“Did you pack the tent poles?”

With one simple question a camping trip can go bust faster than a marshmallow catches fire. Thankfully, on our first camping trip in a decade and our first ever with children, we followed this golden rule: Don’t go far.

We drove another 80 miles round trip, tent poles were restored, and a weekend getaway was saved.

Packing and preparing to camp with children can get chaotic, but it can also be a lot more fun to experience the magic of the outdoors through fresh, imaginative eyes that have never fallen asleep beneath moon shadows across a tent. What can seem ordinary or ho-hum at home — drinking cocoa or playing cards — notches up when you’re next to a crackling fire, surrounded by fireflies, serenaded by loons and watching chipmunks scamper past sneakers.

If you’ve never gone camping or are feeling rusty on those skills, the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources has helped more than 1,000 families with its overnight “I Can Camp!” workshops that began in 2010. They provide the tents, organize the food and help families find activities to do in and around state parks for a memorable outing and solid introduction to life outdoors.

“A lot of people get hung up on not having everything you have at home,” said Eric Pelto, DNR special programs coordinator, but workshops show them how to set up a kitchen with a two-burner camp stove, make a tent comfortable, navigate in the dark, and get used to being outside their comfort zone. “We’ve had a lot of fun.”

Here’s what else can help if you’re new to camping or need a refresher:

Set your limits

If you insist on a roof over your head, plan ahead and rent a camping cabin where you only bring your own bedding and pillows and outdoor cooking supplies. If you require flush toilets and a hot shower, you’ll have to head toward state parks, private campgrounds or a few larger Army Corps of Engineers national forest campgrounds. If you can handle outhouses, you’ll be able to enjoy more tucked-away, less-crowded places such as smaller state or national forest campgrounds, which are more likely to have last-minute openings.

For first-time camping, look for outings near the Twin Cities, such as Apple Valley’s Lebanon Hills Regional Park, Maple Plain’s Baker Park Reserve or Andover’s Ham Lake Campground, which even has a petting zoo.

Start slowly

Don’t invest heavily in gear until you know camping is a good fit for your family. Borrow what you can, troll garage sales and invest in necessities. Ryan and Kelly Cunningham, who run the blog Beyondthe Tent.com from their home in Maple Grove, said it’s worth spending a few hundred dollars on a quality tent that should last close 10 years and handle a beating by Mother Nature.

The next investment — even before sleeping bags — should be sleeping mats. Whether they’re foam and roll-up or self-inflatable to a few inches thick, they assure a better night of sleep with softness and provide insulation from the cold ground.

Go ahead and start young

The Cunninghams have camped with their children, now ages 3 to 15, even as infants, but they’d skip the campfire and find sites well away from rivers or lakes if there are kids in the crawling or toddling stage. Socially needy teens, too, can be a challenge, and it can be worth letting them bring a friend or allowing them time with electronics.

Stay comfortable

You may be sweating-to-your-skivvies as you leave the Twin Cities, then find yourself scrambling for long underwear with a super-chilled breeze off Lake Superior. The trick is to layer up with moisture-wicking clothing, easy-to-dry fleece and a water-repelling windbreaker and pants. A light knit cap or hoodie also goes a long way in keeping you warm at night.

Use damp cooling sport towels and battery-powered or rechargeable tent fans to beat the heat on hot, sticky nights. Also, be sure to bring enough bug repellent or devices such as a Thermacell lantern that uses butane to warm allethrin (a repellent derived from chrysanthemums) and keep a campsite mosquito-free.

Keep a camping box

Keep most of your dishes, towels, utensils, matches and other gear stacked and stored in a designated bin to stay organized during and between camping trips. The Rubbermaid Action Packer is sturdy enough to double as a place to sit, has a cover that flips over and can serve as a makeshift rack for drying dishes, and keeps gear protected.

Hit the easy button

Packing and setting up camp can take hours, so make your first meal an easy one, such as campfire hot dogs or sandwiches that don’t require a campfire or stove. The Cunninghams even order pizza the first night if they’re close to a town. And if it’s been a busy day or physically tiring with hiking and outdoor recreation, they’ll have a family movie night in the tent.

Create a challenge

Help kids connect to their surroundings with the DNR’s junior park naturalist program. State parks offer activity books on pinelands, prairies and hardwood regions, and children who complete them can earn a patch.

Another way to make a walk in the woods more intriguing: Go geocaching. More than 30 state parks loan out GPS units for free, and dozens of others offer how-to classes on geocaching, which uses satellites to find minute treasures hidden in the woods. Minnesota state parks alone have more than 28,000 caches and a themed “Call of the Wildflowers” program.

You also can tap technology and use your smartphone to find constellations, check on northern lights and identify birds, insects, wildlife and plants.

Have flexible activities

Pack easy campsite entertainment such as Nerf footballs, a Frisbee, foot bag (Hacky Sack), bug catcher, nature journal, waterproof camera and waterproof playing cards. Make sure you also have a Plan B if it rains, with indoor activities nearby such as naturalist programs, museums or shopping.

We’ve wimped out and frantically sought cabins when it snowed — in June. That meant a lot of extra driving in Yellowstone National Park, but it’s better to be happy and comfortable than scare the family off camping forever.

“There’s no shame in getting a hotel room or going home early,” said Kelly Cunningham. And those misadventures, such as forgetting tent poles or an unfortunate encounter with a beehive, add to the family legends that everyone laughs about long after the tent is tucked back into the garage.

 

St. Cloud-based Lisa Meyers McClintick (www.LisaMcClintick.com) is the author of “Day Trips From the Twin Cities” and just released a new edition of “The Dakotas Off the Beaten Path.”