Scouting Best Practices

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Scouting High Adventure Best Practices and Checklists

The intent of this Wiki is to post best practices for high adventure activities.

High Adventure Planning and Safety

Dan Smart

References for high adventure planning and safety.

  • Passport to High Adventure -

A very good book. Should be required of all Scoutmasters. Has good description of thing to consider. Of special note is page 90, "When to Stop or Turn Back". It lists the following sub categories: Bad Weather, Difficult Terrain or Conditions, Fatigue, Darkness, Insufficient Time, Inadequate Food or Water, Low Morale. The key quote is "As you're planning an adventure, talk to your companions about situations that might cause you to change or terminate your trip. Don't head for the hills until you agree that you are ALL willing to stop anytime hazards developed..."

On page 20, it says "An alternate plan should be devised for every itinerary in case plans are disrupted by unforeseen events." It also talks about a plan for emergency communication.

Best things in it:

    • Chapter 2 and the Itinerary plans and Emergency Phone Number list;
    • Chapter 7 on Trail procedures;
    • Chapter 8!! on Trek Safety. Chapter 8 should be given at all Scoutmaster Specific trainings.
  • Venturing Leaders Manual -

Much less useful, but has good tools for planning. Don't have it with me, but better than Scoutmaster's manual. Didn't see the Sweet 16 in it. This probably should be another separate handout at SMS training.

Some of it is too detailed, but it has one of the best cold weather gear checklists I've ever seen. Has a warm weather, moderate weather, and cold weather checklist with REAL DETAIL.

  • David K. Palmer, Scoutmaster - Olympia (Wash.) Troop 266

He sent me his troop's protocol for backpacking. It is focused on making sure no one gets lost, and was created from feedback of such a case. He's posted in Scouts-L if you want ask for a copy.

  • Powderhorn Training

In reading the description of Powderhorn training, "The Powder Horn course is designed to introduce and familiarize Venturing and Boy Scout leaders with the activities and resources necessary to operate a successful outdoor/high adventure program. It is based on the eight core requirements and eighteen electives found in the Venturing Ranger program. It is intended to help adult leaders in locating and utilizing resources. No high adventure skills are taught in this course. It is designed to have many disciplines introduced with a hands-on segment. While participation in individual activities is not required, participants are encouraged to take part."

The part "No high adventure skills are taught in this course" is in bold. It appears that this is NOT the place to learn these skills.

  • Okpik: Complete guide to winter camping - The book.

Quoting the BSA catalog - "A complete guide to winter camping and survival. Filled with advice on clothing, equipment, first aid, and more. Even includes instructions on building igloos! A must read for outdoor enthusiasts! 160 pages. Paperback. WW34040 $9.95 " Our Alabama shop does not stock, so I'm ordering one. Have not seen yet. In the discussion about safety and accident statistics, I thought folks might be interested in the stats out of the Wilderness Risk Management Committee (a collaboration of NOLS, Outward Bound, the Student Conservation Association, and several other smaller professional outdoor education organizations). These figures were presented at the 2003 conference.

Activity Injury Rates

Bob Geier

I thought folks might be interested in the stats out of the Wilderness Risk Management Committee (a collaboration of NOLS, Outward Bound, the Student Conservation Association, and several other smaller professional outdoor education organizations). These figures were presented at the 2003 conference.

Activity Injury rate (# per 1000 program days), in order from most "dangerous" to least dangerous.

Activity 1991-1997 1998-2000
Sports and Recreational games 79.98 7.24
Biking (mountain) 64.00 21.87
Biking (touring) 33.33 10.90
Hiking (day, orienteering) 30.07 3.32
Water (swim/wade/snorkel) 22.64 7.31
Skiing (touring) 22.21 2.47
Mountaineering 18.18 0
Marathon 16.67 0
Winter Camping 8.70 3.51
Kayaking (whitewater & sea) 5.19 3.52
Backpacking 4.36 1.52
Climbing (rock, ice & rappeling) 3.71 0.17
Initiatives/team challenge 3.26 0.10
Canoe (flatwater & portage) 3.08 3.41
Ropes Course (high & low) 2.67 0.10
Canoeing (whitewater) 2.14 0
Rafting 1.72 0
Sailing 1.43 0
Camping (general) 0.57 0.12

Some thoughts:

1) Remember these are professional programs with largely college-aged or older clientele. Note, though, how much the injury rate was reduced in the second period in response to collecting, analyzing, and sharing the data from the first period. Recognizing a high rate of athletic injuries (sprains, strains, etc.) and developing preventive measures was particularly important in some areas.

