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Backyard Campout

Ted has conked out next to me. Asa is snoring softly in his sleeping bag. Nell has decamped for her pal Emily's tent and seems to be staying put. All the lanterns are out, but my sandman is nowhere in sight. I'm obsessed with the pelican-like shadows flapping up and down on the wall of our tent. I'm also obsessed with the dampness of the air, the wind—who knew it was so noisy out here?—and the fact that while my body feels warm, my nose, wet like a dog's, is freezing.

The beauty of backyard camping is, of course, that you can go home at any time. So I wander into our living room in my pj's. Four parents, discreetly clad in sweatpants and T-shirts, are drinking beer and discussing the state of the world. "How do you pronounce Al Qaeda?" I grab bottles of water to distribute outside each tent, consider a wool hat, and dive back into my sleeping bag.

This is our third backyard campout and, at a total of 29 people (ages two and up) and nine tents, our biggest. These events, planned only a week or so ahead, somehow always happen in the fall—after school has started and there are no vacations around the bend, but before we've adjusted to the fact that summer is over. We live close to Manhattan and are extremely lucky to have a large patch of grass and trees, which we share with four other families. But wilderness is hardly a requirement. What does come in handy are an outdoor grill, a sandbox (for staging a campfire—we simply turn over our Weber cover, push sand around it, line it with heavy tinfoil, toss in the hot coals, and grab our sticks, hot dogs, and s'more fixings), a few Coleman lanterns for ambience, and a friend or two who can play guitar and get everyone to sing. Of course you also need sleeping bags, padding (gym mats do the trick), pillows (run inside for more!), and tents. Revelation: The latest designs don't weep when touched from the inside. Another revelation: Everyone knows someone with camping gear to loan, and in every family there's one person who is exceptionally capable of pitching a tent, even if he or she doesn't know it.

The campers arrive in the late afternoon and stake their spots. While the kids collect sticks, we start the campfire, along with a grill for the hot-dog alternatives—chicken, spicy sausages, potato slices, and leeks (in foil)—and nab someone to toss together salads. A few hours later we all have marshmallow in our hair as we try to spot the Dippers. Would that I could tell you about the moon rising, the end-of-season katydids, the smell of the grass—I'm always too busy running inside for more ice, wondering where I stashed the Glow Sticks, making sure Ted puts enough salt and olive oil on the potatoes.

The kids sleep just fine. The adults can be thankful for a few fitful hours, though a certain doctor managed to clock eight hours, leave at dawn to do his rounds, and return for breakfast: challah French toast straight out of the kitchen, Granny Smith apples à la Peter Kohlmann (buttered slices rolled in cinnamon sugar and cooked on the grill), orange juice, coffee. No one's ever bailed out in the middle of the night, but everything is optional. (A morning-after poll revealed that only 65 percent of participants brushed their teeth the night before.) And everyone always says they want to come back next year.

HEADING OUT BACK?
Pick up some ideas from these guides (all available through Amazon.com):
Kids Camp! Activities for the Backyard or Wilderness by Laurie Carlson and Judith Dammel (Chicago Review Press, $12.95)
The Kids Campfire Book by Jane Drake and Ann Love (Kids Can Press, $10.95)
Backyard Roughing It Easy by Dian Thomas (Dian Thomas Co., $14.99)

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