Debbie Frazier wants her two children to grow up appreciating the outdoors. So she introduced them to hiking before they could walk.
As a new mom, she routinely loaded Max, now 6, into a stroller and hiked paths near her home in Sunnyvale, Calif. She often invited friends so she would feel more comfortable hiking with a baby, and eventually she created Stroller Hikes, a nonprofit organization dedicated to arranging kid-friendly hikes.
"I wanted to be outside and I wanted to share it with others," said Frazier. "One of the beautiful things about stroller hiking is everybody knows how to walk and most families have a stroller."
Parks around the country are developing programs for families who want to enjoy the outdoors with young children.
"The message is, bring the right equipment and we'll do the rest," said Meri-Margaret Deoudes, vice president for the National Wildlife Federation's Be Out There campaign, which is designed to promote outdoor play.
Many parks offer events as a "gateway" for parents to see how easily they can enjoy the outdoors with children, she said from her office in Merrifield, Va.
For instance, in Cleveland, Ohio, the Metroparks park district offers a "Stroller Science" series that often combines a stroll and a kid-friendly nature lesson.
At the Hudson Highlands Land Trust in Garrison, N.Y., event organizers began offering hikes geared to families with strollers or backpack carriers about six years ago, said MJ Martin, director of outreach development. More and more "intrepid families" are taking advantage of it, she said.
"It's a great movement that we've seen grow over the last couple of years," she said. "Families are not letting the age of their children hold them back. We added family-friendly hikes that include parents and caregivers with toddlers and babies."
Karen Kapoor of Cold Springs, N.Y., and her husband, Dinesh, routinely take their 7-year-old son and 5-year-old daughter out into the woods. "We've been hiking since my daughter was a teeny-tiny baby," she said.
"I like to get out for myself. It's easier to take them along than find a baby sitter."
The kids have developed an interest in hiking. Seven-year-old Raunag dislikes it when his mom hikes without him.
"I like watching the animals," he said. "We see birds and bugs and caterpillars on leaves."
When their daughter was small, the Kapoors preferred a backpack carrier to a stroller since many of the trails near their home have a bit of incline.
In Florida, parents have a variety of trail choices, said Sandra Friend of Orlando, who has written several hiking guides about the state. Many county parks there have boardwalks or crushed shell trails that take parents through interesting natural environments and landscapes. The parks systems have focused on accessibility for families and older adults, she said.
"They're thinking about all ends of the spectrum," she said. "They want to make it safe and easy for people to get outdoors."
Sometimes, she sees the telltale "parallel tracks" of a stroller on sand trails and imagines that pushing a stroller though that must have been "quite a workout."
Stroller Hikes, which offers multiple events in the San Francisco Bay Area each week, has expanded to include a wide variety of hiking options, Frazier said. Events take place on everything from paved paths in the city to beaches to off-road trails. Frazier and her volunteers rate the difficulty of the trails and recommend either a traditional stroller, a jogging stroller or a backpack carrier.
With the right equipment, it's possible to get a workout and travel a good distance, Frazier said.
Volunteer hike leaders show newcomers safe places to walk and the ins and outs of hiking with little ones, she said.
"Parents want to know, 'What's going to be safe?' and 'How do you change a diaper outside?"' Frazier said. "We know where you can safely go with children. We'll change diapers in public. We'll nurse in public."