Off trail hiking
October 8, 2017 7:35 AM   Subscribe

Is off trail hiking appropriate for cubscouts? What are safety concerns I should be prepared for?

Our Den leader was an eagle scout and says he is fine with getting off the trail and finding it again. I am NOT comfortable with this at all. I don't trust his navigational skills as much as he does.... is this a common thing for cubscout troops that do a lot of hiking, to use minimally used trails that may or may not be well marked or easy to navigate? If there is someone who has experience with off trail hiking does that make it safe? I'm tempted to just skip these, and I'd like to say something about safety (well I already have actually)... but wanted to check in if I'm off the mark and this is normal/safe.
posted by xarnop to Sports, Hobbies, & Recreation (25 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
there's a major difference between practicing orienteering in a known, safe location and going offtrail on a mountain. cub (and boy) scouts are all about safety and you don't know what dangers you're going to encounter offtrail. I'm trying to remember if we ever intentionally went off trail when I was in boy scouts 25 years ago and can't say we ever did.
posted by noloveforned at 7:44 AM on October 8

This sounds like a typical case of someone who is expert in something not being able to understand the risks and difficulties for a non-expert. It would be like a frequent cyclist saying "who's up for a 30 mile bike ride?" Extremely easy for a recreational rider; torture for most beginners.

I did not get past cub scouts myself, so maybe I'm at the other extreme, but I can't imagine taking children that age off trails in a wooded area. Unseen holes and critters, poison oak/ivy are just two things that come to mind. And it's not necessary to get youngsters away from a trail to practice/use basic orienteering techniques.
posted by randomkeystrike at 8:08 AM on October 8 [4 favorites]

It really depends on the location. I think it's useful in childhood to take minor risks and to explore outdoor areas that aren't curated. But weather and location determine the actual risk level.
posted by metasarah at 8:12 AM on October 8 [3 favorites]

I think it depends a lot on where they're hiking. Is it in open, unforested country where you can easily orient yourself by looking at major landscape features or in a heavily forested area where you can't see further than a hundred feet? Is it on a small tract of public land surrounded by roads and farms, where no matter how lost they get they'll never be far from safety? Or in a remote area where they could potentially be lost for days if they go the wrong direction?

It also depends on how familiar the leader is with that particular area. Is it a place he visits all the time, so that even when he's not on trail he's walking familiar ground and recognizing landmarks, or a place he's never been before?

I've hiked in places where being temporarily off trail or not using a trail at all would be perfectly safe, even with a group of children, and in places where it would be quite risky. Without more information, I can't say whether these cub scout hikes are safe or not.
posted by Redstart at 8:17 AM on October 8 [10 favorites]

Redstart, I think that's part of the issue is that I don't have the experience to gauge the level of risk we're taking other than taking him at his word that is making me uncomfortable. It's likely something we'll be doing a lot more off especially if we do boy scouts so maybe there's some sort of course I could take in orienteering that would make me feel more comfortable evaluating the risk myself.
posted by xarnop at 8:21 AM on October 8

Also think about the environmental impact of troops of cub scouts traipsing around off-trail. There's a big difference between one person going off-trail and 10 or 20. Again, in some locations this would not be a big deal, but in others it is.

On preview, seeing your comment: I guess a lot of it comes down to how much you trust this leader's judgement in general.
posted by mskyle at 8:22 AM on October 8 [14 favorites]

Not an expert in this, but ... in any training course they start simple and work up to the more difficult. Your leader should be starting the boys with simpler orienteering. This would give them and you -- I assume you're a co-leader -- confidence in his training.

For example, he could pre-plan the off-trail portion as a demonstration of how it works. You don't have to assume he's going to blindfold himself and set off in a random direction.

Agree with the others that it depends on location, obviously.
posted by JimN2TAW at 8:31 AM on October 8 [2 favorites]

This is an absolute no. I say this as a leader with two major hiking organizations over the years, a conservationist and an environmentalist. "Social trails" (which is what off trail people use) are harmful to the environment, as they cut into already impacted areas disrupting animals/vegetation and spreading the impact of humans much more widely. They are something that people who maintain parks fight hard to stop - you are basically harming the local environment you are trying to explore for your own selfish desires. They are also often used for illicit activities and probably not something that the cub scouts would be excited about.

I would be surprised if the cub scouts supported this. In fact, I would think they would have a strong policy against it. I found this for Boy Scouts. You are trying to teach cub scouts to respect the environment - having them trample through it does not, disrupting animals and disrespecting trails that were developed to balance enjoyment with preservation does not.

