The official start of summer is but four days away. School's out (or almost), pool's open, and there are vital, vital things you must know to face the season fully prepared. About tomatoes and hats and Toxicodendron radicans, too. Fortunately, it's all right here: 12 tips and essential skills for the sultry months to come.

SURVIVE A TRIP WITH THE KIDS

Obviously, the answer to this one is simple: Don't go. Any parent knows that the quickest route to madness is an interstate, a traffic jam and offspring in the back seat squaring off over a territorial divide more fiercely guarded than the Korean DMZ.

But the beach beckons, the mountains call, Cinderella is waving from the Magic Kingdom -- a family road trip is in the offing. What's a parent to do?

Typing "travel with kids" into my Web browser, I got 77 million (or so) potential answers to this question, and if there is a single point on which 76,999,999 of them appear to agree, it would be this one: snacks. Snacks, snacks, snacks and more snacks. I found more tips, tricks and tidbits on the topic of filling seat-belted bellies than you can shake a pretzel stick at. Never mind the obesity crisis, when it comes to the under-18 crowd and an extended stint in a four-wheeled enclosure, caloric pacification is the policy.

"Remember, kids can't shout while they're busy drinking and eating," says Edmunds.com succinctly in "Top 10 Family Road Trip Must-Haves."

Packing your own munchies preempts the youngsters' plaintive cries for funnel cakes and fast food; offer them a portion of the money saved for their own vacation spending.

Finally, if you're eyeing your overstuffed auto and debating between an extra pair of underwear and an extra bag of chips, consider this advice from IndependentTraveler.com:

"Whatever you were planning on bringing in the way of snacks -- double it."

For these and a few more of those 77 million ideas for making your family journey a coalition of the willing, try these resources:

INDEPENDENTTRAVELER.COM -- www.independenttraveler.com/resources/article.cfm?AID=334&category=2.

EDMUNDS.COM -- www.edmunds.com/reviews/list/top10/103117/article.html.

EHOW.COM -- www.ehow.com/how_2873_travel-with-kids.html.

GO.COM -- familyfun.go.com/family-travel.

GRILL A BURGER

"What is important to me is the fat and lean beef ratio," says Jonathan Partin, chef for Sunnyside Farms in Virginia, whose Famous Rest Stop in Sperryville grills up organic burgers by the hundreds on busy weekends. "The fat makes a better burger; it makes it juicier, and it adds more flavor. For the burger barn, the company grinds an 80 percent lean to 20 percent fat grind."

For Partin's perfect burger:

1. "Make sure the patty is fairly flat -- I like to mold it until it's 1/2- to 3/4-inch thick."

2. Refrigerate a few hours or overnight. "That helps maintain the shape when it goes on the grill."

3. Sprinkle five parts kosher salt to one part freshly ground pepper just before the burger goes on the grill.

4. Cook on a hot grill, flipping regularly. "An eight-inch burger on a hot grill should take about six minutes for a medium burger. Constantly turning is the trick for us -- you cook it evenly and consistently."

5. Add bun and condiments. "I like Dijon mustard, Tabasco sauce and a good cheddar cheese."

SUNNYSIDE FARMS FAMOUS REST STOP -- Routes 211 and 522 in Sperryville, Va. 540-987-3600. www.sunnysidefarms.com/organic/rest.htm.

PICK A HAT

Sure, the dermatologists say you need a proper topper to keep the sun off, but have you ever noticed how the wrong headgear can turn a styling look into pure dork? For hat-picking wisdom, I sought out Jenny Seth, buyer for Hats in the Belfry, with locations in Annapolis and Baltimore (as well as in Philadelphia and Destin, Fla., and online at www.hatsinthebelfry.com).

"What will look good on you depends on things like your height and the shape of your face," Seth says. "Trying on a lot of hats is the way to go to see which looks great." If you're short, for example, steer clear of the wide brim -- unless sun protection is your main aim, in which case fashion be damned and your skin will thank you later.

Hats in the Belfry carries some 1,500 different hats, Seth says. "We can steer you in all kinds of directions, which is why we have so many." For that unforgettable look that makes a poolside splash, for example, you might consider the metal Viking helmet ("due to its weight, there will be extra shipping cost," so Web site says). Feeling young again? Try the propeller beanie. And there's always that tasteful classic, the two-can-capacity "beer buddy" drink hat, complete with drinking tube. I suppose it's too much to hope that any of these are the ones Seth means when she says, "We have hats that we sell hundreds of every season with a basic brim size that looks good on pretty much everyone."

