Picking Destinations

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It may be a good idea to have a member of your troop’s Patrol Leader Council teach or review the following concepts at the beginning of your annual program planning meeting.

1 When to Go Where

1.1 Seasons, Humidity, and Elevation

In Dallas-Fort Worth the summer heat typically breaks, meaning we have our first day that is not oppressively hot (not counting rainstorms), within a week before or after September 15. The first genuinely cool day typically follows about a month later within a week of October 15.

Spring is typically pleasant but rainier, while fall is typically pleasant but drier.

There are three general directions that one can go from Dallas-Fort Worth to go camping: (1) southeast toward Houston; (2) northeast toward Arkansas; and (3) west toward New Mexico. In planning when to go where, you will want to account for the different seasonal humidity and elevation in each of these three regions.

The piney woods south and east of Dallas are fine to visit from fall through spring break. But by mid May the combination of heat and humidity in the region becomes unpleasant. This is reinforced by the fact that the region is flat, often forested with wind-breaks, and at least as low in elevation as Dallas-Fort Worth.

The Ouachita Mountains of southeast Oklahoma and south Arkansas are still pleasant during the early summer. But even Tim Ernst, author of the mile by mile guide to the Ouachita Trail, who wants you to buy his book and visit the trail, suggests that the heat and humidity will be sufficiently unpleasant by early July that you would probably prefer to be somewhere else. The elevation in the Ouachita Mountains of southern Arkansas and the Ozark Mountains of northern Arkansas rarely exceeds 2,500 feet. This is enough elevation to get a breeze up on a mountain, but not enough for the air to thin out and carry less moisture.

During about July 1 - September 15 the most pleasant direction to go is actually west. Yes, it is just as hot in West Texas as anywhere else. But during that time of year it is hot everywhere, and at least in West Texas, when you do get sweaty, you will dry off once you stop exercising. And if you go all the way to New Mexico, the mountains get up to 8,000 - 12,000 feet where the air thins out and carries even less moisture. The Hill Country of Central Texas and the Wichita Mountains of southwest Oklahoma, which are nearer and also fairly dry, likewise top out around 2,500 feet in elevation.

1.2 Colorado Is a Two-Day Drive Each Way

Colorado is wonderful in the summer. But you cannot get there from Dallas-Fort Worth in a single day of ten hours of daylight driving, which is the daily the limit under the Transportation Rules, ¶ 7 in the Guide to Safe Scouting. Philmont, near Taos in northeast New Mexico, is very close to the limit at 9.5 hours from Dallas. Google Maps

2 Activities Are Part of a Multi-Year Program, Not Isolated Events

A troop’s program will be more successful when individual activities are planned not only as part of an annual program, but as part of a multi-year program. An ideal troop program is not only good this year, it is good in a way that can be sustained and remain engaging year after year. The idea is to think in terms of a program cycle that lasts from two to four years.

2.1 Age-Appropriate Activities: Car Camping versus Backpacking, Etc.

Camping comes in two flavors: (1) car camping; and (2) backpacking. The difference, once you have parked at your destination, is whether you will be able to make repeated trips back to the car or troop trailer to retrieve everything, or if you will instead have to carry it all on your back in a single trip. It is important to clearly decide which type of camping will be involved in each activity.

Backpacking requires more experience. Backpacking also requires more physical strength. Our troop once included 12 year olds backpacking two or three miles into camp at McGee Creek State Park. Several of the younger Scouts had to stop halfway and take their packs off to rest for at least 15 minutes. A year and a half later some of these same Scouts had no trouble keeping up while hiking several miles each day on the Caney Creek Trail. The difference was that they had put on enough size during those 18 months for backpacking to be successful and enjoyable.

Younger Scouts in the New Scout Patrol simply do not have the physical ability to do everything that a Leadership Corps of 14-17 year old Scouts can and will want to do.

Also see the BSA Rules regarding Age-Appropriate Activities from the Guide to Safe Scouting.

