How can a family scattered over four states meet for one week's vacation without spending a fortune?

Reunion Camping.

For the past few years our extended family of nine adults, six children, two dogs and one cat has reunited by camping in neutral territory: usually a state or national park.

Luckily, we all enjoy camping. Besides being a truly "get-away-from-it-all" vacation, it has been economical. Over the years we have acquired equipment at yard sales or from other campers who "sold out" for more luxurious camping trailers.

Last year we had a memorable week at Douthat State Park near the West Virginia border.

Granted, reunion camping is not an exercise for the meek, but even our mini-crises have turned into warm memories. By relying on the resources and help of each person, we have gained renewed respect for these people we have known literally all our lives.

And at what cost, this week of delight? Not counting equipment which paid for itself long ago, we spend about $6 a night for each campsite (maximum of six people to one site). Other outlays include gas and fast-food expenses for the time it takes to get to camp. We bring most of our food from home to save on the high prices of camp stores. Perishables are packed in an ice chest, so our major food purchases are milk and periodic ice replacements . . . Oh, yes, and everyone receives a new flashlight.

We are gearing up for another reunion as soon as the nominating committee can convince the Missourians that a Southwest Virginia location is almost halfway for all of us.

A few rules invaluable for the harmonious gathering of so many people:

1. Form a nominating committee in late winter or early spring. We use three adults (from three different family units) to collect information on various parks. The committee selects three locations, submitted for a group vote. Majority vote wins. Any complainers may volunteer for the nominating committee the following year.

2. Take into consideration everyone's needs. We have to include tent and trailer sites, flush toilets, pets, hot showers, boating, flush toilets, swimming, advanced registration and flush toilets. Brochures mailed by the park service contain all information for the decision.

3. Make reservations as soon as possible.

4. Families meet within one half-hour of each other on the day of arrival in order to stake out sites. With advanced reservations, a spot is confirmed, but not necessarily the site you want.

5. Eat breakfast and lunch in individual campsites. This allows for privacy and individual idiosyncracies. Multi-family dinners, eaten al fresco, rotate with one camp providing the meal for the entire group. (Larger families repeat hosting responsibilities to compensate for the smaller groups.)

6. Draw up menus about a month before the trip so that Campfire Stew is not repeated more than once. Each family signs up for its specialty. This not only provides some friendly competition, but also allows for some gastronomical delights. (Do not plan on losing weight.)

7. Quiet time is imposed between noon and 2 p.m. Each camp is then off-limits to non-inhabitants. Kids can unwind and adults nap or read.

8. Families with children camp close to each other. After the kids are bedded down, adults congregate at a site where the sleeping children can be heard.

9. Rain? Pre-rain investigation of covered pavilions or any large structure with a roof is necessary. Check with the ranger beforehand, so you have a contingency plan should those drops begin to fall. We usually choose these days to head for town. You'd be surprised how much fun you can have in a laundromat with people you like.