2) Note the high injury rate for sports/games. I expect that this is similar for scouting... the run-around field games/roughhousing/etc. have a lot of impact, and merit more "attention" than we typically give them.

3) In some ways biking is no surprise, but the magnitude is. Mountain biking in particular has 7-10 times the injury rate of many of our other "adventure activities."

Wilderness Rescue

Bob Geier

I think the notion of Boy Scouts being taught to "stay put" when lost is inane and dangerous. That's fine for 1st graders in a shopping mall, but not for scout-aged youth in the woods.

I expect that any of us who have been involved in backcountry S&R operations can relate exactly how difficult it is to find someone who is immobile in the woods. The mostly likely way they'll be found in many areas is next hunting season when someone blunders across the corpse.

There are a number of simple, easy-to-learn "get yourself found" options that boys should be taught along with the trite STOP acronym. They need to know techniques for Staying calm, what to consider when they Think, what to look for when they Observe, and several good strategies to consider when they Plan. In all but the worst weather and terrain, people should work to self-rescue.

Stay Calm, Think, Observe, Plan... then ACT. Which almost always means MOVE in some rational and well-considered way. Get yourself "found." Staying put is among the most dangerous and least successful options.


There's a time between when you think you're lost and when you know a search effort will begin. We teach the concept of "estimated arrival time" and "freak time." The first is when you expect to be back. The latter is when you want us to "freak out" and assume you need help. These might be the same (as in very technical terrain) or very different (a backpack trip in easy terrain where you have plenty of food might have a freak time days after your estimated return).

While you're in this "no search timezone" you should make every effort to self-rescue, unless darkness, weather, or technical terrain make such efforts imprudent.

What you choose to try depends a lot on the area (observe, think, plan). Remember that you almost always will have gone less far than you think, humans overestimate speed. Recalibrate. Consider backtracking. Move to a point where you can actually see something, don't stop and observe where there's nothing to observe. In hilly or mountainous areas, hike to higher ground where you can see more. In lake country follow a valley or river to the next lake.

The final option is always to head toward the nearest boundary. A boundary is something large, unmissable, and unmistakable. It could be a river, a good trail, a large lake, or a road. Find the nearest one and shoot compass or solar vectors straight there. Once you hit the boundary, you now know where you are, though you might be out of your way. (You'll also have put yourself into searchers' paths - see below).


Searches generally proceed from where the person was last seen, beginning with "hasty search" teams and then adding more resources as time progresses. The immediate area is searched, and then the search proceeds along natural paths. Searchers follow trails, sidecuts, etc. based on the best information they had about the person's intent. They also notify folks at the trailheads, check parking lots, etc. And they notify county and state authorities to be alert to the possibility of abduction. Things don't start as a "grid search."

You are most likely to be found at a trailhead, an area boundary (see above), or on the trail you intended. You are next most likely to be found on another trail. Then on a side-cut or an open field visible from the air in good weather, especially if you make every effort to signal as Joe suggests.

So if you're well past your freak time, you have to take into account the likely actions of the searchers, and if possible get to and stay in high "probability of detection" spots. A good first option is at least get yourself to a trail and then sit there if you must and someone will eventually run into you. But of course, if you get to a trail, you might be better off taking it in the most likely direction to a junction where your chances go up more. But then if you're at a junction, you'll probably be able to figure out where you are and head out. If there's good weather and you hear a plane buzzing around, get to an open field and signal the plane.

