This was one time on vacation Nancy Ritger and Mark Dindorf were pleased to discover how much they'd over-packed. All the can't-leave-home-without gear they were convinced their children needed on the camping trip never made it out of the car.
"We didn't need all of those toys," said Ritger, the New Hampshire mother of a toddler, preschooler and second-grader. "There was so much for the kids to do: catching frogs, swimming, bug-hunting. They got excited helping to stir the macaroni and cheese in the big pot."
That's not to say heading out to live in a tent in the woods with young children is a piece of cake, even for Ritger. She makes a living developing educational programs for the Appalachian Mountain Club, a 70,000-member nonprofit conservation and outdoor recreation organization.
"Sure, camping with young kids is exhausting, just like being at home," she acknowledges. "But it's a chance to do something together you wouldn't do at home, to share new experiences as a family, like looking at the stars or popping corn over an open fire."
And, it's the cheapest vacation going (except for visiting relatives), with some campsites costing less than $10 a night.
Maybe that's why local and national park campgrounds are so crowded in the summer months with backpack-toting parents anxious to introduce their babies to the wonders of the outdoors.
That includes dirt, wet socks, burnt burgers and aching shoulders from carrying a 30-pound child to the top of a steep trail.
"It's better not to go between 18 months and toilet training," says Kate Day, a Seattle landscape architect who has camped with her two teens since they were in diapers.
Some other tips:
Don't buy fancy gear. Rent or borrow what you need. Or consider a guided trip in which outfitters provide much of what you need. Sheri Griffiths River Expeditions, for example, offers a two-day Introduction to Family Camping on a Colorado River float trip so placid it's appropriate for children as young as 4. (The trip costs $195 for adults and $165 for children. Call &L; 800-332-2439.)
On the East Coast, the Appalachian Mountain Club also offers Introduction to Family Backpacking and Camping weekends in the White Mountains and the Catskills. Prices start at $75 for an adult and $10 for a child. Call 617-523-0636.
From Hawaii to Maine to the U.S. Virgin Islands, the Sierra Club offers many family programs. Several are suitable for families with young children, and some are designed for active grandparents and grandchildren. Call 415-977- 5522 for a catalog and prices.)
If group trips aren't your idea of happiness, think about joining forces with another family. The kids will entertain and motivate each other. The parents can share child-care and campsite chores. You might even get 10 minutes to snooze under a tree.
Wait on the ambitious itineraries that require a six-mile hike to the campsite. The kids won't care if they're in the nearest state park, Yellowstone National Park or the back yard.
"Push the kids too hard, and they won't want to go again," warns Montana pediatrician Lori Byron, mother of two young campers.
Go when the weather is warm, but pack the long underwear and mittens anyway. There's nothing worse than freezing in a sleeping bag while your preschooler's teeth chatter next to you.
Opt for a campsite close to real bathrooms, hot showers and some body of water, be it a mountain stream, lake or ocean. The kids will entertain themselves for hours catching tadpoles, building dams or swimming. You'll appreciate not having to help them in smelly, primitive privies. Another tip from those in the know: Take a plastic potty seat to avoid late-night hikes to the communal bathrooms.
Get the kids involved in the planning and packing. Don't forget plastic cooking utensils for making sand cakes, plastic containers with lids to (temporarily) keep the creatures they've caught, a well-equipped first-aid kit, bug repellent, water bottles for every member of the family and rain boots, because the kids will splash in every puddle they see.
Enjoy a toasted marshmallow for me.
Send your questions and comments about family travel to Los Angeles Times Syndicate, Times Mirror Square, Los Angeles, Calif. 90053, or e-mail to eogintol.com. While every letter cannot be answered, some of your stories may be used in future columns.
If you go...
Here are some campgrounds that families around the country have suggested:
Mount Desert Campground is just outside Acadia National Park on Mount Desert Island in Maine. Ask to reserve a site close to Somes Sound. Call 207-244-3710.
Cinnamon Bay Campground in Virgin Islands National Park on St. John Island has white, sandy beaches and quiet coves. Make reservations months ahead. Call 809-776-6330.
Custer State Park in the Black Hills of South Dakota is a half-hour drive from Mount Rushmore. Call 800-710-CAMP.
The National Sports Center for the Disabled in Winter Park, Colo., offers accessible campsites and nature trails. Call 970-726-5514.
Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park in California is near Monterey and will give the kids a chance to get up close to sea otters as well as the giant redwoods. Call 408-667-2315.
Pub Date: 4/13/97