The first time Phil and Chris Savignano took their kids camping, they didn't get farther than their living room.
``It was raining so hard I knew it would be horrible for little kids,'' explained Savignano, an experienced camper who works for L.L. Bean in Maine and has developed programs for the company's Outdoor Discovery School. ``So we set up the tent in the living room. The kids thought it was great. When the weather cleared, we went on with our planned trip.''
Savignano's strategy clearly worked. His son Sean and daughter Margaret, now teens, are still happy campers -- on the family's annual forays into the wilderness anyway.
``The biggest mistake families make on camping trips is to forget the kids are along,'' said Savignano. ``It's got to be fun for the kids.'' That means shorter hikes, simpler campfire meals (hot dogs and mac and cheese) and campgrounds that offer some creature comforts, such as real bathrooms and maybe even a swimming pool.
One thing parents won't have to worry about wherever their tent is pitched this summer -- playmates. Camping remains a favorite family vacation. More than 90 million Americans will be camping, hiking and climbing this summer -- more than 40 percent of all those who will be traveling on vacation, the travel industry association reports.
For many families, camping is simply the most affordable vacation, with the woods a natural -- and free -- theme park with the potential for as many thrills . (Check out your favorite national park at www.nps.gov.)
It's also an economical way for neighbors and friends to get away together, sharing costs and child-care chores as the Savignanos have done many July 4ths with friends from all over New England.
At the same time, Baby Boomers want their kids to have those same fond memories of childhood camping trips when the tent fell down, it rained for two days straight and they got lost on the trail. (Please e-mail me your favorite camping stories to use in an upcoming column. Send to firstname.lastname@example.org.)
``Camping is a time when we don't have an agenda or a schedule. The older the kids get, the harder it gets to find times to be together like that,'' explained Sandy Gorski, a mother of three from Boston.
The potential for those memories and the desire to share some much-needed family time away from the computer, the TV and the office are spurring many families who could afford resorts to sign on with outfitters and experienced guides to take them river rafting in Utah, canoeing in the Boundary Waters or backpacking in Yosemite National Park.
``It used to be guides were only for really rich people or those going to exotic places,'' explained GORP Travel's Dave Wiggins, who has been booking such trips for more than two decades. (Call 800-444-0099 or www.gorptravel.com.) ``But these days, time is a valuable commodity. Parents want the maximum experience with the fewest hassles and shortest amount of time.''
For the privilege of not having to organize the trip, put up tents, plan menus or keep the kids entertained, families are often forking over $100 or more per person per day. ``If we had more volunteer leaders, we would have no trouble filling more family trips,'' noted the Sierra Club's Molly Neal. The Sierra Club now offers some 30 family trips from Maine to Hawaii, some designed for grandparents and toddlers. (Call the Sierra Club's Outings Department at 415-977-5522 or www.sierraclub.org/outings/national.)
Still, ``It's a big step for some parents to admit they need help,'' said Sheryl Hinderman, who works for Minnesota's Gunflint Northwoods Outfitters and prepares many families for canoe trips. (Call 800-362-5251 or www.gunflintoutfitters.com.) ``The kids are fine -- it's the adults who get too worked up when things go wrong.''
``You see a lot of interesting family dynamics,'' agreed Steve Welch, whose California-based rafting company American River Touring Association hosts scores of families on Western rivers each season. (Call 800-323-2782 or www.ARTA.org.)
However you camp, don't expect to t solve any major family disputes in the woods. But you may get your teen to talk to you about his girl problems as you hike up a mountain trail or share the excitement with your 6-year-old when she catches a frog for the first time.
``You've got to think like a kid,'' explained David Kriesberg. The Long Island teacher loves camping so much he offers outdoor family smarts on www.naturerangers.com. ``You'll look at slugs a whole new way!''
If your teen is grumbling about the trip, invite an outdoors-loving pal. Then ``Get some good pictures of your teens doing something spectacular,'' suggested John Gookin, an experienced camper who develops programs for teens and others for the National Outdoor Leadership School. (Call 307-332-5300 or www.nols.edu.) ``They'll get goose bumps every time they show it to their friends -- even if they don't voice any appreciation to you.''
The rain might even be fun -- as long as it doesn't go on too long. ``How many times do you sit down and play with the kids when it's raining?'' asked Dave Kriesberg, the father of two. ``Usually they're playing and you're on the phone, answering mail, doing dishes. The kids will love the attention they get in the tent.''
Just be ready to bail when things go wrong and everyone's had enough wilderness. There's no shame in going home early, seasoned campers say. As long as the kids leave happy, they'll be game for another camping trip.
As long as you bring plenty of marshmallows.
DON'T LEAVE HOME ON A CAMPING TRIP WITHOUT:
-- A flashlight (with good batteries) and whistle for each child. If they get lost on the trail, they can stop and blow until you find them.
-- Baby wipes -- great for dirty hands.
-- Rain gear -- even if the forecast is for sun.
-- First-aid kit.
-- Fleece T-shirt -- warmer than a sweatshirt and dries faster.
-- Extra sneakers, socks and T-shirts for the kids. If there's water, they'll find it and get soaked.
-- A read-aloud book.
-- M&Ms for the hiking trail.
-- Bug repellent.
(c) 2000, Eileen Ogintz. Distributed by Los Angeles Times Syndicate