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The Boy Scout Handbook: Constantly Teaching Us Survival

The Boy Scout Handbook:

Constantly Teaching Us Survival

Some of us were blessed to learn wilderness survival and self-subsistence skills from our fathers, mothers, grandfathers, and grandmothers.  Others did not have that option, and had to pick those skills up from some other method.  Some were directed along the way by woods-wizened relatives who probably only had to look to outside sources for knowledge.

In acquiring this essential subset of our educations, many were not lucky enough to spend years trekking into the wilderness under the tutelage of Apache elders, like the famous author and survivalist Tom Brown.  Instead, most of us were forced at some point in time to consult books, magazines, and manuals like Brown’s.

For many of us, the Boy Scout Handbook was the initial source we turned to.  As kids, we wondered what the handbook could teach us: the ability to make do with whatever was around in order to survive in the wilderness.  My brother, cousins, friends, and I all poured through it, scouring the book for information that would help us to become master woodsmen.  We then went into the woods to put this knowledge to use.

Or, more rightly, we tried to put this intellectual knowledge to practical use.  Let’s just say that our first attempts didn’t always turn out as well as the illustrations in the Boy Scout Handbook.  Take our first “wilderness survival” campout, for instance.

First Wilderness Survival Campout


By the time we were about 13, four of us, my brother, cousin, friend, and I, were in the habit of camping in the woods on my father’s farm every weekend, but we wanted more.  We wanted to try to really survive in the woods on our own.  Having read the Boy Scout Handbook all the way through at that point, I knew about edible plants, and this knowledge immediately popped into my mind when, on one of our long exploratory tromps through the woods and creeks, we came upon a small pond choked with cattails.  From the handbook, I knew that cattail roots were edible.  In that moment an idea was planted: “next weekend, wilderness survival campout.”  It didn’t take long to sell the idea to the others.

We schemed and planned all week at school, practically dying for the week to end so we could attempt to live on the land.  It was no irony for us that we would bring hiker’s cooking kits, utensils, tents, and canteens of water.  In our minds, because we weren’t bringing food, we would experience true “wilderness survival.”

We finally got to the cattail pond at about 6 p.m. on Friday evening, slowed by the agonizing necessity of waiting for my father to get off of work and drive us to the farm.  It was August, though, and we had plenty of daylight left once we got to the pond.

It was here that the difference between intellectual knowledge and practical knowledge first came into play.  The Boy Scout Handbook told us that cattail roots were edible, but it didn’t tell us that they are extremely difficult to dig up.  With roots that interlock with the roots of other cattails, these anticipated sources of our evening meal were almost impossible for four 12 and 13 year old boys to pull, hack, and plead out of the muddy pond.  By the time we got a small bucket-full out and washed, it was dark.

Food Storage

We were hungry.  We hadn’t eaten since our school lunches at about 12:30, at least 9, maybe 10, hours earlier.  We had burned lots of our energy digging up the cattails, and we were really looking forward to this meal.  We made camp and started to boil the roots in four different pots from our individual camp cooking kits.  It was then that we learned another lesson about the intellectual versus the practical side of wilderness knowledge.

After what seemed to us like hours of boiling, the cattail roots didn’t seem to have softened at all—and they never would.  As we found out later, cattail roots are really only tender enough to eat earlier in the year.  By August, they were so hard that we were basically boiling wood!

Hungry, tired, and suspicious of what we finally pulled from the boiling pots, we tried to eat them with a little salt from some free salt packs that my friend had grabbed from a gas station that we stopped at on the way to the farm.  But, even with the salt, we couldn’t eat the cattail roots.  They were as hard as boiled sticks, and just as appetizing.  More than 20 years later, I can still taste them.

It Started To Rain Hard

We were probably still discussing the fact that our long awaited dinner was inedible when it started to rain.  More precisely, it started to rain HARD.  Raindrops the size of jug-marbles began falling so fast it was hard to see.

All of us dove for the tents.  With flashlights illuminating the colored sides of the tents in the rain-soaked darkness, we tried to ride out the storm there, but in our haste to start cooking, we hadn’t secured the tents as well as we should have.  With ground and rain tarps poorly in place, the tents were all more or less flooded in less than 30 minutes.

Feeling more than a little defeated, we started the long trudge in the rain back to the farmhouse, where we had to explain to my father what had happened.  And, after admitting to him that we should have listened to him when he informed us of the weather report, we dried off, ate bowl after bowl of Cinnamon Toast Crunch cereal, and laughed hysterically over the many stories we’d accumulated since school got out at 3 that afternoon.

So, our first foray into “wilderness survival” did not turn out like we wanted it to.  But, importantly, it was a start, and we learned great lessons from an episode that might never have been without the Boy Scout Handbook.  The Boy Scout Handbook was our Apache elder.  Not only did it teach us skills like how to start a fire with no matches, cook biscuits on a stick, boil an egg in a waxed-paper cup, make a fish hook out of two sticks, use a compass, make a shelter, and identify edible plants, it created and instilled an invaluable mindset.

Consider this passage from the 1911 first edition of the handbook:

“Besides woodcraft one must know something of camp life.  One of the chief characteristics of the scout is to be able to live in the open, know how to put up tents, build huts, throw up a lean-tent for shelter, or make a dugout in the ground, how to build a fire, how to procure and cook food, how to bind logs together so as to construct bridges and rafts, and how to find his way by night as well as by day in a strange country.  Living in the open in this way, and making friends of the trees, the streams, the mountains, and the stars, gives a scout a great deal of confidence and makes him love the natural life around him. …To be able to tell the difference between the trees by their bark and leaves is a source of pleasure; to be able to make a bed out of rough timber, or weave a mattress or a mat out of grass to sleep on is a joy.  And all of these things a good scout should know.”

This is a mindset that every survivalist knows and respects, whatever their skill level, and it’s a mindset that should be passed on to future generations.  In an age of increased debt and dependency, the instillation of such principles should be fostered and deeply respected.

go off the grid pic

The Boy Scout Handbook has gone through many editions, but many of them, including the Official Boy Scout Handbook that my friends and I learned from, are still available from  As we all attempt, in our own ways and to our own degrees, “go off of the grid,” many of us will include our children.  Consider, then, that both boys and girls might benefit from the knowledge and format of the Boy Scout Handbook.  You people will learn from you, but they will also need to augment whatever knowledge they glean from you.  Nothing can beat one-on-one instruction, but as a tool in the instigation of wilderness knowledge, self-sufficiency, and imagination, the Boy Scout Handbook is as good a guide for young beginners as can be found.

Rankin Sherling in the Woods

For a History of the Boy Scout Handbook and information about its various manifestations, make sure to go to the following website to make sure that you pick the right version for your child:


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