Family Travel: Camping With Your Kids

Mary Bouldin and her husband, Bryan, have had their share of camping fiascoes. Hiking with their 10-month-old son, Blake, in the Florida panhandle, they got lost and set up camp outside a rural church at 1 a.m., only to get rousted by police at dawn. They've had tents blow away and cars break down. But Mary, now the mother of three boys, still regularly camps with her family. "I can't remember even one trip where we didn't have a great time," she says.

Last year, 48 million Americans headed into the woods, and the numbers are expected to rise more than 20 percent over the next five years as time- and budget-crunched families look for inexpensive ways to spend time together.

Outdoor opportunities don't end with Labor Day. Autumn means uncrowded campgrounds and cooler weather (read: fewer mosquitoes ). And, of course, there's great fall foliage from the Pacific Northwest to the Appalachian Trail.

But, for many moms and dads, the idea of setting up camp in the woods seems overwhelming in any season. To start, plan a short trip--just one or two nights. Then find out what everybody wants to do. Interested in hiking or biking? Would you like to eat in restaurants or rough it?

Once you know what you're looking for, the Internet is a great way to find campsites--from national parks (rates vary, but expect to pay about $20 per night; nps.gov ) to one of Kampgrounds of America's 475 locations (rates from $12; koa.com ). If you're looking for a more structured environment that doesn't require cooking, try a YMCA Family Camp. Daily rates start at $85 and include not only meal plans but loads of activities from canoeing to crafts ( ymca.net ). Then get on the phone. Campground managers can give you more information than is usually available on the Web. Ask if you can drive your car up to your campsite (a good idea for beginners), if fires are allowed and if there are bathrooms ... or bears.

Once you've reserved a spot, start packing. Go to gorp.com or llbean.com for excellent (and extensive) packing lists. Then take your time; Bouldin takes a week to pack for her family's trips. Buy each child his or her own flashlight to combat the dark. Kids (and adults) sleep better when they're not on the ground, so get sleeping pads or air mattresses to put under their sleeping bags. Stop by an area sporting-goods store like REI ( rei.com ) or Eastern Mountain Sports ( ems.com ); its staff can help you figure out what kind of gear you need. And don't leave home without some practice setting up your tent and cooking on your camp stove.

Even kids can't exist on s'mores alone. When it comes to cooking outdoors, keep it simple: hot dogs, spaghetti or even PB&J and instant soup. Pick up "Recipes for Roughing It Easy" by Dian Thomas ($15) for more meal ideas.

Fall family camping in a nutshell? Keep everybody warm, dry and well fed. Gather lots of info either online or at your local bookstore (try "National Parks With Kids," $15). Then get out there and have fun.