If you must be serious (sure you can't be tempted by the Glitter Carmen Miranda hat? Very seasonal), for pool or beach, Seth suggests "more durable straw or cotton, something packable that can take getting wet." For making the scene around town, "we might suggest a toyo hat -- it looks almost like straw, but you can dye them to match anything, so we color lots of different shapes and sizes in toyo." Also, "Seersucker is huge again this year." Or you can make like Britney Spears, who popped into Seth's Florida store for a pink cowboy hat.

If sun protection is your goal, Seth says, "You want a fabric with a tight weave, one that the sun won't go through that also looks good with your face." That is, if you can bear to pass up the Flappy the Flying Chicken baseball cap.

BUILD A SAND CASTLE

Forget packing sand in a plastic bucket. It all starts with pancakes.

Lucinda "Sandy Feet" Wierenga, former English teacher, author of "Sandcastles Made Simple" (Stewart, Tabori and Chang) and a serious contender on the international sand-sculpting circuit (yes, there is an international sand-sculpting circuit -- you can see Wierenga's prizewinning entry in last year's Virginia Beach Neptune Festival at www.neptunefestival.com/2004sandcastle winners.htm) shares the scoop on the art of building your own castle in the sand:

1. "Dig a hole by the water's edge down to the water table. Mix up the sand and water really well in the bottom -- most people don't realize how much water you'll need -- and then scoop up big handfuls of the wet sand."

2. Slap the handfuls one atop the other like very sloppy pancakes. "Stacked sand is happy sand."

3. When you have a heap of sand high enough to suit your inner Frank Lloyd Wright, start carving. "Carving tools don't have to be fancy expensive things. Bring old kitchen knives, putty knives, trowels. Then you will want a scooping tool -- a spoon, a melon baller, something that has the round curve to it. Also, something you could cut a groove with, like a fork with just one tine, for drawing surface details."

4. "To build the kind of castle that people will stop and notice, plan to spend two to three hours. And don't forget the sunscreen."

Lucinda Wierenga's Web site is www.sandyfeet.com. "Sandcastles Made Simple" as well as professional carving tools are available online at the Sons of the Beach at www.sobshop.com.

ROAST A MARSHMALLOW

Let's get this straight right off the bat -- that whole stick-and-fire routine is so, like, over.

That's what your mother did at camp in the Eisenhower era. This is the 21st century, baby. We're talking environmental enlightenment. We're talking zero-emission, reduce, reuse, recycle. We're talking -- you guessed it -- solar-powered marshmallow roaster.

The roaster, promises Simon Quellen Field on his Web site Scitoys.com, "is not just a fun toy, but a toy that teaches important scientific principles." And it will torch a marshmallow faster than you can say "S'mores."

Field is a senior software engineer for Google, and he's the author of "Gonzo Gizmos: Projects & Devices to Channel Your Inner Geek," and president and chief executive of his own company, Kinetic MicroScience, a science toys business. An inventor since childhood ("some of the fires and explosions are undoubtedly repressed memories"), Field offers projects on his Web site from "fun with high voltage" to "a film can cannon." And then there's the marshmallow roaster.

It's constructed from a cardboard box lined with aluminum foil, a flat plastic page magnifier, glue, tape and a skewer to hold the marshmallow (illustrated instructions are online at www.scitoys.com/scitoys/scitoys/light/marshmallows/solar_roaster.html). You could whip a roaster together in 15 minutes, easy. It is likely that interest in eating the marshmallows will take a distant second to interest in seeing how quickly they can be carbonized.

"Most marshmallow toasters are borderline pyromaniacs," agrees Field happily. "But once surrounded by chocolate and graham crackers, the taste of charcoal is barely discernable."

CHOOSE A BEACH READ

You think you know the answer to this one. Paperback, with the author's name in typeface larger and more prominent than the title, and featuring any of the following: hard-boiled cops, high-heeled schemers, sinister conspiracies, sweeping sagas, monstrous evil, feisty heroines or things that go bump in the night. Right?

