Just as snow can turn a favorite summer campsite into a wintry wilderness, night transforms familiar places into shadowy landscapes ideal for exploring on foot.
The glow of a full moon often provides enough light for older Scouts and Venturers to set off on night hikes. Darkness adds challenge to other events, too, from geocaching and orienteering to photography and team games.
For Cub Scouts, consider marking a trail with inexpensive glow sticks hung on branches close enough together so young hikers can see from one light to the next. Glow sticks as wristbands also add fun and make it easier to keep track of wandering walkers.
Whatever the route, take time to appreciate your surroundings.
Sit quietly in the woods, in a meadow or near a pond at night. With flashlights turned off, you and your Scouts will need to rely less on vision and more on your senses of hearing, touch and smell. You’ll discover there is a lot going on.
Bats and owls maneuver in dim light, as can many insects, mice and other small animals. Deer are often active, too. Listen for frogs and other aquatic life. Guide your Scouts in thinking about how animals adapt to darkness with acute vision, large ears to pick up faint sounds, speed to evade predators, and echolocation to navigate and find prey.
The sky ablaze with stars has captured the imaginations of humans throughout the ages. Simply watching the heavens can be a great time for Scouts. Choose locations away from the glow of cities and, if you have them, bring binoculars or set up a telescope. Almost no Scout can resist checking out the Orion Nebula, the rings of Saturn or the craters of the moon.
Scouts can research upcoming meteor showers and lunar eclipses (don’t forget the total solar eclipse this August), and then plan campouts and other nighttime activities on those dates. Your local BSA council might be able to recommend Astronomy merit badge counselors who can further enrich an evening of stargazing.
Connect the Dots
Second Class requirements ask Scouts to demonstrate finding directions at night. Many use the pointer stars of the Big Dipper as guides for drawing a line across the sky to the North Star.
Encourage Scouts to not stop there. Extend the imaginary line past the North Star, for example, and come to five bright stars forming the outline of a huge W. That’s Cassiopeia, just one of the 88 spectacular constellations painting the sky.
Star charts such as those in the BSA Fieldbook can assist Scouts in identifying constellations. Better yet, encourage Scouts to use their ever-present smartphone and one of many free apps that highlight and name constellation patterns when the device is aimed at clusters of stars.
Every constellation Scouts can recognize becomes part of a stellar map for finding their way around the sky, even if the Big Dipper is obscured. And when they aren’t traveling beneath the stars, Scouts investigating the origins of constellation names will be rewarded with shining stories of history and mythology.
First-Aid Emergency Practice
A simulated nighttime emergency is a terrific way to improve first-aid skills. With volunteers enacting illnesses and injuries, match scenarios to the knowledge of the first-aiders involved. Scouts and Scouters with more advanced training can monitor the scene and offer constructive debriefings.
Sleep Under the Stars
On a clear night, there’s really nothing better than sleeping in the open. Best of all is a camping spot where Scouts can drift off beneath a starry sky and then awaken to the first light of dawn.
Everyone will need a ground cloth to block moisture from the soil and a sleeping bag matched to expected temperatures. Have a backup plan ready in case the weather changes. (Note that many experts believe it’s safer to sleep in a tent if you’re in bear country, so this might not be suitable for your outing.)
While enjoying darkness is a big part of Scouting at night, a reliable source of light is important, too. Flashlights with LCD bulbs are bright and long lasting. Headlamps leave hands free. Some have a red-light setting, ideal for getting around after your eyes have adjusted to low light. Stow spare batteries where they are easy to find.
Keep the Darkness Bright
Discourage activities intended to make after-dark adventures forbidding. A scary campfire story can have its place, but purposefully instilling fear of the night is not OK. Scouting strives to increase the self-reliance of young people by promoting positive experiences, a goal with possibilities 24 hours a day.
Robert Birkby is author of three editions of The Boy Scout Handbook, two editions of the BSA’s Fieldbook and the newest edition of the Conservation Handbook. Find him at robertbirkby.com