The Lifesaving Merit Badge: Your Ultimate Guide in 2021


The Lifesaving merit badge is crucial for safely planning activities in or around water. To earn this Eagle-required badge, you’ll need to learn a variety of first aid skills, rescue techniques, and rules for water safety. Once done, you’ll be 100% prepared to respond to any emergency on the water! 🙂

When I was working on my Lifesaving badge, one of the biggest hurdles I faced was scheduling time with my MB counselor to demonstrate the water rescue skills. That’s why the Lifesaving merit badge is best completed in groups! I’d highly recommend finding some scout buddies to work with.

Before we get started, if you have other Eagle-required merit badges to earn, I’d recommend checking out my Difficulty Ranking Guide to Every Eagle-required BadgeLifesaving is a pretty advanced badge, so if you’d like to see my recommended Eagle-required badges for scouts who are just starting out, click on that link above!

Also, remember that ScoutSmarts should just serve as your starting point for merit badge research. In school, we’re taught not to plagiarize, and the same is true for Scouting worksheets. 

Answer these questions in your own words, do further research, and I promise you’ll gain much more from every merit badge you earn!

Keep in mind, the Lifesaving merit badge is lengthy — it requires both skills and knowledge. Be prepared to work hard, get tested on your skills, and learn a lot of useful information for saving lives! 

Before we jump into learning though, take the time to read through each of the following requirements and fully understand what we’ll be covering in this badge. Remember, preparation is key to success!

What are the Lifesaving Merit Badge Requirements?

  1. Before doing requirements 3 through 15, review with your counselor the principles of Safe Swim Defense.
  2. Before doing requirements 3 through 15:
    –2a. Earn the Swimming merit badge.
    –2b. Swim continuously for 400 yards using each of the following strokes in a strong manner, in good form with rhythmic breathing, for at least 50 continuous yards: front crawl, sidestroke, breaststroke, and elementary backstroke.
  3. Explain the following:
    –3a. Common drowning situations and how to prevent them.
    –3b. How to identify persons in the water who need assistance.
    –3c. The order of methods in water rescue.
    –3d. How rescue techniques vary depending on the setting and the condition of the person needing assistance.
    –3e. Situations for which in-water rescues should not be undertaken.
  4. Demonstrate “reaching” rescues using various items such as arm, leg, towels, shirts, paddles, and poles.
  5. Demonstrate “throwing” rescues using various items such as a line, ring buoy, rescue bag, and free-floating support. Successfully place at least one such aid within reach of a practice victim 25 feet from shore.
  6. With your counselor’s approval, view in-person or on video a rowing rescue performed using a rowboat, canoe, kayak, or stand up paddleboard. Discuss with your counselor how effectively and efficiently the rescue was performed.
  7. List various items that can be used as aids in a “go” rescue. Explain why buoyant aids are preferred.
  8. Correctly demonstrate rescues of a conscious practice subject 30 feet from shore in deep water using two types of buoyant aids provided by your counselor. Use a proper entry and a strong approach stroke. Speak to the subject to determine his condition and to provide instructions and encouragement.
    –8a. Present one aid to a subject, release it, and swim at a safe distance as the subject moves to safety.
    –8b. In a separate rescue, present the other aid to a subject and use it to tow the subject to safety.
  9. Discuss with your counselor when it is appropriate to remove heavy clothing before attempting a swimming rescue. Remove street clothes in 20 seconds or less, enter the water, and approach a conscious practice subject 30 feet from shore in deep water. Speak to the subject and use a nonbuoyant aid, such as a shirt or towel, to tow the subject to safety.
  10. Discuss with your counselor the importance of avoiding contact with an active subject and demonstrate lead-and-wait techniques.
  11. Perform the following nonequipment rescues for a conscious practice subject 30 feet from shore. Begin in the water from a position near the subject. Speak to the subject to determine his or her condition and to provide instructions and encouragement.
    –11a. Perform an armpit tow for a calm, responsive, tired swimmer resting with a back float.
    –11b. Perform a cross-chest carry for an exhausted, responsive subject treading water.
  12. In deep water, show how to escape from a victim’s grasp on your wrist. Repeat for front and rear holds about the head and shoulders.
  13. Perform the following rescues for an unconscious practice subject at or near the surface 30 feet from shore. Use a proper entry and strong approach stroke. Speak to the subject and splash water on the subject to determine his or her condition before making contact. Quickly remove the victim from the water, with assistance if needed, and position for CPR.
    –13a. Perform an equipment assist using a buoyant aid.
    –13b. Perform a front approach and wrist tow.
    –13c. Perform a rear approach and armpit tow.
  14. Discuss with your counselor how to respond if a victim submerges before being reached by a rescuer, and do the following
    –14a. Recover a 10-pound weight in 8 to 10 feet of water using a feetfirst surface dive.
    –14b. Repeat using a headfirst surface dive.
  15. Demonstrate management of a spinal injury to your counselor:
    –15a. Discuss the causes, signs, and symptoms of a spinal injury.
    –15b. Support a faceup subject in calm water of standing depth.
    –15c. Turn a subject from a facedown to a faceup position in water of standing depth while maintaining support.
  16. Demonstrate knowledge of resuscitation procedure:
    –16a. Describe how to recognize the need for rescue breathing and CPR.
    –16b. Demonstrate CPR knowledge and skills, including rescue breathing, on a mannequin under the guidance of a current CPR/AED instructor trained by a nationally certified provider.
  17. With your counselor, discuss causes, prevention, and treatment of other injuries or illnesses that could occur while swimming or boating, including hypothermia, dehydration, heat-related illnesses, muscle cramps, sunburn, stings, and hyperventilation.

