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From the founder of the Fat Girls Hiking community comes an inclusive, inspiring call to the outdoors for people of all body types, sizes, and backgrounds. In a book brimming with heartfelt stories, practical advice, personal profiles of Fat Girls Hiking community members, and helpful trail reviews, Summer Michaud-Skog creates space for marginalized bodies with an insistent conviction that outdoor recreation should welcome everyone. Whether you’re an experienced or aspiring hiker, you’ll be empowered to hit the trails and find yourself in nature. Trails not scales!
FAT GIRLS HIKING
HOW IT ALL BEGAN
In 2014, I was hiking a lot with my girlfriend at the time. We would make lists of places we wanted to road-trip to in Oregon, and I would research hikes and fun things to see and places to camp. After doing these sorts of trips awhile, I noticed that I didn’t often see people who looked like me on trails or posting on Instagram about places in the outdoors. I am a queer, fat, heavily tattooed woman with chronic pain who hikes in dresses. I don’t have money for “proper” outdoor gear and most of it doesn’t even come in my size, so I get by with what is available.
Once my love of hiking and being outdoors set in, I scoured social media in the hope that I would find others like me. I did discover some online spaces specifically for women in the outdoors, but most typically showcased the same type of women over and over again—white, thin, cisgendered, heterosexual, able-bodied, conventionally attractive, and with all the expensive technical outdoor gear. There is absolutely nothing wrong about being any or all of these things, but I didn’t see myself reflected in those spaces.
One day, I was on a popular trail near the Oregon coast with my girlfriend, and we felt like people were looking at us strangely—like we didn’t belong there. Was it because we are a lesbian couple? Was it because we are both fat? Was it because I’m heavily tattooed and was wearing a colorful dress and she’s Latina? We didn’t know for sure, but it was clear that other people on the trail weren’t used to seeing people that looked like us in the outdoors.
FGH group hike at Fernhill Wetlands in Forest Grove, Oregon
Often during our hikes, we would make up songs to pass the time or get through challenging sections. We’re just two fat girls hiking, was the refrain that day on the Oregon coast. It made us laugh. It was a comfort to know that it didn’t matter to us that we were fat girls hiking, we just loved being outside.
In 2015, my desire to see more diversity in outdoor social media inspired me to create an Instagram account called Fat Girls Hiking. I shared photographs and wrote about trails, campsites, and road trips. Though diversity in outdoor media, including social media, could be hard to find, some spaces had been carved out for marginalized groups. Some of the groups I looked up to as Fat Girls Hiking attracted a following included:
TRAIL DAMES A nationwide hiking club for “women of a curvy nature”
ESCAPING YOUR COMFORT ZONE An Australian club devoted to “body positive hiking and adventures for women and non-binary people”
SHE EXPLORES A podcast and blog about “inquisitive women in the outdoors and the stories, art, and connection that nature inspires”
OUTDOOR AFRO A nationwide network that “celebrates and inspires Black connections and leadership in nature”
LATINO OUTDOORS A community organization with a mission to “inspire, connect, and engage Latino communities in the outdoors”
MELANIN BASECAMP A blog working “to increase representation and opportunities for people of color in outdoor adventure sports”
I had been running the FGH Instagram account for a few months and noticed that other fat folks were using #fatgirlshiking as a hashtag. I wanted to amplify and showcase other fat women, queers, and women of color who were out here taking up space in the outdoors just like me and my friends. As I started to feature more people, the community grew. The more people I featured, the more it was clear that Fat Girls Hiking was no longer about what I personally was doing outside—it was a community that rallied around inclusivity, fat activism, and accessibility in the outdoors.
People began to ask for meet ups in person, group hikes, and group activities around this shared ideal. I remember thinking, I’m not a hike leader. I don’t know how to do that. I was nervous that I didn’t have the skills or experience to make an in-person community happen. But I started small, creating group hikes near where I lived at the time. The first group hike I posted on the Fat Girls Hiking page got a lot of attention online, but no one showed up for the hike in person. I did the hike anyway. The next two hikes, the same thing happened—lots of online support but no one showed up. I was disheartened by the effort I’d put in only for the “group” part of the hike to not happen. Maybe people didn’t actually want to hike with me? But then, in June of 2016, five people showed up for a waterfall hike I planned. I was elated. Meeting people in real life who shared similar lived experiences as fat people was incredible!
