BOSTON — To each member of the family foursome that trekked to the top of a small rocky knob known as Owl's Head, the hike represented something different, from adventure to abject torture.
But when they reached the top the verdict was unanimous: The view of the surrounding countryside and of several "high peaks" in New York's Adirondack Mountains made the hike worthwhile. So did the ripe wild blueberries they found on the summit, which vanished into emptied canteens, only to reappear at the campsite the next morning like so many freckles on the faces of well-tanned pancakes.
Experiences like this are being repeated in growing numbers as more families spend their vacations camping.
For some, it means hitting the trail with their worldly belongings (enough for a few days, anyway) neatly tucked into or strapped onto a backpack. But for most people, family camping by car "is where their comfort level is," says Jim Reid, spokesman for the Coleman Company, which manufactures outdoor gear. This means turning anything from a trailer-tugging Harley to a bus-size RV into the Conestoga wagon of the 1990s and hopscotching from campground to campground or hitting a favorite site for a two-week stay.
The number of people who camp at least once a year is growing at an impressive rate. From 1982 to 1995, the number of backpackers nationwide grew by nearly three-quarters to 15.2 million, according to a survey the Forest Service conducted last year. Meanwhile, the number of people using either primitive or developed campgrounds grew to a combined 69.5 million, up from 47.7 million in 1982.
The growth is expected to continue. Between the years 2000 and 2040, the Forest Service estimates that the number of backpackers will grow by more than 150 percent, and campground campers by 60 to 80 percent.
Family camping has much to recommend it, says Beverly Liston, author of a primer on the subject entitled "Family Camping Made Simple" (Globe Pequot Press, 1989). "Camping develops a fantastic sense of family camaraderie, of figuring it out together," she says.
"People want to get away from the stress of high-pressure jobs and spend quality time with their families with fewer interruptions," adds Annette Murray, a spokeswoman for Kampgrounds of America, a chain of franchise campgrounds throughout the United States and Canada.
And it's cheap. For basic equipment such as a large tent, a two-burner camp stove, sleeping bags, cooler, and lantern, a typical family can expect to pay from $500 to $700. "You can spend that much alone on air fare for one trip," Mr. Reid says. And when well-cared for, that equipment will last for years. Utensils and other necessities can come from around the house, although over time a recurring "I can't find the spatula; it must be in the camping box" will lead to buying duplicate items for the camp kitchen.
Meals come from the nearest grocery store instead of restaurants. And the fee for a spot to pitch the tent can be so low - from $10 to $30 a night depending on location and the number of people at the site - that Tom Bodette might as well turn off the lights.
As for amenities, depending on the campground, you'll find everything from laundries and hot showers to pools, playgrounds, and Friday-night movies for children. Campground stores, while more expensive than discount department stores, provide a useful safety net for the forgetful.
Nor does a family-camping trip take much more planning than any other type of vacation. "Camping requires an equal amount of planning; you're just walking down a different road," Ms. Liston says.
Be sure to work with a checklist. It won't guarantee you'll never forget anything; one experienced camper tells of the time she headed with her children from Rhode Island to a site in Maine, only to discover she had forgotten the tent poles. But a list can reduce hasty gear purchases on the road.
To get the hang of it before embarking on an extensive trip, it's worth taking a weekend trip to a nearby campground, particularly if it's possible to team up with an experienced camper.
Settling on a destination depends on the differing family interests you're trying to satisfy. One source for campground locations is the "CampBook," series, published and updated annually by the American Automobile Association. The books list campgrounds, their facilities, and rates for different regions of the country.
In addition, on-line services such as CompuServe or America Online have camping and outdoor forums where practical information, including some campground locations, is available. On the Internet, Yahoo's camping section can provide a good starting point. Point your web browser to http://yahoo.com/recreation/outdoors /camping