Close-to-Home Outdoor Adventure Basics
I know many people would like to spend more time outdoors, but may not know where to start. Here are some of my favorite modes of outdoor exploration that doesn't require too much research and preparation. Use them to plan a quick weekend adventure or spice up a staycation.
Hiking is generally the easiest and cheapest way to spend time outdoors. Decide whether you want to go for a leisurely walk in the woods or take a strenuous hike to a scenic view. I typically like to get out for at least a few hours, making it worth my while to ready a backpack, carve time out of my day, and travel to a trailhead. On the other hand, if you're looking for a leisurely walk just to spend some time outdoors, you don't even need a hiking trail -- talk walk around the neighborhood or a nearby park.
But I have found it challenging to find what I consider a great hike. One of my favorites starts at a pond just off the Blue Ridge Parkway near Blowing Rock, North Carolina but there is limited parking (room for about 10 cars) and, as I recall, no signs indicating that a great hike is ahead. Friends took me there several years ago but it would be hard to find by consulting guidebooks or even official Parkway publications; my husband and I call it the Sims Creek hike but an Internet search made me realize that the official name is the Green Knob Trail.
Sims Pond -- start of Green Knob Trail
To discover the hike that is suited to your taste, do some investigation:
- Ask friends for recommendations. Consider whether they are casual day hikers or serious backpackers who spend days (and nights) in the wilderness. Give them an idea of what type of experience you hope to have, and get at least a couple of ideas.
- Consult the park ranger. I've had mostly good results with this approach but did get an odd and dangerous recommendation once to climb up sheer cliffs (this hike was to be appropriate for my children, who were 8 and 12 at the time; we opted for a non-straight-up adventure found at the trail site). Still, park employees should know the area well and be able to provide reasonable guidance; they can also tell you about any severe weather alerts, unusual activity in the area, and permits required to hike the trails.
- Visit an area that you know has hiking trails. Once you get to the area, examine maps of the trails to figure out what seems best to do that day.
- Search for hikes using a guidebook. This approach seems reasonable though I'd rather take a friend's advice as many guidebooks provide comprehensive listings with no photos, rather than specific trail recommendations. However, if you are familiar with an area, guidebooks can give you ideas for various types of outings.
- Find a trail using the Internet. Check out listings for state parks and national parks; or read blogs by hikers to get practical advice.
Pay attention to signs. I know that sounds obvious but I've also noticed that sometimes hikers overlook the obvious: they don't see warning signs; or they miss trail directions and mileages. Also, watch out for trail blazes (often spray-painted dots with different colors indicating different trails) that mark directions.
Gear for hiking is pretty simple:
- hiking boots or sneakers with a decent tread
- backpack to carry water, snacks, and personal items such as keys, phones, and camera
- walking stick (optional) for rugged areas
Getting on the water typically requires more planning and money for gear, unless you can borrow equipment or happen to own your own boat (which, if you do, you probably won't need this article).
Finding a place to go canoeing (or kayaking or tubing) is usually easier than locating a hiking trail. Ask friends for recommendations, or do an Internet search for specific bodies of water and/or canoe-kayak outfitters that provide gear and transportation for trips (that is search for "New River outfitters" or "canoe outfitters North Georgia"). I'll mention that the some of the best outfitters have the worst websites (as many of them have been operating for years before the Internet came along), so a phone call can be helpful to make an evaluation. In my experience, all outfitters and guides will require you to sign a release and waiver of liability; most have general forms with vague references to danger but some list specific items that they are not responsible for so pay attention to those hazards.
The New River in North Carolina
Ask friends and/or outfitters about:
- water levels (Some rivers are so deep that you can't touch bottom with the oar; these are pretty easy to navigate. Others, though, are rocky and shallow; these can be tricky to navigate and tiresome if you keep getting stuck on rocks.)
- danger areas (None of the rivers I've traveled to have had any major danger areas but it might be helpful to ask about rapids or sudden drop-offs.)
- mileage and average time of trip (Outfitters should be able to give you approximate times for various trips.)
- put-in and take-out locations (You'll enter the water at put-in sites and get out of the water at take-out locations. Outfitters may shuttle you to a put-in spot and then you'll finish at the outfitter's location on the river; or you might start at the outfitter's site and then get picked up at a designated location.)
- timing of transportation (Some trips leave at designated times or pick up at certain times; others adjust to your schedule).
Gear for a river or lake trip:
- boat or float (canoe, kayak, tube)
- PFD (personal floatation device)
- river shoes (you can buy special shoes made for water sports or use an old pair of sneakers)
I've had more experience canoeing on rivers in the southern USA but have enjoyed lake canoeing in Minnesota. There, my husband and I rented canoes, got a lesson in portaging, and traveled using a map and compass; we started and ended at the same point on the lake, give or take a few yards.
Bicycling, like hiking, can be done nearly anywhere there is a road or suitable trail. For a vacation-like day for someone relatively new to bicycling trips, a multi-use trail and roads in no- or low-traffic areas are ideal. A city, state, or national park may be a great place to ride as are rails-to-trails trails. As with hiking, friends may offer the best recommendations.
What to consider when planning a bicycling trip:
- Figure out whether you can bring your own bikes or if renting a bike might be a better choice. Check out rental bikes to make sure you get the right size and that gears and brakes work correctly. Also ask if rentals include shuttles or if you can ride from the rental shop to your trail.
- Descriptions of low traffic can be subjective; for example, I have participated in rides that advertised low-traffic roads but still included state highways. Also main trails may have no traffic but connectors may allow car traffic.
- There may be few if any services (restrooms, clean water stops, convenience stores) on some trails so bring your own supplies; and some services that are available during high season may not be available during the off season, so call and ask before you make your trip.
Along the Virginia Creeper Trail, part of the Rails-to-Trails network
For all outings:
- Start early. There are a few reasons to get going as early as possible: you can get to your starting point early and have lunch during a break rather than either starting hungry or delaying the official start of your outing with time for lunch. An earlier start typically means less time in hot weather, less threat of thunderstorms, and a finish well before sundown.
- Bring plenty of water. One of the biggest safety threats on an outdoor adventure, especially an outing that lasts for several hours, is dehydration. Drink before you go and carry water; but note that water in backpacks is extremely heavy.
- Pack some snacks, enough for you, your family, and a few other people.
- Wear a hat. A hat can protect against sunburn and ticks.
- Carry sunscreen. You'll want to protect your skin, especially on days that you'll be outside for long periods of time. Bring for-babies sunscreen for your face, so that sweat and water mixed with sunscreen doesn't burn your eyes.
- Bring a watch or some sort of time-telling device (like a cell phone). I like knowing how long I've been traveling so I know when I need to turn back or hurry up, and can avoid getting caught in a situation where I'm lost in the woods, for example, at night.
- Pack a towel and extra set of clothes, which are handy if you get caught in a storm or happen to get wet.
- Realize that cell phone coverage is unreliable in remote areas and searching for a signal can wear down the phone's battery; two-way radios can be handy in such a situation.
- Remember to have fun even if your adventure doesn't go just as smoothly as you imagined it would.