You’ve probably seen the latest research showing that simply being outside is good for you. According to WebMD.com, just standing outside for 5 to 15 minutes two or three times a week can give you a healthy boost of Vitamin D, which is “important for your bones, blood cells and immune system,” among other things. Throw in a little movement when you venture out and suddenly you’re battling everything from hypertension to diabetes to obesity, adds the American Hiking Society. And it doesn’t have to be a lot of movement to make a difference.
Blue Cross Blue Shield of North Carolina (Blue Cross NC) also recognizes the value of being outside and rewards doctors for writing nature prescriptions with points through its Blue Quality Physician Program. This program financially incentivizes physicians for improving the quality and lowering the cost of health care. This was highlighted in Glamour Magazine with the article titled – Spend More Time Outside—Doctor’s Orders.
Yet with this wonder-drug so readily available, what keeps us from taking that first step out the front door and down the trail of improved health?
One reason: A lot of people simply don’t know where to start. In his revelatory 2005 book, “Last Child in the Woods,” Richard Louv wrote that fewer and fewer children were growing up outdoors, a phenomenon he dubbed the “nature-deficit disorder.” Among the pitfalls of a childhood spend indoors: a growing suspicion as they grow into more cautious adults of just what’s “out there.” In short, a lot of today’s adults are uncomfortable venturing into the great outdoors.
Unless that is, they venture out with someone they can trust – our park rangers remind us.
Fortunately for us, North Carolina has an army of park rangers eager to take you outdoors, be it for a short hike on a barrier island (Carolina Beach State Park, Sunday, Feb. 2), a walk identifying winter plants (Gorges State Park, Saturday, Feb. 8), or a hike at night (Weymouth Woods Sandhills Nature Preserve, Tuesday, Feb. 25). In February alone (the shortest month of the year, by the way) there are nearly 150 guided hikes and events scheduled in North Carolina’s State Parks.
Tips for the reluctant outdoor explorer
- Trusty leaders.
Most guided hikes are led by park rangers, and if not, then by a naturalist vetted by N.C. State Parks. N.C. State Parks rangers are certified law enforcement officers, which means they are adept at dealing with any number of issues that may pop on the trail, from identifying the early signs of heat exhaustion to a sprained ankle (or worse).
- Knowledgeable leaders.
Perhaps even more important to the eager yet anxious explorer is a ranger that can help you identify what should be of concern. For instance — and this is a big one for a lot of people — a ranger or naturalist can tell you which snakes you should be especially respectful of (only a handful in North Carolina as a whole, and perhaps only one or two depending upon where you live). Likewise, they can point out what you really need to worry about: That furry vine? Steer clear of it — it’s poison ivy.
- You know what you’re getting into.
Each event posted on the State Parks web site (see below) is pretty clear about the demands of an event. For example, on the Monday morning Bird Hike scheduled for Feb. 10 at Fort Macon State Park, you’ll find that there’s no more than a half-mile of hiking involved and that in terms of difficulty, it should be an easy hike. If you’re uncertain, call the park and find out.
- Most events are free.
Occasionally, there is a nominal fee to cover materials or transportation, but most events are free. Some do require you to register because space is limited.
- Nearly all N. C. State Parks offer programs.
While the frequency of events may vary, all 34 state parks, four recreation areas, and three staffed natural areas offer programs, meaning you should be able to find a program not far from home.
- Most programs are geared towards newcomers.
Sure, you’ll find some events targeted to seasoned explorers, but most are for people with limited outdoor experience.
Finding a program
There are two main ways to find an event at an N.C. State Park, both start with visiting the N.C. State Parks website.
- By activity or date.
Have a specific date in mind and don’t mind a bit of a drive? On the State Parks home page, click “Things to Do,” then “Events and Programs.” Here, you’ll find a monthly calendar with the event title and park. Click to find something appealing.
- By park.
More concerned with not traveling far from home? From the State Parks home page, click “Visit a Park,” then “Find a Park.” A map of the state will pop up with parks identified by location. Click the park near you (you’ll have to click the park name two more times on succeeding screens); once on that park’s home page look for “About the Park” and click “Events and Programs.” Only activities scheduled at that park will appear.
The physical and mental benefits of being outdoors are well documented. North Carolina’s State Parks make it easy to tap this priceless resource.
PHOTO: GH.Pilot Mountain.Ranger
A park ranger explains the topography in the Horne Creek area at Pilot Mountain State Park.