I wouldn't even get into the safety (which is a whole other issue) - this is an environmental issue. Please teach your kids how to enjoy, preserve and protect.
posted by Toddles at 8:36 AM on October 8 [47 favorites]

As a hiker and a parent, I am not a fan of this idea. However, bushwhacking is definitely a Thing and I would ask the leader why they want to do this. They probably have some interesting goal in mind that could be accomplished more safely.
posted by yes I said yes I will Yes at 8:39 AM on October 8

Yeah the whole off-the-train thing for a group of kids seems utterly unnecessary. Environmental damage is a real thing and depending on where you are it can be the sort of damage that literally takes centuries if you trample cryptogamic soils in the desert for example. So you're not teaching kids good stewardship by going off trail. Lots of adventure to be had hiking ON a trail - and teaching about what to do if one does get lost. What does your co-leader say his goal is in wanting to do this? And beyond his navigational skills how are is his first aid and kid management skills?
posted by leslies at 8:47 AM on October 8 [2 favorites]

Can you go along on one of the hikes to see for yourself what it's like? If you're worried about embarrassing your kid by being the only parent there, maybe you could suggest a parent-child hike so all the parents have a chance to experience a typical hike with this leader.

I'm not sure you need orienteering skills to be able to gauge the risk. He may not even be using map and compass himself to steer the group back to the trail. If he is, I'd actually see that as something of a red flag, or at least an orange flag. I mean, it's great to have a map and compass along, but if it's hard enough to find the trail that only someone with good orienteering skills can do it, there's a lot of potential for something to go wrong. I'd be much more comfortable with a situation where it's so obvious where they need to go that there would be no point using map and compass.

Toddles has a good point about the environmental impact. The places where it's easiest to orient yourself without using trails also tend to be dry places that can't recover as quickly from people making their own trails. If it's a place that has heavy use and a lot of well-marked trails and visitors are specifically told not to go off the trail, then obviously it would be a bad idea for them to do it. But there are plenty of places where walking off trail for a bit as a dispersed group is allowed and is pretty harmless. There are public lands where off-road use is allowed but there are no formal trails. Again, it depends on the specific area where they'll be hiking.
posted by Redstart at 8:51 AM on October 8 [1 favorite]

In any camping group or leading a group of kids (I've been a camp counselor for many years in many different contexts and a teacher as well) we've always had the rule that if there is a safety concern for something anyone can veto the activity at any time and no questions asked, we don't do it.

Presumably you're going on this hiking excursion in some sort of capacity as the "adult." That means that you are responsible for the safety of the group members. If the group was fine just with the one adult then they would do that. That means that even if the adult were incapacitated the kids could navigate back on their own/enough people pass by to provide aid/etc. If you are going on this hike as an "adult" then you need to be experienced enough or your other leader NEEDS TO TEACH YOU enough that if they were to be injured/sick/incapacitated you could get the group back to safety. You can't do that if you're off trail and not familiar with (or don't have the skill) navigating the area EVEN IF it's a "normal" risk and you're teaching orienteering. Great that the kids are learning orienteering but that doesn't mean you should be learning it that day.

And this is of course in addition to the concerns raised about environmental impacts.
posted by raccoon409 at 9:25 AM on October 8 [1 favorite]

Ugh no, cub scouts don't need to be trampling around in wilderness areas. That is what trails are for. As pointed out above, the environmental impacts can be severe.
posted by fingersandtoes at 9:32 AM on October 8 [2 favorites]

Just for the record: I believe that if you're taking kids a certain distance from hospital care, the adults need a WFA or WFR certification. (That's wilderness first aid and wilderness first responder.) Certainly even if it's not legally required I'd say it's a moral requirement.
posted by cnidaria at 9:41 AM on October 8 [3 favorites]

Yeah, I was a cub scout leader for years and I can't imagine any of our Eagle Scout leaders doing this. Cub scouts is a time to learn and solidify good habits, and this is not a good habit for the environmental reasons mentioned above. BSA has a lot of training materials for leaders and I would be amazed if it doesn't specifically say somewhere that you should stay on the trail during hikes. Part of "leave no trace" is not tramping through off trail areas. Don't feel any hesitation about making a stink about this. I think official BSA leadership would definitely agree with you.
posted by selfmedicating at 9:41 AM on October 8 [2 favorites]

I don't see the purpose of this. You are depending on the skills of the leader to take you where you want to go. It doesn't teach you any skills except to follow the guy up front and hope he knows what he is doing.

And what about the kid at the back who stops to take a leak and nobody notices. This happens all the time. Even groups of two or three sometimes get separated and then its search and rescue time.

