When Jerry Wolf, an avid camper before his marriage, decided it was time to start camping again, he and his wife Cheryl had only two small matters to consider: Jason, 6, and Nicole, 2.
"Children make camping different," says Mr. Wolf, whose family lives in Overlea. "And most times it's more fun." He remembers, for example, Jason and Nicole's unmasked delight when a hike brought them within 10 feet of a deer. At other times, he adds realistically, "it's just like at home," because camping with children is not a vacation from the same supervision required of parents every day.
Families who camp say outdoor vacationing has all the elements for a good time: Re-discovery of nature, of each other, the physical fitness that comes from hiking and swimming. And although camping is not without costs, it generally costs a lot less than staying in hotels or condominiums.
And, in contrast to the less-than-flexible schedules often imposed by hotel and condominium rentals, campers can tailor an outdoor vacation to their needs and desires -- trips, for example, that are shorter or longer than a week.
"You can plan a weekend, and leave on Friday and be there while it's still light," says Mrs. Wolfe. "You feel like you have the whole weekend ahead of you. And it's easier on the kids in the car."
A trip to any of the more than a dozen private or public campgrounds within two hours from Baltimore can leave families plenty of energy for exploring, swimming or making new friends. And in most campgrounds, activities extend well past sundown, says Peggy Lins, director of the Maryland/Washington D.C. chapter of the National Campers and Hikers Association, an educational resource and social organization for tent and recreational vehicle campers.
"When [non-camping] families go away, they're out for the day, and come back to the room, bolt the door, flop on the bed and turn on the TV," she says. "You can do that at home."
What you can't do at home is sit near a campfire and watch a naturalist like Patapsco Valley State Park's Debby Luquette gently ease Mr. Owl out of his cage for close inspection. Mr. Owl's species has a bad habit of flying into car headlights -- and just such an accident landed Mr. Owl, minus an eye, in the rehabilitative care of a park ranger.
For a campfire encore on a recent night, Ranger Kim Lloyd displayed a ringneck snake found just that morning in the basement of her home on the park property.
The Maryland state parks with campgrounds offer several weekly nature-oriented programs for campers. Mrs. Luquette's counterpart in Elk Neck State park, Ruth Tolliver, lures families in from a day at the beach or trails. On any program evening, she organizes scavenger hunts, demonstrates campfire cooking or cheers on participants in turtle or bug races. In all parks, notices of programs are posted.
Private and public campgrounds differ in programs and amenities, and such differences can be important to families.
Sandy Bunke, of Northeast Baltimore, a frequent weekend camper and member of the Campers and Hikers Association, cheerfully refers to public parks as "more of a wilderness experience. For $12, you get a site. Water is by the shower houses and there's no electricity."
Public parks are generally in sprawling, rustic areas that offer well-marked hiking trails. They are staffed by rangers with formal training in outdoor management.
Both Mrs. Bunke and the Wolfs observe that private campgrounds have different advantages. Reservations can be made. Swimming pools, organized games such as Ping-Pong and volley ball, crafts and even an occasional video arcade are offered. And private campgrounds are more likely to offer the luxury of coin washers and dryers.
Though families cite the economies of camping, a scan of any campground reveals accommodations from modest to sublime. (Mrs. Lins has spotted satellite dishes adorning motor homes.)
Mr. Wolf bought a pop-up camper for $1,000 three years ago and feels he has recouped the investment. Nylon, free-standing tents that start for under $100 have replaced bulky canvas tents.
Additional equipment will depend on a family's preferences about certain creature comforts. But many campers whose goal is to rediscover nature insist that a weekend trip requires minimal luggage.
According to Beverly Liston, author of "Family Camping Made Easy (Globe Peqout Press, 1989), a minimal list requires only sleeping bags, a piece of plastic for under the tent, a stove ("propane is easier," says Mrs. Bunke), a cooler for food, kitchen utensils, water container, a first aid kit, insect repellent, sunscreen and flashlights.
Luxuries can include air mattresses (some campers call them essential), an electric coffee pot and chairs with backs. Younger children require a few more things. The Wolfs packed a backpack and a portable crib when Nicole was younger. They include rainy day projects and more changes of clothes than they think they'll need.