Maxine Hall used to have a definite opinion about camping: She hated it "with a passion." As a young girl growing up outside Detroit, her family's idea of camping was to drive somewhere in their camper, park it and go shopping. In college, Hall tried tent camping with friends -- twice -- and didn't make it through the night either time.

It was her son Langston, now 7, who finally wore her down and persuaded her to give camping another try.

"When he was 3 years old, they had a 'camping day' at his day care and he spent two years talking about it," said Hall.

After learning about the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources (DNR) I Can Camp! program in the summer of 2010, she reluctantly decided to give it a try with Langston.

"I intentionally picked one of the state park sites that was the farthest away from our house so I couldn't go home," said Hall, who lives in Belle Plaine.

I Can Camp! offers families with little or no camping background the opportunity to experience the fun of spending quality time together in the outdoors, but with a little help.

"Before starting this program, the research we did found that the two main obstacles for families when it came to camping was a lack of equipment and a lack of skills," said Pat Arndt, communications and outreach manager with Minnesota Parks and Trails, a division of the DNR.

For $35 for a one-night camping trip, the I Can Camp! program, available at state parks throughout Minnesota, provides a tent, cooking equipment and two guides who are members of the Conservation Corps. Families need only bring groceries (a suggested list of items can be found on the I Can Camp! website), sleeping bags if they have them or simply blankets and pillows.

The guides are there the entire time to work with the group (usually several families or individuals) on everything from setting up a tent to building a fire. The guides also lead activities such as fishing and geocaching for the kids.

"Many times, parents just don't know what to do with their kids outdoors, but once they are spending time outside, the kids don't need to be entertained," said Arndt. "It's also fun for them to play with other kids who are part of the group."

From in town to out-of-town

Greg Lais, executive director of Wilderness Inquiry, which offers families a wide variety of outdoor programs, ranging from canoe trips through the Chain of Lakes in Minneapolis to excursions to the Boundary Waters, said the advice he always gives to hesitant first-time campers is "grab your sunscreen and just do it."

"Start relatively small, with a day trip or an overnight," said Lais. "The whole point is to get kids to participate -- the trip is for the kids. They will have the kinds of experiences that can be so enriching and connecting for families."

Both Lais and Arndt advise waiting until children are at least 3 years old before scheduling the first extensive day trip or camping experience. To participate in Wilderness Inquiry canoe trips on the Mississippi, kids need to be at least 10.

Whatever the type of trip, the whole point is to create memories for your family that may be unforgettable for a variety of reasons. Lais, whose two grown boys started camping when they were younger than 5, still talk about memorable family outings.

"Even if you end up burning the marshmallows in the fire, being outdoors just brings families closer together," said Arndt.

Maxine and Langston Hall have definitely built up a store of memories from the camping trips they have taken since their first I Can Camp! experience, which Hall admitted went much better than she expected. After a couple more group experiences, the mother-son pair attempted a three-day camping trip on their own last summer with mixed results.

"We went down to Forestville State Park and I was all ready. I had downloaded YouTube videos on how to set up the tent, start a fire, all of it," said Hall. "But then I discovered I didn't have any cell service so I couldn't access the videos."

Knowing how much Langston loves to camp, and especially to fish, Hall said there is more camping in their future, including an upcoming three-day I Can Camp! trip to northern Minnesota.

"The outdoors is not me, in general, but the opportunity to have these experiences has definitely been worthwhile," she said. "We've found that fishing is kind of our niche. We can spend hours doing it, and I've had some great quality time with my child."

Julie Pfitzinger is a West St. Paul freelance writer.

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