As it turns out, not everyone wants to check their brains at the time-share door. An utterly unscientific survey of booksellers Olsson's in Old Town Alexandria and Booksandcoffee in Dewey Beach, Del., (get that "sand" in the middle of the name?) reveals, to the contrary, that plenty of us are plumping for leisure reading we'd be willing to admit to should we bump into that senior-year English teacher on the boardwalk. (Hang on, why is she looking so shifty? Is that a Nora Roberts book poking out of her beach bag?)

"Most people want light reading," says manager Terry Lake at Booksandcoffee. "They are coming in looking for a good mystery, a fun story." Yet, she says, "already, David McCullough's '1776' is a huge seller. I'm finding that when people are stacking up on their beach books, that is usually in the stack."

More yin and yang of summer reading? "James Patterson's '4th of July,' that's already big," says Lake, but she's expecting strong sales also for Thomas L. Friedman's "The World Is Flat" and the paperback release of Bill Clinton's "My Life" ("Of course, he's added more material, as if he needed to.")

Meanwhile in Old Town, buyer Jim Hardcastle says that even if it's a vacation read, "you don't want to give them something they're going to be insulted by. We spend some time getting to know what a customer is interested in -- maybe not Plato, but something that is going to make them think a little bit, even if it's 98 percent entertaining."

For an example, he cites Elmore Leonard. "We love him; we sell the heck out of him." The author's latest, "The Hot Kid," Hardcastle says, "that's probably going to keep selling all summer." And? "It's a book that won't make you feel like you need to take a bath after you read it."

BOOKSANDCOFFEE -- 113 Dickinson St., Dewey Beach, Del. 302-226-9959. www.Booksandcoffee.com.

OLSSON'S-OLD TOWN ALEXANDRIA -- 106 S. Union St. 703-684-0077. www.olssons.com.

TAKE A TUBING TRIP

Butts Tubes, just outside Harpers Ferry, W.Va, has been conducting tubing trips on the Potomac since 1982. "For our clientele from Northern Virginia, Baltimore and D.C., it's a good stress-release day, a way to get out of the city, away from all the hustle and bustle and traffic, and have a good time with friends." says general manager Timothy Main.

Main's advice on how to enjoy a float on the river:

1. "Wear anything but cotton." Bathing suit, polypropylene, even fleece (that water can be chilly!).

2. Wear protective footwear such as aqua shoes or sandals that strap on. "You are dealing with a natural environment here, not King's Dominion."

3. Use a vest-style Class III personal flotation device such as you might wear when canoeing or kayaking -- check the label for the class designation.

4. Wear sunscreen and a hat.

5. Start early. "The earlier the better -- 10 or 10:30 so you're not in the afternoon sun."

6. Use a good tube. "You want a tube that floats you -- it should be something more durable than the standard discount-store pool inner tube."

7. Float feet first. "That way you can use your feet to fend off rocks or logs" or anything that might pop your tube.

8. Have fun. "We try to make the trip at least two hours long, but most people go out and turn it into about 31/2 hours, hanging out on the rocks and playing."

BUTTS TUBES -- 10985 Harpers Ferry Rd., Loudoun Heights, Va. 800-836-9911. www.buttstubes.com. Early bird special: $13 per person daily before 11 includes basic black tube, life jacket, and drop-off and pickup shuttle. After 11, $17 on weekdays and $19 on weekends. Prices include a $1 user fee. Deluxe tubes and cooler floats available for an additional fee.

PREPARE FOR POISON IVY

If poison ivy had a theme song, it would be Blondie's "One Way or Another" ("I'm gonna find ya, I'm gonna get ya, get ya, get ya, get ya"). Appearing in more guises than Ruth Reichl in her restaurant reviewing days, poison ivy can variously manifest itself "as a groundcover or small bush in woods, fields, at the edges of openings and trails, and pretty much everywhere else," advise Daniel Goerlich and Joyce Latimer in the Virginia Cooperative Extension's Publication Number 426-509, or "as a vine that climbs on trees, barns and fences." And "the edges of the leaflets don't always look the same. They might be smooth, or they could have teeth. The leaflet surface can be many different shades of green and appear glossy, dull or in between," write the authors.

But do try to avoid it.

Or not. "I've had it so many times that it's just become a part of my life," admits Goerlich, a Virginia agriculture and natural resources extension agent based in Halifax County. "It actually looks quite different depending on the soils, the amount of light and various things like that." Even that familiar adage "Leaves of three, leave them be" is misleading. "It's actually a misnomer," Goerlich says. "They are actually three leaflets that make up a leaf."