Lifesaving Merit Badge Requirement 1: Safe Swim Defense

1) Before doing requirements 3 through 15, review with your counselor the principles of Safe Swim Defense.

Understanding Safe Swim Defense is an extremely important part of enjoying water activities safely. If you’ve ever gone on an outing with swimming involved (or tied to earn your Swimming merit badge), you’ve probably heard of this.

There are eight main rules for Safe Swim Defense that you need to know in order to plan a safe aquatic activity. Since any activity on the water can be extremely dangerous, it’s important to take all of the necessary precautions to avoid injury or death.

Drowning is an extremely common cause of death in the United States, with 3692 casualties in 2019 alone. 🙁 However, if the necessary precautions are taken, we can help bring this number down! That is why the BSA has implemented Safe Swim Defense. Here are the eight rules:

What is Safe Swim Defense?

  1. Qualified Supervision
    • Every aquatic activity requires the supervision of trained adults over the age of 21. These adults should be certified in CPR, first aid, and Safe Swim Defense.
  2. Personal Health Review
    • Release forms are required for swimming activities so that parents and scouts understand the risks involved. Health history must also be submitted to leaders before scouts can be allowed to enter the water,
  3. Safe Area
    • Before starting any activity in the water, make sure the swimming area is safe. This includes checking for underwater hazards such as debris, currents, and broken glass. You should also be aware of the weather and other water activities taking place in the area.
  4. Response Personnel
    • When swimming, there should always be a lifeguard present. In the event of an emergency, a lifeguard can respond quickly and provide appropriate care to the affected person.
  5. Lookout
    • A lookout can spot potential drownings or other hazards that may not be obvious to swimmers or other adult leaders in or near the water.
  6. Ability Groups
    • Groups should be separated based on their swimming level. The various BSA Swim Tests can help guide you on how these groups should be separated.
    • Non-swimmer areas are for those who haven’t passed the BSA Swimmer’s Test. This area should be designated in shallow water, no deeper than the shortest scout’s chest.
  7. Buddy System
    • Buddy systems are important because they provide a system of accountability that helps scouts keep track of each other. Assigning each scout a buddy will ensure that your troop can more effectively respond to emergencies.
  8. Discipline
    • Rules are only effective when followed. Breaking any one of these rules could lead to an emergency situation. Therefore, you’ll need to not tolerate unsafe behavior, especially during activities on the water.

