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Camping With Kids
(For safe summer adventure,
nothing beats the national parks)

By Charles Plueddeman

Camping with kids is an activity that presents many opportunities for disaster-rainstorms, insects, and burned wienies-yet also has the potential to be a great bonding experience. One way to make the most of a camping expedition is to pitch your tent at one of the 379 National Park Service units scattered across the country.

NPS facilities include National Parks, National Recreation Areas, National Seashores and Lakeshores and National Monuments. Each exists to preserve either an historic site or an area of natural significance, which will give your visit a built-in theme that you can match to your child's personal interests. Each also offers a variety of organized programs and events, from hikes to historic interpretations to Junior Ranger programs that take some of the pressure off Dad to organize all of the entertainment. The rangers, in their classic Smoky Bear hats, are your friends.

Grand Teton National Park

National Parks and other NPS facilities are also safe places to visit because they are patrolled by "protective ranger staff," essentially police officers with a naturalist bent, who keep a close eye on the campgrounds and recreation areas.

The best source of information on National Parks is the NPS web site ( which offers detailed information on every park. Click on the "Visit Your Parks" area and the site will allow you select from a menu of activities, interests and states you'd like to visit, and then matches parks to your selection. There are links to sites for each individual park which have information on fees, camping reservations, activities and directions.

Most National Parks have a Junior Ranger program that's designed by the staff at each park. It may be as simple as a workbook you purchase and use as a guide to seek answers to questions or as elaborate as hikes or hands-on activities led by rangers. Kids who complete the program are usually awarded a patch.

Grand Teton National Park, for example, offers a free Junior Naturalist program for kids aged 8 to 12. Rangers lead a two- to three-hour hike that focuses on specific aspects of environmental education. "We see the kids as a blank sheet," says Jackie Skaggs, ranger/naturalist at Teton Park. "It's very easy to interest and enlighten them, to get them in touch with the natural world that's unfamiliar to so many in today's urban society.

Another great reason to camp at a National Park is the low cost. Most parks charge $10 per car for a seven-day pass. Camping fees range from about $10 to $16 per night. Almost everything else is free.

Camping with kids requires more preparation than a hotel-based vacation. You want to be prepared to make things go as smoothly as possible, so get out your old Boy Scout Handbook and review your skills. One way to avoid problems is to practice with equipment like the tent, cooking stove and sleeping pads before you leave. If you've erected the tent or the pop-up camper a few times in broad daylight in the back yard, getting it up at night after a long drive to the park will go much more smoothly. And you don't want to be reading the stove directions when the gang is hungry for breakfast.

Fire building is of course a critical camping skill for Dad to master. If it's been a while since you've lit anything besides a cigar or the Weber grill, practice at home. It also pays to bring a little of your own dry kindling wood from home, especially if it's been raining and firewood at the park is apt to be damp. When planning menus, keep it simple. Kids will eat hot dogs and beans over and over.

If you have very young children who have never camped before, start with a "sleep-out" in the back yard and help ease any anxiety about sleeping in a tent. Bring along a favorite pillow, doll or blanket for further comfort and keep the flashlight close by.

Because some National Parks can get very busy during peak weekends, you may need to make camping reservations in advance. The park website will help in this regard. Most also list interesting activities away from the park, and the smart Dad will have a rainy-day plan ready that includes indoor activities such as local museums. Keep 'em busy and the trip will be a fun one.

Great Parks to Visit With Kids

Mention national parks and most people think of Yellowstone, Yosemite or the Great Smoky Mountains, which also happen to be three of the most crowed parks. Here are some alternatives that kids will enjoy:

Dinosaur National Monument: Northwestern Colorado. Kids love dinosaurs and this place has 'em. A quarry contains more than 1,500 dino bones and you can watch technicians working in the paleontology lab. Other attractions include a trout hatchery, hiking trails to waterfalls and petroglyphs, and white-water raft trips on the Green and Yampa Rivers.

Lassen Volcanic National Park: North Central California. Established in 1916 around Lassen Peak, an active volcano that erupted in 1914, this park features many of the thermal features-sulfur vents, hot springs, lava pinnacles and cinder cones-you'll see at Yellowstone but never the crowds. There's snow in the higher elevations until July, which is always fun to see.

Assateague Island National Seashore: A 37-mile-long barrier island along the Atlantic coasts of Maryland and Virginia offers white sand beaches and ocean swimming, crabbing and clamming, bay canoeing, and backcountry camping for the adventurous. An historic village with boardwalk is located on the mainland.

Rocky Mountain National Park: Central Colorado. This park offers exceptional activities for kids, with a hands-on Junior Ranger program. Rangers also lead the Rocky Explorers study of the engineering behind a beaver dam. Lots of hiking and horseback riding for your posse.

Apostle Island National Lakeshore: Northern Wisconsin. Older kids who like adventure will enjoy this park, which offers camping on 21 islands scattered along the Lake Superior coast. You can move from island to island in your small powerboat or by sea kayaks rented from local outfitters. There are old lighthouses and it's almost always cool here in the summer, though the lake may be cold for swimming.

Charles Plueddeman, the father of five daughters, is a freelance writer based in Wisconsin.

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