roofs, the ideal location for doors, dealing with bugs and spiders, and the best ways to seal their structures for maximum warmth. Everyone is energized as they fall into “man vs. wild” mode and labor to construct the perfect temporary habitat.

Building Shelters at Puma Point
Wilderness Survival – Building Shelters
After a few hours of hard work the shelters are finished. The entire Troop walks around to inspect every one and point out strengths and weaknesses. Youth Leaders score them: 1 = really lame, 10 = can withstand attack by bears. All teams score a 5 (survivable) or higher. Time to move onto fire building. No matches are allowed.

There are many ways to build fires without matches, none of them easy. We set up stations with batteries and steel wool, bows and string, flint and steel, and magnifying glasses (which turns out to be especially difficult in the deepening twilight). Scouts try to get a fire going and, if successful, move on to the next station. To meet the requirement, they must light three fires without matches. It takes a while, but eventually everyone is successful. Good job.

Scouts build fires without matches at Lake Chabot
Scouts build fires without matches at Puma Point.

Dinner comes and goes (One Patrol plans chili and corn bread but forgets to add the canned chili to the Dutch oven. Corn bread was good though.) We are just starting the cleanup when a Park Ranger rides up on an ATV and starts waving frantically. He has discovered our shelters tucked between trees and hidden behind mounds of dirt. The Ranger is totally freaking out!! We have apparently broken some major Park Ranger rule by invading an “undesignated area” just beyond the unmarked “border” of the campsite. The discussion soon turns into an argument and then a lecture. The Ranger starts shaking his finger at the Scoutmaster (always a bad turn of events) and declares, “ All the shelters are “off limits!”

Now what? It’s already dark. Some of the Scouts do not have a sleeping bag or sleeping pad. Fog is coming in with the wind. Rain is threatening and sleeping outside “under the stars” is not an option. Leadership decides. We have to move all the shelters – and move them quickly. Scouts dismantle their beautiful structures, trying not to think about how much effort was put into building them. We carry poles, branches, ropes, and tarps to a “designated” spot one hundred yards away. Reconstructing everything in the dark is not easy, but the group puts in a valiant effort.

After an hour, the shelters are more or less reconstructed. Dejectedly, we return to the dinner clean-up, start the campfire, break a lantern, tell jokes and stories (two Scouts win prizes in the Wilderness Survival story telling contest), sing Scout Vespers, and eventually crawl into the rebuilt shelters with our silver space blankets. Good night.

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Just before 3:00 am, the Scoutmaster hears voices, looks out, and sees the unmistakable flicker of matches near the picnic tables. The entire New Scout Patrol is trying to light a stove to make hot chocolate. (Good teamwork!) Their shelters (all three of them) have mysteriously collapsed and their Patrol Leader doesn’t want to try and sleep anymore. He wants to wait for sunrise. (Bad plan.) Thirty minutes later, the shelters are up again and the boys have been forced back inside them. It takes about two minutes for everyone to fall asleep. Good night again!

First Year Scout in a shelter just before it collapses.
Tenderfoot Scout in a shelter just before it collapses.

As usual, the youngest Scouts are up with the sun (and the fog). They are chattering excitedly because they have, despite all expectations, survived the night without sleeping bags. The boys go off to tell the older Scouts about their experience and get them up for breakfast. The older Scouts are not pleased at all.

By 9:30 am breakfast and clean-up are finished. Scout’s Own is conducted on a nearby hill in a pocket of sunshine. Then we create learning stations for wilderness first aid, emergency signaling, worst case scenario discussions, water purification, and testing on the seven priorities for backcountry survival. The fog and light drizzle is annoying. Suddenly, the wind catches 30 silver space blankets that have been left on the ground and lifts them all into the air.

Scouts move quickly to catch the floating blankets before they blow into the trees. Almost immediately they are twirling in circles, jumping around, and performing bird-like dance moves with their arms raised high and silver capes floating behind them. (It’s like watching a weird production of the Ice Capades that has been choreographed by Bart Simpson.) The show ends abruptly when someone trips and falls face-first into the mud. Two other boys quickly follow suite. The space blankets (what’s left of them) are stuffed into trash cans and the Troop gets back to business.

Before long, its lunchtime. Camp clean-up begins immediately afterwards. The Troop moves slowly now, perhaps not wanting the outing to end – or maybe everyone is tired. Park Rangers drop by (four times) to see exactly what we are doing and provide encouragement. Time to go home and get some sleep.

To earn the Wilderness Survival merit badge, a Scout has to build a shelter and spend the night in it. They can wear as many clothes as they like. And bring a space blanket. But they cannot have a sleeping bag or sleep on an air mattress. Scouts construct shelters following Leave No Trace Principles: no damage to trees, plants, or ground cover. The exercise is to Scouts how to survive in the wilderness if they become separated from their backpacks and equipment – and to give them confidence that they can do it and survive. It is a rite of passage on the trail to serious backpacking.

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