ELDORADO SPRINGS, Colo. Alex Katschke hopped out of her mother's SUV after the drive from nearby Denver, ready to join her friends for a hike through Eldorado Canyon near Boulder.
Though not as fancy as her friend's new hiking boots, her white tennis shoes should work just fine, her mother explained. She frowned as her mother wiped suntan lotion on her face, then made an outhouse stop before bouncing off to join four other children examining an oddly shaped rock on the creek bank.
The hike was organized by a branch of the Colorado Mountain Club that caters to young families who believe an active lifestyle doesn't have to take a back seat once kids come along though it does take more planning, gear and patience.
''With kids, you have to keep their minds going and keep them focused on something, otherwise they tend to lose interest pretty quick,'' Alex's mother, Cheryl Katschke, said as she adjusted her own backpack and picked up her hiking poles.
Experts say introducing children to the outdoors early instills confidence, comfort and respect for the environment. Plus, it's fun.
''I think it's great to expose kids to outdoor activity, but you just need to modify your activity when they're young,'' said Dr. Matthew Daley, a Denver pediatrician, avid hiker and father of two boys.
The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends not using sunscreen on children under 6 months old, so Daley suggests dressing young children in long, lightweight pants and shirts and a wide-brim hat to avoid overexposure to the sun. Children, especially infants, are also more prone to heat, cold and dehydration.
The most important thing to remember is that children's legs and attention spans are shorter than their parents.
A daylong hike for Caryn and Peter Boddi once meant trekking 10 miles with full packs or climbing a 14,000-foot peak. With a toddler, a day hike covers about a mile, complete with stops to watch bugs, touch flowers and, when Mom wasn't looking, eat dirt.
''When my son was little, all he wanted to do was play in the river,'' said Caryn Boddi, who wrote a book about Colorado hikes while she was pregnant. ''It makes you slow down because you're guided by their curiosity. You see things you may have missed.''
Outdoor gear companies are now selling everything from off-road strollers and bike chariots to waterproof, child-carrying backpacks with rain hoods and insect nets.
''When you're talking about child carriers, safety is always the No. 1 issue. From there, it becomes a question of functionality and aesthetics,'' said Ed Ruzic of the Boulder-based outdoor gear store Sherpani Alpina.
The store began offering baby-carrying packs that also hold supplies after seeing parents hiking with infants in a front carrier while wearing a separate backpack for diapers, formula and other essentials.
Larger companies also have adjusted: The North Face and Sierra Designs, normally more hardcore backpacking lines, are now making family tents, said Carolyn Burnham, a product manager at REI's Seattle headquarters who is also a mom and Girl Scout leader.
Kent Parkhurst, who likes exploring underground caves, is introducing caving to his daughters, Lauryn, 5, and Ashley, 3.
''We took Lauryn into the entrance of a cave when she was about a month old, in the Snugli,'' he said. ''They've always been exposed to the outdoors, since they were little teeny kids.''
For less experienced parents, outdoor groups can help.
Wilderness Kids, part of the 8,500-member Colorado Mountain Club, offers family outings, including picnics, overnight camping and easy hikes.
''The kids just take to it. I used to change diapers along the trails,'' said Robin Commons, a longtime mountaineer who led the group of energetic and inquisitive 5- to 10-year-olds hiking through Eldorado Canyon.
His daughter, 6-year-old Haley, skipped along the rocky trail with her pink Barbie backpack filled with snacks and stuffed animals bouncing along with her.
''I've been doing this for a long time, since I was 3,'' she said before stopping abruptly to scoop up a chunk of dirt.
''Cool, a black rock,'' she said as four other children ran up the trail to examine the stone.
''All the rocks need to stay behind,'' Commons advised, then added as he turned to the other parents watching their children: ''Years ago, I would have just walked right past the spiders and the plants.''
Peninsula Clarion ©2013. All Rights Reserved.