By Michael Lanza
Shanti and Mark Hodges took their son, Mason, on his first hike when he was nine days old, walking a flat, quarter-mile trail at Oswald State Park on the Oregon coast. That was in July 2013. Then Mark, 35, an avid hiker, started carrying Mason on regular walks in the woods—just the two of them. Shanti worried about that.
“In my mama haze I would freak out and be like, ‘You can’t go on that trail with him—he’s too small at two to three weeks old,’” Shanti, 43, told me on the phone. “And Mark was like, ‘Sure we can.’ And off he went. Within another week, I was like, ‘I am not going to sit around (at home)—I’m going, too.’ So by three weeks (after Mason was born), we were out walking with the stroller on dirt trails and I realized, hey….we can do this!”
She says now: “I am so happy we trusted our gut and that Mark is so in love with nature that he didn’t let having a baby stop us.”
But the Hodges live in Portland, Oregon, and Mark’s work is based in Alaska; he’s away from home for days at a time, and Shanti wanted companions for her regular hikes with Mason—other parents with babies. So she started an informal group she called Hike it Baby, with a website and Facebook page. And it kind of took off.
Hike it Baby has since expanded into more than 90 cities around America, with almost 20,000 families—many with no previous hiking experience—participating in regular, organized, free hikes with their young children. Portland’s branch is the biggest: While the group doesn’t maintain membership rolls, the Portland branch’s Facebook page has nearly 3,000 likes as of this writing (Hike it Baby’s main Facebook page has about 3,400). But that doesn’t include all participants, Shanti says. The branches have people who come once or only occasionally, and others who take five hikes a week.
Around the country, Hike it Baby branches have picked up big followings in Anchorage, Alaska (the second-largest branch); Houston and Austin, Texas; Ashville, N.C.; Golden, Colo.; and Eugene, Oregon. There are small but active groups from Nashville to Boston. Vancouver, B.C., was the first international chapter, and new branches have started up in Edmonton, Alberta, and Sydney, Australia.
The website has information on everything from finding local chapters to starting your own branch in a new city. “We call it a branch because it’s all intertwined, everyone is connected,” Shanti says. The cost of entry to start a branch is minimal: $25, and someone starting a branch gets about 90 minutes of on-the-phone training.
“My husband is my inspiration and why I started this group,” Shanti says. “He was always getting out there with Mason from the first few days Mason was born.”
When Shanti first contacted me (because she was following my blog), and I looked at what she has accomplished with Hike it Baby, I was astounded at how many parent groups they had in cities all over the country. So I contacted her and listened to her story—one to which I could relate. My wife and I took each of our kids on their first “hike”—a very short walk in the Boise Foothills, near our home—when each was just days old. I would regularly take our first baby, our son, on solo hikes, carrying him as an infant on my chest, then as a toddler on my back, and occasionally run into people who’d look at me in shock and ask, “You’re out here with a baby?”
My kids, now 14 and 12, are very experienced in the outdoors. They’ve backpacked in numerous national parks and wilderness areas, including Glacier, Olympic, Grand Teton, and Sequoia. They’ve sea kayaked in Alaska’s Glacier Bay, cross-country skied in Yellowstone and annually to a backcountry yurt since they were little, and rock climbed at Joshua Tree and many times near our home in Idaho.
But while I try, through this blog, to help families and other people figure out how to take bigger adventures than they’ve perhaps done before, what my family does may not be within the comfort zone of many parents. What’s impressive about Hike it Baby—and clearly a big part of its success—is how Shanti has focused the informal organization on demystifying hiking, inviting anyone, no matter their experience level, physical condition, or the ages of their children.
“I always like to say to women that hikes don’t have to be defined as you’re going up a mountain and being hard-core,” Shanti told me. “Opening up the definition a lot is really important for families with newborns. We teach women how to nurse on the trail, and that changes their life. A big goal of my mission is to make hiking accessible to everyone, no matter how much weight you’ve gained. I weighed almost 200 pounds when I had Mason, and now I’m a size six and I was never a size six before.”
Shanti emphasizes that Hike it Baby is not a guide service. “We are a platform to gather people together,” she says. “We do our best to prepare everyone and to let people know they are hiking at their own risk. We also post articles that encourage them to think about really being ready and only pushing as far as you are comfortable.”
Hike it Baby isn’t just for stay-at-home moms with infants. “I try hard to get dads involved because I feel dads get left out of a lot of the parenting early in a baby’s life,” Shanti told me. “Mark would take Mason and a bottle and go off on fire roads in the woods, and Mason loved it. I was worried (at first), but then realized it was fine. There’s this fear element with children under three months old—don’t do this, don’t do that. Enough already! What do you think they do in Africa? I really try to get dads out there on hikes with us.”
She tells people who have never hiked before: “Get out on one hike a week and see how much it changes your life.”
She receives emails and Facebook messages daily from people thanking her, telling her that Hike it Baby has been inspirational for them.
“It’s really exciting to see hundreds of families hiking every day,” Shanti says. Her husband, Mark, is “kind of in awe because he kept saying, ‘It’s just a hike group. No one is going to want to do this all over the country.’ I love calling him when he is away and saying, ‘Three new branches.’”
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