A trek to one of the BSA’s high-adventure bases can be one of the most memorable experiences of your life. You can hike rugged trails to breathtaking vistas, paddle remote lakes far from the hum of the modern world, and sail and dive aquamarine waters teeming with sea life — and enjoy dozens of outdoor activities in between. It’s arguably the most fun you can have in Scouting as an adult leader.
Or it can be a miserable experience if you don’t come prepared.
Think aching lower back, painful knees, sucking wind as 13-year-olds zoom past you on the trail as if you’re going backward, sunburned skin and vomit on your boots. Yeah, that, too.
“The first time I came to Philmont as a Scout, I was 14, short and round, super out of shape, and I had a hard time,” says Joe Duffield, assistant manager at Tooth of Time Traders, Philmont’s store. “I had real difficulties with altitude sickness. The next time, I was taller, leaner and I knew what I was getting into, so I came in good shape.”
Scouting’s premier outdoor programs at Philmont Scout Ranch in Cimarron, N.M.; Northern Tier Canoe Base in Ely, Minn.; Florida Sea Base in Islamorada, Fla.; and the Summit Bechtel Family National Scout Reserve in Glen Jean, W.Va., will challenge your body — and rough it up a bit — especially if you’re not ready.
So get ready! Study the BSA’s physical and health requirements for participation. Visit your family doctor and get his or her OK before starting a shape-up routine. If you have weight to lose, start exercising as soon as you register (typically a year and a half in advance) or no fewer than six months before your trip.
“The reason high-adventure bases have medical and weight restrictions is because it’s real high adventure,” Sea Base general manager Mike Johnson says. “If you have a heart attack on a boat in the Dry Tortugas 40 miles west of Key West, it’s a Coast Guard helicopter ride and a couple of hours before you get to a hospital. We want you to come healthy and in shape so you have a safe, enjoyable experience.”
Train for your activity
No matter which program you sign up for, building up your cardiovascular fitness is critical, camp directors say. Walking, biking, hiking, running, swimming, playing basketball or tennis — anything that gets your limbs moving — strengthens your heart and builds your aerobic capacity that will prepare you for long, active days outside. Once you gain cardio strength after a few weeks of regular exercise, start training for the types of terrain and activities you’ll find at the base.
For trips to Philmont and the Summit, get your body ready for some serious walking by taking long walks with a pack on your back.
“Nothing prepares you for hiking like hiking,” Duffield says. “Add some weight to your pack. Over time, add some hills.”
Increase the difficulty and length of hikes as you get closer to your trip.
“At Philmont, we’re at altitude — basecamp is above 6,000 feet in elevation, and it only goes up from there,” Duffield says. “Your body’s ability to perform at those elevations is tied to how in shape you are.”
The only way to prepare for the paddling and portaging at Northern Tier is to, well, paddle and portage, says Mike Joint, the canoe base’s associate director of program. So take some canoe trips in the months prior to your trek to build up your shoulders, arms and core strength. It also helps to do some strength training, Joint says — squats for the legs, dumbbell rows and shrugs for the upper back and shoulders, situps and hip raises for the lower back and core.
“As much as canoeing is physical, it’s also mental game,” Joint says. “You’re sitting in a boat for a few hours, then portaging heavy gear for a half-mile. You need to prepare for that mental rigor by developing a mindset that helps you push through those barriers when your shoulders get sore and you’re at the edge of your stamina.”
Part of prep for a Sea Base adventure, especially for those from northern climes, is coming with the understanding that it’s gonna be hot. How hot?
“Go sit in a steam room,” Johnson says. “We’re in the tropics where, by 8 a.m., it can be 90 degrees with 90% humidity.”
Being in good cardiovascular shape, wearing sun clothing and sunscreen, and staying hydrated are critical to enjoying the sailing, snorkeling and scuba diving.
“As soon as you know you’ll be going to the Sea Base, start swimming laps at the local YMCA to build your stamina and learn breath control,” says Joe Angelo, director of the scuba program. “You’ll be doing underwater swimming; there may be a current you have to swim against, or you may get far from the boat and need to surface swim in choppy seas.”
If you plan to scuba dive and you’re certified, read and review your scuba knowledge. Review the medical requirements for scuba diving with the BSA well in advance of your trip.
“Like a shakedown hike for Philmont, go on a few dives or take a scuba review course to refresh your skills and get comfortable in the water with the equipment,” Angelo says.
Flexibility is something many adult Scouters struggle with. Angelo says stretching to keep your body limber is helpful for diving, snorkeling and moving about on a sailboat.
“In our sailing programs, you spend some time in an enclosed space, so emotional preparation is important,” Johnson says. “The better prepared you are physically and mentally, the better experience you’ll have.”
Jeff Csatari’s latest book is The 14-Day No Sugar Diet.
A good way to begin your preparation for a BSA high-adventure experience is by reading the BSA’s Guide to Safe Scouting.