-- Robert Frost
Silence can be deafening on a hike. With no TV, no cars and no computer pop-ups vying for your attention, a walk through the woods can be the ultimate relaxer. It can also allow you to be the ultimate multitasker as you exercise, explore and expose your family to nature.
"Our kids like it because we don't make it an exercise thing," said Jennifer Weir of Elma. "It's more of a family fun thing. We take it slow and easy. There's always something for them to see."
Great scenery, wild critters and it's cheap -- what can't you like about a hike? Insects? Keep them at bay, along with pesky poison plants and whatever sun that may find you.
What's more, hiking is a year-round pastime. Spring beckons some good-looking birds back to Western New York. Wildflowers also smile brightly in spring. With autumn's color and the serenity of snow, no wonder Robert Frost found inspiration in the woods.
The hiking diet
The hiking Weirs of Elma include husband Karl and wife Jennifer; children Max, 7, and Maggie, 5; and dog Sadie. The family's hiking habit began in the late '90s when Jennifer and Karl decided to shed some pounds.
"But then it really didn't become about the exercise, it became about the hiking," Jennifer said. "I hiked all the way up to the day I delivered. My husband and I have some of our best talks in the woods."
And they always take their fishing poles with them.
"Walton Woods in Amherst off Audubon Parkway has a great fishing pond," Jennifer said. "And there's seven miles of bike path/hiking trails and a 1.5-mile trail circling the pond."
If the Weirs want to spot some birds, they will head to Carlton Hill in Wyoming County or Sunken Pines in East Aurora. The family celebrated Mother's Day and Father's Day with hikes in Walton Woods and Como Park, respectively. They even spotted a bobcat once during a hike around their Elma home.
"The kids have been hiking since they were infants," Jennifer said. "We're kind of fanatical about it, I guess."
Keep it simple
"There's always a different plant, a new bird -- something we've never seen before," said Bob Hartman, 46, who hikes regularly with his wife and two young sons. "It's kind of fun to pick a trail with a stream or swimming hole. You look forward to cooling off. We try to keep it simple for the kids. If you make it too hard or difficult, it isn't as fun."
The marked trails at Beaver Meadow Audubon Center in North Java (www.buffaloaudubon.com) are perfect for family hikes. Take the circle trail through the woods, and you might discover a muskrat by Heron Pond. Cross the road and watch for a large beaver pond that is home to many water fowl. The boardwalk trail (with handicapped accessibility) will take you across the swamp and through the woods of Jenny Glen.
"I always encourage families not to just hike, but stop every once in a while and explore," said Paul Fehringer, Beaver Meadow naturalist. "Dig underneath the leaf litter at the bottom of the forest and see what animals are hiding under there -- as long as you replace it, because that is their home."
Keeping children entertained is the key to survival for families who hike together. That's why dipping nets are placed by the ponds in Beaver Meadow, so little hands in search of critters can scoop them into the water.
Hartman and wife Mary Lyn Nutting have created discovery games for their sons Avery, 7, and Nate, 2. In streams, they can find toads and salamanders. With binoculars, the boys spot new plants.
"It's about being the scientist yourself," Nutting said, "the joy of exploring and looking."
A nature journal can keep curious kids busy. They can use crayons and paper to draw what they see. Games where a child is blindfolded and asked to hug a tree encourages appreciation for the many different species of trees. The challenge occurs when the blindfold is removed and the child is asked to find "his" or "her" tree.
What to pack
For hiking toddlers, a child carrier is essential. But don't forget that a 10-pound child carrier (Kelty carriers start at $100) with a 25-pound child in it makes for one full load, which is one reason why shorter loop trails work well for families.
"With the kids, we have to take a lot of breaks and bring lots of water," Hartman said. "Apples makes good snacks because they won't crush. Freeze-dried apricots or raisins, trail mix and lunch. Peanut butter sandwiches are always good."
Here are some other items the hiking family may pack:
- Buzz Away: Deet-free insect repellent. Formulated with citronella, cedarwood, eucalyptus, lemongrass and peppermint, it also has a 15 SPF sun block (www.quantumhealth.com).
- Flashlight: In case you come across a cave or a bed of rocks that you want to peer into.
- Gallon plastic storage bags: Do not leave your garbage with Mother Nature. Take it with you. Plastic bags also work for pine cones, rocks and whatever else kids collect. For bugs including caterpillars, bring a vented jar.
- First-Aid Kit: Also bring knowledge of how to identify poison ivy (three-leaf cluster with white berries that covers the ground).
- Visual aides: Binoculars function as a magnifier.
The well-dressed hiker
"I see too many people out there hiking as a family where the kids have shorts and flip-flops," Fehringer said. "Even in Western New York, you should watch out for ticks and those other critters who will hang onto your legs."
Hartman -- who has hiked 46 peaks in the Adirondacks with elevations over 4,000 feet -- has earned the designation "ADK46er." On those ascents as well as on family hikes, Hartman wears zip-off hiking pants.
"You can have shorts or pants when you need them," he said. "Jeans are tough to hike in. Stay away from cotton. It gets wet and heavy."
Don't expect sneakers to give your ankles the support they need when negotiating gravel and changes in elevation. Both Hartman and Nutting swear by Asolo hiking boots.