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The accidental camper primer 

Camping can happen to anyone. It's nothing to be ashamed of. Each year, millions of Americans are struck by the urge to camp.

Three years ago, I never thought camping would happen to me. After all, my parents raised me right. It was Holiday Inns and HoJos all the way. Of course, as so often is the case, I didn't really appreciate what my parents had done for me until I became a parent myself and my kids begged to go camping.

What can you do if camping suddenly strikes you or someone you love? Here are some of hazards you might encounter on a camping trip and what you can do about them to increase the likelihood you'll live to reclaim your rightful place on the couch.

• Overly friendly campers. They'll come over and plop themselves down on your picnic table. If you give them food, you'll never get rid of them. But if you toss a six-pack of Genny into the bushes, you might.

• Lack of appropriate clothing. You can tell your kid to buck up if he starts whining about being cold. But if his lips turn purple, that's a sign you need to locate a Wal-Mart. Haven't showered in three days? Not a problem. Just think of it as your turn to provide local color.

• Wildlife. Not the middle-aged burnouts at the next site cranking Def Leppard. The furry kind that bite and carry rabies. Don't worry, with a little practice you will be able to tell the difference. Remember, if the food's left out, they will come. So make sure you clean up after yourself real good.

• Inclement weather. Don't waste perfectly good angst on a little rain. Wait until you're tent camping in Orleans County during an electrical storm so severe the locals start firing hail cannons. Don't know what a hail cannon is? They're real cannons that fire sound waves every five seconds to prevent the formation of crop-damaging hail. This experience is best enjoyed between the hours of 1 and 5 a.m. What to do? Plan A: take a tip from the owners of the nearby 100-foot RVs and get the hell out. Plan B: Fire up the coffee and get an early start on your day.

We've talked about the don'ts. Now here are the dos.

• Do latch on to an experienced camper. They're usually pretty happy to show you the ropes. I've seen the ropes for two summers now, and I still don't know what to do with them. That's when it's important to show your appreciation by bringing really good food for dinner. Allow me to suggest steaks.

• Make sure you have the right equipment. Don't cheap out when it comes to buying an air mattress. I bought a twin size. Bad move. Once it starts raining, the experience is a lot like sleeping in the ocean on an inflatable pool raft. Buy a double, you'll be drier and more comfortable. You'll also need a decent tent, lots of tarps, and, ideally, a vehicle less than 8 years old. Believe me, after a night on the open seas, you won't want your winery tour curtailed because the check engine light came on.

• Location, location, location. I'm partial to state parks, especially Watkins Glen. If you're camping someplace with a great pool and breathtaking scenery, no one will notice if you burn the scrambled eggs, lock your keys in your car, or leave the loaf of bread someplace where squirrels can abscond with it. At least, that's what I tell myself.

Despite the challenges, camping can be rewarding. It makes you appreciate the things that really matter. No, not blow dryers, beds and appliances. Although they are a close second. Enjoying the outdoors and spending time with your family and friends. So get off the couch and push through the pain. You'll be glad you did.

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