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.
Mrs. Bunke suggests borrowing equipment before embarking on the first trip. Now that camping is a permanent part of their agenda, she keeps kitchen equipment, crafts, and supplies permanently packed in plastic, covered containers.
"Camping in a tent does not protect you from the weather," concedes Mrs. Bunke. "You have to anticipate weather and be ready for the unexpected." Rain gear is essential; a catalytic heater is perhaps a luxury that no one will regret during unexpected cool summer nights. Blankets are also wise to pack.
Since campers take food from home, they regard it as a minimal added cost. Grilled dinners, sandwiches, and cereals form basic meals around snacks of dried fruit, nuts and crackers. Powdered beverages occupy less precious storage space.
Once the basic investments have been made, the major expenses are mostly limited to the nightly costs of campsites. In Maryland, fees range from about $10-$25, with private campgrounds tending to be the more expensive.
Information about camping in Maryland is available from the Maryland Office of Tourism Development. Call (800) 543-1036 and request a copy of "The Maryland Travel & Outdoor Guide." The free guide includes specific details about private and public campgrounds.
The local chapter of the National Campers and Hikers Association is open to new members. For details about the group, contact Joe and Peggy Lins, 3833 Dance Mill Road, Phoenix 21131, or call 592-6839.
Campgrounds in the area
There are more than a dozen campgrounds in Maryland within about a 1 1/2 -hour drive from Baltimore that offer more than 50 sites each. Contact the individual campground for specific information about programs and accommodations. The Maryland State Forest and Parks Service has a Baltimore-area number for general information: 974-3771.
*Greenbriar State Park, Rt. 2, Box 325, Boonsboro, (301) 791-4767.
*Patapsco Valley State Park, 8020 Baltimore National Pike, Ellicott City, (301) 461-5005.
*Elk Neck State Park, Turkey Point Road, North East, (301) 287-5333.
*Cunningham Falls State Park, 14039 Catoctin Hollow Rd., Thurmont, (301) 271-7574.
*Morris Meadows Recreation Farm, Freeland 21053, (301) 329-6636.
*Chesapeake View Campsites, Post Office Box H, Perryville, 21903, (301) 642-2691
*Riverside Ponderosa Pines, 1435 Carpenter's Point Rd., Perryville 21903, (301) 642-3431.
*Woodlands Camping Resort, P.O. Box 189, Old Elk Neck Road, Elkton 21921, (301) 398-4414.
*Ramblin' Pines, Hoods Mill Road, Woodbine, 21797, (301) 795-5161.
*Crow's Nest Campground, P.O. Box 145, Thurmont 21788, (301) 271-7632.
*Ole Mink Farm Campground, 12806 Mink Farm Rd., Thurmont 21788, (301) 271-7012.
*Cherry Hill Park, 9800 Cherry Hill Rd., College Park 20740, (301) 937-7116.
*Capital KOA Campground, 768 Cecil Ave., Millersville 21108, (301) 923-2771.