How a district planned a Cub Scout campout at a drive-in theater

Click here to read seven tips for planning a successful Cub Scout campout.


Cub Scouts enjoy the show as "Up" plays on Shankweiler's big screen.

ON A CHILLY, DRIZZLY FRIDAY, Shankweiler’s Drive-In Theatre in rural Orefield, Pa., slowly fills up. But not with cars.

On this night, America’s oldest working drive-in has opened to a select group of customers: more than 300 Cub Scouts, parents, and leaders. They’ve come from across the Lehigh Valley—and some as far as Reading to the southwest and Philadelphia to the southeast—for the annual “Shankweiler’s Drive-In Cub Camping,” an overnight event hosted by the Trexler District of the Minsi Trails Council that aims to keep Cub Scouts excited about camping and Scouting.

At 5:30 p.m., parents park their vehicles in a field across from Shankweiler’s and unload their gear onto waiting lawn tractors, courtesy of volunteers from Troop 5, who will ferry the gear into the theater. Wearing rain slickers and waterproof boots, the boys and their families enter the grounds on foot and stop at the registration table for safety instructions, their campsite assignment, and an event patch.

Some boys head straight for the inflatable Moon Bounce and Gladiator Pit; others stop to play Frisbee or try their luck at a plastic egg-toss game. Parents stroll through the grounds, greeting one another with handshakes and smiles and surveying the three acres of muddy grass and gravel paths.

“The Doppler radar says the weather isn’t going to get worse,” Steve Mehl, Trexler’s then-district commissioner says optimistically. He’s dressed in his field uniform and carries a walking stick. “But we’re Boy Scouts. We’re always prepared!”

Eventually, the boys and their parents get down to business and set up their tents in direct view of the movie screen, where they’ll watch the Disney films G-Force and Up after dark.

“Nicholas, don’t pound the stakes in any harder or we won’t get them out of the ground in the morning,” says Nancy Warrington, a Webelos den leader from Pack 12, to Nicholas Glassic, a first-time camper.

Warrington, her son, Sean, and Nicholas were determined to show up despite the weather. For the past two years, the drive-in event sold out before she was able to get a spot. “The boys don’t care about the rain; they want to see the movies, eat popcorn, and sleep outside,” Warrington says. “Young Scouts need the chance to learn camping hands-on—and this is the place to do it.”

Scouts wheel camping supplies into the grassy area of Shankweiler's, a drive-in movie theater.

THAT’S EXACTLY WHAT DAVID KIES and his team of 10 organizers had in mind when they developed Drive-In Cub Camping in 2005. “Scouting is all about the outdoors, but before then we weren’t offering that experience to our Cub Scout packs,” says Kies, former Cub Scout activities chairman for the Trexler District. “We mainly had day activities, and we thought it was important to make a change.”

Staging a Cub Scout campout presents challenges. First, the planning committee needs to find a local venue because parents must accompany the boys on overnight trips. “You won’t get a big attendance if you take them out of town,” Kies explains.

The venue has to be large enough to fit dozens of packs, but it can’t be too sprawling—otherwise, adults won’t be able to effectively supervise the boys. It also has to be confined and protected to ensure safety. Finally, the logistics must be easy for the parents and unique enough to keep the boys excited about Scouting, says Ned Huber, now a member of the activities committee for the Trexler District.

The answer? Family camping at Shankweiler’s, a popular local attraction since 1934. Kies and the other baby-boom organizers grew up in the heyday of drive-ins—there were 4,063 theatres across the country in 1958—and for them, watching movies from the back seat of the family’s station wagon was a ritual of boyhood summers long ago. But boys today don’t have the same opportunity because only some 378 drive-ins remain. And that makes Drive-In Cub Camping a special experience among Scouting events nationwide.

The founding premise was simple: Gather hundreds of Cub Scouts and their families for an evening that combines the mainstays of childhood, such as playing games, watching movies, and sleeping beneath the stars.

Mehl says this event imparts some of the core values of Scouting. “Through family camping, Cub Scouts learn to respect each other’s privacy and get along in close quarters,” he says. “We keep packs together in groups, but their camping area borders other packs, so they also learn how to meet new people.”