I know this might be a lot to recall, but safety is an extremely important part of any Scouting activity — especially those where drowning is a possibility. To help you remember these 8 rules, I’d recommend checking out this hilarious scout-made video (4:34) on BSA Safe Swim Defense:

Remember, as a scout you should always “Be Prepared” to handle any challenge that could arise. By following the 8 Safe Swim Defense rules, you’ll be prepared for any swimming activity and able to prevent potential disasters! 🙂

2) Before doing requirements 3 through 15:
—2a) Earn the Swimming merit badge.
—2b)Swim continuously for 400 yards using each of the following strokes in a strong manner, in good form with rhythmic breathing, for at least 50 continuous yards: front crawl, sidestroke, breaststroke, and elementary backstroke.

Ensuring that you’re a strong swimmer is the last requirement you’ll need to complete before we can really get started on this merit badge! Since much of lifesaving takes place near water, your counselor will need to verify your swimming abilities. Start scheduling with your counselor ASAP, as this may take some time!

2 I) Earn the Swimming Merit Badge

If you haven’t already earned it, you should definitely check out my guide to the Swimming Merit Badge! Earning swimming will definitely give you more confidence in the water and teach you some essential first-aid techniques that’ll be necessary for lifesaving.

2 II) Swim continuously for 400 yards using each of the following strokes in a strong manner, in good form with rhythmic breathing, for at least 50 continuous yards: front crawl, sidestroke, breaststroke, and elementary backstroke.

These are a few basic but very effective strokes that everyone should know. Mastering these will make you a better swimmer and prepare you for any water emergency.

To help you brush up on these vital swimming strokes, I’ll be including some useful video demonstrations in the section below. I’d recommend quickly watching them unless you’re some kind of swimming pro/lifeguard who gets out on the water every day.

Swimming techniques are much better explained visually rather than through text so, even if you might already be familiar with these strokes, the videos could give you some useful tips to take your form to the next level!

Front Crawl

The first swimming stroke you need to know is the front crawl. You might’ve also heard this stroke referred to as freestyle. It’s a pretty basic stroke that most swimmers use when trying to swim quickly. The video (3:00) below provides a great demonstration of how properly do the front crawl:

As you can see, the front crawl is a pretty simple stroke but requires some practice to master. If you have access to a pool with lanes, try this stroke until you feel comfortable enough to show your counselor.

Sidestroke

The sidestroke will likely feel more unnatural than the front crawl, but I’m sure you’ll master it with just a bit of practice! Using the sidestroke will help you to swim for long distances with your head above water (which is super helpful for swimming rescues).

Take a few minutes to watch the video (7:35) below for a great overview of proper sidestroke technique:

From personal experience, be warned that the sidestroke will likely require some extra practice, as its a more advanced swimming technique that’s tricky to get 100% right. Luckily, the next two strokes are a lot less difficult to get the hang of!

Breaststroke

The third stroke you’re required to perform is the breaststroke. The breaststroke is a simple and common stroke amongst swimmers that you’re probably at least a little bit familiar with already. Watch the video (3:54) below for a great demonstration:

The breaststroke is one of the most frequently used swimming styles and is relatively easy to perform correctly. It can be adapted to have your head either inside or outside the water. The breaststroke is one of the most important strokes for lifesaving, so make sure you know it well! 🙂

Elementary Backstroke

Last but not least, we’ll be covering the elementary backstroke. This technique is great for swimming medium-to-long distances while conserving your energy with your head above water. Check out the video (3:21) below for a great overview of the elementary backstroke’s fundamentals:

The elementary backstroke is also helpful for towing injured swimmers to safety. By knowing when to use each of these techniques in the water, you’ll be prepared for any lifesaving situation! Below are a few more helpful tips for your 400-yard swim test:

  • Don’t get too excited: Strong swimmers sometimes fail the Lifesaving swim tests because they take off too quickly and tire themselves out right away. Take your time and breathe.
  • Practice and plan: If possible, practice each stroke for a few minutes before taking the swim test. Going in with a game plan will make completing the test so much easier.
  • Goggles: If you’re nervous, goggles will make this test much, much easier. Even if you need to borrow someone else’s pair, goggles will be a tremendous help if you’re not 100% confident in your swimming abilities.
  • Push off correctly: When making the sharp turns at the end of the pool, be sure to give yourself time to glide in the water. This will save you energy and shorten the distance you’ll need to swim.
  • Use breaststroke or elementary backstroke: If you’re feeling tired, doing the breaststroke or elementary backstroke will allow you to rest and catch your breath. The front crawl (freestyle) tends to be anaerobic and will usually be the most exhausting.

