In front of the outhouse at the Sunny Aspen trailhead in Morrison, Kate Willenbring asks Amber Gwinn to give her a hand. She points to the green baby carrier on her back, where then 11-month-old Shea peeks her bright blue eyes out from under a sun canopy. “I’m not as good at this as you are,” she says.
Gwinn, with her then 13-month-old daughter Isla tucked into the maroon carrier on her back, steps behind Willenbring and gently helps her off-load Shea, lowering the carrier down to the smooth dirt path and resting it on its tripod base. Willenbring runs in to use the restroom as Gwinn watches the babies, then they switch.
Another mom is there with her two toddlers (one almost two years old, the other almost four) and as they finish the last bites of a peanut butter and jelly sandwich, the group is ready to begin the looped 2.4-mile trail that follows a wide, level dirt path through forests of aspen and pines. The four-year-old, with tight black curls pulled back through the opening of a pink baseball cap, races ahead.
This is a typical start to a “Hike it Baby” group outing, which Willenbring and Gwinn—regional ambassadors for the national Hike it Baby nonprofit—regularly organize for parents in the Denver metro area. Bathroom breaks, feeding breaks, meltdown breaks: these are all to be expected, and welcomed in this group.
“We leave no hiker behind,” Willenbring explains during the hike’s “welcome circle,” which functions like a pregame huddle. It’s a time for Willenbring and Gwinn to introduce themselves, explain Hike it Baby philosophies, and allow other parents to introduce themselves and their children, all before they leave the parking lot. Each of them know the trials and tribulations of hiking with young ones, and they’re there to support each other.
A New Path
Willenbring is the first to admit that hiking changes once you have children. Before welcoming Shea into her world, she was an avid hiker and spent most of her days off from the hospital—where she worked as a nurse—roaming different trails. She’d frequently drive up I-70 on weekdays and lace up her boots at a new trailhead in Summit County.
While Willenbring was pregnant, she started compiling questions: How and what do I pack for a baby on the trail? What are the best places to hike with kids? Trouble-shooting tactics?
“It can feel very isolating when you have a child, especially in Denver, where I think a lot of people don’t have family around, at least a lot of my friends don’t [because] they’re transplants,” Willenbring says. “So to be able to connect with and learn from other moms in a setting that’s very comfortable, that was a huge draw for me with Hike it Baby.”
The desire for community and how-to knowledge also drew Gwinn to Hike it Baby, which she learned about while reading message boards on the What to Expect When You’re Expecting app. Before her daughter Isla—now 16 months old—was born, Gwinn moved to Colorado with her husband and two older kids, making the Rocky Mountain state the eighth move for her family in 14 years. When she stumbled upon Hike it Baby, she figured it’d be a great way to meet new parents while also exploring her new home. The only problem, she says, was that no one was proactively organizing hikes. So, she took matters into her own hands. Gwinn now serves as the lead ambassador for the Denver metro chapter, which has more than 2,000 parents in their Facebook group.
“Hike It” History
Hike it Baby began in the Pacific Northwest, in 2013, when a new mom started calling together her friends with young children to join her on local hikes. Since then, regional chapters have sprouted in more than 300 cities and towns across North America, cumulatively offering 1,500 free hikes each month.
Any parent—mom, dad, grandparent—can become an ambassador, start their own chapter, or join a hike. More than 200,000 families have engaged with Hike it Baby on social media. The nonprofit recently published a hiking-with-babies guide book, Hike it Baby: 100 Awesome Outdoor Adventures with Babies and Toddlers, and partnered with the hiking gear company Merrell to design a line of shoes for little hikers.
Covering More Ground
Hike it Baby has continued to expand each year. Active chapters exist in Boulder, Colorado Springs, Denver, Douglas County, the Roaring Fork Valley, and four other locations around the state.
“It’s really special to be able to connect with other moms with similar life circumstances,” Willenbring says. “[We’re] just learning from other moms who have hiked with their babies a bit and have little tips and tricks.”
Now with Shea, Willenbring still drives up to the Summit County trails occasionally, “but only if it lines up with nap time and Shea can sleep in the car,” she says as Shea stares out from her carrier, eyes fixed on a cluster of leaves rustling in the wind. With Hike it Baby, Willenbring is excited to continue learning and paying forward the knowledge she’s acquired while navigating the long, winding journey of parenthood.
“It’s so important to get outside for mental health and physical health,” Kate Willenbring, regional ambassador for Hike it Baby, says.
According to the Mayo Clinic, most women experience hormone-induced “baby blues” after childbirth, but many experience a deeper postpartum depression. A Stanford study found walking in nature can lower risks of depression in addition to having a positive effect on aspects of cognitive function.
The benefits go to babies as well: as a research fellow at the University of Plymouth reports, when children under the age of three have substantial experiences in the outdoors, sensory development is heightened and the ability to adapt quickly to new environments is strengthened.
Hop on the Trail
HikeitBaby.com offers a full schedule of organized Hike it Baby hikes to join, as well as a roundup of favorite trails in Colorado and across the United States. Trail descriptions on the site share distance, highlights, and features of the trail, such as surface type, bathrooms, cell reception, and water fountains, and show photos of each trail.