It's true, at some point a grid search will start on the assumption that you're off trail and incapacitated. Except for a small area close to last known location, this isn't going to get serious until day 2 or 3. It takes a huge human resource commitment to grid search a relatively small area. If you're in the more remote backcountry, it just isn't going to be done except by air (and then it will be done multiple times, so there's no strong concern about movement). Even if you're in a smaller state park, this kind of job is daunting. Yes, it's true with a ground grid search that if you move into an already-searched area from an unsearched one (without running into anyone) and then stop, you won't be found. But your chances of being found have gone pretty low at that point anyway. The benefits from any _intelligent_ planned movement are still likely to outweigh the risk. Most folks who are "found" during grid searches walk out on their own to the trailhead.


Moving or searching in the dark is generally a bad idea. Even experienced folks who know an area well can have trouble navigating in the dark. When it's getting dark, make camp. Preferably in one of the "obvious search zones" like smack in the middle of a trail.

Conserving energy is rarely an issue unless injury is involved. People do just fine without food for many days. But sure, if it's a blizzard or cold rainstorm and you're without gear, bed down until it clears. Then get moving.

Conserving water is more tricky in desert environments. This might require early morning, late afternoon, or evening movement, and might require you to drop into harder-to-search areas like canyons in order to get water.

So in summary, we should be teaching boy scouts who are regular wilderness users that "stay put" is the worst good choice. It's the final fallback position when weather or terrain require it for safety, or when any other intelligent option can't be found because of the limits of their experience. But we should make sure when we instruct them that we teach them well enough that they'll have plenty of intelligent options which won't be exhausted.

Cooper Wright

According to our wilderness survival instructor, he wanted us to stay put. It all has to do with where the person was seen last being critical to the success of finding that person. I hope that some search and rescue folks chime in on this one, since I'm not the expert, but I can imagine that if you are in a pretty remote backcountry area and are good and lost, with no known landmarks like roads, rivers, etc that you can see, you are only hampering the rescue efforts to move on.

C. Scott Davis

As both an SAR team member and Wilderness Survival Instructor and MB counselor; it is my preference that one STAY PUT!! Your chances of being rescued are magnified if you are stationary and we are mobile.

H. Alan Schup

Constantly moving in the attempts to save oneself by oneself is contrary to the two most significant items in being found:

  • You have limited water, and the exertion will only speed up the onset of dehydration. Your very first concern should be drinkable water supply if you suspect help is more than a day away (that is, if your ETA is days in the future and thus nobody suspects you are missing). Drink normally and not try to self-ration the water... people have been found dead from dehydration with a half-full canteen when, if they drank normally until empty, they would have delayed the onset of dehydration and been clear-headed longer.
  • Assuming you communicated your plans/route with someone at your destination that will be expecting you, rescuers will concentrate on the route then spread out. If you are truly lost, your aimless wanderings might be leading you away from the route you told others you would be taking, thus increasing the time it will take others to find you.

If one must move for whatever reason (safety, shelter...), leave evidence of where you have been and the direction you are traveling.

Craig Gissler

If you get lost

  • As soon as you realize you are lost, stop traveling and mark your location. Backtrack the route in your mind and try to figure out where you lost the way. If you have a map, try to pinpoint your location. Do not let panic interfere with your thinking.
  • If you have been traveling along a trail, ridge or stream - or if you can follow your own tracks back the way you came - turn around and retrace your steps until you're sure of your whereabouts. Resist the temptation to push ahead while hoping to come across some familiar landmark.
  • Try to find a highpoint from which to survey the area. Look for roads, major rivers and any signs of habitation and any other clues to help determine your location.

Source: Wilderness Survival

Articles that say to reason your way out and back track, do not seem to recommend you move more than an hour from where you realize you were lost, if you can get up on a ridge, in an open area if possible, use your whistle, fire, mirror or other signalling devise...

Dr. Jack Berdeaux

SAR officals tell hiking groups, Boy Scouts, Girl Scouts, Parents, and anyone that can listen: 1. Do not move once you realized you are lost. HUG-A-TREE Program is what we teach kids. 2. Do not separate 3. Use your emergency survival kit (what you do not have one in your fanny-pack or your pocket - get one together). 4. Always and I will repeat this "Always" let someone know where you are going, what you plan to do (even if you change your mind after getting there) and when you expect to return. Then if you don't return, tell them call the sheriff’s office immediately - even if they find you in the parking lot after calling-out SAR to look for you. Most states have delegated/legislated SAR to the county Sheriffs departments across the US.

