What we can learn from the founder of one of hiking's biggest new movements
As a new mother, Shanti Hodges was looking for more ways to get her son, Mason, outside. She began reaching out to other new parents in her town of Portland, Oregon, and inviting them on hikes. First, a few mothers showed up. Then a dozen. Now, Hike it Baby has a nearly nationwide presence reaching more than 172,000 families through 3,000 hosted hikes each month. Hodges’ organization hosts everything from daily hikes to monthly challenges inspired to get parents and their little ones out exploring nature, whether that’s a remote forest path or the park in their backyard.
We caught up with Hodges to talk about growing up outside, how to get kiddos outside and why cheddar bunnies might just be the perfect snack.
What is Hike it Baby?
Hike it Baby is a nonprofit that I started in 2013 to get families out hiking more consistently with their newborn and younger children. The idea was to build a website and have a newsletter so it was easier for my family to find others to get outside with who also had little babies in Portland, Oregon. I guess people liked the idea, so it grew quickly from Portland, spreading around the country within a year. We are now in 330 cities and have around 3,000 hikes a month in our calendar, so no matter what city you go to, you can log in and find hikes. To keep it all rolling, we have around 3,000 volunteer hike hosts and close to 600 ambassadors who represent Hike it Baby in every city we are in. Anyone can host a hike by simply registering, logging in and then submitting a hike.
Who participates in your programs?
We are open to anyone who wants to get kids from birth to school age outside. It's not that older kids can't hike with us, we are just more focused on under 5 because once you hit school age there are tons of great programs to support getting outside. Mom, dad, nanny, granny, auntie, bestie: Whoever wants to get outside with their children can join us. What's unique about our group is that we are a judgment-free community and have no goal to ever get to the end of any hike. We just get to the trailhead and let the journey unfold. Actually, sometimes we never even make it to the trailhead because we may be strolling around a neighborhood, meeting in a community garden, or maybe the parking lot is just where the toddler is going to hang today, so you better like it or you get to go home.
What’s your dream with Hike it Baby?
To get 1 million people with young children on trail by 2020. We are working hard to make "family-friendly" hiking the norm with all ages instead of just catering to families with older kids.
Any advice for making hiking with kids more fun for all?
Depends on the day. If I have a cranky monkey, I pull out the bubbles, sing "we're going on a bear hunt" at the top of my lungs, offer up treats, hide things on the trail for my little guy to find, play hide and seek—you name it. Whatever will make him move forward is the mission of the day. It's not very hard to make hiking with kids fun because when you get down and look at a trail from their perspective you could literally be in a field between two subdivisions and turn it into an epic adventure.
Some little ones need convincing. How do you get kids excited to go on a hike?
Offer up the promise of endless romps in the biggest muddy puddle they have ever seen. Talk about the great adventure you are going to undertake. Remind them of all of the friends you are about to see on the trail. Talk about the animals they can spot and the logs you can climb on. If all else fails, offer them a lollipop if they just humor you by getting in the car so you can just get there. Totally joking here, but seriously, if it's a regular habit it shouldn't take much.
How can more parents make getting outside routine?
Start at birth. If not at birth, as young as you can. Make it a habit. Make it a weekly thing that you just do, no matter what. Don't turn it into a special, rare occurrence. We have these challenges we do every quarter called Hike it Baby 30 (next challenge is on November 1) to encourage families to hike 30 miles in 30 days. It is a great way to kick-start your outside time. From there, we find families set more personalized challenges for themselves like "no zero days"—getting outside every day in a month. If you find you are making excuses, find something like that to get you all out there. Adults need an even bigger push that kids often, even though we like to use our kids as an excuse not to get outside.
What's your go-to hiking snack?
Annie's Cheddar Bunnies, CLIF Zbars, applesauce, carrots and string cheese. We are pretty standard around here when it comes to snacks.
Any baby gear beta?
Layer kids so you can pull layers off if they get hot. Basically, think about what you need to be happy and warm outside and do the same for your kids. Hats are an issue so look for a small balaclava in winter. My kid hates wearing shoes, so that's our summer battle.
Strategies for your first outing with a wee one?
Keep it simple. When you have a baby and are new to the whole parenting thing your natural inclination is going to be to bring everything but the kitchen sink. You will undoubtedly pack like four diapers, a whole stack of wipes, tons of toys and creams and things you really don't need. That’s what I did in the beginning. The more comfortable you get out there, the more you will watch the load you are carrying lighten, just like when you were learning more about hiking or backpacking yourself. Also, don't listen when people say "he is too big to be carried." Play the "up-down" game when he gets older and carry him when he wants it and then let him down for a bit to walk and then back up. Help him enjoy the hike and not loath every hike because you made him walk and he was miserable.
Let's preach to the choir. What are the benefits of getting kids outside?
There are heaps of reasons to go outside: Research suggests spending time outdoors can lead to improved ADD, ADHD behavior, a better sense of self, stronger eyesight thanks to more Vitamin D and better balance. That said, I think the more urban your environment, the more you need to consider what that outside time looks like and see if you can work a bit harder to get farther from the center of cities. You don't need to take an epic adventure to get the benefits of the outdoors, but taking that extra step to jump on a bus or in the car and get out deeper into nature periodically is important. The connection between parent and child will strengthen in nature for the simple reason that you are building deeper bonds through shared experiences, and if you add the outdoors in, I guarantee those are the memories your child will remember more fondly than a trip to the mall.
What's a memorable experience you had outside as a child?
I had so many memorable experiences as a kid. We regularly hiked this peak called Idaho Peak in the summers and the wildflowers were amazing. I remember how we would practically run up that hill. Now when I hike it, I am like "dang, this is a climb! How did we do that as 6-year-olds?" Every great childhood memory that is cemented in my brain is something related to some kind of adventure I had in the woods with my friends, whether it was packing our dolls up for adventures or just playing with tiny frogs and making homes for them.
What's the most memorable experience you’ve had with your kids so far?
I have a video of my son, Mason, standing at the door at like 18 months crying and pounding on the door saying "Ouuuttttttsiiiiide!" That was at like 8:00 p.m., after we had spent most of the day outside. You can't be mad at a kid that's begging you for more outside time, right?
Editor’s Note: Hike it Baby was one of 26 organizations recently selected to receive a grant through REI’s Force of Nature Fund. The $25,000 grant will go toward the group's Women's and Girls Initiative, a nationwide, year-long challenge to commit to going on at least one Trails for All hike per month with Hike it Baby.