Organizers spent nearly a year getting ready for the first Drive-In Cub Camping event in May 2005. They recruited 20 adult volunteers to assist them, and they asked members of several Boy Scout troops to attend to help campers pitch tents and pump up air mattresses. Next, organizers planned Cub Scout-related activity stations, including woodworking and knot tying, to take place before the movies were shown.

With tickets priced at an affordable $8, organizers hoped for a sell-out crowd at the inaugural event in 2005. But just a week before the registration deadline, they had sold only 75 percent—not enough to cover the fixed costs of nearly $5,000 for the theater rental, craft materials, portable latrines, patches, baseball caps for volunteers, public-address system, and breakfast.

“There was some talk of extending the deadline, but that would have set a bad precedent,” Kies says. “We decided to stick to the deadline no matter what, so parents would learn for the next time.”

A flurry of last-minute ticket sales boosted attendance just high enough for the event to break even. But in the end, the event’s turnout was the least of Kies’ worries.

Chris Clark (in blue) helps James Moorehead—both from Pack 145 from Washington, N.J.—break down a tent in the rain on the morning after the event.

THE PLANNING COMMITTEE miscalculated the size of the theater, setting aside too much space for tents and not enough for cars. Halfway through registration, no parking spaces remained, so hundreds of people parked in an adjacent field and toted their equipment 100 yards into the theater.

Also, vehicles and tents didn’t mix well from a safety standpoint. Visibility was poor in the waning sunlight, and some cars moved as boys darted between the tents. Then there was the weather.

Temperatures fell to an overnight low of 40 degrees—not unusual for early spring in eastern Pennsylvania—but the Cub Scouts and their parents, many of them novice campers, weren’t prepared for the elements. The next morning, they woke up cold.

Breakfast was problematic, too. Though organizers offered eggs and ham, keeping the food warm for hundreds of people proved impossible. “With any program, the first year is always hit and miss,” acknowledges Linda Mehl, who handled registration and administration at the event and is a former member of the district’s activities committee. “Every year, you have to change things to make it a better event.”

At the planning committee’s review meeting a few weeks after that 2005 event, Kies saw room for improvement.

First, they decided to park all vehicles in the field across from Shankweiler’s, enlist Troop 5 to lug the families’ camping gear into the theater, and ask the local fire department to handle traffic control at the intersection in front of the drive-in. And they cancelled breakfast, because, as Kies notes, “Most parents just want to get up and go the next morning.”

Despite those first-year glitches, Drive-In Cub Camping was a hit with packs and parents. As word about it spread through the local Cub Scouting community, it grew increasingly popular. Tickets now sell out in a matter of weeks.

Most participants come from the Minsi Trails Council, but the event also attracts packs from up to 60 miles away. And though this year’s Cub Camping event didn’t draw the 850 that organizers expected, it’s not because of a lack of preparation. Blame it on the rain.

JUST FIVE MINUTES UNTIL showtime, at 7:15 p.m., Steve Mehl surveys the scene from the center of the theater. It isn’t what he had in mind: Instead of a sea of tents and lawn chairs, he sees plenty of empty areas. Families open umbrellas and erect pop-up shelters where, for the next three hours, they will huddle together to stay dry while watching the movies.

Steve Mehl admits he’s somewhat disappointed, but undaunted. “We think this is one of the premier events for Cub Scouting,” he says. “The bad weather definitely merited a rain date, but we couldn’t get one.”

The organizers weighed their options—giving thought to the participants’ safety and comfort in the rain—and decided that forging ahead with the event was their best option.

And what if the weather had been postcard perfect? “This place would have been wall-to-wall tents,” Steve Mehl says, beaming at the image. “But for next time, we’ll cap the number at 750, so it won’t be overcrowded.”

Drive-In Cub Camping has come full circle.


7 Tips for a Successful Cub Scout Campout

1) Think ahead. It takes about a year to organize a successful Scouting event, Ned Huber says. Not only do Cub Scout packs set their activity calendars 12 months in advance, but last-minute planning doesn’t work because all safety issues must be resolved.

2) Be creative. Think out of the box when selecting a camping venue such as a zoo, wildlife sanctuary, small family amusement park, or museum.

3) Staff up. Recruit adult volunteers for the campout before you distribute sign-up flyers, and then plan activities based on the number who commit, Huber advises. Schedule about 20 percent more volunteers than you think you’ll need.

