Introduction: Water Walks for Mind and Fitness

Here are some techniques for convincing yourself to get outdoors and improve your fitness. Laugh if you want, but there are a lot of us people who need an excuse to get outdoors. Luckily there are a lot of sneaky ways to integrate outdoor activities into almost any intellectual pursuit.

I know this because I spent a decade glued to an office chair. I became unhealthy and out of shape, and I never went outdoors to do more than mow the lawn. I told myself that I was too busy building a career. But the truth is that there was a disconnect in my thinking. I was all mind and no body. I felt going outdoors just to hike or walk was wasteful and unproductive.

Day One: Then one day, I was looking at online maps of my city and noticed that streams and creeks disappeared, then reappeared elsewhere. Some of these streams were quite large. What was happening? I picked the nearest such occurrence and took a short walk over to where it disappeared (more to avoid parking issues than for the exercise). What I saw fascinated and enlightened me. I felt smarter. I walked back to the apartment and found other places where the same stream disappeared and appeared. Over the next few days I walked to several of them.

This walking thing turned out to be awesome. I was at ground level, only a few feet away from the mysterious disappearing waters, and moving slowly enough to really see what was happening. I know water flows downhill, but when I started walking uphill I got a real body-sense of how it all works.

Week One: When I got back to the apartment I would be physically tired and sweaty, yet still happy. I also knew the name of the stream I had lived next to for years, where the water came from and where it went to after it passed my home. I found out who the stream was named after and when sections of it started to disappear.

The next weekend I drove to a park in the hills and found the headwaters of that same stream. It turns out that people like to put parks near streams. So over the next month I visited three more pocket parks along that same stream system. I was already beginning to look forward to the next weekend walk, the next small adventure.

Month One: Then I decided to walk the entire course of the stream in one session to really get an idea of how it all connects. Oddly enough, there was a series of paths, trails and parks all along the stream's course. It was almost like the city planners had done it on purpose. And there were adorable neighborhoods at intervals along the stream, how convenient.

After that walk (almost a hike) I was completely hooked. I started walking the courses of the numerous streams that fed into the bowl where my city lay. I would come back exhausted and happy.

Year One: For a long time, I justified these walks with the benefits for my mind, not my body. I was learning stuff, understanding more and getting good at research and planning. It would take a full year before I realized that my body craved these excursions even more than my mind.

I had accidentally integrated mind and body - and it felt good.

Step 1: Ask Yourself This...

The most important thing is to start walking, to get outside and out of your head for a while. That's easy to say, and for some of us, hard to do. So here's an intellectual task to get you started.

Some of you might think this is a silly exercise because you already know the answers. But I am amazed at the number of people who don't know the answer to more than a few of these questions. People might drive on "Muler Creek Road" but don't know where the creek is, cross at "Hopkins Ford" to get to the "Chester Mill Shopping Center" - but don't know that these are all water influenced names.

Go to your front door and answer the following questions from memory:

  • Where is the closest stream?
  • What is its name?
  • How and when did it get its name?
  • Which direction does it flow?
  • Where does it begin?
  • Is the start of the stream a confluence of other streams or does it have a headwater?
  • What is the highest elevation of any contributing stream?
  • Does the starting location change in wet and dry weather?
  • What streams flow into this stream?
  • What stream does it flow into?
  • What river does it join?
  • Does that river join any other rivers?
  • Where is the closest place this watercourse is considered navigable to boat or ship traffic?
  • Where is the closest place in that stream system that you can canoe or kayak?
  • What cities does the water from you local stream pass by on the way to the ocean?
  • Where does the river enter the ocean?
  • What watershed are you in?
  • What river basin are you in?
  • Who owns the stream?
  • Who owns the water?
  • Does this stream contribute to the source of the water system in your home?
  • If so, how does the stream's water get to your house?
  • What government bodies control the water in this stream?
  • What parts of the stream are still in their natural state?
  • How has the stream been modified from it's natural state?
  • When and why did these modifications happen?
  • Can you still make those types of modifications?
  • Are there any towns, neighborhoods, farms or factories that located here because of the stream?
  • Can you name any way that the stream affected the layout of the city?
  • What geological forces caused the stream to be there?
  • How has the water affected the topography of the area?