No one should be going off trail unless everyone in the group is experienced in off trail orientation. And you don't have to go off trail to learn off trail orientation. You can practice those skills in a city park.
posted by JackFlash at 9:59 AM on October 8 [3 favorites]

Over ~12 years in Scouting, I can remember ever doing anything like this, apart from activities that were explicitly about practicing orienteering on privately-owned, semi-rural land - if this isn't something like that, all it's doing is a) harming the environment, b) teaching the kids bad habits, and c) increasing the danger should anything go wrong.
posted by sagc at 10:04 AM on October 8 [1 favorite]

As an ex-Pack leader I would recommend calling your Council and asking about this.

If the wilderness hikes are outside the scope of the touring plan (and thus not insured by the Council) this would be a huge problem.

This might be a Scout-level orienteering Merit Badge task, but the potential for problems with smaller kids just makes the hair on the back of my neck stand up.
posted by JoeZydeco at 10:15 AM on October 8 [2 favorites]

Speaking as a long-time Scout, former Den Chief, and son of a long-time Scoutmaster, this guy is stupid for all of the reasons already mentioned in this thread. Crashing into the woods with a group of little kids because "he is fine with getting off the trail and finding it again" is just plain dumb and dangerous.

What would your reaction be if he said "Hey, I'm going to take the cub scouts foraging for edible mushrooms, I'm an Eagle Scout, it'll be fine" ?
As an ex-Pack leader I would recommend calling your Council and asking about this.
Yes, unless this is part of a well-organized orienteering workshop you should definitely call the council and report this guy by name. My 7 year old nephew is a Cub Scout now, and the thought of someone who's supposed to be a teacher and role model for responsible outdoorsmanship being so cavalier with the kids' safety (not to mention the environmental impact) makes me really angry. Let him go play Bear Gryls and get lost in the wilderness on his own time, not with the kids he's supposed to be taking care of.
posted by Funeral march of an old jawbone at 10:33 AM on October 8 [5 favorites]

(I know he's probably not taking them on the Appalachian trail, but: Previously on MetaFilter. )
posted by Funeral march of an old jawbone at 10:40 AM on October 8

Another Eagle Scout chiming in here. Our scout orienteering lessons started with STAY ON THE TRAIL. When we went to Philmont Scout Camp, it was stressed and re-stressed to STAY ON THE TRAIL. Anytime I hiked in a National Park or Forest, part of our permit required us to STAY ON THE TRAIL.

In Scouts I experienced more than a few troop leaders (aka Dads) who didn’t have the slightest idea how to properly camp or hike safely with low impact. We had one who brought a megaphone to summer camp to muster the scouts. It mysteriously ended up in the nearby river.

You want to teach kids to use a compass then do it at the local park or ball field. Please don’t teach young kids that it’s ok to do this. Don’t be that Troop that goes trampling on permafrost or fragile desert soil, topples over rock formations or gets lost while off trail hiking.
posted by jabo at 10:57 AM on October 8 [8 favorites]

Absolutely not. BS leader, and work with the cubs all the time. I'd point out that Trek Safely (and the guide to safe scouting) would advise against making one's own trail. In addition, the Leave No Trace principles that we all should be following (AND MODELING FOR THE SCOUTS), would tell you to only hike on durable surfaces.

Ask your District Executive - they'll tell you no.
posted by niteHawk at 2:14 PM on October 8 [1 favorite]

Remind your Eagle Scout that these Cubs don't have good Leave No Trace habits yet -- and bush-whacking is not a good example to set.
posted by wenestvedt at 7:54 PM on October 8

With regards to orienteering, as a cub scout, boy scout and now leader, we never did orienteering in a situation where you might actually get lost. Usually it would be in an open field right by camp.

If the Den Leader won't listen, can you express your concerns with the Cubmaster?
posted by drezdn at 5:59 AM on October 9

No. The Den Leader may be competent enough to read a map, but it's obvious that he doesn't realize what taking a group of kids off trail entails. Things can go irretrievably south before anybody realizes what's happening. Getting lost is among the least of the worries.

You don't mention where the trails are, so it's difficult to specify what I would worry about: altitude sickness, fatigue, dehydration, weather issues, contingent plans for emergency overnight camps. In any case, if he's the only one who has orienteering skills, what's Plan B, when he falls down a hole?

n-thing the environmental issues mentioned above. Cross country trekking can be done in some places, but they are usually such places as alpine ridgelines, available only to skilled and experienced climbers. Not cub scouts.

If the den leader insists on going through with this, you should register a formal complaint and refuse to allow any child in your care to attend this event.
posted by mule98J at 12:20 PM on October 9

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