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Camp with your kids (painlessly)

Looking to get the kids outside, but wondering exactly what to do with them when you get there? Don't worry — we've got you covered.
Looking to get the kids outside, but wondering exactly what to do with them when you get there? Don't worry — we've got you covered.Morgan Lane Photography

Camping experts offer age-appropriate activities that will grab your kids’ attention and get them outdoors.

7- to 10-year olds
Many state and national parks offer ranger-led experiences geared toward grade-schoolers. For example, Junior Ranger programs allow youngsters to complete a set of activities during their park visit under the direction of an adult ranger. Participants receive an official Junior Ranger badge or patch and a certificate. Call your park to find out if it runs this program. If it doesn't, the National Wildlife Federation suggests some do-it-yourself activities, such as planning a nature scavenger hunt, telling campfire ghost stories, and asking your kids to identify the night sounds as you all fall asleep. Find more ideas at

Suggested activities and parks
Tidepooling, or searching for crustaceans (such as crabs and starfish). This activity can be fun anywhere that there's a substantial body of water. Some fantastic national parks for tidepooling are Acadia National Park, Me.; Cabrillo National Monument, Calif.; and Kaloko-Honokohau National Historical Park, Hawaii.

Fishing. This is available at many state parks. Within the national park system, try: North Cascades National Park Service Complex, Wash.; Everglades National Park, Fla.; and Ozark National Scenic Riverways, Mo. Be sure to call ahead for the latest rules and regulations. Otherwise you may get fined for fishing out of season or without a state license.

Riding horses and mules. Outings can be booked at Grand Canyon National Park, Ariz.; Kentucky Horse Park, Lexington, Ky. (same-day reservations only); Palo Duro Canyon State Park, in the Texas panhandle; and Glacier National Park, Mont., among other parks.

11- to 14-year olds
With this age group, you can take it up a notch. Appeal to your tween's innate competitiveness and curiosity by seeing if they'd like to try caving, rock climbing, or cross-country skiing.

Suggested activities and parks
Caving. A guide leads you through narrow, pre-explored passages, where lamplight reveals unusual insects and rock formations. Available in Mammoth Cave National Park, Ky.; Sequoia National Park, Calif.; and Wind Cave National Park, S.D.

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Rock climbing. Teen-scalable rock faces can be found in such national parks as Joshua Tree National Park, Calif., and Custer State Park, S.D. — plus at state and national parks throughout New England. But only a handful of parks have experts who offer guidance, control the ropes, and insist on safe practices. For example, the final 400 feet of the Half Dome in Yosemite National Park, Calif., is scalable by inexperienced but fit climbers using steel cables. Call ahead to see if help is available or if you'll need to book a guided excursion with a private outfitter.

Cross-country skiing. Try Catoctin Mountain Park, Md.; Rocky Mountain National Park, Colo.; and Yellowstone National Park. (Note: While Yellowstone spans three states, most of its cross-country skiing trails are in Wyoming.)

15- to 18-year-olds
They're probably more capable physically than you are, and more eager to take on challenges. Let them test their mettle in the wilderness. Ask them to prepare a few meals by themselves. You might even consider booking teens a separate, adjoining tent site, to give them some privacy and independence.

Suggested activities and parks
Mountain climbing. Aim high, at peaks like Mount Katahdin at Baxter State Park, Maine, and the Chimney Tops in Great Smoky Mountains National Park, Tenn.

White-water rafting. Build your teen's confidence by tapping into his or her thrill-seeking side. Call your local park to find out if it has beginnerlevel rapids, such as the one on the southern (a.k.a. upper) part of New River Gorge, W.Va.

Snorkeling. Have your kids play aquanaut by donning masks to explore a park's narrow shore bed. Call the ranger at your local lakeside park to find a spot suitable for beginners. To illustrate, Apostle Islands National Lakeshore, Wis., features fish darting around the spooky wreck of the Noquebay, lying beneath about 15 feet of clear water. Rent a charter service in nearby Bayfield to take your kids the quarter mile from the shore of Stockton Island.

Volunteering. Many high schools now have public-service requirements, and some camping areas have volunteer opportunities, such as taking a senior citizen for a walk. Your teen might be able to combine a family trip with a volunteer experience. Contact the National Wildlife Federation for details.

Wilderness skills training. Challenge your teens to brush up on their outdoorsmanship under the guidance of pros. There are orienteering trails in some parks, where your teen can sleuth out control points by use of map and compass alone. Orienteering courses teach the necessary skills and are run either by park rangers, field schools, or nonprofit institutes. For example, Prince William Forest Park, Va., provides reservation-only introductions to orienteering courses led by rangers. A similar program is at Canyonlands National Park, Utah.