TENTING TONIGHT. Life in the outdoors: great American pastime. Camp treks with the children ... [ cf. ...and without ]

THE excitement and cheerful confusion involved in getting Suzy and Johnny ready for summer camp are made bearable for parents by thoughtful camp directors. But getting a household ready for family camping can be quite another matter - especially for those new to such a sharing activity.

If you need tenting, immediately toss aside any thought of dragging an old, bulky, single-wall cavernous family tent along. Instead, examine with delight modern, lightweight, double-wall, nylon tents. Most all tents have built-in floors and mosquito netting. They are easier to erect, cooler in hot weather, warmer on chilly nights, and offer far better protection against wind and storm than the toughest canvas beasts.

The tents come in an astounding range of sizes and shapes - from sleek backpacker models scarcely large enough to cover a prone body to free-standing dome tents that can withstand a 70-mile gale at 18,000 feet. The moderately priced A-frame styles, either free-standing or supported by two traditional poles, are excellent for family camping - fair weather or wild.

Two-man models, with about a 5-by-7-foot floor, and an internal height of four feet, sell for about $80. Four-man models, 8 by 8 feet and about five feet high, will cost from $125 on up. There are still larger sizes that can easily accommodate two adults, a couple of kids, and all the family paraphernalia.

Protect tent floors with plastic sheeting. And don't forget to seal the seams on your new tent before it rains. A tube of seam sealer will set you back two bucks.

Next, onto a comfortable night's sleep. There is no substitute for a good quality sleeping bag. Judge a bag by its filling, construction, and shape.

The best filling is either duck or goose down, with a ``fill power'' of 500 or higher. Fill power refers to the number of cubic inches an ounce of down will expand to fill. Next are the excellent synthetic fibers, sold under such names as Quallofil, Polar Guard, Hollofil, and Polar Loft. Quality bags have baffles and no sewn-through seams.

Bags are classified as ``mummy'' - wide at the shoulders and narrow at the feet; ``semi-mummy''; or fully ``rectangular.'' The latter are the most comfortable. Generally, zippers run only two-thirds of the length of a bag. Far more convenient are those with zippers that run the full length and across the foot. These can be opened to form a blanket, or the bottom unzipped to cool off feet on a warm night.

A fine quality bag with a fill power of 500 and a four-inch loft - which is comfortable for most people to about freezing - will cost between $150 and $200. An equivalent synthetic bag will cost between $70 and $90.

A ground pad is indispensable. Air mattresses are comfortable, but ``sleep cold.'' A semi-soft open cell foam pad at least one inch thick is substantial for keeping warm. Tough, closed-cell foam offers better insulation, but is not as comfortable. An excellent alternative is the self-inflating Therm-A-Rest lightweight mattress. It combines the insulation of foam with the cushioning of an air mattress. A 20-by-48-inch Therm-A-Rest will cost about $35, and a similar size open-cell pad, around $12. They all come in larger sizes.

Whether your dining taste runs to hamburgers or nothing less than the gustatory delights of a five-course meal, you will need a camp stove.

Popular modern stoves are fueled by propane, butane, or gasoline. Gasoline is the most efficient and by far the least expensive to operate.

A double-burner gasoline stove will cost about $40. Two top-quality, multi-fuel stoves that burn any grade of gasoline or kerosene are the sturdy Optimus 111 and the MSR X-GK, costing about $90.

A camp lantern is a useful pleasure. Like stoves, they are fueled by gasoline, propane, or butane. A double mantle gasoline lantern with adjustable brightness is about $35. A propane or butane cartridge lantern, about $25. Get stoves and lanterns that burn the same fuel.

Today's camp cooking gear is as far removed from the tinny, stamped aluminum of years ago as the nylon tents are from canvas.

The state-of-art pots to put on the grill are stainless steel with copper-jacketed bottoms, to spread cooking heat more evenly. A three-pot nesting set by Peak One will cost about $30. For a family of four or five, add on a separate eight-quart utility pot. Pot tops are designed to be used as frying pans.

Our kitchen equipment also includes two spatulas, wire whisk, measuring cup and spoons, large stirring spoon, small ladle, plastic one-liter bottle for mixing liquids, potholder, kitchen knife and sharpening stone, can opener, corkscrew, two collapsible plastic 2.5-gallon water jugs, and a sturdy fire grill rescued from an abandoned charcoal broiler. Sometimes we carry a large plastic bowl for mixing and serving.

For each person: a stainless steel Sierra cup, a sturdy plastic soup bowl and plate, and a stainless steel camp knife, fork, and spoon.

For your flashlight, look at the so-called ``miner'' style, worn as a headband. Carry a candle in a fully enclosed candle holder for emergencies.

A small hand-wind alarm clock and a personal knife with a blade no longer than three inches are both useful. Make a first-aid kit out of a plastic fishing box marked with a red cross in nail polish.

Treat outdoor shoes with a silicone repellent. Down vests are a highly useful piece of clothing for everyone. So are broad-brimmed hats. And don't forget the insect repellent!

One last thought: Make up a family camping list before you start packing. You'll be pleasantly surprised at how few things you will forget.

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