Few activities seem more Scout-like than hiking. But that doesn’t mean your Scouts will jump at the chance to hit the trail. Compared with sports, video games, and other youth pursuits, hiking strikes many boys as slow and quiet, bearing a distinct resemblance to hard work.
That’s why the best Hiking merit badge counselors double as cheerleaders for this quintessential Scouting pursuit. They instinctively understand the need to sell the sizzle so Scouts will buy the steak. “You’ve got to motivate them, you’ve got to give them a sense of competition, and you’ve got to make it memorable,” says Steve Lagreca, a veteran Hiking merit badge counselor from Detroit. “It’s really not all that hard. Any two of those things will probably hit 90 percent of a patrol.”
Motivation comes in many forms, including patches. Besides the merit badge, Scouts who hike can work toward national awards such as the 50-Miler Award and the Historic Trails Award. Other patches recognize those who complete signature hikes locally or in state or national parks.
Then there’s the ice cream. Troop 479 in Eden Prairie, Minn., often plans hikes that end up at a local Dairy Queen or Culver’s outlet. “It’s a lot more fun if there’s a destination,” says Scoutmaster Paul Kautz.
You also can use less-tangible motivating tools. Both Kautz and Lagreca primarily work with Scouts who are preparing for high-adventure trips. These kids realize that the hiking they do now will make the hiking they do later a lot easier. Competition works, too.
In the Great Lakes Council, where Lagreca serves, Philmont crews are eager to log lots of miles on their treks. At the troop level, it’s easy to track the number of miles your Scouts have hiked and recognize the top patrol or each Scout who hikes 100 miles. You could also establish a troop record for the longest one-day hike or the highest elevation reached.
Beyond motivation and competition, though, make your hikes memorable. Scenery, sunsets, wildlife, and waterfalls all provide interesting trips. If you’re not sure which trails to choose at a given park, Lagreca suggests talking with a park ranger. “Ask them, ‘If you only had time for one thing, what would you do?’” he says. “You’ll find that hike.”
Although hikes lie at the heart of the Hiking merit badge, a Scout also must develop a written plan before each trek and write a short report afterward. Some Scouts find these requirements as tough as the hikes themselves. “The reality is that many boys don’t write anymore,” Lagreca says. “It’s really hard.”
For hike planning, Kautz recommends that Scouts use Gmaps Pedometer (gmap-pedometer.com), a free Web site for developing route maps. To start them off on the hike-report requirement, he holds a quick group debriefing after each trek. “We try to do that at the end of the hike when they’re waiting for their parents,” Kautz says. One of his techniques involves showing Scouts copies of previous hike reports. “I’ll say, ‘Here’s what Joey did. It doesn’t have to be a term paper.’”
Still, Lagreca never loses sight of what’s really important with the Hiking merit badge. “From my perspective, the whole game is to get them on the trail. The trail will do what the trail is supposed to do.”
That’s a tangible way to teach your Scouts that the journey—not just the merit badge—is hiking’s real destination.