BSA Fieldbook Fumbles the Ten Essentials

The essence of the Ten Essentials is easy—carry these ten things to help you not die on the mountain. It is a part of risk management and planning. The new BSA Fieldbook gets this upside down, making it all about gear. Also, the Fieldbook sticks with the 1930’s list, instead of moving to the 2003 “systems” Ten Essentials. For more details, see the current edition of Mountaineering: The Freedom of the Hills.

The new Ten Essentials covers risk areas rather than listing specific gear. Map and compass is replaced by navigation, and sunglasses and sunscreen by sun protection. This is a smart update to a list from the 1930’s, but the BSA didn’t get the memo.

In the 2014 Fieldbook, the Ten Essentials description is based on the 2004 edition, but it has been reorganized to be more gear-centric, not a good idea. The 2004 Fieldbook has a “why” and “what” for each essential. This is oriented to risk management, “why carry this?” The new Fieldbook has some introductory “why” text without a heading, but then has a “basic” and “advanced” choice for each essential. This does not make sense to me. Yes, some gear requires more training, but why is a soda bottle basic and a wide-mouth Nalgene advanced? I’m an advanced packer and I carry a soda bottle. My Nalgenes are for car camping.

Let’s look at different descriptions for a common essential, a knife.

Here is the knife entry from The Mountaineers’ Ten Essentials. Everyone should carry a knife, but tools like screwdrivers can be crew gear.

Repair Kit and Tools: Knives are so useful in first aid, food preparation, repairs, and climbing that every party member needs to carry one. Leashes to prevent loss are common. Other tools (pliers, screwdriver, awl, scissors) can be part of a knife or a pocket tool, or carried separately—perhaps even as part of a group kit. Other useful repair items are shoelaces, safety pins, needle and thread, wire, duct tape, nylon fabric repair tape, cable ties, plastic buckles, cordage, webbing, and parts for equipment such as tent, stove, crampons, snowshoes, and skis.

Here is what the 2014 Fieldbook says on page 20. Try and think about how a wire stripper or digital memory card might keep you alive on the mountain, to the degree that every Sout should carry them.

A pocketknife is the all-purpose tool of the outdoors. Use it to cut a cord, trim a bandage, slice cheese, whittle a tent stake, open a can, tighten a camp stove screw, and take care of a hundred other tasks.

Choose a quality knife that includes one or two sharp blades, a can opener, and a screwdriver. Invest in a good knife now, and it will serve you well through years of adventures. Keep it sharp and clean.

Some knives have additional features intended for specific outdoor activities. Among the possibilities are wire strippers, toothpicks, scissors, tweezers, a magnifying glass, pliers, a wood saw, and even a digital memory card. Each adds bulk to a knife, so think carefully about what you really need before you buy.

This is advice for shopping, not risk management. And what do they mean by “advanced”, more expensive? For me, advanced packing is not taking the kitchen sink, but honing my planning and skill to take only what I need. I might put this 15 gram folding knife under “advanced”.

The Boy Scout Handbook (12th edition, 2009) is refreshingly to the point on page 264.

A pocketknife could be the most useful tool you can own. Keep yours clean, sharp, and secure.

Finally, here is the description from the 2004 Fieldbook. This is also gear-centric, but at least it is shorter and doesn’t go completely off the rails like the 2014 edition.

Why: Cut a cord, trim a bandage, slice some cheese, whittle a tent stake, tighten a screw on a camp stove—a pocketknife is the all-purpose tool for the out-of-doors.

What: Choose a quality knife that includes among its tools one or two cutting blades, a can opener, and a screwdriver. Keep it sharp and clean.

Better, but the whole approach is a mess. Whittling tent stakes is a big Leave No Trace violation, and probably not one of your top needs in a survival situation. And the can opener? Are these the Car Camping Essentials? Is this “be equipped” rather than “be prepared”?

Let’s remember that this is about staying alive in the wilderness, so it is critical to get it right. Treating it as a gear buyer’s guide is a deep misunderstanding of the Ten Essentials. The BSA needs to get up to date, use the latest “systems” Ten Essentials, and teach Scouts to Be Prepared.


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