Bird-watching. In 1991, more than 24 million Americans took field trips for the express purpose of watching wild birds. In general, bird-watching is not too vigorous, although the equipment — binoculars, cameras, tripods, zoom lenses, etc. — can get heavy after hours of walking. The amount of walking depends on the group and its goals, but almost all trips involve a fair amount of standing in one place to watch (or look for) birds.
The American Birding Association is the largest bird-watching organization in North America. Although they don’t run field trips themselves, they endorse tours run by operators who have a proven record of competence and quality. There are many tours to choose from, both nationally and internationally.
The National Audubon Society, an organization with 550,000 members, 508 chapters in the Americas, and 100 Audubon Sanctuaries and nature centers nationwide, organizes field trips through local chapters — many of which are open to nonmembers for a nominal charge — and guided bird-watching vacations through local chapters and the national organization. Call or visit their website to find a chapter near you.
Mall walking. Not ready for walking outdoors? Many of America’s shopping malls have organized walking clubs, and many open their doors early for walkers. It’s a great way to get out of the weather and away from traffic, and restrooms and water are never far away. Membership is usually free. You can find out more by stopping by the mall office or contacting them by phone.
(For some ideas on how to enjoy walking safely, see “Walking Tips.”)
Hiking is a lot like walking, only it’s done on more rugged terrain, often farther from civilization, and it often requires different footwear. It may also require a little more advance planning since hikers must be self-sufficient: There are no stores or vending machines to rely on in the woods. Hikers must carry diabetes supplies, water, and enough food for snacks, meals, and treating hypoglycemia — plus a little extra just in case. Still, virtually anyone can do it, and there are opportunities in all 50 states to hike. Many beginning hikers prefer to hike with a hiking club, for safety and camaraderie.
Hiking clubs generally offer outings for people of all fitness levels, and they rate their hikes by level of difficulty. If you’re not sure what hikes are best for you, someone at the club should be able to assist you. Most clubs charge nominal yearly fees, and almost all offer supervised hikes. Some clubs also offer weekend trips.
The American Hiking Society, a national nonprofit organization dedicated to promoting hiking and to establishing, protecting, and maintaining foot trails in America, publishes The National Directory of Trail Organizations, in which they list more than 1,500 trail organizations and agencies, from the large national organizations such as the Sierra Club to neighborhood hiking clubs. If you don’t already know of a local hiking club, this is a place to start looking.
Whether or not you seek out a hiking club, the U.S. National Park System, operated by the National Park Service, is a treasure of opportunities for hiking and other outdoor recreation. The park system comprises 384 areas covering more than 83 million acres in 49 States, the District of Columbia, American Samoa, Guam, Puerto Rico, Saipan, and the Virgin Islands.
Forestland in the United States is also a gold mine of opportunities for outdoor activities. More than 191 million acres of forests and grasslands are administered by the U.S. Forest Service throughout the United States.
If you prefer flat surfaces to inclines, you may be interested in walking or biking on one of the many abandoned railroad corridors that have been converted into public trails. Much of this work has been done by Rails-to-Trails Conservancy, a grassroots organization. Since the 1960’s, more than 15,000 miles of rail-trails have been created across the country, and as of September 2000, Rails-to-Trails Conservancy has identified more than 1,000 rail-trail routes. With at least one rail-trail in every state, there’s probably one near where you live.