AUSTIN When Lee Ann Benson moved to Georgia a few years ago, she knew she wanted to get involved with hiking and backpacking in the state.
But when she couldn’t convince friends to take up the hobby, Benson turned to online social planning site Meetup.com to find a group just as enthusiastic about the outdoors as she was.
“It’s hard to get the whole family out on a hike,” Benson said. “Sometimes you just feel like you have no one to go with.”
When Benson moved to her home state of Arkansas in 2010, she launched a similar group for central Arkansas from her home in Austin.
Hosted on Meetup.com, the Arkansas Outdoor Adventures group now has 500 members with events held almost weekly.
“Most people I’ve met in the group moved from somewhere else,” Benson said. “We have probably 100 active members. The first time you show up can be scary, but then you get to know everyone.”
Benson said the group’s activities are seasonal, with more biking and hiking in cooler months, and canoeing, kayaking and floating in the summers. Though the majority of the group’s meets are in-state, the group occasionally plans longer trips to do whitewater rafting and more.
“We go hiking in the Ozark Mountain area, the Buffalo River area quite a bit,” Benson said.
Benson said outing organizers always note whether the event they’re planning is good for beginners or whether more experience is needed. For those just starting hiking, Benson likes to recommend a short one- or two-mile hike, like the one at the Pedestal Rocks Scenic Area off Arkansas 7.
“It’s got some cool rock formations, and it’s great for people who aren’t ready to try things like crossing creeks,” Benson said.
Anyone signed up with Arkansas Outdoor Adventures can “host” a meet. Benson said the host does research on where to meet and what fees might go along with the trip. For example, organizers of a canoe trip in March are in charge of making sure canoes are reserved and the group has a ride to and from the river.
“A lot of people will ask me, ‘How can you just go out in the woods with people you don’t know?’” Benson said. “But the first meet was really the only time I didn’t know anyone.”
Since the group started, a group of loyal regulars means that Benson always has a few friendly faces when they start out on a hike. In the interest of safety, Benson recommends that hosts cancel an event if the turnout is going to be too small or is comprised of only new members.
“Going out in a group like this is the safest way to try hiking,” Benson said. “We go out with first-aid kits and emergency-survival kits and people who have hiked these trails before.”
Benson said members of the group range in age from college students to retired couples. Her daughter, Jenny Bond, 13, even joins the group for the occasional hike.
“She can definitely hike, and she beats a lot of the adults when we’re out,” Benson said.
Hiking is a main form of exercise for Benson, who hates aerobics and weights.
“My dad always used to take me hiking when I was a kid,” Benson said. “For my personal fitness, I had to find something I liked to do. … I’ll walk until my legs fall off.”
For more information on the Arkansas Outdoor Adventures group, go to meetup.com/arkansasoutdooradventures.
Staff writer Emily Van Zandt can be reached at (501) 399-3688 or firstname.lastname@example.org.