The two of us are like lots of you dads and kids reading this article. We used to think about going camping together but we never found time to go.

Then my dad and I joined a program for dads and kids we want to tell you about. We went camping together eight times in two years -- with other dads and kids like you and us, who wanted to have fun together outdoors but couldn't find the time before they joined this program.

We've had lots of other fun together besides our camping trips, too. We've gone hiking on the Appalachian Trail. Inner-tubing with our friends down the Shenandoah River. Canoeing on the C&O canal and sailing on the Chesapeake Bay.

The program is for dads and little kids, ages five through eight, so I've graduated. (Dad's still a member with my five-year-old sister, Nancy.) But dad and I still go camping together with our friends. And we sure have some good memories. Indian Guides is spending time with your dad and having fun.

BREATHES there a dad with soul so dead who never to himself has said: I want to take my son or daughter camping, and sit by the campfire under the stars and tell stories and build a bond between us.

But then reality intervenes. First off, where do you go? And who has the equipment? And who are we going to go with? There's work to do around the house . . . and there's more at the office. Oh well, maybe next year when the kids are a bit older . . .

Several hundred fathers in the greater Washington area have found a way out of the I'm-too-busy and who-are-we-going-to-go-with and wait-till-they're-older traps. They've joined a program that's custom-made for the busy father who is under pressure at home and at work.

The program is called Indian Guides (for fathers and sons) and Indian Princesses (for fathers and daughters). It is sponsored by the YMCA. It's an old program; it first started in 1926. But it's having a surge of growth: There are a thousand "Indians" in Northern Virginia, and several hundred elsewhere in the greater Washington area.

The inspiration for the program was a real Indian, so the story goes, who served as a guide on hunting and fishing trips.

"The Indian father raises his son," he told his clients one night around a campfire. "He teaches his son to hunt, to track, to fish, to walk softly and silently in the forest, to know the meaning and purpose of life and all he must know. The non-Indian can do many things, but he leaves the most important job to the mother alone: raising and instructing his son."

Bob Lewis is a real estate developer in Northern Virginia. He's been in the program with his son Campbell and then with his daughter Melanie.

"The program's excellent. It makes you take time to be with your kids -- time which you never regret. It's good quality time. You do fun things together, and that's great. But the key thing is that you're both there enjoying each other's company."

Because the program is designed for busy dads, it requires a time commitment that is reasonable and limited: once a month a meeting of dads and kids; once a month an outing together; once a quarter a camping trip or similar major event. Over the course of a year that adds up to a dozen or two quality evenings or memorable outings that kids and dads actually do together rather than think about doing.

A key aspect of the program's success is that the dads and kids run their own show. There is a minimum of red tape. The YMCA runs a recruiting drive for interested fathers in September each year. It puts them in touch with five to eight other dads to form a club or "tribe." Then it gets out of their way. Each club or tribe does what the dads and kids decide would be fun.

"We met in September and made a plan. One dad and daughter liked to ride; we all agreed to go horseback riding. We discussed hiking, canoeing, bowling and camping out. We added them to our list.

"In the course of the year our tribe did just about everything we talked about in September," recalls Weldon Brown, a Vienna dentist whose daughter Shara, 10, has graduated from the program; daughter Natalie, 8, is in it now; and daughter Emily, 5, is looking forward to joining. "It was a very good year."

The program has one rule that makes and keeps it unique. "It's the one-on-one rule. You don't send your son or daughter to one of our meetings or outings," explains Woody Sadler, a Marine Corps officer who helped build the program in McLean. "Either both of you come or neither of you comes.

"The rule is important. This is not simply another program for kids. It's a program for fathers and their kids. The one-on-one rule means that you are free to spend good time with your son or daughter, not ride herd on a pack of youngsters with absentee fathers.

"It means just the right degree of pressure from other dads to arrange your schedule to make an outing. It also means that we can do things that are more adventurous and genuinely fun for the dads -- in one of our tribes in Reston, to take an extreme example, the kids and dads went flying in a Piper Cub one Saturday afternoon. If the dads are having fun, the tribe is bound to be a success."

Keeping dad enthusiatic helps make for a successful program but most adventures are down-to-earth. "We take the kids camping in Prince William Forest or Lake Fairfax, close to home and practically in our backyards," explains Bob Gasink, a sales representative with Oracle Computer System, who has had three sons in Indian Guides.

