Brad Smith caught the hiking and mountaineering bug while growing up on a farm in northern Illinois.

“One of my best friends on their farm had a limestone quarry,” Smith said. “When Rusty and I were both 14, we would go out to the rock quarry and climb. We didn’t have any gear, so we used karate belts for our harness, and we’d climb up and repel down.”

That boyhood pastime became a full-blown passion, with Smith over the years attending mountaineering schools in Colorado, Washington and Alaska. Living in Hays the past 16 years, where Smith is a salesman at Lang Diesel Inc., he wanted to share the fun, and now leads hiking and mountaineering adventures at The Center for Health Improvement at HaysMed.

“I like to share this interest I have and that I’ve pursued for a long time,” Smith said of the Outdoor Adventure program at The Center. “The fitness levels of the participants vary from just-starting-out to people that are very fit, and anything in between. It’s more about including and helping people at all levels.”

Now in its third year at The Center, this season’s first adventure starts Saturday with a family-friendly canoe trip to Wilson Lake. Originally planned for the Kaw River, plans changed because of all the heavy rain in eastern Kansas.

The second adventure, with planning underway, is June 22 with a trip to Colorado Springs, Colo., to hike on Mt. Herman, a 9,000-foot mountain, plus the popular 1-mile Manitou Springs Incline Hiking Trail.

Three years ago, HaysMed started out slow, first asking people if they were interested, says Stephanie Howie, fitness director at The Center, 2500 Canterbury Drive.

“We did a survey and the interest was out-of-the-roof phenomenal, on the interest and on what people wanted to do,” said Howie. Gradually the program has grown, with adventures starting in the spring and continuing through the fall. Participants range in age from their 30s to their 60s. Each adventure is a day trip, with no camping on any of the mountains.

“This year on our schedule we’ve got whitewater rafting, canoeing, kayaking and snowshoeing later this winter,” Howie says. “A lot of people don’t get to do that in Kansas, and when they go as a group, and because the center is such a family oriented place, a lot of people meet a lot of friends here, and they find their same likes. That is what I think is really neat about this, they can go with a group of friends.”

To get ready, the center offers fitness classes to either members or for a drop-in fee at 5:30 a.m. Tuesday and 7 p.m. Wednesday. The classes are geared to what’s needed for the adventures.

“We try to simulate as much as we can the outdoors, with what we have in Kansas,” Howie said.

The workout varies. At a recent Wednesday evening class, Hunter Waters, group fitness instructor, set up a workout in the gym with about 20 different stations.

“This is a circuit workout,” Waters said. “We just try to get them in shape, plus add balance, because there’s a lot of uneven surfaces, plus strength and endurance.”

This time the stations include box jumps, jumping from one riser to another using explosive power, which helps with legs, drive and power, Waters said. Another station, a traveling equalizer, was for burps or quick feet, pushing up and hopping and jumping up.

“It’s a cardio, full-body thing to get your heart rate up. You’re using your legs and your full body,” Waters said.

At the Bosu, a big soft half-ball sitting flat on the floor, an exerciser steps up and squats on it, mainly working balance. Nearby, the core pole, with different resistance bands, works the back muscles as an exerciser grabs the bands and pulls.

Sometimes the class lifts weights, and other times the workout is outside.

“We’ll take the group to Wilson Lake and we’ll hike around Wilson just to let them get used to their boots, or hiking poles, if they use them,” Howie said.

As the organizer of the trips, Howie taps Smith’s technical skills and longtime experience as a backpacker, hiker, mountaineer and rock climber.

“He’s taught us a lot about Mother Nature rules,” Howie says, noting Smith teaches the hikers about backpacking, how much weight to carry, what to bring, nutrition, hydrating, training for altitude and other realities of going up a mountain trail.

Hiking, mountaineering and rock climbing are all a bit different, Smith says.

Hiking is walking on what he said is non-technical terrain, where no ropes are needed for safety. A scramble is a hike, but with three points on the ground, meaning a hand or a foot, he said.

“Climbing, that’s when a rope starts to generally be involved to keep you safe,” Smith said. “And mountaineering is all of that.”

Colorado’s popular Pikes Peak is a hike, while Longs Peak near Estes Park, Colo., is a high-grade scramble, 5-mile hike, and a technical route with climbing, and generally includes snow and ice, Smith explained.

“With the Adventure program, we’ve done hiking and scrambling,” he said. “The folks that aren’t as fit have made big progress in their fitness over the two to three years.”

The Center’s training classes stress muscular endurance and aerobic threshold, with a lot of cardio.

“It’s not a body building sport,” he said. “You’re really training your heart and muscles to be trained for the long haul.”

Hikers don’t have to be members of The Center. Howie keeps an email list of interested people who pick and chose which adventures they want.

“Exercise and getting yourself in shape is not always about getting on a treadmill and lifting weights. I really think there’s a social aspect for that and some people need some different goals to go after because they get bored,” Howie said. “It’s just a whole different light on a fitness center.”

Howie and Smith create the Outdoor Adventure Schedule. Hikers pay the cost of travel and accommodations, while Howie looks for group rates, researches airline flight schedules and prices, finds outfitters for events like whitewater rafting or canoeing, and prepares gear lists.

“There’s the opportunity to see these beautiful trails and vistas,” Howie said. “People who are a little intimidated about going, I think the camaraderie with some friends and people that you know, you’ve got that support system.”

Other adventures include a July 13 trip to Buena Vista, Colo. to hike 14,420-foot Mt. Harvard and 14,073-foot Mt. Columbia; a Labor Day weekend trip in early September to Ashford, Wash., for hiking and the Mount Ranier festival; a Sept. 21 trip to Oklahoma to hike 5,705-foot Black Mesa; an Oct. 12 trip to Vail, Colo., to hike Hanging Lake; and a Nov. 9 trip to Colorado for snowshoeing.