Urban fire departments may be the default SAR for in town searches in park preserves, etc. even if the county is responsible.

Dehydration Risks

Joe Jansen

It is extremely easy to miss early signs of the onset of heat disorders. These disorders are preventable, and with good Scoutcraft training can and will be prevented.

Some information that may be helpful: Go to

to learn about warning signs of dehydration.

Go to

for information on when to cancel an activity because of heat.

More information on safety best practices in Scouting will be found in a forthcoming supplemental training "Planning and Conducting a Safe Scout Outing" which will be downloadable from the National web site (

Too Much Water Risks

Thomas C Johnson

While we were all discussing drinking ENOUGH water at the Jamboree, a police officer from the District of Columbia died from drinking TOO MUCH water, which caused a sodium imbalance called hyponatremia.

The symptoms can easily be mistaken for dehydration.

While rare, it's something we should be aware of when we're out and about with the Scouts. This officer, apparently, was drinking continuously out of a Camelback-type system, and may have unintentionally had as much as 3 gallons of water over the course of an excercise session. How many Scouts do you see walking around with a tube hanging out of their mouths??

According to US Army guidelines, you should not drink more than about 1-1/2 quarts of water per hour (or maybe 2 quarts if you're in full BDU's with a backpack in the desert and can't take a rest break).

There are more details at

for those who might be interested!

Lightening Safety

Mick Cole

Anyone hiking in an area subject to thunderstorms (which is most or perhaps all of us) needs, at a minimum, to be aware of the following rules, the violation of at least some of which were almost certainly a significant factor in two recent scouting deaths:


  • AVOID: Avoid water. Avoid all metallic objects. Avoid the high ground. Avoid solitary tall trees. Avoid close contact with others - spread out 15-20 ft.
  • APART: Avoid contact with dissimilar objects (water & land; boat & land; rock & ground; tree & ground). Avoid open spaces.
  • SEEK: Seek clumps of shrubs or trees of uniform height. Seek ditches, trenches or the low ground. Seek a low, crouching position with feet together with hands on ears to minimize acoustic shock from thunder.
  • KEEP: Keep a high level of safety awareness for thirty minutes after the last observed lightning or thunder.

Survival Rule of 3's

Christopher A. Craig

Survival Rule of 3's consist of very rough estimates and are meant mainly to provide priorities:

  • 3 minutes without oxygen (which is air and bloodflow)
  • 3 hours without heat/shelter (mainly hyper/hypothermia risks)
  • 3 days without water
  • 3 weeks without food

In a temperate climate with low physical exertion you could make it a couple weeks without water and potentially months without shelter; in extreme heat the numbers could be significantly less.

Ten Essentials


  1. First Aid Kit
  2. Water Bottle (w/ water)
  3. Flashlight (xtra batteries)
  4. Trail Food
  5. Sun Protection (sunscreen, hat, bandanna)


  1. Whistle


  1. Extra Clothing (space blanket)


  1. Map & Compass
  2. Rain Gear
  3. Pocket Knife
  4. Matches & Firestarters

Rain Management

We treat the eureka tents once every two years, use vestibules and then the boys use plastic on the interior floors of the tents to keep their bags /gear dry. Shoes stay out in the vestibules and they stay dry there provided they are set-up correctly.


Chester Kronke

The Pioneering MB pamplet recommends 1/4" rope for spars under 6" diameter and 3/8" rope for larger than 6". For added strength; when using sisal instead of manilla (sometimes hard to find); or when things will take a lot of stress and strain (never under estimate the abuse a group of young boys can exert on a project), I'd add an 1/8" to those rope sizes. We use mostly 3/8" manilla except when the timbers get larger than about 6" we go to 1/2" or even 5/8" for something like the center shear lashing in a Monkey bridge support. Larger than this is strickly used only for spans such as a monkey bridge main line but never for scout type pioneering lashing. Hope this helps.

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