In anticipation of this year’s camping season, the Maine Bureau of Parks and Lands (BPL), under the Maine Department of Conservation, again is offering its First-Time Campers raffle program to Maine residents who want to try their hand at camping, the Village Soup Belfast reported.

Now in its fourth year, the First-Time Campers program will randomly select 44 Maine families to win a free weekend of camping this summer at one of 11 Maine state park campgrounds. The raffle is open only to Maine families who have never before gone camping. Each selected family will get the free use of camping equipment, receive gifts from sponsors and be supported throughout the weekend by park staff.

This year, the number of selected families has been increased, according to BPL officials. One of those families also will be the grand-prize recipient of a $1,000 gift certificate from the program’s major sponsor, L.L.Bean.

“In our fourth year, we are really pleased with the response Mainers have given this program,” Will Harris, BPL director, said. “We’re glad we can expand it. This program exemplifies the best of what Maine has to offer its citizens for recreation. We hope they take advantage of it for years to come, because it teaches them how to have fun outdoors.”

“We really want to get people out to enjoy Maine’s parks, so they get to experience what the state of Maine has to offer,” said Park Manager Andy Haskell of Sebago Lake State Park, who this year is organizing the BPL program. “We really want people to leave the technology, computers, and TVs behind and get out and enjoy nature. There’s so much benefit to camping. It’s about making family memories, and it’s also good for the soul.”

The program, part of BPL’s “Take It Outside” initiative, is designed to encourage Maine families to experience the fun and rewards of summer camping at Maine state park campgrounds. This year, the program is sponsored by L.L.Bean, Kittery Trading Post, Coleman, Hannaford, Oakhurst Dairy, Wicked Joe Coffee and Poland Springs.

Each year since its inception in 2008, the program has grown not only in the number of families who enter the raffle, but also, fortunately, in the number of lucky families who are selected for the free weekend of camping at a state park campground of their choice. Haskell pointed out the number of selected families has increased from 32 in 2008 to 44 for this year.

“This is such a popular program,” Haskell said. “I’m really glad we can expand it to as many people as possible.”

The park manager said the First-Time Camper program clearly is successful, as many of the families later make reservations at the state park campgrounds. They also become familiar with the state parks and return for day use.

Haskell said he has worked each of the past four years with First-Time Camper families, and “they very much appreciate the help and guidance we provide.”

“The families are helped, and they come to see that they can do this,” he said, about the camping experience. “They know we are there to help them and to give them confidence to do it themselves.”

One family last year made return reservations within a month after their First-Time Campers weekend, Haskell said. He also recalled a single mom and her son who won a weekend of camping.

“Without this program, she never would have tried this, and she discovered that campers help each other,” Haskell said. “They met other campers who also helped them out. The program made it so she said, ‘I will do this again.’ ”

Raffle applications are available online and at Maine state parks. They will be accepted from April 1 through May 31. The recipient families will be chosen in a random drawing on June 3, with the families notified the week of June 6. There will be four weekends of camping from which the lucky winners can choose, from July 15-16 to Aug. 5-6.

The state park campgrounds include: Bradbury Mountain, Pownal; Rangeley Lake, Rangeley; Aroostook, Presque Isle; Camden Hills, Camden; Sebago Lake, Naples; Mt. Blue, Weld; Cobscook Bay, Edmunds Township; Lamoine, Ellsworth; Peaks-Kenny, Dover-Foxcroft; Lily Bay, Beaver Cove; and Lake St. George, Liberty

Each family will receive camping equipment they can use for the weekend, plus four sleeping bags which they can keep. They also receive gift certificates and food items for the weekend from program sponsors.

Activities and programs will be held at each participating state park campground, Haskell said. Park staff help the families set up camp and learn basic camping techniques. “We also make a point of checking on the First-Time Campers and offer help throughout the weekend,” the park manager said.

“There’s no question we intend it to be a life-changing experience for our First-Time Campers,” Haskell said. “It gives them another avenue so when they’re thinking about outdoor recreation, they know they can go camping.”

For more information about the First-Time Campers program or to get an application, call Andy Haskell, park manager, Sebago Lake State Park, at: (207) 693-6231 or go online to take-it-outside.com.

For more information about Maine state parks and historic sites, go online at parksandlands.com.