With nine children, my parents didn't have many options when it came to family vacations. They figured take us camping or stay home and watch us tear down the house. • So every summer, we piled into the cars, one full of girls driven by Mom, the other full of boys driven by Dad, and headed off into the woods with canoes, boats and trailers in tow. • These annual forays into the wilderness were fun and inexpensive, a good example in these trying economic times. Yes, you'll have to buy some basic equipment, but campsite fees are cheap and so is a lot of the entertainment. Hiking and storytelling are free and fishing isn't much more. • The following tips, based on my experiences as a young camper and on camping excursions with my own children, will get you started.
>> Campfires: The first question a camper should ask before setting match to wood is "are fires allowed?" Many state and local campgrounds do not allow open fires on the ground. And even in those parks that do, drought conditions often force officials to ban open flames to help prevent forest fires.
Most organized campgrounds have fire rings. It is always a good idea to bring a shovel to clean old ashes out of the pit so air can circulate under the wood.
If the campground doesn't have a fire pit, bring your own. Cut off the bottom 12 inches of a 55-gallon drum and drill a few air holes in the side. As you pick your fire spot, be mindful of the surrounding and overhead vegetation. Once the site for the fire has been established, set up the rest of the camp (tent, cooking area, etc.) upwind.
If the smoke gets in your eyes, just yell "I hate white rabbits." Trust me, it works.
>> Firewood: Don't count on finding dead wood on the ground to fuel the flames. In a popular campground, such as Fort De Soto Park at the southern tip of Pinellas County, the ground is likely to be picked clean by the thousands of campers that have been there before. That's not a good thing, since a downed log supports more life than a live tree.
It is much better to gather wood at a brush site or buy some split logs at the camp store or supermarket. Oak, and other hardwoods, will burn long and slow, and creates a long-lasting bed of coals. Softwoods, such as pine or spruce, burn quicker and hotter.
A grocery store bag of split wood costs about $5. It is always better to have too much wood than too little. If you think you will use two bags a night, buy four. Keep an extra bag in reserve.
>> S'mores: This classic campfire treat is easy to make. Start with a bag of marshmallows, a box of graham crackers and a package of chocolate bars.
There are two ways to make s'mores.
In the first method, toast the marshmallow until it is a delicate golden brown. Then gently place the marshmallow on a graham cracker, add chocolate and cover it with another graham cracker. Now squeeze the crackers together, wait until the marshmallow has cooled and then eat carefully.
Method two: Stick the marshmallow in the fire and wait until it bursts into flames. Now pretend it is a torch and then grab a handful of chocolate, eat in one bite. Forget the crackers.
>> Ghost Stories: Gather your troop, pack, gang, tribe or family around the fire and make sure everybody has a comfy chair. Make Uncle Henry, the big mouth who eats and drinks too much at Christmas dinner, sit on the smoky side.
Do not begin until everyone is quiet. All flashlights should be off. Keep yours handy in case you want to illuminate your face during particularly scary parts.
As far as content, always blend fact with fiction. Fail-safe themes: swamp creatures, mythical or legendary beasts, the ghosts of old soldiers, cowboys, explorers, etc.
Make sure your stories are age-appropriate. If there are little ones mixed in the crowd, I usually pull them aside and let them in on the secret and ask that they help scare the "big kids."
>> Cooking: Many campsites come equipped with a charcoal grill or fire pit. You can prepare meals over an open fire, but it is time-consuming and, at times, dangerous. Better off to buy a good twin-burner propane stove.
Don't bring pots and pans from home. Put together a "camp kit" containing at least one pot, one frying pan and the necessary utensils, and you will be able to fix everything from linguine and clam sauce to beef stroganoff.
Paper plates are fine for some things, but they can fall apart when faced with some of the messier dishes (see above).
Keep a separate box full of cooking gear that includes some specialty items such as a cutting board, strainer and cheese grater. Just because you are camping doesn't mean you can't eat like royalty.
>> Tents: Spending a long, wet night in a cheap tent that leaks will make you wish you had spent an extra $50 for a quality product.
Tents come in all styles, sizes and prices, and you can usually find a model that sleeps four people at one of the big-box stores. But remember, any tent will perform well in good weather. The question is how will it do when a storm hits?
Most families find that a lightweight dome tent is most practical. Ease of setup is a big plus, especially when you get to the campsite late and have to cook dinner.
Be sure to buy one that has a separate rain fly, which gives you the option of just setting up the tent when the weather is good. A separate ground cloth will add years to the tent's floor, as will posting a sign that says "no shoes inside."
Bring along a small dustpan and hand broom to keep things tidy.
For year-round camping, a separate screen room (placed over a picnic table) will make the evenings more enjoyable.
>> Sleeping: Cotton sleeping bags are fine for car camping. They are bulkier and heavier than their synthetic counterparts and usually cost less. Most can also be cleaned in a regular-size washing machine. The downside to cloth sleeping bags is that they are useless if they get wet.
An inexpensive air mattress will not only cushion against rocks, sticks and sea shells, but will also provide a layer of insulation against the cold ground. The small, lightweight, self-inflating air mattresses favored by backpackers are an option, but the expense usually makes them impractical for families.
Another alternative is the traditional camp cot. The old, wood- frame army models have been replaced by lightweight aluminum designs complete with padding.
And don't forget the pillow and teddy bear. They will make a night in the woods feel like home sweet home.
>> Timeless advice: My mother, Lee Tomalin, who took her nine children on countless camping trips, offers this: "You really don't need much to take little children camping. Just try to make them aware of their surroundings . . . Show them the moon, the stars, the wonders of nature. Make them feel comfortable and safe . . . hold their hand when you walk to the john. Just love them dearly and they'll remember for the rest of their lives."
Terry Tomalin can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 893-8808.