Courtesy of: Hike It Baby
They are the happiest flash mob on the mountain: Thirty-seven smiling mothers with infants strapped to their fronts and backs hiking the three-mile round-trip uphill switchback trail to Mirror Lake, one of Oregon’s most popular hiking destinations. Deep in the middle of the pack, ready to hand out her card to anyone she meets along the trail, is Shanti Hodges, founder of Hike It Baby, a woman on a mission to get families outdoors.
“When you sit in a mom’s group with your babies the focus is always on the baby,” Hodges said. “When you’re hiking, the conversation flows naturally to everything else – yourself, your life, the beauty around you.”
Hodges wants every family to have a chance to experience the benefits of being in nature with a group. In July 2013, with a husband ready to leave for a 3-week work stint in Alaska and preparing for three weeks alone with her newborn son, Hodges invited a group of new mothers on a hike. Five women attended that first foray down Lower Macleay Trail in Portland, Oreg. Many hikes later, as many as 50 women were showing up – even in the winter, even in a hail storm – to hike with their kids.
“I had no idea what I was starting,” Hodges said.
Excited about this new chance to get our en masse, Hodges launched a website and a Facebook page. Soon she had a logo with a woman carrying a baby in a back carrier and the group grew at a pace. Within a year, Hike It Baby had over 1,000 people and announcements were coming in that group members were going on 1-5 hikes a day, with new branches springing up around the country. Today, Hike It Baby groups are active in 104 cities and three countries, reaching more than 25,000 families.
The benefits of hiking in nature for new moms cannot be overstated. As many as one in five women battle some form of perinatal mood disorder such as postpartum depression and anxiety, symptoms of which are known to be alleviated through experiences in nature and interaction with other new parents.
But for the family unit as a whole, Hike It Baby couldn’t have come at a better time. According to the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, American children spend as much as six hours a day in front of screens and less than four minutes a day in unstructured outdoor play. The trend persists even as new research warns that time spend outside benefits cognitive functioning, reduces symptoms of ADD/ADHD and improves self-discipline and emotional well-being. Being in nature increases resilience to stress, anxiety and depression and prevents a wide range of physical and emotional problems.
To Hodges' mind, interventions happen too late. Take the National Park Foundation program offering free entrance to national parks for fourth graders.
“We need to get kids outside when they’re four weeks old, not in fourth grade,” Hodges said. “By fourth grade they’re already playing on Ipads and obese and don’t want to go outside.”
Besides, hiking is free – no $3 latte fee required. Because of the low barrier to entry – anyone can find a hike nearby on the group’s website, or join and become a leader themselves – Hike It Baby has been able to reach out to parents from all walks of life. For many, the group has been life-changing.
For Annie Fortunato, Hike It Baby’s group leader in Ann Arbor, Mich., seasonal depression hit hard after the birth of her son.
“There were days in January and February when I could barely get myself out of bed to go to work or school, let alone be social with others,” Fortunato said. “Hike it Baby reminds me to appreciate everyday and to take it one day at a time, one hike at a time, one step at a time.
For parents like Montana native Wesley Malloy, the group leader of Hike It Baby Tacoma, getting into the woods with other parents to explore helped her acclimate to a new home. The group, she said, is allowing her daughter to have the kind of outdoors childhood she had herself.
“My daughter used to be nervous about bugs or walking through mud – she didn’t like taking her shoes off on the beach,” Malloy said. “Now she is obsessed with slugs and snails and likes to "feed" each one a leaf.”
Hodges said: “My sister asked me at some point why I was doing this when I don’t get any money out of it. All I could say is that once the emails started flowing in from people whose lives were changed by Hike It Baby, I knew I was on the right path.”
Get involved with Hike It Baby
How can you get involved? It's easy.
- Join a hike: Find an upcoming hike by browsing your city's hike listings on the Hike It Baby website; here are all the upcoming Puget Sound hikes, including a number for National Trails Day on Saturday, June 6 . You can keep up to date on Hike It Baby's Facebook page.
- Join the Hike It Baby 30 challenge, a membership-based event encouraging families to walk 30 miles in 30 days in June, in honor of National Trails Day on Saturday, June 6. People who pay the $10 fee to sign up get motivation, entrance in a private Facebook group, a place to track hikes, discounts on Hike It Baby Gear and on the Onya baby carrier, and a chance to win challenge prizes. (Hike It Baby offers five such challenges a year.)
- You can also lead a hike, or even grow a branch in a new city.