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Unplug and take the family into the woods

When Priscilla Geigis was 5 and her sister Deb was 7, their parents borrowed a tent trailer from friends and took the family camping.

One of their first trips was to the Berkshires, where they camped at Mohawk State Forest. In the following years, they went farther, visiting many of the national parks.

“Besides the incredible scenery we witnessed and the ranger programs we attended, one of my fondest memories is right before we would go to bed,” says Geigis, now director of Massachusetts State Parks. “It was close quarters in our tent trailer so I felt safe having my family — my mom, dad, sister, and me — under one cloth roof.”


Families who live in the Boston suburbs don’t have to travel far to experience the great outdoors. Options close to home among the 29 state parks include Harold Parker State Forest in North Andover to the north and Myles Standish State Forest, located in Carver and Plymouth, to the south, plus the private Boston Minuteman Campground in Littleton to the west of Boston.

The elements of camping haven’t changed much since Geigis’s parents organized those family trips in the ’70s. But the world left behind is now easily carried, and for parents of teenagers, it can be a battle persuading kids to turn off their phones — any time and any place.

It’s the parent’s job, says Dr. Michael Rich, founder and director of the Center on Media and Child Health at Boston Children’s Hospital, to offer kids experiences that “can’t coexist with the phone.”

“Kids will resist on principle,” says Rich. “The way to approach it is to make it an adventure rather than a restriction.”

Rich, who has been an instructor at the National Outdoor Leadership School in Wyoming, recommends that families practice unplugging by taking a “digital sabbath,” one day a week set aside to reflect, spend time together, and disconnect from that smartphone.


“What people find is it’s liberating,” he says. “You don’t have to jump up every time a text comes in or the phone rings.”

There’s plenty of support for queasy newcomers. Geigis oversees a team that runs the state’s Learn to Camp program, which this year will be held July 30-31 at Harold Parker State Forest.

At Learn to Camp, instructors teach up to 18 families how to set up a tent, cook over a stove or fire pit, and discover the joys of hiking, fishing, star-gazing, and other outdoor pursuits. So far, 133 families have participated.

“It was perfect for us,” says Amy Chin of North Reading, the mother of two boys, 11 and 4. “They show you how to start a fire, where to pitch your tent. There were skills I needed some brushing up on, and they help you if you get into trouble.”

Chin, 46, says she hadn’t hiked or camped since she was a Girl Scout.

“I knew I could do it if I just got started,” she says.

REI New England Outdoor School, which is separate from the retail business, runs an Essential Camping Skills class. L.L. Bean and other outdoor outfitters also offer lessons.

“The class is a catalyst between the desire and the confidence to go camping,” says Phil Bailey, who teaches at REI’s Framingham location.

During classes, Bailey covers the basics: shelter, food, and safety.


“Don’t get caught up in gear talk, but don’t buy the cheapest tent,” he tells his students. “You need a tent fly [drape] that almost touches the ground to protect yourself from rain. If you’re sharing a tent, look for multiple doors so campers have their own vestibule.”

Bailey also stresses preparation. Pitch a tent in your backyard. Test your gear before you go. Remember that zippers are paramount.

“Any critical gear is only as good as the knowledge of the person using it,” he says.

Harold Parker, just 20 miles north of Boston, occupies more than 3,000 acres of woods in Andover, North Andover, North Reading, and Middleton. It’s a typical New England forest thick with oak, hickory, white and red pine, and birch.

The park’s Lorraine Park Campground has 103 campsites, each with a picnic table, fire pit and grill, potable water, and proximity to bathrooms with flush toilets, hot water, and showers.

Myles Standish State Forest is about 45 miles south of Boston. The park encompasses about 12,000 acres and offers five camping areas with roughly 400 sites set in the woods or on the edges of four of the park’s 16 ponds. There are miles of bicycle, equestrian, and hiking trails, too, tucked into woods dotted with pitch pines and scrub oaks.

In the MetroWest region, Boston Minuteman Campground offers campsites and amenities at a privately owned 19-acre wooded park 30 miles from Boston.

Founded in 1973, Boston Minuteman caters to family campers and has been family-run from the start. Owners Ted and Maureen Nussdorfer, parents of three adult children, took the business over from Ted’s parents; their daughter, Kelly Lillquist, now camps there with her husband and their two young children.


Boston Minuteman has 100 campsites and rents seven cabins, an option that makes it easier for first-time campers who aren’t quite ready to rough it. Unplugging, however, is more challenging. In addition to hookups for water and sewer, every campsite offers electricity, cable, and Wi-Fi. There also are resort-type extras such as a pool and a playground; a camp store; and a rec hall where families can play Ping-Pong or borrow DVDs; a fenced dog run; and a bocce court in the woods.

But the crunch of earth under foot, the warmth of the sun slanting through the pines, and birdsong remind campers of why they aren’t staying at a motel.

Lillquist, who spent childhood summers at Boston Minuteman with her parents and two brothers, says she’s eager for her children to have similar experiences.

“I’d be climbing something and I’d ask my parents, ‘Can you help me?’ and they’d say, ‘No. You can figure it out.’ They were calculated risks that build self-confidence,” she says.

Geigis, the state parks director, says family camping trips widened her world and deepened her understanding of herself.

“You asked about my camping adventures. You have tugged at my heartstrings,” Geigis says. “I truly believe that I would not be the director of State Parks and Recreation if it weren’t for my family camping adventures.”


Hattie Bernstein can be reached at