Scouting/BSA/Wilderness Survival Merit Badge

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The requirements to this merit badge are copyrighted by the Boy Scouts of America. They are reproduced in part here under fair use as a resource for Scouts and Scouters to use in the earning and teaching of merit badges. The requirements published by the Boy Scouts of America should always be used over the list here. If in doubt about the accuracy of a requirement, consult your Merit Badge Counselor.
Reading this page does not satisfy any requirement for any merit badge. Per National regulations, the only person who may sign off on requirements is a Merit Badge Counselor, duly registered and authorized by the local Council. To obtain a list of registered Merit Badge Counselors, or to begin a Merit Badge, please contact your Scoutmaster or Council Service Center.

Requirements[edit | edit source]

Requirement 1a:Explain to your counselor the hazards you are most likely to encounter while participating in wilderness survival activities, and what you should do to anticipate, help prevent, mitigate, or lessen these hazards.

COMMENT: While risk reduction is an important concept and while this requirement opens the way to learning about the previously-omitted hazards that cause 75% of wilderness fatalities, this new requirement overlaps requirements 1b, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, and 12.

Requirement 1b:Show that you know first aid for and how to prevent injuries or illnesses likely to occur in backcountry settings, including hypothermia, heat reactions, frostbite, dehydration, blisters, insect stings, tick bites, and snakebites.[emphasis added]

COMMENT: A great improvement over prior language that required knowledge of first aid for all possible illness or injuries. However, still omits listing first aid for heart attack and drowning, which cause about half of all wilderness fatalities, and omits first aid for falls, which cause kill about another 25%. Still omits animal bites (rabies and plague).

Requirement 2:From memory, list the seven priorities for survival in a backcountry or wilderness location. Explain the importance of each one with your counselor.

Page 20 of the pamphlet states that there is "an order of priority" for seven "priorities for survival" without reference to the actual facts on the ground. The official priorities are, in this order:

A. "STOP" (Stop/Think/Observe/Plan, a tool to help you think properly about how to deal with a survival situation and establish what you need to do and in what order. Admitting there is a problem and thinking about it in a positive, productive, and creative fashion increases the chances for a good outcome. Control your fears and avoid panic. Decide to live. Focus on what you can do --- not what you cannot do. Analyze your situation and plan a course of action only after considering all of the aspects of your predicament and keeping in mind your safety at all times. Don't make unnecessarily quick judgments. How you think about your situation is the key to survival in an outdoor emergency.

B. First Aid - Serious first aid problems need to be dealt with consistent with proper mental approach. First aid may be your top priority. Scouts are far more likely to have needed first aid information and skills than the general population.

C. Shelter - Staying at or near 98.6 F is essential to survival. If the survival situation takes place in dangerous cold or heat, getting sheltered as best you can (starting with clothing) is critical -- first priority.

D. Fire - Fire is not a survival need but a tool that addresses several survival needs, including staying at 98.6 when it is cold; signaling; purifying water; and boosting your morale.

E. Signaling - If you are lost and want to be found than make yourself visible. A "signal" is something that stands out from the surroundings by virtue of its color, movement, sound or shape.

F. Water - Water is often critical to survival. In great heat, water may be needed in a few hours. Dehydration interferes with the functioning of our bodies, including thinking straight.

G. Food - Food is listed last in the pamphlet and is apparently not regarded as a priority at all: Don't worry about food. However, food is an important necessity, however, not as important as water.

COMMENT: The requirements ignore the need to navigate safety to avoid trouble or deal with it ("self-rescue") and the needs to conserve energy and sleep. These are critical omissions and conflict with other official B.S.A. literature..

While the pamphlet discusses the importance of leaving trip information with responsible parties who will "miss" you, that critical tool does not find its way into the requirements.

Requirement 3:Discuss ways to avoid panic and maintain a high level of morale when lost, and explain why this [sic] is important.

COMMENT: Former editions of the pamphlet required that the candidate explain how to maintain a "positive mental attitude" without expressly explaining how that objective could be accomplished. The 2008 edition (the 2007 edition with colored pictures) urges in the text (p. 19) "Keep a Positive Attitude," explained as a "conscious choice to . . . endure." It then discusses the STOP process as the invariable first "priority," implying that STOP is a way to maintain a positive attitude, avoid panic, and maintain morale.

OTHER COMMENTS: (a) Be positive about your problem situation. Things have gone wrong, but you are NOT helpless. There ARE things you can do to make the situation better. As a Scout, you have skills and experience that will help. Having a shelter and fire (light) built before dark helps you conclude that you are safer and that you will make it through the emergency. Getting dark? So what? It gets dark on every campout you have experienced. Noises in the dark? That's normal. Nothing new there. You left a Trip Plan at "home," so you will be missed, and help will be on the way.

(b)Thinking realistically and creatively are keys to survival.

Requirement 4:Describe the steps you would take to survive in the following conditions:

a. Cold and snowy
b. Wet (forest)
c. Hot and dry (desert)
d. Windy (mountains or plains)
e. Water (ocean or lake)

COMMENT: The pamphlet vastly overrates waterproof-breathable garments and ignores the existence of polyester, dating the material to a period decades ago when the first waterproof-breathables were uncritically hailed, "polypro" was king, and wool was the number 1 insulation layer.

The pamphlet inconsistently suggests both t-shirts and shorts and long-sleeved shirts and trousers for "hot" weather and shows many illustrations of Scouts at Philmont in t-shirts, shorts and no head ware whatsoever ("Crispy Critters")

Requirement 5:Put together a personal survival kit and explain how each item in it is useful.

