Next to speaking at the grade-school career day, the family camping trip is one of the best avenues for parents to embrace the notion that, when it comes to kids, what's the point in having them if you don't mess with them.
First you tell them while setting up camp that this particular campground is haunted by ghosts that rise out of campfires in spooky ways when the moon's just like it is tonight.
While they're stuffing their pie-holes with s'mores, you poke the fire and discreetly drop in a Campfire FX packet while reminding them of the ghosts.
Two minutes later, purple, blue and green flames dance out of the campfire to enough shorts-filling gasps that Dear Ol' Dad earns the new title of camping's Dr. Gotchya.
The multi-flamed campfire gag is available for $1.67 and is proof that you don't need to sell a kidney to add a new twist to this year's family camping trips.
Knowing that $4 a gallon gasoline is entrenching the staycation approach to family outings, and with the cusp of the summer camping season fast approaching, dad realizes that pile of gear now gathering black-widow nests in the garage isn't likely to be upgraded any time soon.
But cheer up, because there are some simple, relatively inexpensive additions that can make this years' trips a little more comfortable and fun — and will hopefully provide solid family memories instead of just more ammo for your kids' why-my-life-sucks posts on Facebook.
Here's a list of small but useful additions to this year's camp gear that all, except one, cost under $10.
Campfire FX — Several different companies now mix simple chemical compounds to turn the traditional campground into a rainbow of flickering flames. They normally last about a half-hour, but you can only get away with the practical joke once. A three-pack costs $5.
Camp Chair — OK, so this isn't for the kids. It's for you, but you'll bark less at the Tax Deductions and sleep better at night if you can rest your aching back in a comfortable camp chair while the s'mores are cooking. Cull the worst one out of the pile and add a new one, with $9 a common price.
Portable light — Flashlights walk away and never return or get left on the picnic table. Get a plastic, circular, battery-powered push light that stays in the tent. One easy reach for a light is worth the $8 cost.
Bug nets — Nothing ruins a camping trip faster than a face-full of mosquitoes big enough to filet. For $2.29 each, you can have a bug-mesh head net that fits around your face and neck while held in place by a hat. And keep a few extras in your bag. They could fetch $100 on a July day at Diamond Lake.
Stake hammer/puller — Again, for you and not them. Pound the stakes in with something better than a rock. Later, reach down and pop out the tent stakes with ease and no needles under your finger nails. Just do the math: Coleman's combination hammer/puller, $5; co-pay for the chiropractor to realign your back, $20.
Folding wash basin — At $13, this is the most expensive item in the list and could tap out the change-jar if your kids have poached all the quarters and left you with nothing bigger than dimes. But it's worth it.
The see-through, plastic containers fold out into two 10-square-inch basins — one for washing and one for rinsing.
It'll keep you from violating the often-violated rule of not washing dishes at the communal water faucet, which turns the area around the faucet into a compost pile and chums for critters to visit camp at night.
Extension forks — When roasting wieners or marshmallows, you don't want the kids fighting over sticks. At $2.29 apiece, these forks are the perfect addition to the evening campfire and gives the kids a chance to construct s'mores without getting burned by those purple and blue flames that will become a camping staple and part of family lore for years to come.