"It's easy on the dads and easy on the pocketbook. You come home the next day. Your son or daughter's had a great time. You've had good times together without commiting the whole weekend."

Gasink joined the program in Montgomery County, where there are several hundred Indians. Like virtually all members of the program, he emphasizes the fact that the program affords father and child quality time and the foundation for a solid future relationship.

He goes on to say, "Kids in this program are in a special age group. It is an important time to take your child seriously and to build a relationship with him or her. There is no better way to build your child's self-esteem and self-confidence than to spend time together. This program makes it easier for dads to do that.

"And by the time a child is 7 or 8, he or she is growing outside the family. Friends are more important. Those magic years for building a relationship go quickly. Many dads recognize that too late."

Norman Hansen Jr. leads the program in Prince George's County and participates with his children Eric, 9, Kara, 7 and Brett, 5. "The whole purpose of Indian Guides and Princesses is to foster a close association between father and child. There are lots of good children's programs but most meet after school when dad is working. They leave dad out of the picture.

"Dads can coach and lead groups of kids but it's good to have one program that encourages you and your son or daughter to get to know one another."

Jay Woodall, Postmaster of the U.S. Senate, is active in the program in Arlington. He emphasizes the importance of finding quality time for his daughter Christine, 8, and his son Andrew, 6, during their formative years. "You spend time with your son or daughter in this program and you communicate a clear, important message: 'I care.' " Woodall adds that the program is a natural for divorced dads, such as himself.

The YMCA also has a companion program for mothers and sons (called Y-Indian Braves) and for mothers and daughters (Y-Indian Maidens). The programs are just starting up in the Washington area.

What do moms think about Indian Guides and Indian Princesses? Renee Bliss of McLean is enthusiastic. Her husband Bob is active with their children Ryan, 8 and Lisa, 7. Little brother Nicholas, 4, will join next year. "Bob is busy with the kids in any event, but this gives him special time with each of them. The kids love the program and the time it gives them with Bob."

Diane Burgess of Great Falls agrees. Husband Tom is an attorney with the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission. He joined last year with daughter Shauna, 6. "I think the program is great. Tom spends good time with Shauna and she really looks forward to the meetings and outings. They have a good group of dads and girls in their tribe and they've had lots of fun this past year camping and fishing."

Diane recollects clipping out an article on the program and giving it to Tom. "Tom wasn't sure he wanted to join up with Shauna. Now he's glad he did. The program is just like they say. Both Tom and Shauna are having fun. I'm glad I clipped out the article and pushed them out the door. They're glad too." INDIAN GUIDANCE

For more information on Indian Guides and Indian Princesses, call the YMCAs listed below where there is an active program or go to one of the recruiting nights they are holding this month.

IN NORTHERN VIRGINIA

call the Fairfax County YMCA at 323-1222 or 323-0437. Recruitment meetings start at 7:30 P.M. and are for fathers and children (in contrast to Montgomery County where initial meetings are for dads only).

IN MONTGOMERY COUNTY

call the Upper Montgomery County YMCA in Gaithersburg, 948-9622. The Y has two informational cookouts for dads and kids. The first is for dads and daughters, on September 19 from 11 to 2 at Lake Needwood in Rockville. The second is for dads and sons and daughters; it will be September 26 from 3 to 6 PM at Woodley Gardens Park.

IN PRINCE GEORGE'S COUNTY

call the YMCA at 262-4342 or one of the dads who runs the program: Lt. Col. Norman Hansen at 262-2598 or Bill Hallau at 249-3662. Three recruiting nights are planned in the county. They are for dads and kids and start at 7: Bowie City Hall, September 22; Bowie Community Center, September 23; and South Bowie Community Center, September 24. In addition the YMCA is having a grand opening this Saturday at 10 of its new Community Service Center at 3501 Moyland Drive in Bowie. Stop by for information.

THE DISTRICT OF COLUMBIA

has no Indian Guides or Indian Princesses program at present, but dads in the District interested in the program should come with their kids to one of the recruiting meetings in Northern Virginia listed above. Father-son and father-daughter clubs or "tribes" are easy to start up; the dads in the program in Fairfax County have offered to help get the program up and running in the District. For additional information call 323-1222 or 323-0437.

THE YMCA

charges dues for the program that vary from county to county. In Fairfax County, for example, they are $40 per family per year. In addition there's an $8.25 initiation fee for first-year members. The dues cover a monthly newsletter and help pay for events such as the "Eagle feast" and camping fees.