Walks aren't just a three-season treat. Take one in winter and discover the joy of a brisk stretch of the legs -- and the mind.
When winter rolls around, some of us retreat to the comfortable indoors. Challenge the natural urge to hibernate with an invigorating walk in the great outdoors. If it's cold where you live, bundle up and go for a family walk. If the ground is blanketed in white, do it in snowshoes. You'll discover that winter's a wonderful season in which to be active.
Walking gets your moving parts moving. Walking stimulates your metabolism, which means you burn calories. Regular 30- to 60-minute walks can bring reduced risk of heart disease, type II diabetes, and breast and colon cancer. No less a thinker than Aristotle taught his students while walking -- his followers were called "peripatetic," meaning "walking about." He believed that walking stimulated the mind and enhanced learning. It's a healthy, smart habit to bequeath to your kids, and it's just plain feel-good togetherness fun.
Part of the fun and novelty of a winter walk is enjoying the change of season. Another important part is enjoying a change of scenery. Jump in the car and go somewhere you and the kids haven't seen before. It doesn't need to be far away. It just needs to offer an invitation to explore.
Nature never disappoints. Maybe you're in the mood for critter-watching -- or listening. If so, winter in the woods, or somewhere safe and away from development, holds plenty of activity for the observant eye. Beyond the general impression of silence, there's a lot of natural noise going on. Get your ears attuned to the quiet, and suddenly you'll discover a lot to listen to. Depending on where you live, you might see and/or hear birds, deer, and squirrels on their daily quest for food and water. Conifers are still green; take a tree-identification book and find out what kind of evergreens you're looking at. City, county, state, and national parks often have marked walking/nature trails. Even if the trails are snow-covered, passing through woods on a winter's day rejuvenates the spirit.
Try snowshoeing! If you can walk, you can snowshoe. If you don't own snowshoes, you can get buy a pair online by doing a keyword search on "snowshoes" in a search engine. Many backpacking stores carry snowshoes and might even rent you a pair if you're not sure you want to invest yet. Snowshoes distribute your weight over a wide area of ribbing so that you don't sink into the snow; some people also use ski poles for support. With a pole in either hand, you can get a real stride going and cover ground where you'd otherwise be up to your knees in powder or slush. To get you started, the Mt. Washington Ski Touring and Snowshoe Center Web site provides information on basic snowshoeing technique. As their experts explain, snowshoeing is like walking with big feet -- so get out there and try it. If it's allowed in the spot where you try the sport and if it's safe to do so, try snowshoeing under a full moon. There's nothing like quietly clomping your way across a snow-covered field lit up by a shining moon. Always check in at a trailhead or otherwise let someone know when you're venturing out.
Historic spots make for historic walks. Your walks don't always have to be nature-centered. Taking a walk around a historic site gets your legs and your mind going. Check a map, search on the Internet, or call a local historical society to find the names and locations of historically significant spots in your area. If you live in a history-rich area, make a treasure hunt day of finding as many historical landmarks as you can. Or just choose one that has great walking potential and spend time luxuriating there in the feeling of the past. Whether it's a battlefield, original settlement, or old graveyard, historic areas take on meaning when you find out what happened on that spot and tread the same ground. Graveyards can be especially fascinating and evocative. Walk around reading the inscriptions on old gravestones and imagine the lives led by early settlers who lived and died in your area. This is also a lovely way to teach your kids to be respectful of cemeteries and the lives of the many buried there.
To find a registered historic landmark, check out the National Historic Landmarks Web site. On the right-hand side of the home page, under Quick Links, click on "Search for an NHL." You'll be able to search a database of 2,500 gems to find sites in your state or any town you desire.
Main Street is a main attraction. Somewhere not too far away is an old town with a main street. Walking the length of any Main Street, USA -- a place with roots that go farther back than the dawning of the strip mall -- can be a revelation for kids and adults. You might discover a soda fountain where you can sit on stools at an old-fashioned counter and connect as a family over malted milkshakes. Maybe there's a hardware store where you can show your kids things you won't find in the aisles of the local home center warehouse. Old-time department stores and dime stores have toy and candy aisles that boast interesting things off the beaten retail path. You might also find the diner where the locals eat and have something you've never tried or a favorite dish created with a Ma-and-Pa twist. Then get out and walk some more, hunting down dates on buildings and appreciating architecture from another place and time.
The National Main Street Center, a nonprofit organization dedicated to the preservation and revitalization of Main Streets across the country, allows you to search by state for state and city Main Street programs. Once you have the contacts for your state, you can phone to get recommendations on particular places to visit.
Sculpture gardens are still in bloom. Even in the dead of winter, a sculpture garden is in full flower. A big Henry Moore bronze or monumental Claes Oldenburg looks fabulous in a new snowfall or in the barren landscape of winter. Find out what nearby galleries or art museums have outdoor sculpture gardens that are open to the public year-round. If weather and the policy of your local sculpture garden permit, take a picnic lunch. You'll discover that outdoor art looks great in every season and that picnics aren't just for springtime love and Fourth of July. The International Sculpture Center's Web site has a global directory of sculpture parks and gardens -- search it for a lifetime's worth of three-dimensional-art joy.
Enjoy window-shopping while people-gawking. The holiday season brings out festive window dressing, twinkling lights, and crowds. It's a perfect time to take a walk through a shopping district or along a riverfront. Dawdle in front of clever displays, stop in toy stores, enjoy the friendly crush of humanity around you. Your mission is to wander creatively through the crowds. A leisurely pace on foot lets you appreciate the color and bustle of the season. Stop in somewhere for hot chocolate and donuts. Once you're all warmed up, get back out on the streets and have a contest to see how many returned smiles you can each get from passersby.
Take on a 10- (or 20-) minute mile. Nothing says a walk needs an ulterior motive. Maybe your family enjoys being athletic together. In that case, getting your gear and heading for an outdoor track for some vigorous paces around the field might be the ticket. A family that sweats together creates great memories together.
Wear clothing that suits the weather -- and the possibility of a change in the weather. Layers are always a good idea, and so is water-repellant gear. Walking requires good footwear. If you're going any distance, don't make the mistake of wearing new shoes. The key to footwear is adequate support; make sure yours has it. If you're in doubt about your footwear, research hiking boots and walking shoes. Surfing the 'Net is helpful, as is a knowledgeable salesperson in an athletic-shoe store or hiking store. Hats and gloves or mittens are additional must-haves have for winter walking. As always, if you plan on strenuous activity, check with your doctor. Make sure you and everyone else in the family is up to what you have planned.
Besides sensible clothing and footwear, consider bringing some of the following:
Keep it simple. Walking is an underrated, easily accessible wonder. Rediscover the joy of this simple pleasure with your family. Putting one foot in front of the other together on a family walk will engage your bodies and your minds, revitalize your spirits, and deepen your connection.
Dana Joseph is a freelance travel writer based in Dallas, Texas.