I know this section was a little video-heavy, but visual learning is by far the best way to understand these techniques! After watching each of these clips and putting in a bit of practice, you should be 100% ready for your 400-meter swim. My most important swimming tip? Remember, you’ve got this! 🙂

Requirement 3: Rescue Situations

Now, it’s time to actually begin learning lifesaving! In this requirement, you’ll learn about various emergency situations on the water, as well as the best ways to identify whether a rescue is needed. Hopefully, you’ll never need to use this knowledge, but it is important to know in case an emergency arises.

3a) Common drowning situations and how to prevent them.

As we talked about earlier, drowning is an extremely common cause of death, and young people are especially at risk. There are a few common causes of drowning that you need to know to fulfill this part of the requirement. Luckily, many of these can be avoided by following Safe Swim Defense.

Here are a few of the most common situations that could lead to drowning, and how you can prevent them:

  • Poor Supervision: If a swimmer begins to drown and has no supervision, there will be no one there to spot them. That’s why the BSA requires that scouts are “supervised by a mature and conscientious adult age 21 or older” whenever swimming.
    • Proper supervision is having adult leaders and a lifeguard present, with the buddy system also being used.
  • Medical Conditions: The reason having each scout’s updated health information is so important, is that an underlying health condition could lead to drowning.
    • While some medical conditions may not be known and not listed on health history, it is important to look out for any signs of a heart attack or seizure while in the water.
  • Unsafe Areas: An unsafe area could include swimming spots with strong currents, heavy waves, or a lot of debris.
    • Even for the most experienced swimmer, these hazards can greatly increase the likelihood of drowning. If the area looks unsafe, it is best to avoid it.

While most drowning hazards can be avoided, sudden health emergencies can happen at any time. That’s why the water rescue techniques that we’ll be covering, later on, are so important! If you notice someone in danger, it’s crucial that you notify an adult and immediately rescue the victim.

3b) How to identify persons in the water who need assistance.

There are a few key signs that will help you identify a swimmer who may need help. Basically though, you’re looking for individuals who don’t seem to be in full control of their breathing in the water. If you notice any of the following signs, call for an adult and get ready for a rescue:

  • The first thing you need to look out for is a tired swimmer.
    • The swimmer may be struggling to swim distances, look visibly exhausted, or be supporting themselves on structures such as rope or floating on their back.
  • A distressed swimmer is another obvious sign of someone who needs assistance.
    • These swimmers will be frantic, yelling, and trying to swim rapidly while making little to no progress.
    • Take caution when trying to save a frantic swimmer, as they could potentially pull the rescuer underwater in their panic.
  • Another thing to look out for are injured swimmers.
    • An extremely common injury that causes drownings is cramps. While someone who’s injured may yell out, this is not always the case, so always keep a close eye.
    • This is why having a lookout is important. Lookouts can spot injured swimmers and alert the lifeguard immediately.
  • Most importantly, If you notice someone with their head submerged or bobbing in and out of the water without much control, they’ll likely need immediate rescue.
    • Someone unable to keep their head above water for long will fall unconscious when a lack of oxygen sets in.
    • Rescuing them should be your top priority, as every second counts when it comes to someone who’s not breathing.

My #1 tip to avoid swimming emergencies: If you start to feel tired while swimming, let an adult know and give yourself a break. Pushing yourself to swim until you’re exhausted could cause you to be the one needing a rescue later on!

3c) The order of methods in water rescue.

Just like you have an order of operations in math class (do you even PEMDAS? 😛 ), there’s also an order of methods for a water rescue. If you got the order of operations wrong on a math problem, you’ll get a wrong answer. This same principle applies to water rescues, so do the order of methods correctly!

