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Keep It Simple for Successful Family Camping : Children can enjoy tents and outdoor cooking as much as adults, but it's wise to ease them into it by starting close to home.

August 01, 1993|EILEEN OGINTZ

Mel Ivey worried that the baby and camping wouldn't mix. His wife Susan was sure there would be no problem.

So the couple, who had met through the Sierra Club, decided on a trial run: They spent their anniversary camping in a state park near their Chicago home--along with their 8-month-old daughter, Becca.

"It was one of the banner weekends of our lives," Susan Ivey says now, nine years later. "The sun shone and I fixed French toast and Becca was transfixed by the outdoors."

The Iveys--she's a child psychologist and he's a computer systems analyst--now have two daughters and live just outside Seattle on Bainbridge Island. They've never stopped camping--even when they had two babies in diapers simultaneously. Their two girls, now 9 and 7, are veteran campers, having tented in Pennsylvania, Illinois, Colorado, Washington and Oregon. "It's different camping with kids," Susan said. "You don't concentrate as much on each other. But there's a wonderfulness about camping with the kids. They discover things you've forgotten to look at. There haven't been many other experiences that have given us the same opportunity to get to know each other as a family."

The time is right. With most of us carefully watching our checkbooks, camping is an affordable way to spend quality time with children away from the telephone, television and Nintendo, as well as to see some spectacular country along the way.

"With campsites averaging $14 to $18, it's a lot cheaper than staying in hotels and eating in restaurants," observed veteran camper Don Wright, author of "Camping With Kids" (Cottage Press, $9.95) and the just-published 434-page "Guide to Free Campgrounds" (Cottage Press, $16.95).

At the same time, schools are teaching more about the environment and conservation. "And the kids are pushing their parents to get them out there," said San Jose author Michael Hodgson, who got exactly that message from his 10-year-old and whose book "Wilderness With Children" (Stackpole Books, $12.95) was named best book of 1993 by the Outdoor Writers Assn. of California.

Hodgson notes that there have never been more products aimed at camping families such as the Mermelsteins, as outdoor manufacturers pay increasing attention to this market, courting them with everything from kids' outdoor clothing and boots to sleeping bags and family-size tents.

The Los Angeles-based Adventure Quest tour company has gone a step further, offering inexpensive group weekend camping trips in California for families (averaging $95 per adult and $65 for children over 3; children under 3 are free) to such places as Yosemite and Sequoia national parks (310-470- 4251). The tour guides do everything from leading hikes to cooking dinner to telling the children bedtime stories, said organizer Dave Wyman, who has been camping with his kids since they were infants. His tip: For young kids, set up a tent in the back yard in advance of the trip so they can get used to it.

"You've got to be prepared to entertain the kids," advised Wyman, a former wilderness resource coordinator for the University of Southern California. Pack a supply of games. Encourage your teen to invite a friend.

"Bring a favorite old storybook or a nature book about the area," Ivey suggested. "Teach the kids how to make knots with an old ball of twine."

"If you're going with another family, you'll be in good shape," Wyman said. "The kids will entertain each other."

It's wholesome. It's cheap. It encourages family togetherness. Is it the perfect vacation for a '90s family?

Not always. It probably will rain (especially if you've forgotten your rain gear). The kids will whine that the hike is too long. The bacon will burn over the campfire. You may end up realizing--as the Ivey's did at 2 a.m. when a train roared by--that they had pitched their tent in the wrong spot.

That's why until you see how your family copes with the inevitable ups and downs, you should not rush out to buy a carload full of camping gear, the experts urge. You can rent or borrow much of what you need for those first forays into the wilderness.

The Go Camping America Committee, a promotional arm of the recreational vehicle and campground industry, can help you get started. Call its hot-line (800-47-SUNNY) for a free 16-page camping planner that includes everything from a coupon for a free night of camping at participating private campgrounds to a "getting ready" checklist (don't forget to put matches in a waterproof container and to take a folding stand for the stove) to listings of campgrounds and camping associations across the country.

The National Park Service also is a good resource. Call (202) 208-4747 or write P.O. Box 37127, Washington, D.C. 20013-7127, for more information.

So is Woodall's Campground Directory. Now in its 57th year, the 600-plus page, state-by-state directory lists more than 15,000 campgrounds and attractions (Wood Publishing, $16.95; regional camping guides also are available for $5.50).

Taking the Kids invites reader questions and comments about family travel. Address them to: Taking the Kids, 2859 Central St., Box 119, Evanston, Ill. 60201.

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