The Sunday, March 29 email from Park Rapids Troop 58 Scoutmaster David “PeeWee” Zinniel was titled, “Let’s change COVID into Camp Out Via Internet Distancing.”

Zinniel’s sons, Jacob and Isaac, had spent the previous Thursday night outdoors, “just to practice, I guess,” he said. “That also rattled my brain for this event.”

PeeWee said they did it because they were bored. But they made it through the night all right. So, he proposed that the Scouts have their “first, and I hope last, COVID overnight camp-out” during the night of Saturday, April 4.

Their challenge was to put up any type of shelter during the day; build an appropriate-size campfire if they wish; cook an edible meal over the fire, on a gas stove, in a dutch oven or whatever they choose; post pictures of their meal and their campsite; and sleep outdoors in their shelter or tent overnight.

“You may use whatever you need to in your house or garage to facilitate your night's stay, taking what you need outside, up until 8:30 p.m. then that would stop, and you would need to use what you have outside,” Zinniel wrote. “Once the night is complete, you must leave no trace, as always.”

Innovative twists

He also invited Nevis Troop 56, led by Scoutmaster Chris Davis, to participate. Each Scoutmaster would judge the other’s troop, awarding a “Golden Spoon” to the best-looking food that was cooked outside and a “Golden Site” to the most creative-looking campsite or shelter, judged by photos.

“If the above criteria are followed,” he said, “this would count as one night of overnight camping for the Scouts. This would be monitored by your parents.”

Zinniel also took the unusual step of allowing the Scouts to bring their cell phone or other device along, with a conference call on the Zoom meeting app (which the kids use for school) as part of the evening’s fun.

Commenting before the virtual camp-out, Davis said, “It’s a good idea. It gets the kids out of doors to do something safe, and still maintain social distancing.”

“I thought it went really well,” he said afterward. “The boys all set up wonderful campsites out near their homes. They cooked some awesome meals. A lot of basic, Boy Scout meals, like hobo dinners and stuff like that, but one boy made a pizza and an apple pie. It’s all outdoor cooking, so that’s pretty impressive. And then, one of the boys from my troop actually cut out and made doughnuts and fried them over a camp stove.”

Cool night

Zinniel said about 16 boys participated, including some Cub Scouts. Davis estimated there were about an equal number of boys from Park Rapids and Nevis, though he sensed that brothers in the Nevis Troop seemed more likely to work together on the same campsite, while Park Rapids Scouts tended to camp solo.

Zinniel admitted that at first, some of the kids didn’t think it was a great idea. “And then in the end, they were out there making their shelters and having fun,” he said.

Noting that the joint activity provided an opportunity for two separate troops to interact during a time of social isolation, Davis said, “It was a great idea for the circumstances.”

He added that Zinniel’s clever use of the COVID acronym turned a stressful situation into something positive.

“I set up a Zoom chat, like they do for school, and they did that for about 40 minutes,” said Zinniel. “It could have been longer. They were having a nice time seeing each other.”

Regarding the idea of combining forces with the Nevis Scouts, he said the towns are close together, “and some of the boys know each other. We don’t do a lot with them, but we should. But we thought maybe that it would be the beginning of it. Who knows?”

Zinniel said he has not heard of any Scouting groups having a similar “social distancing” camp-out – though there is such a thing as a virtual campfire, which is held indoors.

“My brother down in the Cities mentioned this to one of his coworkers who has boys in Scouts, and they were going to give that a try after Easter,” he said.

Other than spreading to other Scouting groups, however, Zinniel doesn’t think it’s an idea to repeat. Struggling to visualize having more Boy Scouts meetings via Zoom, he said, “It’s a group where you have to be together. It’s just tough. It’s very hands-on.”

Feedback from parents was that everyone had fun, Zinniel said. “They got a little cool overnight. I think it got down to 22 degrees.”

The intent of the virtual campout, he said, was to keep the boys involved in Scouts “because sometimes, it’s the last thing on their plate. If you get them outside and active, it may be something for them to remember. You know, ‘Way back in 2020, we had to do a COVID campout!’”