  1. REACH
    • This is the safest rescue as you can simply grab the victim and pull them back into the boat or onto dry land without getting into the water yourself. If this is not possible, you need to move onto the next method.
  2. THROW
    • If you cannot reach the victim, you should throw a floatation device (life jacket, boogie board, etc) upstream of the victim, not at them.
    • If they are conscious, they should be able to grab the float so that you can pull them back to shore or the boat. If this is not possible, move to the next method.
  3. ROW
    • If the victim is too far out to throw or reach, you may need to row a boat over to them and attempt a rescue.
    • If you are in a small boat like a canoe or kayak, use your paddle to pull them in rather than reaching yourself. If this is not possible, you must resort to the last method.
  4. GO
    • This is the most dangerous method and should only be used if there’s no other option and you have support (and a lifejacket).
    • A drowning person will try to pull anything around them underwater to hold themselves up.
    • If the swimmer is conscious, have them hold onto a flotation device. If they’re unconscious, you’ll need to pull them to shore yourself (likely with the elementary backstroke).

We’ll be discussing how to perform each of these rescues in more detail below. Just make sure to remember though, following the order of methods will help you to avoid unnecessary risks and be much more likely to save anyone who’s drowning!

3d) How rescue techniques vary depending on the setting and the condition of the person needing assistance.

When making a rescue, you need to consider a few factors before putting yourself in danger. Be sure to think fast though — time is of the essence in these types of rescue situations!

  1. First, consider the condition of the victim.
    • If they are conscious, you probably won’t need to go in the water and bring them to shore. This is when the first three methods should be employed
      • Pop quiz: What are the first 3 methods in a water rescue? Don’t peek!
        Here they are: Reach, Throw, Row. Did you get them? 🙂
    • A conscious swimmer, in most cases, will be able to grab onto something thrown to them, or your hand, if need be.
  2. Then, consider the setting.
    • If you can reach the victim more effectively from another area, start the rescue there. Your goal should be to get the victim out of the water as quickly as possible (while still being safe with the order of methods).
    • If there are people nearby, call for help. Make sure the weather is good for throwing a floatation device or rope to them. If the winds are strong, you’ll likely need to adjust your throw.

When throwing a flotation device, take the time to ensure your aim is as accurate as possible. Also, try to aim upwind of and behind the victim (not at them) if your floatation device is attached to the rope. You’ll be able to pull it directly to them after it lands.

The worst thing to do is waste a rescue opportunity by acting without thinking. By making your moves carefully and being deliberate, you’ll be able to save the victim in the reach, throw, or row stage before needing to put yourself in a dangerous position by go-ing yourself.

3e) Situations for which in-water rescues should not be undertaken.

Sometimes, getting in the water and rescuing the victim may not be the best option. This requirement is a little easier to explain thanks to the order of methods:

  • If the first three methods are possible, you shouldn’t risk your life by getting in the water. If the victim is conscious, these should work most of the time. These keep you and the victim safe while still performing a lifesaving rescue.
  • An in-water rescue should always be the last option when nothing else works. This is a dangerous option and could potentially lead to you drowning as well.
  • If the water seems especially dangerous, or you know you aren’t a strong enough swimmer to save someone that far out you shouldn’t perform an in-water rescue.
    • Instead, immediately find a lifeguard or large flotation device (like a surfboard) to help reach and save the victim.

Above anything else, make sure to trust your gut. If you feel that you’d just become another victim by going in, you definitely shouldn’t. If the lifeguards need to rescue you too, it could waste valuable, life-saving time for the first victim. In lifesaving, every second counts!

4) Demonstrate “reaching” rescues using various items such as arm, leg, towels, shirts, paddles, and poles.

We’ve already discussed reaching rescues, and now it’s time to demonstrate what you’ve learned! “Reach” is the first method you should resort to when saving a drowning person, as it puts you in less danger and quickly removes the victim from the water.

Definitely go through each of these reaching techniques with your merit badge counselor, as practicing them in low-stakes situations is the best way to be prepared for the real thing. If you need a visual guide, here’s a helpful video (3:03) that demonstrates and explains each method:

5) Demonstrate “throwing” rescues using various items such as a line, ring buoy, rescue bag, and free-floating support. Successfully place at least one such aid within reach of a practice victim 25 feet from shore.

