Cold Camping – An Unforgettable Scouting Experience

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During my early teen years my father encouraged me to join the Boy Scouts of America.  I believe he felt it would make me more receptive to the idea later on of following in his footsteps and joining the military.  It did not – sometimes I wish it had.  But I did learn quite a bit while in the Scouts and I met some nice people – and a few weird ones.

Because we were a military family and my father’s duties required us to move to a new location annually, I experienced life as a nomad.  As such, I got to taste life as a Scout in several different troops.  Most were large, one was very large; more like an army than a troop, and I did my exercises and assignments, I earned my badges and did my best to stay out of the way until we folded our family tent and wandered off to Dad’s next assignment.  I’ve never been very outgoing; I mean what’s the point, I’m going to move in a few months and just have to leave any friends I make behind; right?

But one troop was very different.  Mom, and my younger bother and sister and I were deposited at Lincoln Nebraska, where Mom & Dad’s family were while Dad went to do a year in Viet Nam.  The scout troop here was not an extension of a military base, not run like an ROTC program.  It was quite small in fact; maybe 20 guys between 12 and 18 years old.  The Scout Master; we will call him Mr. Preston, was very wise and quite cagy.  He taught me more about life in the year I was there than all the other troops did combined.  Not the least of which was something he told me once: “Today is the ‘good old days’ that you will look back on someday; enjoy them while you can.”

Winter Tent by beauford00 tent, camping, winter
Winter Tent by beauford00

One of the merit badges I earned while with this troop was my Cold Camping badge.  To get it we had to prepare for and survive a minimum of three full days camped out – in tents – in weather that stays below 32 degrees.

One of the differences between this troop and the others was that when we went camping with Mr. Preston, we did not load our gear in a truck and board buses for the ride to the camp grounds.  We divided up the gear among the campers, strapped it all to our back packs and hiked – with everything we needed on our backs – to the camp ground.  If it was ten miles away, we hiked ten miles out and ten miles back.  This time, we hiked in the snow.

We brought good tents, we brought extra ground cloths, we brought heavy sleeping bags and enough of the proper clothing to “layer” so we could stay warm when inactive, yet be able to skinny down some while chopping wood or wrestling with bears.  I’m just kidding; we didn’t chop any wood – we beat the bears so THEY chopped the wood.    We set up the tents in a ring and built a good fire pit of stones and earth in the center.  We gathered LOTS of firewood!

The first night got very cold and several of us were having trouble sleeping so we kept the designated fire tender company.  One of these guys was Roger; a rather annoying fellow who liked to whine and complain about just about everything.  He came out wearing practically every bit of clothing he had brought and sidled up close to the fire to warm his hands (through mittens, no less).  Roger whined and the tender relented by stoking the fire a bit, but countered that it would be Roger who goes to cut more wood – in the dark — if we ran out before morning.

After a bit Roger was feeling warmer.  He moved back and sat on one of the log chunks placed around the fire pit for seating, stretched out his legs and propped his feet on the stones surrounding the pit.

No one had much to say; it was late, most of the guys were sleeping and wouldn’t appreciate a lot of conversation waking them too, so we sat quietly and contemplated the hypnotic beauty of fire, the way the blue, yellow, orange and red colors dance around with one another like some macabre ballet.

After a while one of the older guys started chuckling.  Roger had pretty well dozed off sitting on his log.  “Roger” the older fella called in a heavy whisper so as not to awaken the camp, “Roger, wake up!”

“Hmph, wha… Huh?” Roger snorted

“Roger, are your feet warm enough now?”

“Yeaaah!” smiled Roger sleepily, “They’re nice and toasty now.  Why?”

“Because your shoes are on fire.”


Sure enough, little licks of flame were climbing up the rubber soles of Rogers hiking boots.  Roger couldn’t see the soles of his own boots, and he figured we were pulling his leg anyway, but he slowly brought one foot around and crossed it across his knee to inspect the boot.  The result of his casual, sleepy inspection was a decidedly girl-like shriek followed by a lot of beating and flapping at his boots.

“Stand up you ninny, put your boots in the snow.”

You might be surprised at how difficult it s to extinguish burning rubber!  Even stomping around in all the snow he could find took what seemed like forever to put out the flames.

By now Mr. Preston and most of the others were on scene to see what all the shrieking and stomping was about.  The rest of us night owls were laughing so hard we could barely breathe let alone talk.  Roger slumped onto a log, shaking and pale.  Eventually we managed to explain that Roger had given himself a hot foot, but it’s out now.  Mr. Preston inspected Roger’s boots to be sure no serious damage had been done to the lad, then chastised him for falling asleep with his feet so close to the fire.  He then ordered everyone but the current fire tender to turn in and get to sleep.

Though we were ordered to lay off of teasing him about it, Roger sulked for the rest of the camping trip, mumbling under his breath things like, “Brand new pair of boots.  Dad’s gonna kill me.  Durn laughing hyenna’s; I could’a been killed.  I hate camping.”

Fortunately Rogers boot soles had not burned through, only some of the tread melted away, so that long hike alongside the snowy road back to town was not nearly as unpleasant for him as it could have been.

How about you?  Have you a camping tale to tell? A winter adventure?  Feel free to share.

7 thoughts on “Cold Camping – An Unforgettable Scouting Experience”

  1. Happiest of Happy Birthdays to you!!! I hope you had a great day!!!

    As to camping: all my trips ended in rain, being cold and getting sick afterwards. I’m not the outdoorsy type.

    1. That would tend to put one off of camping. Most of my camp-outs as a kid were great fun. These days my idea of a camp-out is an inflatable mattress on the floor in the living room in front of the fireplace. :-/

  2. That’s a great story and the background to your early life explains a lot about your brilliant and inspiring personal outlook on life, the universe and everything.

  3. Hey Allan,

    I’m a Scout leader in Calgary Alberta and we take our guys out every winter (and spring and fall, too). We don’t use tents for those outings, but go out into the mountains and build snow caves and Quinzees (hollowed out snow mounds). The coldest it has ever gotten for us is -28C. We just make sure our guys are dressed for the elements, stay dry and have proper winter sleeping gear.

    Haven’t lost one yet. 🙂

    1. I’m glad you haven’t lost any of your scouts, Michell! My brother and I once tunneled into a big snow drift to make a cave-fort. We may have gotten a little ambitious and part of it collapsed, sealing us in. It was at this point we learned just how soundproof snow is: no one could hear us screaming. Obviously we did manage to dig our way out, but we never attempted such a thing again. We did, one winter, use loaf pans to make snow “bricks” and construct a sort-of igloo. Nowhere near as good as yours, I’m sure, but at least if it collapsed on us digging out would have been easier.

      Thanks for joining in Michell!

      1. We have actually had collapses while building the Quinzees. My son was buried in one. We always have our guys work in pairs, but his partner just stood and watched him struggling to get out. One of my fellow leaders had to pull him out by the feet. It definitely scared him. He’s back making them again like it never happened though.

        That said, once the snow sets up for the Quinzees, you can stand on top of them (or have several people stand on them) and they don’t collapse. We just had to learn (the hard way) how long to let the snow setup. 🙂

        We did do igloos last winter and slept in those too. Much harder to make though. We just dug the packed snow out of the ground in the mountains. The snow was about 4 feet deep at the time.

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