When my brother Jonathan and I were growing up, we loved to play in the woods behind our neighborhood. We made trails, collected plants, picked raspberries, built huts, and even found a few skeletons from decomposed animals! (Mom made us keep those in bleach water for several months before she'd let them in the house!)

Mom and Dad were really good about letting us play back there. They never seemed to mind a little dirt (okay, a lot of dirt!), and Mom never got too upset when the creek water, which appeared clean and pure but really wasn't, turned our white socks a light purple! (Yes, we walked around in the water with our shoes on--hey, it saved us a lot of cuts and scrapes from glass and sharp rocks!)

A few times per year, our family would head out to a local park with forests and meadows and trails and just go on a nature hike. And, although "nature hikes" have become something of a cliché, they can still be very educational, and they're always a lot of fun! So since we're coming up on summertime, I thought a neat idea for this issue's Give it a Try would be a nature hike with a slightly different focus--namely, to do and observe things you may never have thought of before!

First, though, you need to choose a location for your hike. This does not need to be woods, although they work best. Most people are fairly close to a rural park, a secluded recreation area, or at least quiet country roadsides. Any of these should work well.

You don't need much equipment for your nature hike. You may want to take a small picnic lunch with you in a backpack, and basic first-aid equipment is always a good thing to have along. A pocket knife, flashlight, and magnifying glass would all be helpful too, and don't forget your compass! But unless you're in very unfamiliar territory or a large, uninhabited area, you probably won't need serious amounts of survival equipment.

One thing to remember is to always have at least one responsible adult (preferably two or more) along for your hikes. Ideally, take your hike as a family with Mom and Dad both along! Also, unless you're hiking on your own property, check the rules of the facility before collecting plants or other items from your hike--it may be illegal to keep them.

Now let's get on to some ideas for your hike--remember, we're trying to come up with things you've never done before, so feel free to be creative and vary these ideas to fit your needs. Just be sure your variations are safe!

TRACKING

Tracking animals or people by their footprints and other signs left behind is an uncommon skill, but it can be a lot of fun. Start by finding some animal tracks in the ground. Using a field guide that contains outlines of animal tracks, try to identify what kind of animal left the tracks.

Next, try to figure out about how old the track is. Are there leaves or specks of dust in the track? If so, do they look like they blew into the track after it was made, or did the animal step on them when it made the track in the first place? Is the track in mud, or does it look like the ground has dried substantially since the track was made?

Can you tell where the animal was going and why? For instance, if you find deer tracks pointing toward a lake, you might assume that the deer was going to get a drink. On the other hand, if you find deer tracks in a running pattern, you could assume that something had frightened the deer and it was running from an enemy.

Tracking people can be a fun family activity, although it requires a safe area that everyone is familiar with since you'll be split up into two groups. Also for that reason, a good set of walkie-talkies or two-way radios are a good idea in case you have trouble finding one another again. Also, this is definitely not a good idea for children to do alone.

To start, divide into two groups, and give one group a head start of five or ten minutes. This group should try to leave enough tracks that the group following them has something to go by, but not enough to make it too easy for them! The first group could walk in streams or through grassy areas to make it difficult for the second group to find their tracks. After ten or fifteen minutes, the first group should stop and hide somewhere. Meanwhile, the second group is trying to follow the tracks to find the first group. It's harder than it sounds, so the first group should make sure to deliberately leave signs and tracks frequently enough to show a reasonably clear trail. See how long it takes the second group to find the first, or if they have to call on the walkie-talkie and arrange for a meeting place!