Summertime — and the camping is easy. Or so it will be for the 40 First-Time Camper families who will win a free camping weekend this summer at a Maine state park.

For the third year, the First-Time Camper program, run by the Maine Bureau of Parks and Lands, under the Maine Department of Conservation, will offer Maine families, who never have camped, the opportunity to make special memories and to enjoy some of the best recreation that Maine has to offer.

Registration for the raffle program began Thursday, April 1. This year, the number of families winning the weekend raffle has been increased from 32 to 40, according to BPL officials. Camping opportunities also have been increased from eight campgrounds to all 12 of the Maine state park campgrounds.

Best of all, one lucky family out of the 40 chosen at random again will win a complete set of camping gear donated by L.L.Bean, one of five top sponsors of this year’s program. The other sponsors are: Hannaford, Poland Spring Water, Wicked Joe Coffee and Oakhurst Dairy.

“We are delighted to be able to offer this outstanding program for the third year,” Commissioner Eliza Townsend of the Maine Department of Conservation said. “It is now a program with proven results. The First-Time Camper families who participate in this great camping experience continue to go camping. This is the best kind of inexpensive and fun recreation, and it’s right in your own backyard.”

“It’s important to get families back to doing that traditional Maine memory-building experience -— camping together in a state park,” said Will Harris, BPL director. “Camping together reconnects kids and families to the outdoors. It reminds us of the beautiful places we have here in Maine, and it’s a great, affordable way to have fun.”

Harris noted another significant reason for the program. “It’s also very important to get children and young people experiencing the outdoors,” he said. “They are the future stewards of our Maine lands and they need to learn the value of conserving them for succeeding generations.”

The First-Time Camper program is part of the “Take It Outside” initiative begun by Gov. John E. Baldacci. Because the camping weekends are being offered at all Maine state park campgrounds, this year’s winning families will be able to experience a wide variety of camping locations, said Gary Best, BPL assistant state park regional manager, who oversees the program.

“We’re very excited about the third year of the First-Time Camper program because we’re expanding it for more families and more locations,” Best said. “This year it ranges from family camping at Sebago Lake State Park to camping on an island in the Penobscot Bay at Warren Island. There’s a great diversity of camping experience.”

As with last year, families must be from Maine and never before have camped, Best explained. They will be able to register on line or by paper form available from the BPL. Registration ends on May 31, and the winning families will be contacted by telephone in mid-June.

The lucky 40 families this year will be able to choose a weekend of camping, which will start on the weekend of July 10 and run to the weekend of Aug. 6. They also will choose one of the 12 state campgrounds, Best said. Each family will be supported throughout their camping weekend so they can learn all the basics, he said.

Once the camping family is selected, they will receive a welcome packet with their reservation and a $50 gift certificate from Hannaford Supermarkets to help them stock up on food for the weekend. On arriving Friday afternoon, they will be greeted by park staff and issued their camping equipment, from tent to mess kit.

Each family also will receive four sleeping bags, which they may keep, Best said. In addition, each family will receive a bag of Wicked Joe “Maine State Park Coffee” and water from Poland Spring, he said.

After being shown their camp site, the families will receive help getting oriented and setting up. Each park also will provide various programs and activities on those weekends, whether it is a nature program at the Mt. Blue Nature Center or going crabbing at Warren Island, Best pointed out.

“There truly, truly is something for everyone,” he said.

Each family is asked to fill out a survey after their experience, and the survey is used as their entry for the drawing of the grand prize.

The surveys also have shown the success of the program, Best said. Last year, 50 percent of the families said they wouldn’t have tried camping without the program. “One-hundred percent said they would continue camping, and we’re seeing some of them making reservations this year,” he said.

“Last year, many of the families shared their photos of their experiences, and it was wonderful to see all the smiling faces and the people having fun,” Best said.

For more information, go to: parksandlands.com.

VillageSoup sports staff can be reached at 207-594-4401 or by e-mail at sports@villagesoup.com.