You don't need a big motorhome or a lot of fancy equipment to take the family camping. All you really need is a tent, a sleeping bag and a gentle push out of your everyday rut.

On the North Coast, it's prime camping season, and there are plenty of private and public campgrounds where families can pitch a tent, unload a kayak and create lifelong memories. With the economy still sagging this summer, people are finding it's a great way to have a vacation and return to a simpler lifestyle, far from the madding distractions of cell phones, e-mails and text messages.

"It is affordable and accessible, no matter where you come from," said Christine Fanning, executive director of the Outdoor Foundation, a nonprofit organization dedicated to growing future outdoor enthusiasts. "And it really offers the opportunity for parents and children to reconnect with each other in a natural setting."

According to a 2009 study done by the Outdoor Foundation, camping is one of the most popular outdoor pursuits in the U.S., attracting 42.4 million partipants in 2008. And a large chunk of those campers — 18.9 percent — live right here in California and the Pacific Northwest.

Barbara Herrera, program director of the Girl Scouts of Northern California, encourages her 13-year-old daughter to participate in Girl Scout camps, but also takes her on camping trips to the redwood forests along the North Coast.

"I have a four-person tent-trailer, but I do lots of tent camping, too," Herrera said. "I tend to stick close to home ... Samuel P. Taylor in Marin County, or Hendy Woods in Mendocino. There's lots right here in our backyard."

Taking shorter camping trips closer to home has become a popular trend, according to anecdotal evidence from local retailers such as Sonoma Outfitters in Santa Rosa.

"We used to cater to a lot of backpackers, but those people are getting older and they don't have the time," said Jay Knick, owner of Sonoma Outfitters. "Folks are going out to Bodega and camping there, and going kayaking on the bay or the Estero Americano."

For families looking to gear up for a camping trip, Knick said the essentials are simple: a tent, sleeping bag, sleeping pad, cooking utensils and some kind of cooking stove.

"Half the stuff in the store you don't need," he said. "But sometimes it makes it a little more convenient."

At REI in Santa Rosa, families can pick up a free booklet with ideas for five family friendly hikes and five bike rides. REI recently offered a free clinic on family camping which gave tips on what to bring and activity ideas. (For a recap, go to to rei.com and click on Family Adventures.)

"You don't really need a lot," said Marc Abbruzzesse, REI manager in Santa Rosa. "Basically, you need a tent, but you can bring your pillows and comforters and the blow-up mattresses you use for guests."

REI also rents equipment, to make it easy for folks who don't want to invest a lot of money in camping gear. Every Thursday night, they offer clinics (some free, some fee-based) on everything from backpacking to GPS navigation, for those who want to advance beyond car camping into wilderness exploration.

For younger kids who have never been camping before, scouting experts recommend a gradual ramp-up, starting with day camps and moving on to overnights.

In Sonoma County, the Boy Scouts of America offer four local "Twilight" day camps located in Sonoma Valley, Penngrove, Santa Rosa and Windsor. You don't have to be a scout to sign up for those, said Danielle Ing, district director of the Redwood Empire Council Boy Scouts of America.

Families who want to get a taste of camping can also book an overnight stay at Camp Masonite-Navarro, a Boy Scout camp in Anderson Valley. The camp costs $45 per person for two days and two nights.

"Most families do it for a first-time experience," Ing said. "You stay in Adirondack cabins ... and you don't have to have gear or experience or food. Just bring your sleeping bags and some closed-toed shoes."

Camping offers hands-on, experiential learning that gives kids the chance to think for themselves and use all of their senses, Ing said.

"It lifts their everyday boundaries, so they try more things," she said. "It gives them the opportunity to grow and to be someone else."

According to studies of former scouts and their parents, the No. 1 benefit reaped from the scouting experience was spending quality time together as a family.

Not only does camping create strong family bonds, but it can provide an antidote to the "plugged-in" syndrome, where kids spend their lives indoors, surrounded by technology and disconnected from the natural world.

Richard Louv, author of "Last Child in the Woods," has made a connection between children's increased time indoors and contemporary issues such as obesity, depression and attention disorders.

His book launched a national movement, "No Child Left Inside," which advocates free, unsupervised time in the wilderness as an antidote to what Louv has dubbed "nature-deficit disorder."

"A number of the issues that modern kids are running into, in part, can be traced to the fact that they don't have a stronger connection to the outdoors," said Josh Brankman, executive director of Outward Bound Bay Area in San Francisco, which runs wilderness expeditions for youth.

While some outdoors organizations discourage cell phones and iPods on camping trips, a growing contingent of outdoor enthusiasts are looking at technology as a vehicle for keeping kids excited about nature.

"Kids really do embrace technology," Abbruzzesse said. "I just downloaded an application on my iPhone called Sky-Watch. You can hold your phone up at any point in the sky, and it points out and identifies the constellations."

You can reach Staff Writer Diane Peterson at 521-5287 or diane.peterson@pressdemocrat.com.