Transitioning an online space where everyone is welcome to an IRL community space comes with challenges. On regular hikes with friends, we never talked about weight loss or diets, and we didn’t shame ourselves or others for their abilities or body size. We also didn’t use diet-culture language around food when we went out to eat after a hike. We would eat what we wanted and nourish ourselves in ways that feel good. There was no moral superiority with who was eating what and how much. I was determined to translate that same environment from my close circle of friends into a community setting, but I wasn’t sure how.
Because I had zero experience as an outdoor leader and was a new hiker myself, there were some early growing pains
When I started leading FGH group hikes, I was nervous to speak in front of a group, feeling much more comfortable with one-on-one conversations while on the trail. So I’d meet people at the trailheads, have them sign liability waivers, and we’d all start hiking. Because I wasn’t clear about guidelines, sometimes people would join up without really understanding what Fat Girls Hiking was all about. As more people showed up with talk about their intentions to lose weight or excuses for why they were slow, I knew I needed to clarify our mission. It was a challenge, because I didn’t want anyone to feel shamed for the choices they made for their own body, but I was trying to create an environment free from diet culture and talk. We weren’t hiking to lose weight; we were creating a community where fat folks could be outdoors together.
Initially, I had described our group outings as Body Positive Hikes, but as the body positivity movement gained attention in mainstream media, the original intentions, meaning, and definition of that movement changed, causing people to misunderstand Fat Girls Hiking’s mission and goals. I began using the phrase and tagline Trails Not Scales to emphasize the importance of a fat outdoor community that isn’t focused on weight-loss or diet talk.
Online, I outright rejected diet culture. I spoke out against anti-fat rhetoric and fat shaming. And I stopped using the term body positive to describe our group hikes. I rewrote the mission statement:
Fat Girls Hiking is fat activism, body liberation, and outdoor community. We want to take the shame and stigma out of the word fat and empower it. Our motto, Trails Not Scales, focuses on self-care in the outdoors. We promote weight-neutrality and Health At Every Size. We want to create a space where fat and marginalized folks can come together in community to create safer spaces in the outdoors. Fat Girls Hiking is a community where people can access outdoor spaces in a way that meets their needs. We believe in representation for fat folks, folks of all ages, races, ethnicities, religions, classes, abilities, genders, and sexual identities. No diet talk, no weight-loss talk, no body shaming, and no bigotry of any kind is allowed in our online or real-life spaces. Our community is a safer space for marginalized folks and allies!
In addition to revising our mission statement, I started a new outdoor series called No Fatty Left Behind to promote greater inclusion and accessibility for our outdoor community. The name came from a fat-positive camp I attended on Orcas Island in Washington State with Wild Abundance Expeditions. The realization that some fat folks were unable to attend group hikes and events because of accessibility needs was heartbreaking for me. In bell hooks’s book Teaching Community: A Pedagogy of Hope, she reminds us to always keep the most marginalized among us at the forefront of the community work we do. “To build community requires vigilant awareness of the work we must continually do to undermine all the socialization that leads us to behave in ways that perpetuate domination.” This new series created room for folks in our community who need ADA-accessible trails, flat or no-elevation-gain trails, and places to sit along the way. It also welcomes folks who can’t or don’t want to hike at all but do want to spend time outdoors with a supportive group.
For our first outing of No Fatty Left Behind, a dear friend of mine agreed to give a talk to the group about their experiences in the outdoors. An optional, ADA-accessible hike followed the talk. We’ve kept this structure going as the workshop has evolved—these days I’ll invite a community member with an interesting area of expertise to lead a workshop held in an accessible outdoor space. We’ve had workshops about body sovereignty, Indigenous relations to the land, plant identification, writing and journaling, and bird and wildlife viewing and identification. After the workshop, there is an opt-in walk on an ADA-accessible trail. This opt-in model accommodates the wide range of physical, emotional, and mental needs of the individuals in our group. It allows us to better focus on how we can celebrate and support one another in the community, challenging notions that we must “conquer” a trail or go a certain distance or speed in order to call what we are doing a hike. For folks who don’t hike, we share an activity that centers our nature connection. Typically we will offer some journal prompts, reading material, or an arts-and-crafts project. We can sit near one another in the outdoors to talk about what it’s like to navigate the world as fat people and explore ways to heal from oppression together, and this is enough to call ourselves outdoorsy.
