Unlikely hikers pushes again towards outside recreation business’s bias by bringing each physique to nature

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Sandy • Kelli Stowers believes a good hike has healing properties. Nothing washes away your stress like exercising your body through nature.

But also, people’s reaction to the way her body moves can cause her stress, especially when others are commenting on her or throwing disapproving looks. Stowers describes herself as fat, and she said she endures this type of discomfort on the trails far more frequently than blisters or bee stings.

“I deal with a lot of unsolicited feedback from people because I’m in a bigger body,” the 38-year-old told Provo. She said people give her a surprised look and then say, “‘Oh, you’re doing great!’ I say, ‘Yes, I know. My body does the same as your body. It might be a bit slower, but I’ll make it.'”

Still, an aversion to these barbs has kept Stowers away from group hikes. Not even organizations like Fat Girls Hiking and Slow Hikers Unite Utah, both of whom she follows on social media, could change her mind. Despite her inclusive messages, she worries about being judged or left behind.

However, last Saturday she found herself at the Wrangler Trailhead in Dimple Dell Regional Park, surrounded by more than a dozen strangers who, like her, had shed their fears to take the first step toward finding a hiking community that would accept her without it Judgement. This group was called Unlikely Wanderers, but the name was wrong. In many ways, they represent average Americans. Yet in an outdoor culture historically portrayed as cis, white, fit, competitive, and financially affluent, they feel like outsiders.

(Gregory Mountain Products) A mix of people participate in an unlikely hiker excursion at the Dimple Dell Recreation Area in Sandy on Saturday, October 1, 2022. Compared to the norm promoted by the outdoor recreation industry, many of them had never before felt comfortable group hiking.

“I consider myself an unlikely hiker,” said August McCann of South Salt Lake City, a participant in Saturday’s hike, who uses the pronouns “they/they.” “I think outdoor industrial sites aren’t always the most welcoming for LGBT people and it can be really intimidating. I think there’s a lot of competition, especially in my age group and in the 20’s and 30’s. There’s a lot of influencer pressure, to have the gear, to look a certain way, to be super fit. None of that speaks to me. And I don’t often see other trans hikers along the way. Every time I go hiking, I know I’ll be the only one like me.”

Outdoors-oriented social media feeds were saturated with sort of “one-note, good-vibes-only” images when Jenny Bruso started hiking, and that’s what prompted her, Unlikely Hikers, six years ago to found. It started as an Instagram account highlighting the outdoor experiences of Black, Indigenous and People of Color, and people in LGBTQ communities. “It caught on like wildfire,” she said. Now the account has nearly 150,000 followers and the group has become a full-time job for Oregon-based Bruso, who advises companies looking to enter alternative markets and leads hikes across the country.

“I actually don’t think any of us are unlikely,” said Bruso, 40. “It’s just about challenging the status quo of how we perceive and have learned about our outdoor culture.”

The outdoor industry is adjusting its scope, but change is a long time coming. Kelly Davis, director of research for the Outdoor Industry Association, noted that many manufacturers of outdoor and athletic equipment produce lines ranging in size from XS to XL. And yet, according to at least one study, most women wear a size 16-18, which is a women’s size 2X.

“It’s still a challenge for plus size women to find technical outerwear that fits,” Davis said in an email. “Which turns this from a size issue to an access issue.”

A concerted effort to buck this trend has been made by some companies, such as Holladay-based Gregory Mountain Products, which sponsored Saturday’s hike and provided loot for participants. When it entered the plus-size market with its backpacks, it planned to expand to the 2X size. However, at Bruso’s recommendation, Gregory now makes packs that fit up to 6X in 14 styles and 16 colors.

(Gregory Mountain Products) Jenny Bruso, Founder of Incredible Hikers of Oregon, leads a group down a trail at Dimple Dell Recreation Area in Sandy on Saturday, October 1, 2022 to exercise their bodies through nature, regardless of gender expression, body type, race, age, financial status or ability.

Those packages may not be big sellers, but Gregory spokeswoman Lindsay Malone said the company wants to take an active role in promoting diversity in nature.

“As a brand and what we stand for,” Malone said, “we can’t do that,” Malone said.

Unlikely Hikers are not exclusively plus-size people, however, and this was reflected in Saturday’s participants. Some felt excluded from outdoor recreation because of their age, others because of their race or gender expression. Arawn Billings, who uses the she/he pronoun, said he’s sometimes despised by other trail users for a number of traits when hiking alone or with a friend — especially in conservative and body-conscious Utah.

“I don’t shave my face or legs. i have blue hair And I’m not skinny, so I still get a lot of judgment from people when I hit the trails than when I actually get off,” said Billings, who lives in Provo and identifies as queer. “And I’m like, ‘I’m just trying to exist, guys!'”

In addition, Billings, 33, suffers from an illness that causes him to have dizzy spells. Like Stowers, much as they yearned for community, he had not sought out a touring group for fear of being left behind or judged.

Bruso strives to allay these concerns for her unlikely wanderers. Before they hit the trail, she lays down the ground rules: Don’t talk about diets. No judgements. No phobias. Nobody is left behind. Participants also introduce themselves and discuss preferred pronouns. And she reminds them that the land they are about to step on has been taken from the indigenous peoples.

“People can have their hiking group where they just show up at the beginning of the trail and motor, and it’s fine,” Bruso said. “But we’re just trying to do something different. You know where maybe more people consider joining the group hike when maybe they are someone who said they would never join a group hike. I want to reach that person.”

For at least a day she reached some of these people, not least Stowers.

“Just knowing that it was an inclusive environment and that I didn’t have to worry about pushing myself faster than I could because I had to keep up or I had to, you know, play the part or whatever,” was refreshing, she said. “I just go hiking. That’s really great.”

But one day isn’t enough, the group agreed at a pre-hike happy hour meeting. Local chapters are in the works, including those in Salt Lake City and Ogden, which may be led by some Saturday walkers. Meanwhile, some attendees were planning to get together again — and bring a friend.

Because the more people they like, that they can hit the trails, the less unlikely the unlikely hikers are.