2.2 Age-Rationed Activities: High Adventure

A second reason to sometimes differentiate between the activities for younger and older Scouts is to retain the interest of older Scouts. Many troops have a conscious policy of holding back certain activities until a Scout has reached a certain age and/or rank. This gives the younger Scouts something to look forward to, and it avoids Been There, Done That Syndrome by continuing to give older Scouts new experiences that maintain their interest in the program. "Keep some of your program powder dry."

2.3 Rationed Visits to Each Destination: Best Uses of Each Camp

Some destinations are big enough, and offer enough varied activities, that a troop could visit twice every year and not get bored with the camp. Destinations in this category include Clements Scout Ranch, Sid Richardson Scout Ranch, LBJ Grasslands, and the Ouachita Trail. But smaller destinations may not sustainably support more than a single trip every year or two. This is another manifestation of Been There, Done That Syndrome.

The point is to think both about how frequently a destination should be visited, and about what are the destination's best uses and what are the types of trips that should be scheduled there.

For example, the thing that Hickory Creek offers is primitive hike-in camping well within DFW just off the highway on Lake Lewisville. This is most valuable in winter when the sun goes down early. So think twice before spending your troop’s annual visit to this very small destination in May rather than December. Likewise, two things that Camp Widsom offers are camping well within DFW just off the highway in Duncanville and a very inexpensive waterfront that is open to weekend camping in June and July when most other camps are occupied by summer camp. So campouts at Camp Wisdom in December and July could both make a lot of sense. But have a specific reason before scheduling a troop campout there in March.

That said, your troop may want to “adopt” a camp by visiting every year for the purpose of performing a sustained series of camp improvement projects. There is a troop that spends summer camp at Camp Constantin in the same campsite every year. They also have a weekend campout every year in that same campsite, and the program for that weekend is improving the camp. This can foster a sense valuable service and of stewardship not only for that particular campsite, but for the outdoors more generally.

3 Time Budget for Activities

3.1 Travel Time

3.1.1 Travel Time is Taken out of Program Time

Travel time eats into the more enjoyable program time that begins only after you arrive at your destination. When you travel, you are usually spending time in the car that could instead be spent outdoors on program. This only makes sense if the reduction in program time is offset by an increase in the quality of the program at your destination. This is why destinations ten hours away from DFW only make it into the Wiki if they are really really good. But you should again apply this test, as it applies to your own troop's particular circumstances, to every activity and destination on your troop's annual program plan.

3.1.2 Travel Time Affects When You Arrive at Your Campsite

Travel time is also a factor in determining the hour of the day at which you can start your program. Before settling on a destination to visit on a particular day, you should consider the following questions: At what time can we start driving? How long will it take to get there, including any rush hour traffic? At what time will we likely arrive in the parking lot of our destination? At what time will we then likely arrive in our campsite, have camp set up, and start any cooking?

3.2 Sunset Time

There is nothing wrong with hiking into a campsite after dark. But it should be the result of an intentional choice rather than poor planning, especially at an unfamiliar destination. This Sunrise / Sunset Calculator appears on several pages of this Wiki and an be adjusted by both zip code and date (do not worry about adjusting the year).

3.3 Time to Acclimate to Altitude

Dallas-Fort Worth is not much more than 500 feet above sea level. That makes us lowlanders. When we go up to 5,000 feet in elevation, it takes us a few days to acclimate.

I have been to Philmont twice. My experience both times was that for the first two days on the trail we were quickly worn out and had trouble backpacking even just a couple of miles at the relatively low altitude of about 5,000 feet. But then after a layover in our third campsite, we were transformed into mountain killers and could hike 10 miles in a single day going over multiple peaks of 9,000 feet or more.

Likewise, I know a group who recently went backpacking and rafting in Colorado. They split into two groups and swapped activities after three days. The half who rafted first and backpacked second were fine. But the other half who started with backpacking at elevation on the first three days had a much more difficult experience.

