Lyndsey Vaillancourt gave birth to her daughter in December of 2013 right before Christmas. Aubrey Lyn was delivered healthy to the awaiting arms of her enamored parents. But once the excitement and exhaustion of the holidays were behind them, Vaillancourt found herself home alone all day with Aubrey and a case of postpartum depression. The closeted nature of winter in New England only made things worse. Vaillancourt diligently went to therapy sessions but saw little progress.
When Vaillancourt had made her baby registry in the months before Aubry was born, she had seen a baby hiking backpack. Not being a hiker herself — and the backpack carrying a $200 price tag — the carrier never made it to her list of essentials. Yet, in the house with the final months of winter holding tight, the idea of the hiking backpack lingered like a beckoning open door.
And one March day, instead of going to therapy, Vaillancourt walked through that door, buying a used Kelty baby carrier off Craigslist. She loaded Aubry inside; she was three months old. They didn’t make it to the top of Gap Mountain, they stopped, ate lunch and returned. Despite it being a failure of ascent, Vaillancourt didn’t feel any worse and she even possibly felt a little better. Vaillancourt continued the hikes, her legs growing stronger and her confidence as a mother returning. Three months later, by the time Aubrey was six months old, Vaillancourt’s postpartum blues had subsided.
Aubry walked by 12 months, and hiked her first mountain on her own accord, Gap Mountain, a little before she turned two years old. It took six and a half hours. This is around the same time that Vaillancourt came across Hike it Baby while looking for guidance on snowshoeing with a toddler. She learned from the website that the best way is to tow the child is in a sled behind you. She also learned she could hike and have the camaraderie of other parents too.
Hike it Baby was founded in Portland, Oregon, by Shanti Hodges with the desire to build community while being outside. Today it is a national nonprofit that relies on the grassroots participation of 300 local chapters to democratically lead hikes, support caregivers and parents and share information about the best ways to enjoy the outdoors with children. When Vaillancourt came across the organization in 2015, the closest branch was Boston.
Vaillancourt took Hike it Baby’s online training to become an ambassador and in February of 2015 launched the Hike it Baby Monadnock Facebook group. Vaillancourt was left to market and promote the group, to convince people she says “that it isn’t crazy to hike with your baby.” No one showed up for the first couple hikes sponsored by Vaillancourt, but she was undeterred, and the mountain still awaited. She and Aubry turned trail and hiked anyway.
Four years later, this past summer, Vaillancourt focused her camera from the top of the water tower on Pitcher Mountain to capture the hikers below, all 30 of them, children and parents in motion. Today, the Hike it Baby Monadnock Group has more than 500 members. The most active members come from Jaffrey and Peterborough. But the group has followers from all over the country who have passed through the region and have been able to connect with adventuring parents instantly.
Hike it Baby groups are free to join. Although the national nonprofit encourages a $10 registration, there are scholarships and ways around it. Any member can host a hike, at any time. Most hikes have been sponsored during the workday to connect stay-at-home parents during a time with a little support, but if the demographics of the group were to change the hikes would follow suit.
Vaillancourt, who works nights at Robin Hill Farm, is both a stay-at-home mom and a working mom, straddling the demands of caretaking in both the waking and sleeping hours.
Hike it Baby gives parents an alternative to other parent-child groups which can sometimes be a gauntlet of small talk, with intermittent demands to police play.
“On the hikes, we all sometimes get out of breath, struggling and no one is talking because it is a challenge,” says Vaillancourt, but at the summit, “we have accomplished something together.”
In addition, there are the obvious cardiac advantages, “you’ve got 40 pounds strapped to your back or front. You are getting a good workout,” says Vaillancourt.
In talking to Vaillancourt and other mothers, the transformative power of Hike it Baby is self-evident, for their children, the rewards are more subtle but no less sweet. The Hike it Baby website is a wealth of information on the positive effects of children being regularly outdoors and a June 2019 study in Scientific Reports quantified the amount of time children should play outdoors to reap the health benefits, 120 minutes.
Just because it is good for you, does not mean it is always easy.
“Meltdowns happen,” says Vaillancourt, but not just to Aubry, to everyone on the trail for one reason or another, at one time or another. The group gets through it, sometimes just by putting one foot in front of the other, sometimes with the aid of a sugary incentive. Like the rest of parenting, there is no formula.
“We roll with it,” says Vaillancourt. “If we need to take time, we take a break. Sometimes I leave her behind a little bit, keeping her in the corner of my eye. Sometimes she needs to storm ahead.”
In the fall, Aubry will break a new trail of her own and start Kindergarten. Vaillancourt foresees that she will be less involved on the trail, but Hike it Baby Monadnock Ambassadors Caroline Trembly and Jen Kone will continue the work of sponsoring hikes. Vaillancourt still plans to be active online, offering support and guidance. She explains,
“I want to encourage other families to do the same thing. Even if they try it and hate it,” she says. “Go out and do it again, but this time bring lots of treats and snacks. Bribery is 100% a true thing when hiking with a kid.”
Paige Lindell writes from Rindge, New Hampshire.