Into The Woods

Camping: Americans discover the great outdoors is a great place for families to become better acquainted with nature and with themselves -- and you don't even need your own tent.

June 27, 1999|By JUDI DASH | JUDI DASH,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

Show up at most Maryland state park campgrounds with nothing but a sleeping bag, and you're in for a cold, dark night. But at Swallow Falls State Park, the rangers will provide a tent, propane stove and lantern, help set them up and even light your campfire.

It's instant camping, available for a modest fee to novices and those who just don't want to buy or haul a lot of gear. In Maryland, the option is available only at Swallow Falls, the state's westernmost campground, on the Youghiogheny River a few miles from Deep Creek Lake.

Equipped campsites also are available in some national forests out West, according to Pat O'Brien, executive director of the National Forest Recreation Association. "It's pretty typical of the innovation going on as more people are going outdoors and looking to enjoy it without making a major commitment they can't justify in the long run," O'Brien says.

Susan Koch of Baltimore says she and her family enjoyed their first stay at an equipped campsite so much three years ago that they reserved all three such sites at Swallow Falls for themselves and two neighbor families for a July weekend last year.

"It was easy, it was all self-explanatory and it was nice when we were finished to pack up the car with all our loot and leave it all there. Not having to pack up a damp tent is a big part of it," Koch says.

The $30-a-night cost includes a six-person nylon tent, a Coleman stove and lantern, and the propane to run them. The 65-site campground features such modern conveniences as flush toilets, hot showers and dishwashing stations.

Park rangers offer free setup help and camping tips. For example: Don't store food on the ground (it attracts animals), and don't burn the lantern or stove inside the tent (it could catch fire). The most common questions from camping newbies concern fire, Ranger Tim McMillan says.

"They're afraid to light the propane stove and they want to know how to get a fire going," he says.

This is the eighth year for camper-ready campsites at Swallow Falls. In nearby Thurmont, Cunningham Falls State Park offers slightly less primitive accommodations: camper cabins, one-room buildings with electricity that sleep four. Next month, the number of available cabins will more than double, when Cunningham Falls opens an additional five such sites, bringing its total to nine. Across the state, camper cabins are so popular that Maryland's Department of Natural Resources has added them to six parks since last summer. By the end of July, 10 state parks will be home to more than 50 camper cabins, not including Patapsco Valley State Park, which hopes to have their six camper cabins up and running at some point this summer, according to Susan O'Brien, DNR spokeswoman.

Koch says her family tried camper cabins and prefers tents. "Those little cabins, they were fun, but we just felt like we were camping more when we were in tents," she says.

A plus for families

The Koches and other area families are part of the national trend toward exploring the great outdoors. Recent surveys show that nature-related trips represent the fastest-growing segment of the travel industry. Among the findings: Camping is Americans' favorite outdoor activity.

That is good news for families. "An outdoors adventure is one that eliminates television, computers, phones and Nintendo," says Mark Evans, co-owner of Texas River Expeditions. "People get back to each other with nothing between them. They start talking and interacting and playing. Then they can begin really enjoying one another."

In short, it brings out a family's better nature, and in the process makes everyone more sensitive to the fragility of the world around them.

"Everything along a trail is a wonderment to children, and parents need to nurture that excitement," says Joseph Cornell, a California naturalist who has traveled the world teaching educators how to give children a love of nature. "By providing youngsters with memorable close encounters with the natural world and sharing their own enthusiasm for other life forms, parents can instill a life-long sense of respect and appreciation for nature."

There are some caveats.

"If you're expecting room service in your tent, you won't be happy," says Evans, whose rafting trips frequently include camping novices. "If you expect to be waited on hand and foot, you won't like it. But if you want to have a new experience outdoors and have a little adventure with it, you'll enjoy yourself."

The most important maxim for the outdoors novice, according to Evans: "Go with an open mind."

Wilderness-bound

Before you and your family start yelling wilderness, ho, however, you need to ease into intimacy with nature, one step at a time.

If you have very young children, consider making your first camping experience a night in a tent in your backyard -- or in a friend's yard if you live in an apartment -- making believe you are in some exotic wilds. You can sleep under the stars knowing the house is there if anyone gets antsy or scared.

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