Family Camp: When Mom and Dad Decide to Tag Along

Maybe it was the story about canoeing under a full moon. Or hearing about toasting marshmallows by a roaring campfire on the lake one too many times. Or just a desire to share some fun with their children after the hectic winter months.

Whatever the motivation, the trend is clear: Instead of sending their youngsters off to camp by themselves, more and more moms and dads are packing their bags and tagging along.

In the past 11 years, the number of family camps has increased 500 percent, says the American Camping Association.

When it comes to programs available at family camps, "the sky's the limit," says ACA's Ruth Lister. "They offer everything imaginable," from a weekend retreat at church-owned camps to weeklong trips to learn about whales or manatees.

Increasingly popular are parent and teen "adventures" that might include a seven-day wilderness camping trip with trained guides and all equipment supplied by the camp. These have dollars-and-cents appeal to city-dwelling families who may yearn for the great outdoors, but don't like the idea of investing quite a bit of money in backpacks, sleeping bags, tents, and other camping gear to be used on just one trip.

The family equivalent of the traditional kids' summer camp usually attracts those with elementary-age offspring, although many welcome grandparents and preschoolers as well. These typically last a week and take place right before or after the regular summer camping season. Parents and children stay in a cabin and choose from a wide variety of activities.

Alex Sternstein of Atlanta has such happy memories of the camp she attended in Terrero, N.M., that she has taken her husband and kids back there for family sessions during the past two summers.

"Our children are in school all day and have lots of after-school activities, so during the summer we want to do family things," Mrs. Sternstein says. At camp, "we could be together and yet everyone could do things that interested them. we live in a city and the atmosphere is so different at camp. There's a great feeling of freedom. We don't have to worry about the kids if we're not with them every moment."

During the morning, Mr. and Mrs. Sternstein took part in adult activities while the children were grouped with their peers. Then they all met for lunch and spent the afternoon together horseback-riding, fishing, swimming, and even picking raspberries.

The atmosphere at family camp is casual and low-key. On a traditional family vacation, parents may worry about going to a restaurant for dinner when the kids are getting tired. But that's no problem at family camp, says Kay Rice of Brush Ranch Camps, where the Sternsteins went. "If they spill their milk in the dining hall, they're probably the second one, not the first.

"Families today are going in so many different directions," she notes. "People find that to go on a walk with their kids, to take their child over to the pond to catch a fish, to go to the art-shed and tie-dye a T-shirt together - they're activities that they don't have the chance to do at home."

Often it's the little things that families remember the most after they return home, she says. "To have breakfast around the campfire on the last morning is a special memory, and I think that's what parents are trying to build - special memories."

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