I’m still nervous every time I lead a group hike. I still really don’t like talking in front of groups. But I know now that other people see me as a leader, so I try to admit my fears and faults, evolve when needed, and face the community with honesty, vulnerability, and support. When people attend a group hike, I greet everyone (usually with a hug if they want one) and wait for people to arrive. Then, we make a circle so I can go over community guidelines and what to expect from the hike, giving each person permission to make the experience fit their physical, emotional, and mental needs. I tell them that we don’t have a destination, that we can stop and turn around whenever we want to, that we are hiking to connect with one another, nature, and ourselves. Then we make introductions, in which I ask everyone to state their name, pronouns, and favorite thing or things in nature.
The Hoyt Arboretum in Portland, Oregon, has ADA-accessible trails
One of the biggest fears people have about joining a group hike is that they’ll be too slow to keep up. Having been left behind on hikes by well-intended groups, partners, and friends, I understand this fear very well. Each time it happens I am filled with a feeling of shame, of not being good enough or worthy to be on the trail with people who are clearly more “in shape” than me. All the negative self-talk that society and diet culture feeds to me about why my fat body is wrong and bad rises to the surface.
On the road in a minivan
To counter it, I remember that, at heart, I am still my teenage feminist riot grrrl self and she does not subscribe to toxic body ideology. Then I am gentle with myself and allow myself to celebrate my body just as it is at whatever pace it needs to go. When I slow down in the outdoors and go at a pace that feels good for me, I have an opportunity to catch my breath, take a lot of photos, and look around at the plants and trees. I’m able to appreciate and witness the beauty around and within me. I tell people on group hikes to honor their bodies’ needs because I have learned to do that for myself.
Over the years, I have received countless messages, comments, and emails from people worried they are too slow and will hold the group back. I always let them know that no one is left behind on our group hikes and that we go at the pace of the slowest hiker. As the group leader, I am the last person on the trail. I try to ensure that folks in the back of the group, slower folks like me, feel the most support, because I don’t want anyone to feel ashamed. Before we start the hike, I remind anybody who may take the lead to be mindful of where the group is and to keep a pace that allows people to catch up. This hasn’t always been successful, but I set the intention. Sometimes people just want to go ahead and go faster than the pace of the slowest hiker. As long as the slowest hikers feel support from the group leader, I consider it a successful hike. Accessibility for the most marginalized among us is vital to creating a truly inclusive space.
Once I started sharing photos of our group hikes in the Portland area, people from all around the world started commenting. Things like, I wish I had this where I live! or, How can I start a group like this? I thought a lot about how to expand Fat Girls Hiking to other areas, but it was more uncharted territory. A dear friend from Knoxville, Tennessee, presented the perfect opportunity to expand. She’d been craving a community like Fat Girls Hiking locally, and after experiencing the FGH community on the first winter weekend retreat I hosted in Oregon, she was even more adamant about finding other fat folks in her area who wanted to spend time outside with her. I’d rented a house for the retreat in Mount Hood National Forest, and we cried together at the kitchen table, because we knew how powerful it was to be in a community with other fat people who weren’t going to talk about weight loss and diets or body or food shame themselves or others. Then we got to work creating the first FGH chapter outside Portland.
FGH Southwest Ohio ambassador Sara poses by the water
Clean-up hike in Oregon
After I got the hang of setting up a chapter, I was excited to see where the organization would go. But I was also nervous about who the ambassadors would be. Would they understand the mission and uphold the values of the community? How would I explain to them how to lead a hike? I knew I’d have to let go of control and allow my precious baby to grow, but at first I really wanted to meet any potential ambassadors in person. This allowed me to get a sense of them, explain what would be expected of them as a group leader and ambassador, and ensure that they would uphold the safer-space guidelines. I traveled to Los Angeles; Seattle; Vancouver, British Columbia; and Minneapolis to host hikes and search for ambassadors. With their help, we created thriving communities in all those areas, where ambassadors host and lead group hikes once a month.