Now try to find out the answers to the questions you don't know. Do research, look on maps, read those historical markers you drive past. Once you can answer five or ten of the questions it's time go find some access points to your local stream.

Plan a short walking trip to explore your new knowledge.

And finally, leave your desk and go outside to walk near the water.

Step 2: Park It and Walk

Parks and greenways are an easy way to begin exploring your local waterways and the outside world in general. Most parks' paths and trails are beginner friendly, flat and easy to navigate. You will likely have easy physical access to the stream itself. Parks are a good place to walk, stroll or even jog. And you may be surrounded with other people who are also walking, strolling or jogging - you are not the only person that does this kind of physical activity.

See, the city planners actually did create those strings of paths and parks near streams on purpose. People like being near water, so water is a popular amenity to include in park designs. Early trails, roads and even railroads often followed the path of streams. The flattened and widened valleys formed by streams and rivers made natural transportation corridors. Modern planners often try to repurpose these old paths into new parks and greenways.

Those old, quaint neighborhoods that often surround the parks are also there because of the water. People need water, they rely on it. Easy access to water was important so early towns tended to locate near them. That's easy to forget when it's piped into our homes from miles away.

So walk around the park, walk around the old neighborhood. Start easy and just explore a small park. Stop at one of the coffee shops or vegan restaurants (or pizza joint) that's probably in the neighborhood. Get used to being slightly physical for an hour or so.

If you get nervous away from the terminal, start making notes of things you don't know. What is the earliest building in the area? What exactly did Roberts do to get Roberts Creek, Roberts Road and Roberts Market named after them 120 years ago? Take a picture of that strange flower, the weird bark on that tree for research refence later on.

Your mind still works even if you are using your body. Your brain will not atrophy even if you spend an entire day outside and off the net.

Step 3: Urban and Industrial Exploring

If you live in a port or river town you already know this. If you live in a factory or mill town (even if they're shut down now) you may also know this. Water provides not only the essential raw material of water, it also provides a source of power, a means of transportation and even waste removal.

In the earliest days, every small community had a mill that ground grain into flour using water power. Water turned saw blades for lumber yards. Water turned the turbines of the earliest electricity plants. Later on, larger factories and plants located on the same streams for the same reasons.

If your town's industrial section has been gentrified, or at least been decontaminated, it can also provide a wonderful walking experience. You have already seen your stream flowing through one or more of your local parks. It was probably pretty and surrounded by greenery. How is the stream different in the industrial area? Has the stream been modified? Are there dams? Are the stream banks stripped clean of plant life, or maybe lined with walls? Has that beautiful stream been turned into a muddy trickle snaking its way through a fetid slough, or maybe buried underground until it empties into the river from an underground culvert?


Step 4: Connect and Combine - Compare and Contrast

By now you have explored naturalistic parks and manmade urban structures - all by walking and all influenced by water. You have seen and experienced points along one or more local streams. Now, start connecting these places for a better understanding of the entire course of the stream. Get yourself a map and trace the entire course of the stream. Plan a longer trip that encompasses several of the access points.

  • Notice how the creek changes along its length.
  • Does the flora and fauna change and why?
  • Notice how human interaction changes as the stream grows.
  • Are the smaller or higher regions from a certain time period?
  • Can you find relics of abandoned use (dams, foundations or abandoned equipment).
  • Does the form or features of the stream affect how humans used it?
  • When does the human use transition from rural to towns to industrial?

Now explore more examples and see if your observations hold true across multiple samples. Do the hermit poets always choose the rocky headwaters? Why do areas with significant elevation changes often show signs of early settlement? Is there a size threshold before industry begins to show up? Historically, when and why did the "riverfront" (a dangerous place to be) change into "River Front Property" ( a very desirable and expensive place to be.) Or, if you're still reading this and walking - make up your own questions and research goals.

You see what I did there, right? I threw out a bunch of nuggets for your mind to feast on, but they all require significant walking and outdoor physical activity over a long period of time. This isn't a short term thing, it's almost like a lifestyle. If you start buying all-weather-gear for the first time in your life, it's already be too late.

Step 5: Get Your Make on - Outdoors

Yay, you are getting outdoors and walking and exploring. You are getting away from the computer and phone and office life in general. But that doesn't mean you can't sneak a little tech into your outdoor adventures. In fact, a smidgen of tech can enhance the experience and motivate you to get outside even more.

