By Terry Tomalin
My father hated sand. He said the fine granules of pulverized quartz ended up in his sleeping bag, food and the vodka martinis he enjoyed, shaken not stirred.
As a result, the nine Tomalin children were denied what I have come to believe is the unalienable right of all American school children: a summer camping trip to the beach.
Sure, it's warm. Of course there are bugs. And the sun shines for more than 14 hours a day. Do not be deterred. Beach camping is fun. All you really need is a beach camping guide or even a plan, and when it comes to that, I'm your man.
Here's my first beach camping tip: beach camping is a misnomer. Most places in Florida don't let you camp directly on the beach, which is wise because of wind, waves and rising tides. Most beach campsites are on the lee side of dunes or within easy walking distance of the sand and water and there is also a full spectrum of unique Florida campsites to choose from.
But most campsites are still exposed to the elements, and a good tent is essential. Dome models tend to be roomier and better ventilated, which helps on hot nights. Make sure the windows have "no-see-um" netting. Take extra line to tie down the tent if the wind picks up, and take "sand" stakes that hold on loose ground.
Sleeping bags are not necessary during the summer, just cheap air mattresses, some old sheets and a light blanket. (You will be surprised how cold it can be at night after a long day in the sun). It is also easier to shake the sand off a sheet than out of sleeping bags.
One trick to keeping your tent clean is to take an inexpensive door mat that catches sand. Put up a sign for the kids: "No shoes in the tent!"
Sun shelters or free-standing screen rooms are also great for summer camping. Florida state parks don't permit campers to suspend a tarp between trees, so you will need something on its own poles.
A sun shelter not only provides shade, it keeps the rain off your picnic table. Screen rooms (a roof with four screen walls) are generally more expensive than free-standing sun shelters but keep bugs off your kids during key mosquito feeding times at breakfast and dinner.
When it's time to eat, most parks provide charcoal grills. You also can buy a two-burner propane stove for less than $100, but if you don't want the added hassle, use the grill. Kids can survive on hot dogs for weeks.
Keep your food in an ice chest, but be sure you secure it with a lock or tamper-proof straps. Raccoons, particularly those at Pinellas County's Fort De Soto Park, are highly evolved mammals with impressive dexterity. Let down your guard, even for just a moment, and they will open your cooler and steal your food. This is one of the most important beach camping tips you can follow.
Take a second ice chest stocked with water and soft drinks. That way the kids will have easy access to fluids, and if they leave it open you won't lose your lunch.
Most parks have picnic tables, but take extra chairs that sit low to the ground. You can use them in the tent, screen room or beach.