But the community wanted more chapters. So, I decided to take FGH on the road, traveling from Oregon to the Midwest and eastern United States to southeastern Canada. I lived in a minivan all along the way, leading group hikes, meeting amazing people, and eventually opening sixteen chapters.
But still the community asked for more. I had to admit it wasn’t financially sustainable to travel everywhere that wanted a FGH chapter and meet every ambassador in person. So I created a questionnaire for potential ambassadors and emailed with anyone who was interested in setting up and leading a chapter in their area. If they seemed like a good fit, we would set up a time to talk on the phone. No matter how big the organization grows, I still want to personally ensure that every FGH leader has the tools to create an inclusive outdoor community that mirrors the one I started in Portland. There are now chapters all over the United States and Canada and even in England and Sweden.
The messages and comments I have received about my grassroots organization and community building encourage me. I am nurtured by the stories I hear on hikes.
Fat Girls Hiking saved me. Fat Girls Hiking changed my life.
I didn’t know there were other fat people like me who hiked.
I’m so grateful this community exists.
People say they feel safe to be themselves in this community, or that they’re inspired to take their first ever hike because of what they’ve seen online. The organization has changed immensely over the years, as have I. I hope we will all continue to grow and better ourselves. I know we will keep connecting online and in person when we’re able to safely do so again. Fat Girls Hiking is the most challenging and rewarding work I have ever done. Thank you all for being here with me.
HOW TO HIKE
WHAT TO WEAR
Listen, I like looking cute on a trail. I like feeling like myself, and I have a style that makes me feel comfortable and happy in my body. As a colorful femme who likes bright, sometimes clashing patterns, I haven’t willingly worn pants in over a decade (leggings aren’t pants, I’ve heard). When I first started hiking, I thought I had to dress a certain way to fit in or be accepted by the mainstream outdoor community. I feared that when I hiked in cotton or sneakers or cheap gear, people on the trail saw me as a fraud. But I didn’t let the lack of cute outdoor gear in my size stop me. I hiked in leggings and dresses.
Eventually I learned why non-cotton apparel is so prevalent in hiking gear—it’s much more comfortable when you get sweaty or wet from the rain. But I realized that my personal style didn’t have to change. This was such a revelation! You can absolutely be yourself while hiking. Here’s a list of things that have helped me find my happy place out on the trails in any weather.
Base layers (the clothes you wear closest to your skin) made of non-cotton materials are the best way to keep yourself dry. Most activewear—clothes intended for working out—works great, and there are lots of options at many price points. I like to support smaller brands and businesses whenever I can, but I know that they’re not always financially accessible. When I first started, my favorite pair of leggings came from a big box store, cost less than twenty bucks, and lasted me for years of hikes. Now, my favorite hiking leggings have pockets (!!) that are perfect for easy access to my cell phone.
Hikers in northern Illinois
The first hike I did after moving to Oregon, I didn’t have any outdoor gear because I wasn’t a regular hiker. For decades, the only footwear I owned were a pair of broken-in motorcycle boots. So I hiked in those. I quickly realized that they weren’t super comfortable on trails (hell = rolled ankles), so I switched to some cheap sneakers I found at an outlet store.
My hiking boots at Badlands National Park
If, when you’re starting out, all you have are sneakers—wear those. If you live somewhere that’s usually dry, sneakers may be the only hiking footwear you’ll ever need. For me, sneakers worked better than my motorcycle boots, but I found myself with wet, cold feet on rainy days and muddy trails. Wet feet make me incredibly grumpy. If you’re like me and you live somewhere where it rains a lot, you’ll probably want shoes that can keep your feet dry instead of acting like wet, mud sponges. I find waterproof hiking boots essential to my happiness when hiking in the soggy Pacific Northwest. You can find waterproof footwear in more of a sneaker shape, but I prefer boots because I like the ankle support.
Rain gear is essential in the Pacific Northwest
The final secret to comfortable feet is to have shoes to change into after your hike. I leave flip-flops or comfortable slip-on shoes in my vehicle for after-hike foot care. The sigh of happiness that comes from peeling sweaty socks off and slipping your feet into flip-flops is like none other.
