When Shanti Hodges hits the road next month to promote her new book, Hike It Baby! 100 Awesome Outdoor Adventures with Babies and Toddlers, it won’t be your average book tour. She’s driving around the West with her husband, Mark, and their five-year-old son, Mason, meeting parents and their little ones at trailheads to explore some of the top family-friendly hikes in the country.
Not that it will all be Pinterest-perfect moments, of course. “There will be tons of fussing-baby photos and kids crying on the trail,” Hodges says, laughing. “I’m sure Mason will poop in his pants at least once, just to defy me.”
Such are the unglamorous realities of getting outside with the under-five set. Hodges’ new book, named for the hugely popular parents’ outdoor network she launched in 2013, aims to make the mission a little less fraught. The book’s 100 trails, all of which were submitted by Hike It Baby’s extensive parent network, meet the group’s gold standard for family adventures: under five miles (unless it’s a long, flat trail), no heavy elevation gain, no scrambling, no sharp drop-offs. “These are places you can take your two kids and hike as a parent alone,” Hodges says. “Because it’s the worst when you drive 45 minutes to a trailhead and realize it’s not going to work.” The book includes key parent-centric criteria like whether a trail has benches for nursing, shade structures, and cell reception. “These are so important when you have infants and toddlers, but you don’t think about those things when you’re just a hiker.”
Hodges never gave it any thought, either, until she had Mason and experienced postpartum depression. Getting outside was the best medicine, but she was “just winging it.” One day Hodges was walking with her newborn when she met a mother carrying her two young ones up a path near her home in Portland. “She was such a badass, and seeing her out there inspired me,” Hodges says. “I realized that we don’t have to be alone out there doing this.” Right then, she vowed to create a website connecting new mothers to each other and nearby trails. Five years later, Hike It Baby has grown from a single Portland group to 298 active chapters and more than 2,100 hikes per month across the United States. “I thought I was creating a technology tool to gather people together in nature. I didn’t know it would go so deep into peoples’ lives.”
The result is not just a network of parents and trails, but also wisdom, much of which Hodges has collected in Hike It Baby. She and her trail ambassadors share savvy tips, like keeping things fun by singing while you walk, investing in your own outdoor skills by taking a climbing course or first-aid workshop to become more confident adventure parent, and mastering the art of the “up-and-down”—which requires patience but pays off in the end. “Make sure you always have a soft carrier on hand to pop out of a pack so you can put your kiddo up if they are just not moving forward,” Hodges writes. “Let him know you will carry him for ten minutes. Then put a timer on, and when it rings, that’s time for more walking. Kids who are forced to hike will never love hiking. Encourage them to love it by making it easy.”
Though Mason is aging out of Hike It Baby and Hodges will soon be stepping down as executive director to focus on strategic planning, she certainly isn’t scaling back. In November, Hodges will roll out an online trail network with thousands of approved routes. And she’s already deep into planning for the organization’s 2019 initiative: inclusion. “In the beginning, we were reaching out to mothers. Then we branched out to fathers. Now we don’t want to just reach out to white middle-class families. We’re asking ourselves, ‘What communities could use additional help and love?’” says Hodges, who’s working to secure grants to partner with groups like Latino Outdoors and the teen fathers’ group Squires PDX.
“Parenting is one thing that connects all people—black, white, fat, skinny, gay, straight,” Hodges says. “Every parent, no matter who they are, goes through the same things when they have a kid. This is really scary. Your world is totally different.”
In the end, though, it’s not simply about creating a more diverse outdoors. It’s about supporting families, period. “We want to give every child the opportunity the chance to get into nature. Every child,” Hodges says. “When you build that story for children about being outside with their parents, they’ll never forget it, and it builds resilient humans who don’t gravitate toward hate. If you give parents support, they will be stronger as a family. It all starts with community.”