Are Boy Scout Camp Groups Too Large - Out of Control?

I stopped at Shade Lake in Quetico. I was very tired, needed to camp. First site was taken by a scout group, so I headed to a site across the lake. It had just been occupied by another large group of pubescent boys. It was easy to tell. Poo and TP everywhere. Cans in the fireplace. All through that trip, and on every trip along the border, I pass large groups of boy scouts. I just wonder what the toll on resources really is for these traveling disaster areas. I know scout leaders try to keep things under control, but repeatedly camping large groups at the same sites is precisely what is NOT needed in BWCA or Quetico. In August, I took my family to Ester Lake, including wife, daughter in law and granddaughter… The commode was full. Disgusting for everyone, but especially the girls. Who knows when this site will be serviced with a new pit.

I’m going to avoid the border area, and any other place where scouts routinely camp. Sad, the prettiest areas seem to be scout magnets. You’d think the scout leaders would recognize the detrimental impact of large groups and split them up. Wilderness camping is not a community activity, it’s a personal one.

I worked with a group of Boys Scouts for several years as a volunteer instructor.
The first meeting I attended(at request of 2 parents) left me in shock; the boys were generally out of control. This was due to a lack of leadership by the Scoutmaster & parents who attended.

I was approached by 2 parents who I’d known for years; we played on softball teams in competitive tournaments.
Would I work with them if they took over the troop, as co scoutmasters?
Could I teach outdoor skills to the troop; really “do something”.
I said I could, and I would, but they had to totally back me up
We would not be hanging around the troop’s meeting house; we would be doing outdoor activities & community work projects.

The 2 parents took over the troop as co scoutmasters.
I don’t know how that was done; I had no part in the coup…
Attended my first meeting with them as co scoutmasters; introduced myself & began to outline the “new agenda”…
Two kids were kicked out of the meeting due to disruption. It was winter; there was 7 or 8 inches of snow on the ground. Kid’s parents were there; they raised no issues.

To make a long story short; disruption, chaotic behavior, and failure to follow directions brought about natural consequences. Smarter kids got the message real quick.
Some took longer.
Some bailed out of the troop.

All the kids received instruction in first aid, water safety, CPR, canoeing, rock climbing, rappeling, caving, backpacking and search & rescue. All participated in rock climbing, rappelling, caving, canoeing, backpacking, search & rescue activities on multiple occasions. They completed multiple community projects.

Some of them fell by the wayside. A hard core group hung in there.
Before long, they were policing each others behavior. If they didn’t, all suffered the consequences. Slowly but surely they took virtually total responsibility for themselves & others…

In the end about 10 of them did a 2 week backpacking expedition at Philmont Boy Scout Ranch in New Mexico. I attended & participated; my expenses paid by the troop. I & the parents who went to Philmont gave some advice, but the scouts led the trip with us mainly acting as tourists.

5 or 6 of them achieved Eagle Scout status. All the kids are now married with their own kids, and in varied professions . Several have college degrees. When I see them; they want to BS about the “good old days” as scouts. They know now how those good old days came to be.

If there is no control of behavior; nothing is learned.


P.S. My training in military was often used; I was a Military Policeman, and a Drill Sergeant.

It has been a very long time since I have been a Boy Scout and I’m sure a lot has changed. My recollections are mostly positive, but I do recall a few moments on outings in which older boys got rather out of control.

I agree with Bob that much depends on the quality of the Scout Masters, and this is probably much more important than the size of the group. And I strongly suspect that being a Scout Master can be a rather thankless job. But larger groups of Scouts allow more leeway for some to get out of control, and larger groups of any type are potentially harder on the environment.

Enforcement of discipline might also be a problem. How much can a Scout Master do in the short term if a kid really gets out of control? Beating them with a stick is going to be frowned on these days. You can’t just maroon them in Quetico or the BWCA. All you can probably do is kick them out of the troop after the trip is over.

I can relate to the OP’s concerns-campsites filled by large groups, somewhat rowdy pubescent boys, and full latrines or toilet paper forests surrounding campsites. Contrast that with the overall values, leadership opportunities. and environmental stewardship that are central to the BSA. When I’ve encountered large groups as a solo hiker I have often moved on to other shelters (AT) or campsites. I contrast that with the numerous times I’ve led or been a part of BSA trips. So for me, it is a very mixed bag.

The BSA’s “two deep” leadership, patrol and troop structure often facilitate larger groups. Others may be critical of campfires, digging latrines, and loud aluminum canoes. Yet I am steadfast in my believe that it is groups like the BSA/YMCA/Camp Challenge Programs that will help pass on a basic appreciation for wild outdoor places. I acquired the “paddling bug” while working for the BSA (Maine High Adventure) many years ago. Years later, I’m still “suffering” from my paddling addiction and hanging out on pcom. I have the boyscouts to blame.

Usually the youth groups are found at popular outdoor destinations, during popular weekends or summer breaks and in areas that are pretty accessible. Simply get a little more creative with your own trip planning if looking for solitude. Lots of pretty areas elsewhere or further from the road, You might have to dig your latrine though as you go to less developed areas. The scouts taught me how to do that as well.

