This story originally appeared in the January-February 2017 issue of Scoutingmagazine.
It gets cold during the winter in Coeur d’Alene, Idaho. Sometimes it gets really cold.
Average daytime temperatures hover around 30 degrees. After dark, they regularly dip below zero.
With weather like that, it could easily become a tradition for reluctant Scouts to stay indoors by the fire.
That’s why the leaders of Pack 3 started a new tradition. Their annual winter outing succeeds, they say, for two main reasons: They create a safe, structured event that teaches Cub Scouts it’s possible to be comfortable in the cold, and they bring in local older Scouts to provide leadership.
“I helped guide them and lead them to give them a sense of what needed to be done,” says Theo Smith, 12, of Troop 202 in Coeur d’Alene. Theo served as a Scout leader at the most recent winter outing. “That’s what Scouts was created to do … to teach young men how to lead.”
At the start of the day, the Cub Scouts and older Scouts are divided into teams that include youth of all ages — from Tigers on up — with an older Scout at the top. Each group is given a different compass bearing and off they go, through the snow and into the woods, to begin their mission.
Their primary objectives are to start a fire and build a shelter.
Eventually, they will be judged on their work. It’s really just a matter of the groups learning to work together to achieve their goals.
“It’s a diverse group,” Pack 3 committee chair Mark Burgeson says. “It’s not all Tigers. It’s not all Webelos. And having the Scout is a good thing. The Webelos look up to him.”
Starting Small, Thinking Big
Pack 3’s winter tradition started five years earlier as a Wolf den outing. The Cub Scouts would go from station to station earning the old belt loops and pins.
As the Wolves became Bears and then Webelos, the outing expanded to include more dens. And then someone had the idea to invite older Scouts, too.
“We have a lot of Scouts in our pack who have older siblings who are Scouts,” Burgeson says. “So we started inviting them, and that opened it up to a good group of Scouts who are very helpful and handy.”
Cub Scouts aren’t allowed to winter camp, so the members of Pack 3 have always spent the night indoors.
Each team carries with it some basic shelter-building supplies — a tarp, some rope, a shovel — but they decide how to use them.
“We found a log from a [fallen] tree,” says 10-year-old Isaac Burgeson from Pack 3. “We dug a trench next to it and put a tarp over it.
“Our Scout guy told us how to do it.”
Each team was given firewood so the Scouts wouldn’t have to remove wood from the surrounding forest. After that, it was up to them to get the fire started.
“I showed them how to set up a fire and how to build it up,” Theo says.
After the shelters were built and the fires lit at the most recent winter outing, the groups got a surprise: An adult stopped by each team’s site and tested them on first-aid skills. One of the youngest Scouts in the group pretended to have a broken arm or a severe cut, and the other Scouts would have to treat the injury.
“First we put on gloves from our first-aid kit,” 10-year-old Cub Scout Jake Dannenberg says. “Then we stopped the bleeding by putting pressure on it. Then we wrapped it up.”
Finally, the teams could focus on something more fun: food. The day’s menu featured cinnamon rolls stuffed in a hollowed-out orange, wrapped in foil and cooked over the fire.
When the entire drill was done, the adults judged the teams on their fires, shelters and first-aid skills. That way, the Cub Scouts would know which of these essential skills they needed to work on the most, and the older Scouts would know which skills are the hardest to teach.
By the end of the day, a nice mix of Cub Scouts and older Scouts had spent several hours outdoors working together, learning winter skills and learning teamwork.
They just see it as fun. The adults are in on the secret that everybody has learned something.
“The Scouts are the ones who direct the construction of the shelter and the fire,” Burgeson says. “They manage everything and make sure everything gets done.”
“I helped them grow in knowledge,” Theo says. “I helped them do what they needed to do.”
From Easy to Challenging
Start by having Scouts sleep in cabins or huts. Use stoves or a fireplace for cooking and warmth.
When they are old enough to sleep outdoors, start in four-season tents. Use camp stoves for cooking. Build shelters during the day, but don’t sleep in them.
As they become more comfortable, work on shelters secure enough to actually spend the night in, such as snow caves, igloos and quinzees.
For an advanced winter experience, conduct a survival outing using only clothing and food to keep warm.
Carrying Extra Gear
A trip through the backcountry in winter generally requires more gear than the same kind of trip during the summer. If your Scouts struggle to carry backpacks in mild weather, consider what it would be like to add even more weight.
A small sled with a harness is a good alternative, especially while on cross-country skis or snowshoes. Larger sleds can be used to carry group equipment.
Carrying extra gear means your body must work harder. Encourage Scouts to pace themselves to avoid perspiring.
It’s a good idea to have an extra set of dry clothes handy just in case.
Photos by W. Garth Dowling