If you've read any of my other Instructables you know I how much I love to tinker with technology. I can't even go to a local pond without making a Remote Control Airboat to play with. I even made my own night-vision red-flashlight so I could walk around safely at night. But I wouldn't have made either of these projects if I didn't already have the habit or getting outdoors and into nature. Conversely, both tech projects also make me more likely to spend more time outdoors.

There are a lot of good examples of this synergy:

Arduino, Sensors and GPS

There's all kinds of ways to employ high-tech gadgetry and coding in your outdoor excursions. There are great Instructables on how to build your own GPS tracker with an Arduino. Then record and plot your travels in something like Google Earth. Take readings of environmental factors with a sensor buoy. Set up a remote monitoring station and broadcast the results.

And there's nothing like putting your tinkering skills to the test in a real life outdoor situation. If you think getting your projects to work is hard in the shop, just put one out in the weather and try to keep it running for a month. Don't blame me if you wind up walking an extra mile or two (in the rain) when one of your monitors dies at an inopportune time.

Model Your Watershed with 3d Prints, Laser Cutting or CNC

Once you get a feel for your local waters you will probably expand your interests to things like watersheds, geology and landforms. Paper maps are great for gaining a deeper understanding of the these larger structures. Online 3d models like Google Earth are even awesomer. But a touchable physical model can help you really understand the terrain of your watershed.

Once again, Instructables has a wealth of helpful tutorials. You can 3d print a version, make it in color, you can CNC a larger version or laser cut one a small model. Even if you don't make a 3d model, these Instructables are a great introduction to the tools (often provided free) available for better understanding the physical landforms around you.


Personally. I will walk miles out of my way; climb mountains, cliffs or trees get a photograph when I wouldn't even consider attempting it just to get there. I guess I need that extra motivation to take my adventure to the next level.

Take photographs to document your experience. If you're a good photographer and have good equipment then that's awesome. But even if you only have a junky phone camera, you can still use it to create reference materials. Bring the photos back to your laboratory and pin them to your maps to help you coordinate the real world with its mapped representations. Use the photos to remind yourself to find out if the rocks or soil changes in the same place as the vegetation.

Now walk back and confirm your findings. It's more fun than it sounds.

Draw and Paint

Do you like to paint or draw but you or your culture forbid you wasting time on a frivolous activity like "Making Art for ART'S Sake."

Well take a simple set of paints or a sketchbook into the wild anyway. It's a great excuse to learn traditional visual documentary skills. Tell people you are following in the tradition of the early natural scientists. Really learning to see an object or scene is an important skill for everyone. Being able to illustrate the important aspects of that object or scene is an essential skill for any scientist wanting to communicate their findings. If it turns into art, that's just a bonus.

This might not make you more physically active or make you walk more - at least not immediately. But the act of sitting quietly and really observing your surroundings is also an important part of being outdoors. The abstract "trees" become five different types of trees around you. Then you might notice the shapes of their leaves and how different trees occupy different ecological niches. Seeing those differences might very well have a secondary affect of making you more interested in returning to explore further. So even sitting and sketching can contribute to outdoor fitness (not to mention lowering your stress level).

Map Making, Journals and Collecting

Start printing out maps to take with you. Draw on them and take notes. Learn to really read them and identify distant landmarks. Then start making your own maps. Collect them and your field notes into a journal format. Make sure it's legal, then start collecting rocks, shells, cones and seeds. Take photos of the birds and butterflies and plants.

No journal or collection is ever complete, however. So don't be surprised if you wind up getting outside even more just to get that extra specimen or photo.

Step 6: Conclusion

I hope this has encouraged or at least given you permission to go outside and play.

However, I feel I should warn you - since allowing myself to explore a couple of small pocket parks in my neighborhood I have wandered creeks, streams and rivers all around the country. I have explored swamps and bayous, back bays and estuaries, dry washes and arroyos.

I still don't think of myself as "outdoorsy." But a five or ten mile walk is something I look forward to now. I am in much better shape and seem to have a better personality. Yet my techno-intellect hasn't suffered at all. If anything, I have a much broader range of interests to pursue when I am outdoors or indoors. I'm pretty happy with the balance in my life.

The same thing could happen for you.

Outdoor Fitness Challenge

Runner Up in the
Outdoor Fitness Challenge