Bookshelf for a New Scoutmaster

When I started as an Assistant Scoutmaster, I immediately bought and read the BSA Scoutmaster’s Handbook cover-to-cover. What a disappointment. Too heavy to take with you and not much useful in it anyway. It doesn’t describe the responsibilities of the Scoutmaster or any of the youth leadership positions. You don’t even need it for the copies of the forms—those are all on-line now.

So the first thing to read is the job description for Scoutmaster that I (finally) found in the BSA Troop Committee Guidebook (1990):

  • Train and guide boy leaders
  • Work with other responsible adults to bring Scouting to boys
  • Use the methods of Scouting to achieve the aims of Scouting
  • Meet regularly with PLC for training and coordination in planning troop activities
  • Attend all troop meetings or, when necessary, arrange for a qualified adult substitute
  • Attend all troop committee meetings
  • Conduct periodic parents’ sessions to share the program and encourage parent participation and cooperation
  • Take part in annual membership inventory and uniform inspection, charter review meeting, and charter presentation
  • Conduct Scoutmaster conferences for all rank advancements
  • Provide a systematic recruiting plan for new members and see that they are promptly registered
  • Delegate responsibility to other adults and groups (assistants, troop committee) so that they have a real part in troop operations
  • Supervise troop elections for the Order of the Arrow
  • Make it possible for each Scout to experience at least 10 days and nights of camping each year
  • Participate in council and district events
  • Build a strong program by using proven methods presented in Scouting literature
  • Conduct all activities under qualified leadership, safe conditions, and the policies of the chartered organization and the BSA

I really don’t understand why the first two pages of the Scoutmaster Handbook aren’t the Oath and Law, the aims and methods of Scouting, the five promises that Scouting makes to the boy, and the above list of duties.

If you aren’t familiar with the five promises, look at page 1 of the 11th edition handbook or page 13 of the 12th edition, the latest one. They’ve been recast as questions in the 12th edition.


Senior Patrol Leader Handbook is what the Scoutmaster Handbook should have been, a concise, comprehensive guide to running a troop. It even includes a nice scorecard for your troop’s program. If you have a choice between reading the SM Handbook and the SPL Handbook, read this one. And get one for your SPL.

The Scoutmaster’s Other Handbook by Mark Ray. If you went to every roundtable for five years, and they were really great roundtables, you wouldn’t need this book. On the other hand, that would take five years. Get it, read it. You’ll return to it again and again. Also check out the free discussion guide from the book’s site, that has some excellent questions for improving your troop.

NOLS Wilderness Guide by Mark Harvey. I own a lot of books about backpacking, and this one stands out as the best. The only weaknesses are the NOLS cooking method (from scratch, takes some dedication) and no real info on going light (see the next book).

Lighten Up! by Don Ladigan does a great job of teaching you the lightweight way to pack. It’s also Thrifty, encouraging less stuff and reuse. Going lightweight is nothing new, it was a big concern in books by Nessmuk (1884) and Horace Kephart (1906). You will have a lot more fun carrying 25 pounds instead of 50, and so will your Scouts. And it’s all about fun, right? There are books that go into the details of full-on ultralight, like Mike Clelland’s Ultralight Backpackin’ Tips, but you can’t always do thru-hiker ultralight style when you need to stop and teach map and compass or play Zorch.

AMC Guide to Outdoor Leadership by Alex Kosseff gives you the mechanics of leading a group in the outdoors. These are the skills you need to pass on to the SPL and Patrol Leaders, so learn them well. If Wood Badge had a text book, it would look a lot like this.

Outdoor Leadership by John Graham covers the “inner game” of outdoor leadership. Kosseff gives you the “how”, Graham helps you with the “why”. This is your Scoutmaster Conference material for First Class and up.

NOLS Wilderness Wisdom by John Gookin is a pocket-sized book of quotes about the outdoors. When I’m stuck for a Scoutmaster Minute, I pull out this book and look for a quote that speaks to some aspect of our troop. That’s usually enough.

Camping and Hiking in the Bay Area by Matt Heid is the only book that covers backcountry camping spots in our area. There are more than are listed here, but this is a great start and the detail is impressive. Dang, it seems to be out of print, so wait for Matt’s One Night Wilderness to come out in September, though that won’t have his excellent coverage of the Ohlone Wilderness Trail.

