How to help inexperienced Scouts with a fear of camping


Longtime Scouters say you can’t take the outing out of Scouting, but some Scouts would be happy to try. While most kids take to camping like dogs take to car rides, others consider sleeping in a tent (at night! in the dark!) to be intimidating, to say the least.

Getting such kids out of the house — and out of their comfort zones — can present a challenge to even the savviest Scout leader. To learn some techniques that work, we talked with Dr. Chris Thurber, a board-certified clinical psychologist, author, and camp consultant who spends each summer working at Camp Belknap, a YMCA camp in New Hampshire. The father of two young boys and camp counselor to hundreds more, Thurber has become an expert on homesickness and related subjects.

Although every case is different, Thurber says reluctance to go camping usually stems from one of three causes.

The first is temperament.

“Some people seek out novelty. Their temperament is a good match for adventure; they look forward to things they’ve never seen or done before,” Thurber says. “Other kids’ temperaments are more physiologically reactive. Their heart rate accelerates, their blood pressure goes up, they feel more nervous when faced with novel circumstances.”

Kids who are temperamentally inhibited often seem shy, but shyness is actually different. Thurber says the best way to figure out if a Scout is temperamentally inhibited is to ask his parents a simple question: “Is this the way Johnny typically acts when faced with a new experience, even a fun one?”

A previous bad experience can be the second cause for the fear. It might have been a trip to church camp when it rained all week, but it also could have been a first sleepover at a friend’s house. Thurber recommends asking the Scout about times he’s been camping or away from his family overnight. “Here’s an area where most kids are fairly accurate in reporting whether or not a previous experience was good,” he says.

The third cause is ambivalence. The Scout might want to go camping but could be concerned about one particular aspect of the trip — anything from fear of the dark to anxiety about looking less competent than the more experienced Scouts. While some kids might acknowledge their fears if you ask them, Thurber says that question asked by other Scouts might get better results.

Thurber recommends counseling by an older Scout as the first strategy to help a kid get over his or her fear of camping. “Kids can ask each other the kind of kid questions and get the kind of kid answers that are much more believable,” he says. (Remember: BSA Youth Protection rules apply in these situations. All Scouting-related conversations should be held in full view and earshot of responsible adults.)

Next, Thurber says, try a slow-immersion strategy, planning a series of outings that build up to an overnighter. The first could be a day hike, the second a session on outdoor cooking, and the third a late-night stargazing event. These activities could even take place at the site of a future campout. “If you’ve gradually built up, maybe the only thing that’s really new is that you’re going to sleep there,” he says.

Thurber’s third strategy is to involve fearful Scouts in planning their own trips. “The more that adults can be there to facilitate but not decide, the more comfortable those kids feel, the more ownership they have over the experience, and the more excited they’ll be to participate,” he says.

Youth-led planning is a natural part of Scouts BSA and Venturing, of course, but there’s no reason Cub Scouts can’t be involved in planning as well. Sure, you may eat macaroni and cheese three meals a day, but you’ll survive. And your Scouts will thrive.

So how can you tell if a Scout’s concern about camping is more phobia than fear? If a Scout seems unusually stressed or unable to function normally, it might be time to seek professional help. The criteria are subjective, but don’t worry.

“Most Scoutmasters and most parents have enough contact with a comparison sample of other kids that they can pretty easily distinguish normative anxiety from something that indicates more of a concern,” Thurber says.

In the end, helping kids get over their fear of camping does far more than expose them to the fun of the outdoors — it increases confidence. Thurber adds: “Forget about sleepovers and nighttime and being outdoors. They’re just more ready to do anything because they’ve had this confidence-boosting experience.”


  1. I have a scout who gets worked up about not being able to sleep. He takes ear plugs and we’ve done la low dose of Unisom. He loves to go but starts worrying about not being able to sleep several days before he leaves. Any suggestions?

    • Hi Linnea, First of all, I am not a child psych by any sense of the word. And I also know that each child is different in every sense of the word. You (or someone) have to talk to him to find the root of his problem about sleeping or lose of sleep. Find out what bothers him, be it the fear of the dark, the fear of the woods, the fear of being away from family or maybe something that goes bump in the night. I had a Scout that was afraid to sleep in the woods because he was afraid of werewolves. Although we know they don’t exist, to him, they were very real. He tried to sleep on a camping trip after I introduced the Dream Catcher to him, but it was not enough. So I prepared him for the next camp trip by making a Native American mandala and painted a werewolf on the shield. There are many meanings to mandalas, but the one I used from Native American is it was a shield of good luck, made especially for him, to repel werewolves and keep him safe. Before it got dark, in the camp site, I also helped him make a dream catcher for him to hang inside his tent. Needless to say, something worked that weekend, and he slept both nights, comfortable and at ease. He still uses the dream catcher and mandala on each trip, but every trip we took since then, he is more at ease as long as he has his protection. try to find out what is keeping him up, then work on the solution is my best advise.

  2. I am a Cubmaster for our Pack, and an Asst. Scout Master with our Troop. I have seen many times how Scouts range from mildly uneasy to nearly terrified about sleeping over night in a tent. I am Native American, and I have several things that I do to help the Scouts get over their fears. One thing I do is a smudging during our campfire program, I also pack a few dreamcatchers I made in our Pack box. When we make camp, I will put one big one out to protect all that are in our camp. If Scouts are not comfortable inside the tent, I will have the Scout help me hang a smaller one on a stave outside his tent.

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