COMMENT: The text does not explain the reasoning behind a "personal survival Kit" (AKA "PSK"); namely, a collection of basic gear so small and light that one will never be tempted to leave it behind. The pamphlet confuses a PSK with the "Ten Essentials" approach to selecting gear for a wilderness trek.

Requirement 6:Using three different methods (other than matches), build and light three fires.

COMMENT: While the text (p. 29) recognizes that the survival need is an ability to start a fire with something other than "matches and lighters," the requirement continues to technically allow any means other than matches (such as a butane or propane torch).

Much of the information in the pamphlet on fire-building is incorrect. Hard woods, such as oak, are poor choices for fire-by-friction. The illustration that accompanies the discussion of natural flint and steel is a ferrocerium rod (man-made "flint" like that in a cigarette lighter or "Hot Spark"), and such a tool would easily be broken if you "strike the steel against the edge of the flint" (not that the ferrocerium rod has an edge)(The correct technique is, of course, to scrape the ferrocerium rod with a sharp, hard edge.) Charred cloth is not mentioned but is almost essential for most to make fire-by-friction or with natural flint and steel. Natural "flint" is not common in much of North America. Best firewood is not "dead and downed," but is dead and attached to the tree or shrub (The pamphlet amazingly advises that Leave No trace be followed even in a survival situation. Inconsistently, it also says the opposite.) The Teepee Fire lay has become the only lay illustrated in Scout literature, and it is the only lay illustrated in the pamphlet. There are other, more effective and secure fire lays, such as the Log Cabin or Hunter's Fire.

Requirement 7:Do the following:

a. Show five different ways to attract attention when lost.
b. Demonstrate how to use a signal mirror.
c. Describe from memory five ground-to-air signals and tell what they mean.

COMMENT: Smoke signals can be seen for miles and fire is visible even further in the dark. A whistle can be heard for greater distances and uses far less energy than yelling. A mirror or other object that reflects the sun can make you visible to a helicopter or plane. Millions of people have been trained that three flashes, three whistle blasts, three smoke signals - three of any signal - stands for distress (HELP!).

Requirement 8:Improvise a natural shelter. For the purposes of this demonstration, use techniques that have little negative impact on the environment. Spend a night in your shelter.

COMMENT: B.S.A. is trapped between Leave No Trace and the wishes of property owners on one side and, on the other, a desire for candidates to learn something about building an expedient shelter from leaves, grasses, and branches. So they try to have it both ways: "natural" but with "little impact on the environment." ("Unnatural" materials are only available around Halloween.) A realistic requirement would be to make a shelter from one or two plastic trash bag(s)and a framework of light, dead branches -- unless the situation allows building an expedient shelter from vegetation. The main "takeaway" from building a brush shelter is that Scouts almost invariably greatly underestimate the time and work required to build a shelter that insulates and keeps out rain.

Be creative and use your surroundings the best you can. The shape of the ground may block wind in some places, as can trees or brush. If cold, try and find shelter and build a safe fire. If in really hot weather get out of the sun and dry wind. In the cold it may be easier to sleep in the day and stay awake at night by a warm fire. In very hot weather you may also want to seek shelter and/or sleep during the day. The pamphlet illustrates Scouts inadequately dressed for hot, sunny conditions and gives inconsistent advice on wilderness clothing.

Requirement 9:Explain how to protect yourself from insects, reptiles, and bears.

COMMENT: Omits very significant categories of animals with which there are unpleasant interactions: 1) homo sapiens; 2) rodents and other small mammals

Partial overlap with Requirement 1.

Requirement 10:Demonstrate three ways to treat water found in the outdoors to prepare it for drinking.

COMMENT: The discussion of chemical disinfecting of water is incorrect. While they eliminate some risks, chlorine (except Chlorine dioxide) and iodine are not fully reliable to treat wild water according to all private and public authorities (W.M.S.; Red Cross; Mayo Clinic; U.S.C.D.C; U.S. Surgeon General; U.S.E.P.A.), as is pointed out in other B.S.A literature.

There is inadequate discussion of where water is more likely to be found in nature. There is no discussion of field-expedient filtering. Only commercial filters are discussed. There is no discussion of: digging mini wells next to a body of water; SODIS (q.v.); or boiling without metal containers. There is no discussion of gathering dew or use of transpiration bags.

The combination of any commercial filter AND chlorine or iodine is extremely safe. Newer filters eliminate all microorganisms.

Requirement 11:Show that you know the proper clothing to wear in your area on an overnight in extremely hot weather and extremely cold weather.

COMMENT: While layers are mentioned, there is no explanation of what materials or construction are used for different layers. Polyester fleece is not mentioned, nor are polyester wicking garments. Though polypropylene is mentioned, it is obsolete when compared to polyester wicking garments.

There is no mention of clothing as a barrier to insects, thorns, poisonous plants, or other sources of abrasions and cuts.

The MBP suggests a brimmed hat for warm weather, omitting the need to avoid sunburn in cold weather. It repeatedly shows illustrations of Scouts in sunny mountain scenes with no hats whatsoever.

There is no discussion of eye protection from solar radiation in summer or when snow covers the ground.

Requirement 12:Explain why it usually is not wise to eat edible wild plants or wildlife in a wilderness survival situation.

COMMENT: Food is a need but is usually the least important wilderness survival need. A person can typically survive for many days without food. While you should use whatever food you have with you, gathering wild food uses energy and is unlikely to produce as many calories of energy as you use up trying to gather it. If you can acquire food easily then go for it. (Eating proteins and carbohydrates increases dehydration if water is in short supply.)

OVERALL COMMENT: There is good information in the MBP, but also internal conflicts, conflicts with other B.S.A. literature, omissions, and simply incorrect information. There is no table of contents and the material does not track the requirements.

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