This is another test of what you’ve learned! Using the video above, review how the park rangers performed a throwing rescue (at 1:05). Whatever you decide to throw should serve at least one of two purposes (ideally, it’ll serve both though):

  1. Help you to pull the victim to shore: This includes ropes and connected buoys.
  2. Allow the victim to float more easily: This includes lifejackets, rescue bags, and other flotation devices.

Make sure you don’t throw the flotation device directly at the victim, but upstream or upwind, instead. This is a pretty easy and extremely effective rescue to perform once you get the hang of it, so take your time to learn the technique well!

6) With your counselor’s approval, view in-person or on video a rowing rescue performed using a rowboat, canoe, kayak, or stand up paddleboard. Discuss with your counselor how effectively and efficiently the rescue was performed.

For this requirement, you need to watch a rowing rescue and tell your counselor what was done right. Your counselor might already have a video in mind, so this can just serve as quick practice! Watch the short video (1:08) below for a demonstration of a kayak (or tiny canoe?) rescue:

Awesome, you should now know how to perform a rowing rescue! I know this had been a lot of information, but you’re doing great. With what we’re been learning here, you’re literally becoming more prepared to save lives! Keep it up. 🙂

7) List various items that can be used as aids in a “go” rescue. Explain why buoyant aids are preferred.

There are a few common aids to help you bring a victim to shore in a “go” rescue. These aids allow you to pull the victim without as much risk. However, you need to remember that regardless of what aids you have, “go” rescues are extremely dangerous and should only be done if absolutely necessary.

So, how can we make “go” rescues a bit safer? Good question! The first step is creating space between yourself and the victim so they can’t pull you under. This is what’s called a non-contact tow, as you’re not directly contacting the victim. Here are some example aids you can use for this tow:

  • A T-shirt
  • Flotation devices like a surfboard with a leash
  • A Life jacket

Aids can be extremely helpful when bringing a conscious victim to shore. Any aids that can float (are buoyant) are more effective as they help the victim stay above water. However, in the case of unconscious victims, you’ll need to use a contact tow.

Buoyant aids are much more useful than aids like a shirt. These offer the advantage of keeping the victim afloat, as they’ll probably be too tired to do it themselves in an emergency. Bouyant aids also make your towing easier, since it’s less weight for you to pull as they float along the surface.

8) Correctly demonstrate rescues on a conscious practice subject 30 feet from shore in deep water using two types of buoyant aids provided by your counselor. Use a proper entry and a strong approach stroke. Speak to the subject to determine his condition and to provide instructions and encouragement.
–8a) Present one aid to a subject, release it, and swim at a safe distance as the subject moves to safety.
–8b) In a separate rescue, present the other aid to a subject and use it to tow the subject to safety.

It’s time to demonstrate what you’ve learned once again! This is a requirement that you’ll only be able to complete with the help of your counselor and another scout. Make sure to use the strokes we learned in requirement 1 for your entry and approach. You got this!

I know you probably have quite a few questions about this requirement, but I promise this part of Lifesaving is best learned and practiced in a hands-on way with your merit badge counselor. As a final tip though, always be in control and never rush when doing water rescuers. I believe in you!

Congrats on Finishing Your First Half of The Lifesaving Merit Badge!

Wow, we just went through close to 5000 words and even the page is beginning to lag! Awesome job. I feel like you should almost be a lifesaving expert already! You definitely deserve a rest at this point; give yourself a pat on the back. 🙂

Once you’re ready to continue on to part 2 of the Environmental Science merit badge (Requirements 9-17) click here!
(It’s currently in progress, join my ScoutSmarts Scribe Newsletter for updates)

Also, if you’re interested in the difficulty rankings for every Eagle-required merit badge, you can check out my full guide here! PS: The article also links to my other ultimate badge guides, which’ll also help you to complete your merit badge worksheets.

Cole

I'm constantly writing new content because I believe in Scouts like you! Thanks so much for reading, and for making our world a better place. Until next time, I'm wishing you all the best on your journey to Eagle and beyond!

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