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Shanti Hodges has always had a knack for motivating people. From cheerleading back in high school to gathering underprivileged youth for yoga classes, rallying people together toward a common goal is simply second nature to her. “I’ve always liked creating community, getting people out and doing things,” said the founder of the wildly successful group hiking platform, Hike it Baby.
When we say “wildly successful,” we’re not exaggerating. For one thing, the organization encourages parents and caregivers of 1- to 5-year-olds, both men and women, to gather together out in the wild, or at least the outdoors. Secondly, in just three years, Hike it Baby has grown from one woman (Hodges) organizing a few of her friends to get out and explore the trails near her Portland, Ore. home to a social network comprised of more than 88,000 members in 220 cities in six countries. Each day, hikers across the U.S. set out on nearly 200 different excursions organized through the Hike it Baby platform.
As the public face of her organization, Hodges’ role as motivator has taken on more weight. Her Facebook posts are seen by Hike it Baby’s thousands of followers; her hiking wardrobe can influence how others dress for an outdoor outing; and the trails she chooses impact how “hardcore” the organization is perceived to be. “It’s a huge responsibility. There’s definitely a lot of pressure to think twice about what I’m suggesting people do,” she said. “If I’m going to go for a really hard hike, I’m maybe not going to make that public for people because I’m trying to encourage the most out of shape, un-outdoorsy person to feel they can do it too.”
That image of approachability is core to the Hike It Baby creed, which aims to promote the idea that getting outside with your kids is something anyone can do. She points out that the family camper is equipped with a cushy mattress and notes that she has yet to go on an overnight backpacking trip with her 2 1/2-year-old son. “We want to remind people that you don’t have to be hardcore to be an outdoors person,” Hodges said.
Neither are you required to always bring your best self. For many, Hodges included, getting outside and staying active serve as an outlet for battling the depression and loneliness that so often follow the birth of a child—and are so little talked about. In nature, she noted, people seem to be willing to open up and share their stories—all of them—which creates a setting ripe for healing and the cultivation of long-lasting friendships.
Laurie Syphard, who started a Hike it Baby branch in Maryland, experienced this healing firsthand. “Getting out there on the trail with my daughter and meeting other parents and their children has been a really great thing for me during this postpartum time,” she said. “I am really grateful that I discovered such a positive organization and community of families that want their kids to connect with nature like I do.”
The beauty of connecting with others while connecting with nature—and sharing these values with kids—is part of what keeps Hodges motivated to continue to motivate others. As you read this, she’s out on the road with her little boy in the midst of her Hike it Baby 30 tour around the Western U.S. For 30 straight days she’ll tackle a minimum of 1.5 miles on a range of different terrain, from snowshoeing and hiking to casual walks through a city. (Get details about upcoming hikes here.) The short-term goal is simply to get outside and inspire others to do the same; the long-term goal is to get 500,000 families on trail by 2020; and the end goal is to raise a generation that knows the wonders of the natural world.
“We’re just a step-off point to help parents realize there is so much more they could be doing with their little one,” Hodges said. “We’re not trying to be a structured program; we’re trying to introduce families to getting outdoors regularly.”
–Courtney Holden is a freelance journalist based in Boulder, Colo. As a soon-to-be new-mom herself, she’s eager to check out Hike it Baby in person.