TheBob, as is often the case, has it correct for groups of yourng males (I can’t speak for groups of young females). Strong leadership & a culture of expectations will tend to produce results. Sometimes those results are not what we want - see gangs - but in the case of scouts they generally are. With out that things can tend toward ‘Lord of the Flies’.

I can’t remember what the camp sanitation was like on the way oversize (13 canoes & a couple were triples) trip in Algonquin I took with the scouts in the mid-60s. I can only hope that it wasn’t too bad. What I do remember is that I was where I wanted to be in the woods and lakes ‘Up North’. I often say the the best meal I’ve had was on that trip. It was a cool windy morning & we had been pounding into the wind all morning. We stopped for lunch on a point. Lunch was water straight from the lake (it was 1965), velveeta cheese on smashed rye bread, and all the blueberries you could pick. Out in the wind & sky with the smell of the pines & the lake. That was the trip that “ruined” me for life. I hope that kids still get the chance to get out in the bush for days.

rval51 thanks for the walk down memory lane, I hope many more youth get to be
“ruined” as you did. Wonderful memories you shared.

I think one of the great attributes of scouting is that it allows kids a chance to be the leaders. That is a process may not always be smooth. I don’t think I ever quite belonged to “a lord of flies” unit but I can remember a time when one of the troops I was in got a bit senile- the many older scouts would parade around in their bathrobes, use a pair underwear as a patrol flag (for the camp inspection), play a game of the nonpolitically correct “smear the queer” and depart from tradition and cook pizza instead of cobbler in the dutch ovens. That eventually led to the formation of a high adventure explorer post. However, we were usually too tired to be real rowdy in the wilderness. The Many miles of hiking or paddling every day kept us in check. Truthly, most of the scouts I’ve encountered recently are much better behaved than I ever was. Discipline is a good thing, but not at the expense of letting scouts themselves develop into capable leaders.

I have yet to met a group of scouts canoeing or kayak camping in the places I go.

I was a Scout and lucky to be in 2 different troops that were well organized. The patrol leader (a scout) was responsible for his patrol. There was also an assistant patrol leader. They were mostly made up of the older scouts. With 2 in charge things ran better.

I have been backpacking many years as an adult outside of scouting. We rarely have as many as 6 in our group. We have experienced both well behaved groups of scouts and poorly behaved groups. The scout groups we have encounter usually run about a dozen or less with 2 adult leaders. We try to avoid scout groups altogether because we prefer to be away from unnecessary noise.

Only happened once. We were paddling down the Wood River on the way to the paddle-in campsites that are part of the Burlingame State Park here in RI. As we approached one of the portages, we saw a group of about 20 scouts that had stopped for lunch. Drill Sergeant Bob definitely wasn’t in charge of this group – they were whooping it up and generally having a good time. We hurried through the portage and got on the water before they did. As we started downstream, they were settling down and starting to get organized.

We knew where they were headed, so we opted for a boot-leg site about a mile upstream from our original destination. We saw the scouts paddle by about 20 minutes after we pulled in – they seemed to be doing fine. We heard them several time through out the night. I don’t begrudge them their fun, as long as I don’t have to camp with them.

I believe there are party size limits in the BWCA and Quetico. There are in Algongquin, but there are exemptions for school groups and probably Scouts.
I don’t know if that is the same in the BWCA and Q.
We saw inconsiderate waste management on the Allagash… As a ranger was not too far away we reported it and he knew exactly who to look for…

Back in the 1970’s there was serious consideration by the NYSDEC to ban scouts and other youth groups from camping in the Adirondacks because of actual and perceived damage to the environment by what was then thought to be 'traditional methods" of camping (bough beds and the like), definitely not LNT stuff. Of course BSA took the brunt of the blame because they were the most prevalent well known and visible youth group.

Of course for success, much depends on the quality, knowledge and skill of the scout leaders and their ability to control the group. Beginning in 1979, a group of NYSDEC Forest Rangers and a number of concerned BSA leaders began a trek leader guide training program, strongly tied with what was to eventually become the national Leave No Trace organization ( with LNT principles and with evolving BSA outdoor ethics policies. The then many BSA resident camps in the Adirondack region would hire trained Voyageur trek leaders (typically college age summer workers) to take scouts their leaders out in small groups for backpacking and/or canoeing 5-day wilderness treks. the training was and still is based on NYSDEC regulations and LNT principles, even before LNT became a national program, and continues today with LNT at the core.

Students are typically college age folk ( or other adult leaders) who want to work during the summer weekly guiding 5-day wilderness treks out of a BSA resident camp in the Adirondacks. This 8-day training, which we dubbed the “Voyageur” Trek Leader training program is given each spring at one of the Adirondack resident base camps, with the first half of the week devoted to classroom lectures and group exercises. During the second half of the week, each individual student gets to demonstrate his or her outdoor leadership skills leading a small group on an actual combination Adirondack wilderness hiking/canoeing trek with instructors playing the role of young inexperienced scouts or crusty scoutmasters, presenting all kinds of abilities and typical problems for the student leader to solve.

