A backyard campout can be a safer, more comfortable way to enjoy the great outdoors -- or just a fun alternative to the traditional sleepover.

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Sleeping under the stars and making s'mores are just a couple of reasons camping is a favorite activity for kids. But throw in park entrance fees, crowded tent sites and a wilderness full of creepy crawlies, and the allure of the great outdoors can evaporate pretty quickly. But you can bring the mystique of camping to your family without the hassle by setting up a campout in your own backyard.

In addition to being a great alternative to the logistical struggles of a weekend in the woods, this is a great way to accommodate a group sleepover in a safe, easily supervised environment. With a little planning, a backyard campout can offer a much richer experience than piling blankets in the living room and watching TV.

Planning Your Backyard Campout

The first thing to consider is the weather. This seems obvious enough, but in addition to looking for rain in the forecast you also want to check visibility. After all, what good is sleeping under the stars if you can't see them? Most local weather resources offer a 10-day forecast, but if you need to plan further in advance, a Farmer's Almanac can help.

Of course, without a campfire, well, you're just sitting outside. But make sure you follow the rules when setting up your fire. If you're part of a homeowners association, it can provide you with neighborhood restrictions as well as the county or city fire codes. You can build an authentic campfire right on the grass with minimal impact on the lawn by layering dirt or sand inside a fire ring. Simply build the fire on top of the sand and this will keep the grass beneath from charring.

Outfitting Your Backyard Campout

So, what gear do you need? A tent, sleeping bag and a pillow are all a kid needs to be comfortable (and the tent is really optional). Flashlights are also optional, depending on how much ambient light you have there, and walkie-talkies are a great way to keep the lines of communication open between the base camp and the house (you never know when they might have to call for marshmallow reinforcements).

Hands-down the most critical part of any campout, whether in your backyard or at the summit of Everest, is the food. Burgers and hot dogs never taste better than when you're camping, and you don't have to have a campfire to enjoy them -- any backyard grill will do. Roughing it in the backyard also offers the added convenience of having a kitchen nearby for treats that may not be traditional campout fare. Ice cream, for example, wouldn't last long in the great outdoors, but what sleepover would be complete without it? Also, if you're hosting more kids than you want to cook for, pizza delivery is a great option.

So, next time your kids feel the call of the wild, get to know your backyard in a new way. This simple and fun excursion combines the adventure of camping with the safety, convenience and comfort of home.