The point is that, if you plan a trip to an elevation of at least 5,000 feet or more, then you should think about the need to limit physical exertion for about the first three days while you acclimate. This is another time cost that needs to be accounted for in your activity plan.

4 Budget for Annual Program

The three principal constraints on an annual program plan are typically: (1) Scout availability; (2) leader availability; and (3) money.

Troops commonly plan eleven monthly activities plus a weeklong activity for the summer without seriously considering alternatives. But it is possible to think more flexibly in terms of maximizing a troop's program subject to these three constraints.

4.1 Scout Availability

Scouts are frequently available whenever school is not in session. Consider teacher workdays and holidays that may yield three day weekends and longer breaks.

4.2 Adult Leader Availability

4.2.1 Time Off from Work

The number of days on which adult leaders are available is typically much more limited. But it is also often true that adult leaders can be more flexible in picking which days to take off from work. A leader might commit to take five days off from work to attend a resident summer camp. Or the leader might take off two days over spring break for a four day trip, and then take off three days during the summer for another five day trip.

The point is that adult leaders frequently have the flexibility to spend their vacation days in creative ways that yield a larger number of total activity days. So while it is possible to simply tell Scouts that they have adult leaders available for a week of summer camp or high adventure, it is also possible to tell Scouts that they have a certain number of adult leader days available on weekdays that can be spent in almost any creative way the Scouts decide.

4.2.2 Proper Training

The constraint of adult leader availability includes the availability of adult leaders who are, or who can become, properly trained in a particular activity. Many potentially dangerous activities, such as swimming, boating, and shooting, are Prohibited Activities as defined in the Guide to Safe Scouting unless the appropriate safety procedures are followed, including adult leadership that is properly trained and certified for that particular activity. It is sometimes possible to meet this need outside of troop resources, such as by participating in a council shooting activity or by hiring a local rock climbing guide.

4.3 Money

4.3.1 The Available Budget

Money is obviously also a constraint. When developing an annual program plan, Scouts should understand their annual activity budget as well as how much of that budget would be consumed be each proposed activity. Cost may dictate a choice between two summer backpacking trips that are cheaper or a single summer canoeing trip that is more expensive.

4.3.2 An "Appropriate" Budget

The concept of an "appropriate" budget is not an external constraint on the cost of a troop's annual program, but is an internal constraint that a troop may impose on itself.

At one time our troop had a parent who was a securities partner in a major downtown law firm. We never worried about what it cost for person's child to participate in troop activities. But at the same time we also had two brothers whose family lived in a very humble home and often had trouble making the monthly mortgage payment. Thsi frequently caused us to stop and think about what we charged as a condition for helping teach character, citizenship, and fitness to the children of these poorly educated and stressed out parents.

An "appropriate" budget is not the amount that a troop can spend, but is instead the amount that it should spend in light of its fundraising success, the fact that cost can act as a barrier to participation, the minimum cost that is actually required to accomplish the aims and methods of Scouting in the lives of Scouts, and the income level of the youth that the troop is trying to attract and retain. It is worth recognizing in this regard that program is a method and not an aim, or is a means and not an end. Also that you may not always be aware of which family in your troop is having financial difficulty this year.

Different troops can reasonably reach answers that are radically different based upon all of these factors. It may be that a troop in a poor neighborhood must keep cost very low in order to retain Scouts, while a troop in an affluent neighborhood must spend more on activities that its Scouts take for granted as part of normal life. What is normal in one neighborhood may be extravagant in another. Scouting is able to reach a larger number of youth in part because different troops will reach different answers to this question.

The point is simply to go through the exercise of asking whether your troop's annual program budget is within a range that is appropriate for your particular troop in light of Scouting's aims.

5 Prohibited Activities

Finally, someone should review this list of Prohibited Activities from the Guide to Safe Scouting at some point during the annual program planning process. While some potentially dangerous activities are permitted with properly trained adult leadership, other activities are simply prohibited.

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