‘A sisterhood built on healing and nature’: How a Philly hiking group is improving women’s wellness

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A group of people pose for a photo on a beautiful fall day.

The Hike & Heal Hive group photo at the Wissahickon in Philadelphia on Saturday, October 29, 2022. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

Three years ago, Brandi Aulston got to thinking about her 2017 trip to Colorado. She had purchased a pair of hiking boots for the trip and, despite her best intentions to start hiking when she returned to Philadelphia, the boots sat collecting dust for two years.

When Aulston finally tried to find a hiking group so she could put the boots to use, she had no luck, so she picked up her phone.

“I said, ‘Let me see if other people want to do this with me.’ I put it out on my Instagram and I got a great response,” said Aulston.

A woman poses in the woods.
Brandi Aulston is the founder of Hike & Heal. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

That was the beginning of what would eventually become Hike & Heal, a women’s hiking and wellness “hive” that offers “grounding experiences for people to improve their overall physical, mental and spiritual wellness in nature.”

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As Aulston began to organize regular hikes over the months, she realized that she had struck a nerve with other Black women who also wanted to spend time outdoors.

“I felt like I was filling a void … people really had a desire to hike or thought that it wasn’t for them. And then they started to see other Black and brown people gathering to do this in nature,” said Aulston. “I think that it really spoke to people to say that, ‘Oh, I can do this too. This could be for me.’”

Hike & Heal hosted a community hike on Saturday morning, October 29, 2022, along Philadelphia’s Wissahickon Creek. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

To Aulston, it’s meaningful that other women of color are drawn to join the community she’s created — it means that they feel safe in the group, she said.

“We attract Black and brown people. I can’t take away from my Blackness and this is Black-centered wellness,” said the 32-year-old founder. “But we want other people to feel like they can join us. And they do. And they still feel seen. They still feel heard.”

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Hike & Heal hosted a community hike on Saturday morning, October 29, 2022, along Philadelphia’s Wissahickon Creek. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

That’s exactly how Liz Fever feels. One of the original “hive hunnies,” Fever has been with the group since its first hike back in 2019.

“Getting outside, reconnecting with nature, finding ways to move my body were all really important to me at that time,” said Fever, who is a personal stylist and yoga instructor. “This has been such an incredible safe space to be able to move and flourish in the body that I’m in now, without any judgment or fear.”

Lauren Hunter first learned about the group on Instagram by following a local hiking hashtag. As someone who loves to be outdoors, Hunter decided to show up to one of the outings, and has been coming back ever since. Sometimes, she’ll also bring along Indigo, her 20-month-old.

“I describe [Hike & Heal] as a sisterhood built on healing and nature,” said Hunter.

“It is a place that you can go to find yourself. It’s a place where you can go to make new friends, where you can go if you’re having a really hard day and you just want to laugh. It’s a place you can go if you’re having a really hard day and you just want to be quiet,” she said.

A mother poses with her child in the woods.
Lauren Hunter, a member of Hike & Heal, says having a space to prioritize her own well-being is important, especially as a new mom to a 20-month-old, Indigo, who also joins for hikes. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

Since joining, Hunter, who works at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, says she’s been on a “number of healing journeys.” She attended the group’s retreat in Puerto Rico last year.

“I was able to reconnect with myself,” said the 40-year-old. “Being a new mom, a working parent, and also being a single mom, I was able to really take time for myself, which is something that I don’t do that often,” she said.

It’s been rewarding for Aulston to see people participate in the group and give back to themselves.

“It’s been healing to watch other people heal,” she said. ”That’s really where I get a lot of my cup full — from watching other people fill up and release.”

A woman leans on a trail post in the woods.
Hike & Heal founder Brandi Aulston lead hikers on a Saturday morning hike along Philadelphia’s Wissahickon Creek. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

Despite how much enjoyment she gets from the group, Aulston still makes time for herself outside of the group. Hike & Heal was originally a passion project, but it’s now her full-time job. And while it’s exciting, it takes a lot of energy and time.

Aulston organizes hikes, yoga sessions, and meditations, in addition to almost week-long retreats in Puerto Rico. As the group evolves, she’s trying to secure funding to support its activities.

That’s what led Aulston to start a formal membership for the group, which people can pay for to get access to exclusive events.

People walk down a trail in the woods.
The Hike & Heal hive navigates down rocks along Philadelphia’s Wissahickon Creek. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

There are still donation-based and free activities to keep things accessible, said Aulston. The group hosts a community hike or event on the last Saturday of each month, and it’s open to any adult who wants to get moving, no matter their experience level.

“You can always meet us where you’re at,” said Aulston. “You are always welcome to come. Just bring yourself. Bring great energy. Or sometimes it’s OK to just come in and receive.”

Some upcoming Hike & Heal events include a free family hike on Saturday, Nov. 6 and a hike at Bartram’s Garden for National Take a Hike Day on Thursday, Nov. 17.

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