The active ingredient in poison ivy (Toxicodendron radicans) is urushiol, an oily resin that awaits the least insult to be all over you like white on rice. "If it's crushed, broken, run over with a lawnmower, stepped on, rolled on by a pet -- when it's damaged, that's how the toxin gets on you," Goerlich says.

Urushiol is persistent, too, which is why you can pick it up months later from a garden tool or that sweatshirt that went unwashed after your last camping trip. Exposure to the resin for as little as five minutes, Goerlich says, can be enough to deliver you into itching misery. It is not true, however, that scratching your poison ivy rash will spread it. If that's any consolation.

There are various purported poison-ivy repellants commercial and anecdotal to be found out there, but Goerlich favors the simple expedient of covering up. "If you know you are going to be working or exploring in an area with poison ivy, go with gloves, long-sleeve shirt and long pants, and hopefully that will protect your skin." Wash thoroughly with soap and cool water as soon as possible after any suspected exposure.

If you get the rash anyway, over-the-counter itch remedies will ease you through the roughly two weeks it takes to run its course. More extreme cases may require a doctor's attention.

Still, Goerlich admits, there was that time he was doing outdoor cleanup among the urushiol before his own wedding. "It got on the shirt and sweated right through it. That was one of the worst cases I've ever gotten."

For more on poison ivy identification and self-protection, visit:

VIRGINIA COOPERATIVE EXTENSION -- www.ext.vt.edu/pubs/envirohort/426-109/426-109.html.

FAIRFAX COUNTY -- www.co.fairfax.va.us/nvswcd/newsletter/poisonivy.htm.

GROW A BETTER TOMATO

There should be a name for the particular kind of madness that strikes some of us every summer, a raving, unslakable desire that flares during those all-too-brief weeks when tomatoes come in season. Solanaceaemania?

For the tomato-crazed comes the news that John Teasdale and Aref Abdul-Baki, plant physiologists for the U.S. Department or Agriculture, have developed and refined a system for growing tomatoes that the USDA's Web site (www.ars.usda.gov/is/tom/tomato3.htm) bills as a "grow-your-own organic mulch system . . . rewarding many who try it with more fruit of a higher quality for considerably less work."

The secret, it seems, is hairy vetch.

Not a minor character in the latest "Star Wars" installment, but rather a legume, hairy vetch seems to be a one-plant tomato-patch improvement plan. According to Abdul-Baki, who works in the USDA's Sustainable Agriculture Systems Lab in Beltsville, hairy vetch "reduces weed population, holds moisture in the soil, reduces soil erosion, takes gaseous nitrogen in the air and converts it into nitrogen that can be used by the plants, and adds organic matter to improve the soil."

Hairy vetch, the USDA Web site says, can help you "grow tomatoes like never before."

Okay, I'm game. What do I do? First, it seems I will have to exercise patience and wait for next year's crop to see results. Abdul-Baki explains:

1. In late September, purchase hairy vetch seed and a packet of rhizobium (a friendly bacteria that fixes nitrogen in the roots of your vetch) at a seed-supply store such as Southern States.

2. At home, mix one spoonful of pancake syrup with 10 spoons of water. Put three spoonfuls of this mix in a plastic bag, add vetch seeds, shake well, add rhizobium and shake well again.

3. Plant vetch seed in prepared tomato beds. It will put down roots and grow several inches before real cold sets in. When the soil warms again in spring, the vetch gets going. "In April and May, it grows like crazy and produces all the vegetation you need to mulch your tomatoes."

4. In May, pull all the vetch. Plant tomato seedlings and layer the uprooted vetch around them, pressing lightly into the soil.

5. Tend as usual. Harvest. Feast.

For a free, downloadable, detailed brochure, visit www.ars.usda.gov/is/np/tomatoes.html.

STIR UP SOME SWEET TEA

South of the Mason-Dixon line, nothing says "summer" quite like a tall, ice-cold glass of sweet tea, what writer John T. Edge in the cookbook "A Gracious Plenty" (Putnam) calls "the house wine of the South."

At Flavors Soul Food in Falls Church, owner Francine Helton brews sweet tea by the gallon -- but only on weekends, mind you. For those thirsty weekdays, then, try Helton's sweet-tea technique at home.

1. Stir sugar into lukewarm water. "You use tepid water so it will dissolve well." How much sugar is a matter of personal preference. "Start with a little less sugar and then you can sweeten to taste."

