Let’s get something straight, up-front. Boy Scout camp, at least the one I attend, is no glitzy affair. The food in the mess hall, where they feed each camper for a couple of bucks a day, isn’t very good. The outhouses sometimes blanket the campsites with a low-hanging layer of stench that can be quite foul. The weather is mostly tough to endure; it’s difficult to sleep when you’re perspiring (but, hey, it is summer). And the open-flapped tents allow raiding parties of raccoons to come and go freely… all night long. Despite all of that, it’s ten of my most favorite days of every year. Here’s why:
1. Everyone is nice.
The Scout Law tells us that we should be cheerful and most people take this very seriously. A held door is acknowledged with eye contact and a thank you. Passing another camper on the trail almost always includes a good morning and a smile. Yes, you may encounter this behavior in the rest of the world, but never as consistently and heartfelt as at Boy Scout summer camp.
2. It’s a safe place to be.
One of the axioms you’ll hear if you hang around Scouts long enough is that Boy Scouts is a place where boys can safely fail. It’s true and one of the greatest things about the program. As adults, we know that life is tough and often teaches lessons with cold-hearted dispatch. In Scouting, and especially at camp, we prepare boys for dealing with tough situations–both those at school, home, or on the streets and the ones they might face in nature. That’s not to say that some might get hurt, especially when you’re in your first year of camp and have just earned the right to carry your first pocket knife. But there are lessons to be learned in first aid, too.
3. Boys are allowed to run freely.
A huge part of learning is exploring and, in my experience, it’s one that many kids have lost sight of. Too often, heavy schedules and indoor entertainment hold kids back from getting outside, getting dirty, and learning while playing. Not at camp. Here, boys turn over rocks (after learning how to check for snakes first), go on long hikes, climb down into caves, swim in lakes, launch arrows, shoot guns, and much, much more–most of it without an adult looking over their shoulders. It is glorious to have that kind of freedom in an overprotective world.
4. Boys can grow a lot in a week and a half.
As a result of having freedom and responsibility, we often see a tremendous growth in boys over a single session of summer camp. In our troop, each kid has a job, which changes from day to day. They might be responsible for filling the community water jugs, cleaning the latrines, setting and cleaning up meals, or raising and lowering the flag. As part of a group, they find their places, learn from the older boys, and mature a little bit. It’s not uncommon for thrilled parents to mention that their son had returned from camp and insisted on cleaning up after dinner (for a while, at least).
5. We look out for each other.
Scouts are trustworthy and a lost knife, dropped five dollar bill, or other misplaced personal items are almost always turned in to the lost and found so they can be reunited with their owners. What’s more, boys engaged in an unsafe activity, saying things they shouldn’t, or getting in an argument are counseled by anyone walking by–be it a leader from another unit or a fellow Scout. We are loyal and we want everyone to feel safe and welcome.
6. Boys get to learn new skills.
When I was Scoutmaster, I used to tell the boys that they are among the luckiest people in the world because not only do they get to enjoy the great outdoors with their friends, but they also have 137 merit badges that they can earn–each one is a crash course in a future job or lifelong hobby that they can learn about from someone who is an expert in that subject. At summer camp, boys can earn a half dozen of those badges and, most of the time, they include skills and lessons that will stay with them for life.
7. Service is important.
In addition to personal learning and advancement, one of the most important elements of Scouting is providing service to others. In our council (the Boy Scouts of America is composed of 272 councils, which cover geographic areas ranging from cities to whole states), we provided more than 200,000 hours of service last year to our community. This is part of a daily effort to make things better for our neighbors. It might be cleaning up a trail in the park or helping at a homeless shelter or, in one day, planting 18,000 flowers for the city. Service is integral to Scouting and it doesn’t take a vacation when we head to camp. We improve our campsites and leave them better than when we found them. We take on conservation projects to make sure our camp will be here for years to come. At my camp, we are so dedicated to improving the camp that some boys and adults will spend an entire day working to make the camp better. Service drives us.
8. Camp proves you can survive without a phone, tablet, or laptop.
Our troop has a zero tolerance policy on electronics for our Scouts. It works because it promotes kids being together and engaged. For parents, we realize it’s a sacrifice to be away from work, so a phone or other device can be used, but only away from the campsite. The truth is that most adults simply don’t. I turned off my phone and only checked it twice while I was gone. Clients and vendors knew I was going to be away and there was nothing that I missed that couldn’t wait. It was freeing to set all that aside and just enjoy nature and the company of our Scouts during summer camp.
9. Camp teaches you that you can be uncomfortable and survive.
Whether it’s getting caught without a rain jacket in a sudden downpour or forgetting your sleeping bag when the temperatures dip below 60º or one of those things I mentioned at the top, chances are you’re going to be uncomfortable, maybe even miserable when camping. Last year, we had five days when the heat index was above 115º. The year before that, it rained for six days straight.
As one of our dads is fond of saying, there is no bad weather, only bad gear choices. So make sure you pack right and you’ll make it through camp. If you can teach yourself to be cheerful when you’re downright uncomfortable, not much is going to bother you at other times. A Scout is brave. He will make it through less than ideal situations. Then, when faced with adversity in the rest of his life, he will have the confidence to overcome.
10. Singing for no reason is ridiculously fun.
I saved this one for last because it’s my favorite. When was the last time you sang a silly song for no reason? At camp, it happens at each meal. I don’t think you’ve lived until you and 500 others have belted out “Alice the Camel” at 7:45 in the morning. Giving yourself permission to be silly is not only a blast, it’s something we don’t do often enough.
In fact, singing songs so strongly reminds me of summer camp, I don’t feel like I’m really there until I hear one. Fortunately, I didn’t have to wait long this year. Shortly after arriving on the reservation, I was walking across camp to visit a favorite spot. I was walking by the nature lodge, where four counselors were waiting for their next class to show up. After I passed, I heard all four break into “Sippin’ Cider Through a Straw,” one of my favorites. I slowed my pace, listened, and smiled.
This past camp was my thirteenth year at the H. Roe Bartle Scout Reservation and the fifth I attended with my son. Each year I dread going down just a bit, for all the reasons I mention at the top. But when I leave, I always feel a bit heartbroken that I have to go home; I really want to stay. Every. Single. Time.
Some of my strongest memories from my youth are from summer camp there, playing cards by flashlight with some friends on our cots, going for long walks to Scorpion Hill (where we actually saw scorpions!), and getting my first stitches. But summer camp continues to create new memories too: like a first year kid finally passing his swim test or a sixth-year Scout earning his Eagle beneath a canopy of cedars and oaks. Or a kid who hated camp last year, completely loving it this year. It’s about fellowship and it’s about growth, friendship and warmth. And today, it’s thinking about all those memories and the 50 weeks until we get to go back again. There really isn’t much that’s better than Boy Scout summer camp.