Jenny Bruso is the founder of Unlikely Hikers, an inclusive community highlighting the underrepresented outdoorsperson. Here, she’ll share gear reviews for plus-size outdoor enthusiasts as well as her experiences battling stereotypes within the outdoor industry.
Who are your favorite plus-size outdoor adventurers? I can wait while you think about it. Just one. Name just one?
Alright, I’m not going to give you too hard of a time about it. As brands and outdoor news hubs continue to ramp up the conversation on diversity in the outdoors, there’s still a notable lack of body diversity represented. In fact, most brands don’t make plus-size clothing, let alone gear, which is the very first step in acknowledging that plus-size people are recreating outdoors.
When I started hiking, I definitely wasn’t seeing us at outdoor conferences and events or on the outdoorsy social media accounts I followed, but I knew we were out there. This is why I started Unlikely Hikers. I was desperate to connect with other plus-size adventurers and everyone who wasn’t represented in ads and social media.
Body liberation activist Jes Baker says, “Change your feed, change your life.” The importance of diversity in the outdoors should go without saying by now, but do your social media feeds reflect these values? If you aren’t following any plus-size adventurers, you have no more excuses! I’ve done the work for you. These five plus-size outdoorspeople are just a sampling of the many of us out there. And for you aspiring plus-size adventurers, the outdoors isn’t waiting on you to be anyone other than who you are right now, so don’t wait for it. These leaders have some words just for you.
Mirna Valerio (@themirnavator)
Mirna Valerio is an ultramarathoner. Sometimes she runs for days at a time. She is also an educator, opera singer, cross-country coach, blogger, and the author of a memoir called A Beautiful Work in Progress. She started running as a teenager, but after a health scare in 2008, Valerio recommitted to the sport. Today, her presence in the athletic world is normalizing the image of the plus-size athlete. Seeing Valerio profiled in publications like the New York Times and Runner’s World is a huge win for representation.
“When people ask me how they can move their bodies more, I tell them to just start with a walk around the block and to notice how their feet and legs feel, how things look and smell,” Valerio says. “Movement is about so much more than losing weight.”
Ashley Manning (@ashleysadventure)
Ashley Manning is a whitewater rafter and hiker. In 2018, she completed more than 1,000 miles of the Appalachian Trail. Currently, she’s leading rafting trips on the Green River in Utah. Manning is a regular blogger for The Trek, where she writes about her experiences as a plus-size adventurer and offers tips on plus-size activewear and gear. In outdoor media, women and femmes aren’t always celebrated for their amazing feats, but rather for how they look while doing what they do. Manning regularly posts photos of her wild rafting adventures and of herself owning her body and sexuality, challenging the way plus-size bodies are desexualized and policed. “Do not let anyone’s words stop you from enjoying what you love,” she says. “For the most part, the outdoor community is full of lovely, accepting, and kind people.”
Jolie Varela (@indigenouswomenhike)
A couple years ago, Jolie Varela, a citizen of the Nüümü and Yokut Nations, was going through a deep depression and wanted to begin the work of healing and reconnecting with her homeland, Payahüünadü (Bishop, California). Through her organization, Indigenous Women Hike (IWH), she shines a light on issues many nonnatives don’t know about, like the missing and murdered indigenous women epidemic. In 2018, Varela and other indiginous women trekked their ancestral trade route, Nüümü Poyo, also known as the John Muir Trail, which ignited conversations about the whitewashing and colonization of many of our most beloved trails and public lands. IWH is currently working on a gear library to give indigenous people, who are largely left out of the outdoor recreation narrative, access to gear. “The land does not discriminate,” Varela says. “Your beautiful body belongs on the beautiful land.”
Sam Ortiz (@samortizphoto and @biggirlsclimbtoo)
Sam Ortiz’s outdoor adventure life began only about five years ago, but she’s done a lot in that time. She hikes, mountaineers, climbs, and volunteers with search and rescue efforts in Washington. She launched a plus-size climbing event series at her local climbing gym after lobbying for plus-size harnesses, which the gym agreed to. Ortiz recently began an Instagram community called @biggirlsclimbtoo to increase awareness of plus-size climbers and share information. Her mountaineering experience has landed Ortiz a cover of Mountaineer, and she’s modeled for big outdoor brands like REI and Eddie Bauer. “It’s OK to be slow. It’s OK to try and fail and try again. It’s OK to ask for help,” Ortiz says. “You belong out there just as much as anyone else, at any pace, in any capacity that you desire.”
Megan Banker (@pdxoutdoorchiro)
Sometimes, being a leader is incidental. You’re just doing what you love, but there are so few of us that it sort of happens anyway. Megan Banker is one of those people. She’s a climber and mountaineer who regularly posts pictures of herself atop massive mountains, like Mount Hood and Mount St. Helens, as if it’s just what people do on the weekends. That isn’t to say Banker doesn’t regularly get real about what it takes, even calling attention to flippant attitudes by climbing bros who act like there are “easy” ways to climb a mountain. It’s refreshing in this social media influencer age to see Banker just doing her. “Becoming an outdoor adventurer takes curiosity, time, determination, and usually chocolate,” she says. “None of these things come with size restrictions.” Rumor has it that Banker will be starting her own plus-size climbing group in Portland, Oregon. (Megan, I’m ready.)