In Summer of 2006 the BSA released their new Switchbacks(TM) Pants. This is a huge step toward making a useful outdoor uniform and (importantly in my mind) in combination with the Thorlo socks makes it possible to create an "activity" uniform under the rules of the BSA that can be used in the vast majority of Scouting activities. If only they would make the Action Shirt (or some variant of it) official uniform wear.
If I go to the home page of the Boy Scouts of America and click on "Boy Scout" and then "Boy Scouting," I find a nifty information sheet that outlines much about the Boy Scout program. Included in that sheet are the 8 methods used by the BSA to achieve their aims.
The aims are character development, citizenship training, and personal fitness. The goals are the ideals, patrols, outdoor programs, advancement, association with adults, personal growth, leadership development, and the uniform. Each of them has a description of what that means; here's the description of the uniform:
The uniform makes the Boy Scout troop visible as a force for good and creates a positive youth image in the community. Boy Scouting is an action program, and wearing the uniform is an action that shows each Boy Scout's commitment to the aims and purposes of Scouting. The uniform gives the Boy Scout identity in a world brotherhood of youth who believe in the same ideals. The uniform is practical attire for Boy Scout activities and provides a way for Boy Scouts to wear the badges that show what they have accomplished.
This seems to me a reasonable description of how to use the uniform as a method for the BSA. Unfortunately, it isn't factually accurate. I'd like to focus on one piece of this because if it falls apart (and I submit it has) the entire method is meaningless.
A reasonable person would conclude upon reading this description of the uniform that the BSA has designed the uniform in such a way that it is better suited than normal street wear to Boy Scout activities. Other BSA materials, however, disagree with that interpretation and, in fact, state that for many "Boy Scout activities" wearing the uniform is dangerous.
To find out how many "Boy Scout activities" the uniform is practical for, we can fairly easily turn to BSA literature. The BSA publishes a guide of age appropriate activities for the various stages of scouting. I've taken the 91 activities deemed to be appropriate for (older) Boy Scouts as a decent representation of "Boy Scout activities". For the purposes of argument, I'm going to assume the common case for each of these activities. The uniform might be inappropriate for ice fishing in Alaska, but that's not a large percentage of BSA members' fishing.
The next problem is determining what is "practical". I've mainly used common sense in determining this, but I do have some backup from BSA materials. The Scoutmaster Handbook under the subheading "When to Wear the Uniform" has instructions on when the uniform is appropriate:
Boy Scouts and Scout leaders proudly wear the full uniform for all ceremonial and indoor activities including troop meetings, boards of review, and courts of honor. The uniform should also be worn during special outdoor occasions, such as flag ceremonies, Scout shows, and special times during summer camp.
This isn't specifically a statement that the uniform shouldn't be worn outdoors, but it's not exactly a glowing endorsement of wearing it on most "Boy Scout activities" either. The real damning statement comes from page 205 of the 11th Edition "Boy Scout Handbook" which offers a warning about cotton clothing:
Cotton is good for warm, dry weather. Once wet, though, cotton will not keep you warm. That can make it dangerous to wear on trips when conditions might turn chilly, rainy, or snowy. (emphasis mine)
Since every piece of the Field Uniform (except the Thor Lo hiking socks) is either cotton or cotton blend, that means it should never be worn when "conditions might turn chilly, rainy, or snowy." That immediately eliminates any outdoor winter activities, any multiday outdoor activity (since the Scout is prepared and should be ready for sudden changes in weather), and any activity on the waterfront. Sports, trekking, and climbing require lightweight, breathable, somewhat loose fitting shorts so as to discourage chaffing. The Boy Scout shorts are tight fitting, heavy, and don't breath well when wet, and so are impractical for those.
Putting our definitions of "Boy Scout activities" together with our assertions of when the uniform is "practical" we can make the following determinations:
So of the 89 items where we can determine what clothes are practical, the Boy Scout Uniform should be used in only a third. And it's practical in that third because they aren't very demanding of clothing. You would be about as well off in a tuxedo and often better off in a pair of swim trunks and a t-shirt.
There are several reasons why it is so often inappropriate:
Because the pants/shorts are the main cause of the problem, and because they are required not only in the ironically named Field Uniform; but also in the Activity Uniform, the Activity Uniform is practical in the same small subset of Scouting activities as the Field Uniform.
I've only been in Boy Scouts since 1988, so I can't say that the BSA uniform was ever actually "practical attire for Boy Scout activities." But I can say that at one point the BSA at least thought it was, and they don't any longer. My first handbook was the 9th edition. That handbook was published in 1979 and was filled with color illustrations of Scouts doing Scouting activities in their field uniform. In 1981 the famed fashion designer Oscar de la Renta designed an updated uniform for the BSA. Nine years later, in 1990 [*], the BSA introduced the "activity uniform" in addition to the "field uniform" and came out with a new handbook which included color photographs of Scouts doing Scouting activities, but this time they were in activity uniform. For the reasons I've already mentioned, the activity uniform never caught on, and by 1998 the 11th edition of the handbook was out and this one had pictures of Scouts doing Scouting activities sometimes in the updated "activity uniform" (which replaced the uniformed shirt with whatever shirt the troop wanted) but often in a hodgepodge of field clothing.
This certainly isn't formal recognition by the BSA that their uniform is broken, but you would think if they really believed "the uniform is practical attire for Boy Scout activities" that the Handbook, as the primary source for examples of Scouting, would show the uniform being used for those activities.
The argument is raised that it's not possible to create something that's practical for everything a Scout does. That's true, but it's not an indication that the current uniform is anywhere close to as good as you can do. I've worn a pair of nylon hiking shorts and a polypropylene hiking shirt to take part in over 70 of the listed activities, and I would wear them for the general case of all but 2 (the scubas). I might not wear them as outer layers if it's very cold out, but they can always be used as an inner layer. The materials of the BSA Uniform make it impractical (and frequently dangerous) as an inner layer.
You frequently see troops in unofficial green field pants that are far
better suited to Boy Scout activities than the ones provided by the BSA. I've
seen one reference to getting a true outdoor shirt that looks like the field
uniform shirt (readily available at REI) and
sewing insignia in the correct place so one can wear their insignia in the
field. This is obvious disregard of policy, but the BSA seems uninterested in
giving us a uniform that allows us to display badges (which often reinforce
other methods such as the patrol method, advancement, or leadership
development) while actually doing Scouting activities. I still wear an
official uniform, but the BSA appears to have knowingly made troops choose
between the uniform and the uniform method and I don't think it's unreasonable
that some of them have chosen to stick with the methods.