Backyard campout

You don't have to go very far or buy a lot of equipment to enjoy the outdoors this summer. Here's how to sleep out at home.

"What was that?!" Something had just bumped the outside of our tent. As my friends and I lay in the pitch darkness, our imaginations ran as wild as the animals in the surrounding woods. But the tent was set up in my backyard, and the next morning when I told my dad something had scared us, he had a twinkle in his eye.

Camping out in your own backyard can be every bit as fun as camping in a state park. It's a convenient, fun way to spark your imagination, and you can do it as often as you like. (Well, as often as your parents will let you.)

Michael Hodgson, author of "The Outdoor Family Fun Guide" (1998) says that "nature and children go together like peanut butter and jelly." He took his daughter on plenty of wilderness adventures, beginning when she was a baby.

But what Nikki (now a college student) remembers most are the times she and her friends had camping out in her backyard. They made tepees using plastic poles, duct tape, and sheets. They stuffed snacks into their backpacks and went on "hikes" around the block. And sometimes they pretended they were lost in the wilderness, that their bikes were horses, and that the apples they "discovered" on their neighbor's tree had to be rationed.

"My favorite thing to do," Nikki told me just before leaving for an Outward Bound summer program in Alaska, "was to tell stories when we were in our sleeping bags." Her father would come out and read to them. Some of her favorites were "My Side of the Mountain," by Jean Craighead George (1959), about a boy who lives on his own in the woods; "Hatchet," by Gary Paulsen (1988), about a boy who survives a plane crash and must fend for himself; and "Lost on a Mountain in Maine," by Donn Fendler (1978), a true story about a boy's adventure on Mt. Katahdin.

If you camp out in your backyard, you can pretend you're in the wilderness – or you can run into the house to get an extra pillow. If it rains or if you get cold or scared, you can go inside to your warm bed. And if all goes well, you may not want to sleep indoors for days.

Here are some ways to prepare so that things will go well:

Shelter and sleeping arrangements

You want to be warm, and you want to stay dry. Tents are good, but you might try:

• a lean-to made of cardboard or a tarp attached to the side of a shed

• a porch

• a homemade tepee

• a blanket draped over a rope tied between two trees.

If mosquitoes are a problem, a tent with a zipper is best. Sleeping "under the stars" (with no shelter) can be unforgettable – if it doesn't rain. Remember to pull something water-repellent over your sleeping bag to protect it from morning dew. And be sure to check the weather forecast.

If you sleep on the ground, put a waterproof tarp under your sleeping bag and pad. If you don't have a cushioned pad, try an air mattress, the cushion from a chaise longue, or an old comforter folded in half. You could also sleep on a camp cot or in a hammock. Again, put blankets under as well as over you so you'll stay warm.

Once you get your shelter and bedding set up, you'll want to collect a few other items. Most important: flashlights – one per person. You may also want a battery-powered lantern, extra batteries, books or magazines, an extra blanket or two, and maybe a star-gazing chart. Don't bring food into your tent or sleeping area. You don't want to attract animals – especially skunks! Don't wear shoes inside the tent, either. Dirt inside your sleeping bag feels yucky.

Fun food to cook – or not cook

Cooking out is half the fun of camping out. Since you'll need a parent's help with this, let him or her plan the meal with you. First decide what your source of heat will be. A charcoal grill? A gas camping stove? A little can of Sterno?

Here's a good idea from "Backyard Roughing It Easy," by Dian Thomas (1997): Half-fill a wheelbarrow with dirt, add a circle of bricks or stones, and pile charcoal in the center. Presto – a portable fire pit! (Ask a grownup to help.)

If you're going to cook something in a pot, like chili or stew, put a flameproof wire rack across your firepit. (A rack from a barbecue works well.) It should be a couple of inches above the coals. Maybe you prefer "stick cooking" – spearing food with wooden or metal skewers and roasting it close to the coals. You can cook lots of things this way besides hot dogs and marshmallows. How about chunks of chicken, onions, green peppers, or zucchini sprayed with olive oil?

Another fun way to cook over an open fire is to wrap foods in aluminum foil and place them among the coals. Corn-on-the-cob is especially delicious cooked this way. Pull the husks back just far enough so you can remove the silk, replace the husks, and soak the corn in water for an hour before cooking. Wrap each cob tightly in aluminum foil and place among hot coals. Cook about five minutes on each side.

If a campfire is not an option, how about mixing up a batch of "gorp"? That stands for "granola, oatmeal, raisins, and peanuts." Add whatever else you'd like – dried apricots, mixed nuts, chocolate chips, or M&Ms. Or try a "dirt dessert." (See recipe at right.) The gummi worms look so appetizing crawling out the top!

Don't leave food or dirty utensils around. They attract insects and animals. If you don't want to go inside after dinner, heat some water in a pot over the campfire coals and do the dishes as if you were far from home. Pour the dirty water on your fire, stir the coals, and douse again to thoroughly extinguish the fire.

Before it gets dark, make sure you know where everything is. You don't want to have to look around in the dark.

Nighttime fun

After dinner, there's still time for fun. How about:

1. A game of flashlight tag. Whoever is "it" tries to catch someone in the beam of his or her flashlight. The first player to be "tagged" this way is "it" next.

2. Hunt for nocturnal insects. Look for fireflies in tall grasses and catch them in a glass jar – just long enough to observe them. With your flashlights, check sunflowers and other nectar-rich flowers in your yard to see moths feeding.

3. Do some star-gazing. Study a sky chart first, then get comfortable on a reclining chair or blanket and pillow. In early August, there's a meteor "shower." (See story on facing page.)

Ready for bed? Enjoy a story or two, first. But before you fall asleep, spend some time listening to the night sounds. See how many different sounds you can hear in three minutes. The more familiar these sounds become, the friendlier they will seem.

Now take a last look at the moon – or the stars winking between leaves overhead. Then let the crickets sing you to sleep.

Gaze at the summer night sky

Full moons will occur this summer on July 24, Aug. 22, and Sept. 21. The best time to look for "shooting stars" (meteorites) will be during the annual Perseid (PER-see-yid) meteor shower July 17-Aug. 24. The peak night this year is Aug. 12, when you might see from 80 to 200 shooting stars every hour. The best viewing is after moonset.

Some of the constellations visible in the summer sky are the Big Dipper, Little Dipper, Scorpius, and Cygnus – the swan whose outstretched wings and neck form the Northern Cross. Face north to see Cygnus and the Big and Little Dippers, and south to find Scorpius, whose tail is formed by a long string of stars. (See story and diagram in the June 27 Monitor article, "Star patterns that act as street maps to summer sky," page 14.)

Dirt Dessert

One large (5-1/2 oz.) pkg. instant chocolate pudding mix

3 cups cold milk

One 8 oz. container frozen whipped topping, thawed

One 6 oz. pkg. chocolate chips

One large pkg. Oreos or equivalent

Gummi worms

Mix the pudding with the milk according to the package directions. Allow mixture to set for a few minutes. Fold in the whipped topping and chocolate chips. Crush the sandwich cookies into crumbs. Put half the pudding mixture in a large bowl or serving dish. Top with half the cookie crumbs. Layer with the rest of the pudding and top with the rest of the cookie crumbs. Add gummi worms for garnish. Chill.

Serves 8 to 10.

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