Since its launch in 2018, Blaze Trails has become one of the largest parent and baby walking communities in the UK, providing a lifeline to women with post-natal mental health issues. Its founder, Katy O’Neill Gutierrez, explains how the network supports new parents by empowering them to experience the great outdoors.
I have always been quite outdoorsy. I love hiking and experiencing that thrill of going on an adventure. So when I gave birth to my first daughter at the end of 2017, I was adamant that I would keep enjoying hikes as a mum and not lose that side of myself. Although I was navigating the challenges of motherhood, I had a visceral urge to be outside with my baby.
I trawled Google for a mum and baby walking group but nothing showed up. I couldn’t believe it. The idea of mums and their babies walking together seemed like such a basic idea. Refusing to be downhearted, I decided to set up Blaze Trails, although it was not officially called that at the time. It started with just a few friends of mine on a walk near where I live in north London. Then friends of friends started coming along. In that first summer, my Blaze Trails group grew to about 150 people, the majority of whom were women, all taking part in baby-carrying, pushchair and toddler walks.
The numbers kept exploding and one day I turned up to the walk and realised there were people who I didn’t know. The walks were having a transformative impact on these new mums. Many would say it was the favourite part of their week, while others went as far as to say they had made friends for life from these weekly catch-ups. Many have found it a safe space to connect with other women and feel comfortable being around other mums, while developing a meaningful connection with their baby.
Blaze Trails has since expanded to become the UK’s biggest parent and baby walking community with around 15,000 members. While the pandemic threw a spanner in the works, the lockdown shifted people’s attitudes to walking, which was one of the few activities that was allowed to continue outside. While we describe ourselves as a parent group, realistically the vast majority are women given the balance of caring and parental leave policies in the UK, but this is shifting and we are seeing more men and other carers engaging with the community and coming on walks. All our walks are free, peer-led and inclusive to anyone with a baby in their care.
We have had mums who do epic 15-kilometre hikes in the Peak District with their babies on their backs to those who simply want to go for a walk in a pocket of green space in cities. I really love the bold, barrier-breaking symbolism that comes with women walking together, powering up hills or walking in the countryside with nature. Being in nature has been scientifically proven to be good for your mental health, while walking with others is therapeutic for mental and emotional well-being.
From our most recent user survey, we found that 65 per cent of parents had experienced postnatal depression or other mental health issues. Walking was highlighted as a key part of their recovery. Some saw their own perceived physical fitness as a barrier to walking, but for most people this did not emerge as a key barrier, perhaps because walking is a great entry-level activity. New parents were more likely to identify confidence as a personal barrier to getting outdoors with others, coupled with some practical challenges, like not having the right gear, or managing the feeding, changing and napping routines of their baby.
Although we are living in the 21st century, there are a lot of really traditional gender norms that suddenly fall upon women who are mums. They are expected to not only care for the baby, but fulfil this role as a motherly housewife and run pristine households that look like something from Instagram. There’s a lot of pressure on women and it can be incredibly limiting. We live in an age where more and more women want to reconcile motherhood with a professional career, but on the other hand there is also the fear of judgment if you go back to work. That’s before we even mention the sexist narratives about “snapping back” and looking a certain way after childbirth.
At Blaze Trails, we want to make sure that women and all parents feel able to nourish themselves in a time of extreme transition. However privileged and confident you are, having a baby completely knocks you for six. It is common for women to feel guilt-tripped if they want to take any time for themselves, but it is so important for mums to have strong friendships, passion projects and know that adventure does not have to stop at parenthood.
Katy O’Neill Gutierrez was speaking to Fiona Tomas