2. Add about six tea bags per quart of water.

3. Steep. "The longer you let it steep, the stronger it is. When I make it here, I make it overnight. If you want to put it out in the sun for three to four hours, it makes delicious tea."

4. Pour over ice. "Then add lemon or fresh mint if you want."

5. Sip. Savor. "That's Southern sweet tea."

FLAVORS SOUL FOOD -- 3420 Carlyn Hill Dr., Falls Church. 703-379-4411. www.flavorssoulfood.com.

PACK A PICNIC

Fresh air and food pair so nicely. But the cardinal rule of picnics, as I see it, is that they shouldn't take longer to prepare than you spend enjoying them.

Enter the wonders of gourmet takeout. Sidney Trond, owner of Gourmet by the Bay in St. Michaels, Md., greets hundreds of hungry bay vacationers on busy weekends. She knows from making picnics. For the perfect light fare on a warm summer evening, Trond might recommend "soft cheeses, one hard cheese and some fresh-baked bread," she says. Also, "One of my favorite things would be a nice, fresh chilled gazpacho or chilled cucumber soup."

Add something sweet, Trond says -- "some home-made cookies or brownies or fresh-baked pastry." For drinks, "In the heat of the summer, it's important to have a really nice chilled wine, a bottle of French lemonade -- we have a sparkling French lemonade called Efferve that's not real sweet or tart -- or sparkling water."

All right, but what if your picnic is taking you off the beaten path -- on a mountain hike or a day-long paddle, where chilled soups and tarte tatin might not travel so well? Are we doomed to four-to-a-dollar noodle soup and pack-flattened chocolate bars?

Nay, say Christine and Tim Conners, authors of "Lipsmackin' Backpackin' " and "Lipsmackin' Vegetarian Backpackin' " (Globe Pequot Press). "A delicious meal at the end of a hard day is critical to a back-country trip, as it rewards and replenishes both the body and the spirit," Christine Conners says. "Nowadays, it's easy to find a large number of pre-dried ingredients, which can be combined together to create a variety of tasty meals." Examples? How about honey, butter, yogurt and even wine? Yes, powdered vino. Not featured in "Sideways."

Say you are weary, footsore, miles from the nearest Starbucks and in serious need of a java jolt. Be your own backwoods barista with this Lightning Coffee recipe from the Connerses:

1. At home, place 20 hard peppermint candies in a resealable plastic bag, close and gently hammer candies into small chips.

2. Mix candy chips, 1/2 cup Kava instant coffee and 1/2 cup Carnation malted milk powder in a new, quart-size zipper bag.

3. To prepare, boil one cup of water per serving.

4. Pour water into mugs, add three tablespoons of mix to each cup and stir.

BATTLE MOSQUITOES

Two words: Stay indoors.

But if you really must go out between now and the first frost, keep this cheery thought in mind, brought to you courtesy of Cyrus Lesser, chief of the Mosquito Control Section of the Maryland Department of Agriculture: "Mosquitoes have adapted to be very quick feeders. Within a few seconds after they start biting, if they are carrying a parasite that can cause human disease, that pathogen will be injected into the bloodstream."

There are more than 60 species of mosquitoes in Maryland. One Eastern Shore mosquito count yielded an estimated "3 to 4 million per acre," Lesser says.

That citronella candle ("not very viable as a mosquito repellant," Lesser says) is starting to look pretty much like a flimsy defense, now, isn't it? A better strategy for banning the biters:

1. Avoid mosquito-infested areas.

2. Avoid being outdoors without adequate protection in peak hours -- dawn and dusk (though the invasive, West Nile virus-carrying Asian tiger mosquitoes are happy to bite you any time of day).

3. Wear protective clothing -- hat, gloves, long sleeves, long pants.

4. Wear repellant. "The most effective contain DEET. If used properly, they will prevent the bites," Lesser says.

5. Get rid of stagnant water, where mosquitoes like to breed.

On the bright side, "Each mosquito takes about a millionth of your blood, so it would take about a million to drain you."

For more on mosquitoes from the Maryland Department of Agriculture, visit www.mda.state.md.us/plants-pests/mosquito_control/index.php.

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Caroline Kettlewell is the author, most recently, of "Electric Dreams" (Carroll & Graf) and a regular contributor to The Washington Post. You can find her online at www.carolinekettlewell.com.