Seven pros offer simple fixes for family camping problems.
Hold a dress rehearsal "Each year before we go, we set up our tent in the backyard or in our living room, roll out the sleeping bags and pads, and spend the night. That gives all of our kids a chance to say, 'I need something softer,' or, 'My sleeping bag isn't warm enough,' before we're in the middle of the woods." —Steve Long, director of government relations, the Nature Conservancy, Boston, Mass.
Make food fun "Adults tend to forget to do that. But for kids, roasting marshmallows or the fact that dad can make blueberry pancakes might become the most memorable part of the trip. Another tip is to bring two coolers: one for drinks and snacks that people grab all the time, the other for items only used at mealtimes. That way, kids can pull out a drink or a snack without creating a fuss." —Jim Reid, spokesman for Coleman, a leading manufacturer of camping gear, Wichita, Kans.
Involve your children "It's frustrating for kids to sit around and watch you fumble with tent stakes. The more quickly you can say, 'Look, I don't know how to do this, so let's figure it out together,' the faster they'll get involved—and start having fun. Help them relax by lowering your standards. Sometimes their fondest memories will be of things going wrong." —Bill Vecchiarelli, program director, Outward Bound, Midpines, Calif.
Stay close to home "Sometimes people think they have to go to the most beautiful park or else they won't have a good experience. But that's not true. Almost everyone lives within an hour of some public forest or park, and those spaces can offer fun experiences—and get you out of your comfort zone—without the hassles of making you travel a long distance." —Adam Howard, editor, Backcountry Magazine, Jeffersonville, Vt.
Get up early "You'll have the woods all to yourself. I've learned this lesson during family camping trips. Sure, it's interesting to see how a bear or a buffalo can cause a traffic jam at Yellowstone during the middle of the day. But observing a park when the light has its early-morning exquisiteness, and when the woods are so private, you're sure to find magic moments all your own." —Dayton Duncan, writer and filmmaker, who recently collaborated with Ken Burns on The National Parks: America's Best Idea, which will air on PBS in 2009
Indulge a bit "I'm a minimalist, but I think pillows make everything better. No one can have a good time if he or she hasn't gotten a good night's sleep. And don't forget: A bottle of wine can turn a simple one-skillet meal into a really good one." —Alysia Schmidt, interpretive ranger, National Park Service's Sequoia and Kings Canyon national parks, Calif.
Call a campground manager "Ask key questions. For example: What kind of wildlife may you encounter? If there are bears, you might be required to store food in the trunk of your car or hang it in a tree. In some places at certain times, there are bans on open fires or camp stoves—or rules that you must bring your own wood. And do you need to reserve a spot or buy a permit?" —Jennifer Peter, camping consultant, Girl Scouts of the USA, New York, N.Y.