My mother takes Xanax before getting on a bicycle. When hiking, she holds my father’s hand on the “scrambly” bits, meaning any spot without a railing that requires a step down. Though in daily life she’s an intelligent, confident woman, when it comes to athletics and the outdoors, she’s a knot of nerves. Yet this is the woman who, as my Girl Scout leader in the 1980s and ’90s, was tasked with teaching me to enjoy camping. Her training included a single overnight, after which she was supposed to take girls out on her own and instill in them a love of all things wild. It didn’t work.
My memories of our troop camping trips contain none of the boisterous joy and sense of adventure I find outdoors now or that I imagine most Boy Scouts experience. I remember chore charts, three-basin dishwashing, and rules, rules, rules. On our earliest outings, we weren’t allowed to roast marshmallows because that was an advanced cooking skill, officially out of reach for us 7-year-olds. Even enthusiastic, relevantly skilled leaders might have had trouble convincing me that the experience was more fun than an indoor slumber party. But my leaders weren’t convinced themselves. Their anxiety and discomfort tinged the very air. After only a few trips, I learned I didn’t care for camping. It took another decade—and a way more laid-back group—to teach me otherwise.
I am not the only one with this story. While some Girl Scout troops take treks that inspire a love of nature and backpacking, others end up like mine, constrained by the limits and fears of their leaders. “There’s been a risk management obsession,” explains Barbara Norris Duerk, a volunteer hiking and backpacking instructor from Roanoake, Virginia, who’s been involved in scouting for 53 years. “We all want to provide a safe, supportive environment for girls to try, fail, and try again, but in providing that, we’ve overprotected them. We need to teach them how to be prepared, not scared, for life’s challenges. How not to cancel a hike when it’s raining—which they have a tendency to do.”
The good news: A 2012 study found that 56 percent of scouts hike and 76 percent camp with their troops at least once per year, and that 72 percent enjoyed their camping “a lot.” Even better: The Girl Scouts are aware of the challenges Duerk points out, and are working to tame overbearing safety rules and improve leader resources as part of a larger turn toward getting girls outside. In 2014, the group’s national body, GSUSA, launched an Outdoor Initiative. “We were responding to research showing kids don’t spend time outdoors as much as they used to,” says Vicki Wright, the program’s head. “Girls aren’t going to go backpacking on their first experience, but it’s a progression. Our goal is to get girls comfortable outdoors, and ultimately wanting to do wilderness kinds of activities.”
So far, GSUSA has introduced five new outdoor badges (girls got to vote on the topics) and revised some of the more onerous safety rules (loosening the certifications required for some fishing trips, for example; Brownies have been OK to toast s’mores for a while now). The Outdoor Initiative’s focus for the coming year will be helping adult volunteers. “We hear from them that they don’t have the time or the expertise to get girls outside in the way we might like,” explains Wright. “But we have 112 regional councils each doing their own type of trainings, some very successfully. We’re figuring out best practices to share.”
I’m hopeful that someday all Girl Scouts can access true wilderness experiences. But it’ll be a long journey. For Boy Scouts, a troop trip to the rugged backcountry of Philmont Scout Ranch in New Mexico is a near-universal rite of passage, but there’s no equivalent capstone for Girl Scouts. Not all regional councils offer all the trainings necessary to take girls on a backpacking trip. Some of those new badges are about frontcountry activities like archery and horseback riding.
Yet as more moms get comfortable in the wilderness themselves, there are more and more potential leaders. And you don’t actually need to be a mom—or even a woman—to help your local troop. (Sign up on the Girl Scouts' website.) “My ideal,” says Wright, “is that parents will be knocking on our door because they want to make sure their daughters get the outdoor experiences we offer.” We can all raise a s’more to that—even my mother.