Not every student candidate leader will demonstrate sufficient skill and attitude to pass the course, if they don’t they will not be hired as a trek leader by BSA. To be allowed to pass the course, instructors have the stated policy of asking themselves: “would I trust this person to responsibly take my own child into the wilderness and safely return?” Usually the answer is well documented and clearly obvious during individual student evaluation.

BSA National has taken the outdoor education syllabus we have developed for the Adirondack specific Voyageur Trek Leader Training Program and adapted it to similar BSA High Adventure training programs in other parts of the country.

The adkvoyageur web page is currently under revision: Visit the web page in the coming weeks for more information.

Does BWCA or Quetico not have group size limits? In the Adirondacks no group (youth or adult) is allowed an overnight group size of more than either 8 or 9 persons, depending on the exact area of travel. Not only are small groups much more manageable from a leadership, safety, and discipline point of view, but are also much easier on the environment.

@yknpdlr said:

Does BWCA or Quetico not have group size limits? In the Adirondacks no group (youth or adult) is allowed an overnight group size of more than either 8 or 9 persons, depending on the exact area of travel. Not only are small groups much more manageable from a leadership, safety, and discipline point of view, but are also much easier on the environment.

Yes, the limit is 9 and 4 watercraft. About 5 years ago my wife and I were on Duncan headed to the palisades above Rose Lake in the BWCAW. Three of the campsites we could see had what looked like a full limit of Boyscouts? On our way back from the palisades, the lake was “Teeming” with Boyscouts in canoes. While they may not have violated the letter of the law, they most certainly violated the spirit of it!

In addition to the group size limit in the Adirondacks, there is a one mile minimum separation distance for groups in common. There have been cases where a large Boy Scout contingent shows up a a resident camp wanting to all travel together on a wilderness trek. Can’t legally do that without splitting them into separate groups, at the expense of course of hiring additional guide(s). I know of more than one case where such supposed separated groups congregated together on the trail and were warned by a ranger to split up. Once, twice, and on the third occasion, a $100 violation ticket was issued to each adult group leader.

I had a similar experience with a group of scouts here in SC. I attended one of a local troop’s meetings, with the intent of future assistance on outdoor excursions. After watching total chaos ensue, with absolutely NO corrective comments from the two scoutmasters attending, I made it my first and last encounter. I realize that I grew up in a different time, but if this is any example of today’s young population, we are in BIG trouble in the future. We need to adopt a new national policy of mandatory two years military service after high school. Maybe, just maybe, that might instill some responsibility, courtesy, and ethics into future generations.

Individual discipline used to start at home. If it was needed in places other than the home, parents would stand behind proper appropriate and measured discipline by adults in a responsible role to help their kids to learn life’s adult rules. That is no longer the case. And the kids know that nothing of consequence can be legally or ethically done to them when they act like mean little wild monsters. Just ask any teacher, especially a substitute teacher (as my wife is). So that is the reason when I am teaching a Voyageur trek leader group, I as instructor, role play the part of “Bobby”, the unruly zero-skills kid in the troop for the student leader of the day to deal with and teach a few skills. I, or another instructor will also play “Mr. Finkelstein”, the bossy, unfriendly, and environmentally-rule defiant and regulation-breaking scoutmaster. There are techniques for the student guide to learn in each case. With us the Trek leader students are not out there for an easy walk in the woods with their buddies.

I became an assistant scout master when my son graduated from Webelos. A friend and I took over a troop where apparently discipline was never heard of.
It took us one camping trip to get rid of the problem boys. They couldn’t handle the behavior we expected.
It was amazing how quickly we rebuilt the troop with boys who acted like Scouts.
We all had a lot of fun . Our Scouts are in their 40s and we still stay in touch. One of them is sitting 3’ away from me while we hang out with his sons.

My son and his childhood best friend came up through the ranks from cubs and attained Eagle together in the same ceremony. Shortly after that my son went to the AF Academy and spent his AF career as a fighter pilot and flight instructor, just retired this past summer and now is a pilot for SWAir. His buddy went to West Point at the same time and both were stationed in Germany at the same time, AF and Army (he also returned to be MC at my son’s retirement ceremony) and he is now on his way to making General, I am sure. I have no doubt that what they learned as boy leaders in scouts paved the way for both of them to successfully be what they are today with no small part due to the excellent adult leaders they had.

@string said:
I became an assistant scout master when my son graduated from Webelos. A friend and I took over a troop where apparently discipline was never heard of.
It took us one camping trip to get rid of the problem boys. They couldn’t handle the behavior we expected.
It was amazing how quickly we rebuilt the troop with boys who acted like Scouts.
We all had a lot of fun . Our Scouts are in their 40s and we still stay in touch. One of them is sitting 3’ away from me while we hang out with his sons.

The 4 boys who came out of Webelos with me all became Eagles.

I don’t think it is a matter of the size of the group, or the fact that it is Boy Scouts. It’s a matter of leadership. The good group leaders will ensure that the site is properly treated and left in good condition.