What adults love about camping -- sleeping under the stars, getting away from it all, the sounds of nature -- can be scary for children. It's dark in a tent. Nothing is familiar.
Of course, camping with kids is more work for adults, too. Stay cool, live in the moment. Forget about that lost fork. Making s'mores, spotting wildlife, that's what kids will remember.
Wisconsin State Parks' chief naturalist Sherry Wise points to programs that Peninsula State Park has sponsored to help families learn to camp together. "They set up in the group camp and go through how to put up a tent, cooking and safety do's and don'ts." But Peninsula is a long way to go for a camping intro. Wise has ideas for parents -- newbies and experienced outdoor types alike -- for introducing younger children to camping.
Start with a campout in the backyard. Sure, it's not 100% real. But this is a good time to practice setting up the tent, before you have to be watching the kids and deciphering a diagram at the same time. Get the kids involved; give them small tasks related to setting up the tent, like unrolling the rain fly, or making sure the extra tent stakes are in their storage bag. Try out the cookstove now, too, Wise suggests. The trial run will help you generate a list of things you will need, as you need them.
Instill rules while on home turf. "Teaching safety is really important," says Wise. Among the first things to teach children: Don't leave the campground without letting someone know.
Avoid taking everything
That said, kids should be able to bring a special toy, as long as it's size-appropriate and fits the unplugged nature of camping. Taking a real pillow may make a huge difference in sleep satisfaction, for instance; others will do fine stuffing an extra fleece jacket up into a ball.
Don't forget the first-aid kit, with Band-Aids, gauze, antiseptic ointment, non-emergency sunblock, bug spray and hand wipes.
Give kids their own flashlight or headlamp to help them feel secure and safe at night. Whistles are also an option, as long as parents make it clear they're to be used for emergencies only. These can help parents feel safer too.
Don't just kick back and relax
"Try to spend as much time as you can outdoors," says Wise. "Take the hike and give the kids binoculars or a magnifying glass. Help them get a different perspective on nature."
Wise directs parents to the Wisconsin Explorers program booklets available at most state parks (or as downloadable PDFs). They include activities for ages 3-5, 6-8 and 9 and up, like looking for animal tracks, making leaf rubbings, identifying different types of clouds, and going on a scavenger hunt for things that might be found along a trail.
Or bring a blank notebook, Wise suggests. "Journaling is a really fun activity, where they can write stories or make drawings." These are also good mementos for families to look at over the years.
Plan for a rainy day
While ultra-light two-person tents are fine for couples on a backpacking vacation, families want something large enough to be able to house everyone and the camp chairs comfortably in the event of a downpour -- and leave room for setting up at least a game of cards. This means bringing that roomy Coleman you pooh-poohed when you were in the Hoofers.
And you can't play cards if you don't bring cards. Wise suggests a board game or coloring books in case of bad weather, too.
Get the kids involved in planning meals. Come up with simple campfire meals they can participate in -- hobo packets, for instance, or the "cook eggs and bacon in a paper bag" classic. A PDF of aluminum-foil campsite recipes kids can help with will download automatically when you go to bit.ly/foilcampsiterecipes.
Campgrounds near Madison
Happily, there are state park campgrounds near Madison where the family can get used to camping. If things go south, home is less than an hour away.
Lake Kegonsa State Park: Just 20 minutes from downtown on the north shore of Lake Kegonsa, this friendly park is a good introductory spot (96 campsites, which range from partially to heavily wooded). The campground and playground equipment have recently been updated. Hiking trails are easy, and feature the 14-stop White Oak nature trail, a restored prairie and a wetland boardwalk. There's a swimming beach on the lake, volleyball and horseshoes; equipment is available from the park office ($5 refundable deposit).
Blue Mound State Park: Less than 45 minutes west of Madison, Blue Mound is an excellent choice (77 wooded sites, 12 bike/hike-in sites and an accessible cabin). A 1.3-mile guided nature hike focuses on the geology of the area; other trails offer more challenging topography than at Lake Kegonsa. Blue Mound also has mountain biking trails; most are too challenging for small children, but older kids may like this. For fans of flat, off-road bicycling, the Military Ridge bike path is adjacent to the park.
Past nature programs have included guided hikes most Saturday and Sunday mornings and a Wisconsin Explorers Program Saturday afternoons with the park naturalist. Other evening nature programs have focused on the night sky, climate, geology, bats and large carnivores.
Kids may be most excited, though, about the large swimming pool at Blue Mound, with a separate wading pool for tots.
Sandhill Station State Campground: Less than 45 minutes east of Madison, near Lake Mills, this little-known getaway offers a different kind of camping experience. There are no playgrounds or other recreational features. The campground consists of 15 walk-in tent-only sites in an oak savanna. The campsites (with picnic table and fire ring) are pleasantly grassy and secluded from each other. Activities here will be self-generated. The tradeoff is the pleasant, quiet campground and lack of distractions.
There is a connector trail to the Glacial Drumlin State bike trail, but there's also about a mile of riding on quiet Mud Lake Road to make it to the trail.
Mirror Lake State Park: About an hour north of Madison, Mirror Lake is your graduate school trip. The most difficult task may be hiding from the kids how close the park is to the Dells. Mirror Lake has 151 campsites, a swimming beach, easy hiking, and paddle board, canoe, and kayak rental. The nine miles of off-road bicycle trails are pleasantly piney here and less hilly than Blue Mound; the biggest challenge may be hitting the occasional sandy spot.