You will need a first aid book, but you should choose your own. Make sure that you can find things in it quickly. The one provided with my WFA course is good. If you are lost, start with recent books by Eric Weiss, William Forgey, Tod Schimelpfinig, or Buck Tilton.

On-line Documents and PDFs

Guide to Safe Scouting contains the BSA’s rules for safe activities. Read it cover-to-cover to start, then get in the habit of searching it whenever you have a question. This is your bible for everything from bullying to liquid stove fuel. If you only read one BSA publication, it must be this one. Instructions for putting the PDF on iPhone or iPad are here, though the website might be more usable on a phone.

Troop Program Features, Vol. I-III, fill a big binder as paper, but now you can get them as PDFs (follow the link). These provide lots of sample meeting plans and outing plans. I’ve never been able to get our PLC to use them, but I keep trying. Note: the volume has the info on running an annual planning meeting, something that is also in the SPL Handbook.

Troop Program Resources, aka, the games book, also available as a free PDF. There is other stuff in here, but the collection of games is awesome.

Advancement Committee Policies and Procedures is officially for the district or council advancement committee, but you’ll need this info at some point. I’ve needed to know about advancement for special needs Scouts and about getting an extension past age 18 for Eagle. Both answers are in here.


Ask Andy is a Q&A site written by a very experienced Commissioner. He posts a digest of reader’s questions and his answers about once a week. He’s not afraid to call “nonsense” on a troop tradition or to tell leaders they are doin’ it wrong. I read the column regularly because I find that I usually need those answers. You can send in a question, of course.

Clarke Green’s Scoutmaster podcast is a roughly weekly wisdom dump about the practical issues a Scoutmaster faces. The polka tunes and bad jokes are extra. I learn something from Clarke almost every time. Hey, how many Scouts does it take to screw in a light bulb? Only one, but it takes a long time, because they just give it one good turn each day.

US Scouting Service Project Advancement Pages are a gem. For years, I bought the Boy Scout Requirements Book every year, and heck, I might get one this year, but the pages have the all the requirements, include the adult training knots, plus they have change bars for the year-to-year updates. This is an amazing resource from some really dedicated volunteers.

Scouting Aims and Methods, this page used to be on the official BSA site, but I can’t find it any more. This appears to be a faithful copy of the official version. A bilingual English/Spanish PDF is here. Why do I list this? When I have a question about what course of action is right, I ask whether it is an aim or a method and whether it is Scouting.

Sign up for your council or district e-mail list. Our district has a Yahoo! group and I’d be in the dark without that.


Youth Protection, take it and take it again. We encourage all our parents to take this course, so they all understand the rules. Keep our Scouts safe, and keep yourself safe.

BSA On-line Training Sign on and take the basic set of orientation courses. You’ll be lost without them. Take Trek Safely because you are supposed to, but it isn’t especially useful. The Weather Hazards course is a good review in case you missed that section of the Guide to Safe Scouting.

Introduction to Outdoor Leader Skills is given by your local council. My course was great fun, doing Scout camping with adults and learning things. I used it as an excuse to make test out five different freezer bag cooking recipes on my patrol.

Wilderness First Aid is the most important course you’ll take as a leader. It teaches skills that save lives, awareness of how to avoid life-threatening situations, and teamwork skills for high-stress situations. Take this early, because once you take it, you’ll be retroactively horrified that you went on outings without these skills. If you are in the San Francisco Bay Area, I recommend the courses from Paratus Institute.


Even if you aren’t into cooking, cooking on campouts is a great way to pick up some skills. Some prep time in the kitchen at home can save a lot of money, too. Here are the two cookbooks that I use the most.

Freezer Bag Cooking by Sarah Kirkconnell is a guide to making your own just-add-water backcountry meals. Most ingredients are available at your supermarket. Compared to pre-packaged freeze-dried meals, these have twice the food and cost half as much. Read carefully, though, some of the recipes serve two people and some serve only one.

The Back-Country Kitchen by Teresa Marrone covers every kind of back-country cooking from dressing up instant grits with cheese and egg to Cajun Venison Tenderloin. She also has a great description of how to cook planked fish. Just reading this book makes me hungry, but the essential part is the chapter on how to dry food at home. With home-dried ingredients, you are ready for these tasty recipes or the simpler ones in Freezer Bag Cooking, your choice. I made a non-dehydrated version of the Lentil-Bulgur Chili at home and the family declared it a keeper. That’s high praise.


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