4) Promote early registration. Don’t wait until the last minute to publicize the event. The sooner you send registration information to pack leaders, the better your chances of having a strong turnout. For an inaugural event, distribute the sign-up flier six months in advance, says Huber. Clearly state that you need a complete roster from each pack, with first and last names of all participants, not just family names.

5) Enlist help from Boy Scouts. Given their years in Scouting, says David Keis, Boy Scouts can share their knowledge and experience with Cub Scouts during the campout.

6) Enlist help from local BSA Venturing Crews, says Steve Mehl, who tapped 10 young men and women from Venturing Crew 120 in Allentown, Pa., to supervise the games. “Cub Scouts look up to them because they have an air of authority and because of the mature way they conduct themselves,” he says.

7) Don’t forget the patch. Mehl recommends that the patch’s design be linked to the event. For Shankweiler’s Drive-In Cub Camping, he created patches in the form of a hot dog, a box of popcorn, and a family in a car watching a drive-in movie. “I try to design it so that when the kids pick up the patch in 20 years, they’ll remember what the event actually was and how much fun they had.”


Readers advice for first-time campers

Our readers chimed in on Facebook and Twitter with their own advice for leaders planning a Cub Scout campout with first-time campers. Like us on Facebook at facebook.com/scoutingmagazine, or follow us on Twitter at twitter.com/scouting.

Small Steps
You’ll want to wean Cubs into camping … and oftentimes wean their parents, too! A lot of parents are uncomfortable with the idea of camping. Ease them and their sons into it with a plan that graduates them from simple to more elaborate camping experiences.

Our pack rents a heated cabin with flush toilets, where Tigers and Wolves sleep. The Bears and Webelos camp in tents outside the cabin. Leaders prepare the meals for the whole pack.

And then, of course, the Webelos have their Den campouts, where the experience is close to what a Boy Scout camp will be like, with the boys helping to set up camp and prepare the meals.
—M.H.

Trial Run
We have a “no-camping” campout early in the year and we do everything we would do on a campout—except we don’t camp. We even practice setting up tents. By the time that the “no-camping” campout is over, they’ve had so much fun that they forget that sleeping outdoors might be a little scary. They just want to do it all over again!
—M.B.

Get Extra Training
Get BALOO training and ask your local Boy Scout troop to help.
@fisphoto

Call in the Experts
Have someone BALOO trained make sure the Scouts have appropriate clothing, sleeping bags, and tents. Talk about what to expect, and make sure the Scouts know where the adults are. For the first-time camper, I’d have them share a tent with their parent.
—B.K.

Extra Space
Plan for more space than normal for tents. Families tend to need more room for tents and privacy.
@PhilRanger87

Let Older Scouts Help
If your pack has an associated troop, try to make the first camping trip of the year an easy “gear check.” The older Scouts can camp adjacent to where your pack is camping. Assign a Boy Scout to each new Cub Scout or his rookie parent to help set up the tent and get settled. After the first trip, the parents will be much less nervous.
—A.G.

Close to Home
Have the first campout of the year close to home. I find that the parents are more intimidated than the Scouts. We are lucky to have a national park 10 minutes away. I tell the Scouts that if they change their mind, there’s no pressure—they can be on their own couch in 10-15 minutes. You can see the sigh of relief.
—S.A.

Happy Stomachs
Keep the food plan flexible and interesting—homemade pizzas, chilidogs with cheese and onions, etc. Keeps more folks interested.
@JohnDominik

Light Up the Night
We started bringing the solar outdoor walkway lights you stick in the ground. Post them outside the Cub Scouts’ tents. Helps a lot for kids who are a little scared of the dark and kids who need to take late-night potty breaks.
—D.N.

Cynthia Hanson is a Philadelphia-area writer. Her articles have appeared in dozens of national magazines, including Parents, Family Circle, and American Baby.

3 thoughts on “How a district planned a Cub Scout campout at a drive-in theater

  1. This event sounds so awesome! How do I find info out about to see if I could get my pack involved. We aren’t to far away and would love to do it. When I shared the article with my son I had to back track and first explain what a drive in was. Made me sad so I would love to do this with our pack.

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