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This story has been updated.

Even though summer is past, veterans can enjoy the outdoors and won’t even have to buy their own camping gear to stay at Patapsco Valley State Park.

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The local park is one of six parks managed by the Maryland Department of Natural Resources and Maryland Park Service that participate in Operation: Campout!, a program launched by the state park service in 2010.

The Patapsco park offers free camping equipment from outdoor gear and apparel company Recreational Equipment, Inc. to veterans and their families seeking a stay at a state park campground but who may not be able to afford expensive camping gear.

The program is funding through a $2,000 grant from the Friends of Patapsco Valley State Park, a representative from the Department of Natural Resources said.

The goal is to reconnect veterans with nature and give first-time campers an affordable outdoor experience, said Maryland State Park Ranger Christina Holden, who also manages the program and provides outreach to veteran groups.

Through Operation: Campout!, the Maryland Park Service provides tents as well as a cook stove, lantern and gasoline, camp tarps and foam pads, and four chairs and marshmallow roasting sticks. Holden estimates campers save $800 using the equipment provided by the park service.

Campers must still pay to reserve space at the campsite. At Patapsco Valley State Park, that amounts to $18.49 per night plus a one-time $6.25 service charge, or $24.49 a night for electricity access, along with the service charge, Holden said.

Holden helped start the program nearly a decade ago when she worked in public relations for the park service.

The state park service had developed a relationship with The North Face prior to the program, Holden said. “They wanted to start a [camping] program in Maryland; we wanted to do something geared toward veterans.”

Prior to starting the program, Holden worked to coordinate times for veterans to fish, hike, camp and participate in other activities at state parks, she said.

Holden saw an opportunity to launch the program, given the proximity of the Maryland Park Service office to Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Bethesda.

“We found that a lot of people were looking for an outdoor experience and may not have had the means to camp,” she said. “It’s kind of a big deal to get people out of their comfort zone and in nature.”

The program is open to veterans and up to five members of their families. While it was intended for military members, Holden said the park service does not require proof of service or turn away participants who were not enlisted, but with limited camping equipment, preference is given to veteran families.

The program is offered at Cunningham Falls State Park in Frederick County; Swallow Falls State Park and New Germany State Park in Garrett County; Rocky Gap State Park in Allegany County; and Pocomoke River State Park in Worcester County.

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“All of our parks are vastly different from each other,” but each offers family-friendly activities, Holden said.

Between 80 and 120 families camp through Operation: Campout! annually, she estimated.

Holden said she hears from active-duty personnel and veterans "[who] say, ‘I grew up camping and now I want to expose my children to it, but we don’t have the gear,’” Holden said. “It’s been really, really positive, just to be able to offer the program.”

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