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INTO THE WOODS

Most people go camping to forget about work. Les Tomalin went to work to forget about camping.

"Eight kids in tents ... what a production," my father said of the Tomalin tribe's annual forays into the Maine woods. "Looking back, I can't believe we did it. It seems pretty crazy."

Crazy? How about insane?

Picture it. Eight unruly children, none a candidate for citizen of the month, let loose in a national park with no warning to the appropriate authorities.

"It's amazing you all made it back safely," Tomalin said. "The key was proper planning."

The Old Man was always big on lists. He'd start planning months in advance, making sure he never ran out of mantles for the lantern or green olives for his vodka martinis.

"Good food and adequate rest," he said. "Those are the keys to a successful camping trip."

Cooking for a dozen people (we always had a few camp followers) is no easy task. Les Tomalin always cooked over a three-burner propane stove. The stove lights, or usually lights, on the first try. Because the flame is adjustable, the stove cooks food more evenly than a campfire.

A two-burner, propane-fueled stove is ideal for a family outing. It costs about $50 and sets up easily on a picnic table. You can simmer soup or bring water to a boil in minutes. The propane canisters last about three hours, which is plenty for a weekend trip.

A myriad of companies offer camp cookware, but unless you plan on backcountry camping out of a canoe or backpack, old household wares do just fine.

A lantern makes cooking easier when the sun goes down. Dual-fuel gas lanterns (about $60) are a good bet because they burn both unleaded gasoline and standard camping fuel.

A tent can make or break a camping trip. If the weather turns bad and you wind up stuck inside a small tent for an extended period of time (believe me, hours seem like years), you might end up killing your tent mate.

So buy a tent with ample room, but don't go overboard. The Tomalins usually camped in dwellings that looked a lot like circus tents, and as a result, the children usually behaved as if they were in a circus. Condo-size tents are great for playing Twister but prove cumbersome and impractical for most uses.

Umbrella or dome tents are best for family camping. A five-person tent provides ample room for Mom, Dad, 2.5 kids and the dog.

Aluminum shock-corded poles help a novice camper set up a tent quickly. Be sure the door and windows have no-see-um netting to keep the bugs out. The floor should be made of heavy canvas or waterproof nylon. And if you buy a new tent, be sure to seal all the seams with sealant.

A nylon tarpaulin protects the bottom of the tent and is a lot cheaper to replace than a floor. Carry extra stakes and an ax (or hammer) from home to drive them into the ground.

Cotton flannel sleeping bags do just fine in Florida. They start at about $20. If you don't have a sleeping bag, use old bed sheets and a blanket. Pillows also are a nice touch.

Don't forget your air mattress. One costs about $10 at most sporting goods stores. It will insulate you from cold ground, and your back will thank you in the morning.

Little things such as potholders, tea towels and tablecloths help make a camp feel like home, but Lee Tomalin cautions against bringing too much.

Her No. 1 rule (after leave your husband at home) is travel light.

"You really don't need much to take little children camping," she said. "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."

Camping checklist

1. Tent.

2. Tarpaulin and rope (to cover the picnic table in case it rains).

3. Sleeping bags (have the kids bring their pillows from home).

4. Air mattresses.

5. Stove (and fuel).

6. Lantern (one that uses same fuel as stove).

7. Pots and pans (bring some from home if you don't have a camp set).

8. Plates, cups and utensils (paper will do).

9. Trash bags.

10. Charcoal for grill (if available) and lighter fluid.

11. Paper towels.

12. Matches.

13. Sunscreen.

14. Insect repellent.

15. Candles.

16. First-aid kit.

17. Toiletries.

18. Sharp knife.

19. Flashlight.

20. Pillows for kids

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