Depending on where you live and the weather conditions where you’ll be hiking, consider items to protect yourself from the elements. A rain jacket or poncho, waterproof pants or moisture-wicking leggings, a snow jacket and pants, or sun protection (whether it’s a hat, sunglasses, or clothing with SPF protection) can all make your hike more enjoyable.
A cloudy day on Mount St. Helens’s Loowit Trail
I know that finding technical outdoor gear is a challenge for people in plus-size bodies. The first rain jacket I used while hiking stopped at my waist—so while my torso and arms stayed dry, the entire bottom half of my body did not. I suppose I could have worn rain pants, but, if you’ll remember, I hate wearing pants, even ones that keep me dry. Because the outdoor gear industry is far behind in accommodating plus-size bodies, the solution so far has been a men’s rain jacket from a big outdoor brand (it came with a removable puffer jacket liner that can be worn separately, which is nice). This jacket covers my butt, and that’s what I wanted, however it’s ill fitting everywhere else. In order to have a dry butt, I have to just deal with the baggy arms and hope that one day there will be rain jackets specifically designed for bodies like mine. I also dream about cute patterns and colors, but I’d take proper fit first.
HOW TO CHOOSE A BACKPACK
For me, a good-fitting backpack is an essential piece of gear. Everyone’s dream backpack will be different, so research the fit, size, and features you want before you purchase. They can be expensive, but a quality backpack that you like makes a huge difference in your experience outdoors.
Besties at a favorite trail, Mount St. Helens National Monument
I bought my first outdoor backpack off the rack at an outdoor retailer. I was too intimidated to ask the people working at the store if it was the right size for me. In fact, I didn’t even know at the time that backpacks came in different sizes and fits. Luckily, the pack I chose was mostly comfortable once I’d adjusted the straps to fit my body. But after actually using it outside, I quickly realized that some features would be really helpful for the weather where I hike—namely, after my first hike in the rain, everything inside my pack got soaked. So I found a new, waterproof backpack, but, again, didn’t ask for help finding my size. The straps on the new pack were uncomfortable, and I was constantly adjusting them to try to keep them from digging into my shoulders.
I knew I would have to spend a bit more money to get something that had the features I wanted and the comfort I needed—more importantly, I knew I’d have to talk to someone. Once I’d worked up the courage, I was able to ask an employee at the outdoor retailer to measure me for the correct size pack and let them know what I was looking for. I needed a pack for day hiking that would be padded on the straps and on the different parts where the pack touches my body. It also needed to be waterproof and have a spot for a hydration bladder, side pockets, and a hip belt for added stability. I was nervous that such a pack didn’t exist for my fat body. It was no surprise to me that I had to shop in the men’s section to find a pack with long enough straps. But in the end, I did find what I was looking for.
Shortlisted for the Pacific Northwest Book Award
"[This book is] marking the next chapter in her movement…her book helps empower people to find their own connections to the outdoors, making the community of hikers even bigger.” —Teen Vogue
“Summer Michaud-Skog introduced me to an entirely new way of thinking about outdoor recreational culture; she encouraged me to take up space and honor my needs in ways that I had never been exposed to before. She has created a revolutionary community in Fat Girls Hiking and I am so excited that you are holding this book, about to receive similar gifts.” —Layla Cameron, Director, Fat Hiking Club
“An invaluable guide…Well-chosen color photographs—featuring fat hikers—make this guidebook visually impactful and welcoming. Kudos to the author for changing the narrative on inclusiveness, breaking down stereotypes, and building body positivity with a clarion call to the outdoor industry: increase diverse representation and offer plus-sized apparel and gear.” —Booklist
“I’ve been waiting for a book like this! Summer Michaud-Skog… has blessed us with this invaluable volume full of trail reviews, advice, stories and profiles, alongside beautiful photographs.”—Ms. Magazine
"Filled with heartfelt stories, practical advice, helpful trail reviews, and personal profiles of members of Fat Girls Hiking.” —Sierra
“Accessibility is and can be centered in outdoor activities like hiking. With plenty of pictures and lots of practical advice, this is a great book with which to get started.” —Book Riot
- On Sale
- Mar 29, 2022
- Page Count
- 252 pages
- Timber Press