It’s beginning to feel a lot like Christmas…camp

Jamie McIlroy
6 min readDec 2, 2020


I’ve always been a fan of theme based Scout camps.

I would smile when I’d hear two kids talking and referring to some camp based on whatever name we gave it.

“Wait, which camp?”

“Expedition 86, remember…the midnight hike in the June snow?”

“Oh yeah, THAT camp…that was hilarious”

We introduced a camp concept in November 2019: Christmas Camp.

The idea was simple.

Take the elements of an office Christmas Party (lower case “o”, not to be confused with the 2016 Jason Bateman movie…that would certainly not be onside BP&P wise)

Not this sort of office Christmas Party…

The ingredients:

  1. A venue for this party!
  2. A Secret Santa gift exchange
  3. Decorations
  4. A Christmas dinner
  5. Christmas carols

Our Venue

For a location, we went side country. We hiked about 1km past Camp Horizon, on the border between the camp and the wild, wild west of McLean Creek

Camp Horizon maintains the site, provides wood and some tent pads…except we wouldn’t need many of the tent pads.


On this trip we decided to make our own bivy sacks…yep…putting our sleeping bags inside fancy garbage bags for the night. Take all the worst parts of sleeping in a tent and add those to the worst parts of sleeping in a hammock…and you get a bivy sack.

Why the bivy?

Well first off…why not? Only way to introduce kids to the various techniques of backcountry camping is to try them. That and we wanted to make something.

So we bought a couple of roles of tyvek, watched some youtube videos and made our terrible shelters.

yeah, this stuff…

Next time (which there will never be), I’d opt for adhering it with something more well suited to the December Alberta temperature than carpet tape. A lot of the kids had issues with theirs coming apart in the night. Maybe they learned a lesson (follow the instructions and fold the material back on to itself)…maybe they didn’t.

Put up a tarp, slide your pad and bag in and you have something resembling a shelter.

Here’s an instructable on how to make this terrible shelter (terrible but extremely fun).

Some of our 3rd year Scouts came forward to tell me they planned on building an ICE hotel for their awful bivy sacks. They said they knew EXACTLY how it would look and that it was going to be quite something.

What they saw in their minds…

Our group has always embraced ambition. We loved their plan. Their execution was a mix of amazing and hilarious.

The outcome

Here’s what I know: When the they took the tarp off in the morning…the smell…was…was…very bad. No sense trying to conjure up a fun, interesting way to describe it…it just smelled terrible.

6 teenagers packed like sardines with only a tiny door to help off gas.


And awesome. They still talk about that thing.

Anyhow…back to the ingredients:

Secret Santa

Our rules were simple:

★ You bring a gift for the name you drew from a hat at our last meeting

★ You are not allowed to purchase a gift

★ Gifts must be either made or something you already own and want to give

This was the first activity we did at the camp and it was a resounding success. Some kids wrapped cookies they baked. Some kids gave bizarre toys they found in their closets. Some Happy Meal toys long forgotten were wrapped. Books were popular.

The important thing: nobody went out to buy anything. That’s important (to me) because it meant no parents were asked to go out and buy something. This is the kids’ program. We try to limit the participation of parents as much as possible. Parents have enough on their plate.

Santa Scout with his bag of gifts….


I was a Scout leader for almost 10 years and it NEVER occurred to me to bring lights to a winter camp…

I went on Amazon and paid about $30 for 6 sets of LED string lights:

Feels cheap — look amazing. And they last

Let’s face it…December & Alberta mixed together = very long dark nights. I knew there was some nervousness in the younger Scouts (our first years) as they had never really winter camped before.

When the sun started to set (Alberta…so around 5pm), their daytime excitement started to fade. We turned the lights on and WHAM…excitement returned. Everyone’s spirits lifted. It gave the entire area this really warm and welcome feel.

Cheap lights == Fun nights

Our Dinner

Our group enjoys cooking in the back (or in this case, side) country. The idea of pouring boiling water into a sack filled with freeze dried food isn’t all that appealing. They don’t learn much, the food is expensive and tastes like the bag.

Actual cooking is great for kids as it teaches them to follow directions. Or not. If they don’t, they get to eat whatever monstrosity their directionless ways created. Watching kids cook in the backcountry brings me so much satisfaction. The teamwork and communication, it’s awesome.

This camp’s dinner was Turkey, green beans, gravy, mashed potatoes, stuffing and cranberries. Sounds delicious, doesn’t it?

With the culinary constraints of cooking in the wilderness, we made some changes to how such a meal would traditionally be prepared.

Home lab testing

Dinner ingredients:

★ Stove top stuffing

★ Canned turkey flakes

★ Cashews

★ Powdered Mashed Potatoes

★ dried cranberries

★ Frozen green beans

★ Swiss Chalet dipping sauce powder

★ Water

So I could breakdown how it was prepared…but then you’ll follow my instructions and, well, then it’s just you making our meal.

You should make YOUR meal.

The point is to see we just sorta winged it. Each patrol used their own ratios of ingredients and in the end, everyone was extremely well fed. The overall theme is to just pour stuff in a pot and add ingredients to taste. Patrols trading cashews for cranberries, stuffing for mashed….I loved watching this unfold.

The result: delicious.

I know what you’re thinking…

I know what you’re thinking…that looks DISGUSTING. You’re not wrong. It looks like what I imagine vomit might look like if someone ate it first and then…vomitted.

One of the quotes of the weekend came from a young first year Scout named Ben:

“I’m really glad it’s dark, I don’t think I’d eat this if I could see it”

Said with a mouthful and a giant smile.

Christmas Carols

The first (and really, only) failure of the weekend. Kids don’t know the words to Christmas carols anymore. They can recall and execute intricate tiktok dance sequences but the We Three Kings or Silent Night? …nope.

I should have asked each Patrol to print 3–5 carols to lead the Troop in singing. That said, we did our best and filled the woods with our voices


It was a cold winter weekend in 2019. We had no idea what 2020 would be like. No idea a camp like this wouldn’t be possible until the world opened back up.

Parents dropped kids off at this camp, concerned with the overnight lows forecast around -15. Parents picked up kids with rosy cheeks and stories similar to what I’ve outlined here.

This sort of event is what makes volunteering with kids so worthwhile for everyone involved.

Yours in Scouting



Jamie McIlroy

Husband and Father. Wilderness First-Aid Certified. Terrible at tying knots. I play Squash. I like things that Trade. Leafs fan. FRC and Scouts Canada