National Hiking Day: Body Size Diversity and Acceptance on the Trail

Hikers and nature lovers in larger bodies can feel stigmatized or ashamed while enjoying the outdoors. See how people of all body types explore the woods and combat weight stigma together.

(Scene: The Long Trail, July 2020)

“How do you tell the difference between Long Trail and Appalachian Trail hikers,” asked the man who went by the trail name Trash. He held three fingers in the air, stretched out like the surrounding skyward pines. His lips smirked, highlighting crow’s feet wrinkles on his perfectly sun-kissed face in a way that showed he thought the answer would be hilarious. “It’s BBB.”

“Boots?” I answered, looking down at my pair that felt woefully inadequate. My original pro-hiking boots ate a quarter-sized hole in my heel and dime-sized ones in the toe knuckles. The cushy trail shoes I wore to soften my steps on this humid day that made the Green Mountain National Forest feel like a tropical zone had already allowed my toes to bang against rocks. I knew that I’d end the summer with fewer toenails than I started with.

“Nope,” Trash said, shaking his head.

I sat perplexed with my fleshy bottom folding over a mound of quartz with a splendid vista of waves of mountains around us, just north of the rocky climb up from Route 9 near Bennington, Vermont. I was having a snack with my hiking partner and friend, Allie (trail alias: June Bug). Our overloaded backpacks for our first overnight were slung to the side of the path. A sweat-soaked Long Trail through-hiker named Kick Flip, one of the few solo female hikers we encountered, had just caught up with us. We had been giggling about the nudist couple wearing nothing but boots, kneepads and backpacks who had passed just south of our stopping point before Trash showed up.

“It’s big backpacks and . . .” Trash looked around with the air of a schoolteacher waiting for one of us to figure out the puzzle. “Body fat.”

Not knowing that Kick Flip had hiked the Appalachian Trail section between Maine and Vermont, often regarded as the toughest stretch, last summer, the joke fell flat. We shook our heads as Trash went on about the sections of the Appalachian Trail he had conquered thus far, followed by his adventures out west.

“Well, then,” Kick Flip said before continuing northbound, “I guess I qualify.”

Trash didn’t look me in the eye but rather over my 5-foot-11-inch height to Allie, who is about a foot shorter. I finally offered my trail name to him mid-conversation. “I’m known as Mama Kubwa.”

Mama Kubwa was the name I earned hiking Mount Kilimanjaro -- Africa’s highest peak -- three times, as a plus-size adventurer. It is Swahili for big woman, a name that translated wherever I hiked – from trails around my suburban New Jersey home to the treacherous wet chain descent to Mooney Falls in Havasupai Canyon.

It’s OK to hike in a plus-size body

This is just one trail tale. But the truth is, as a plus-size adventurer, I encounter this kind of reaction almost every time I hike.
As someone in a larger body, I wonder: Why do I have to keep proving my worth in the wild? 

On this National Hiking Day (November 17), may we all continue to take steps forward to welcome diverse body types. May we show up in the woods as we are. May we find the beauty and power in our path.

I’ve made it my mission and life’s work to put my body in the outdoors -- as an advocate, an influencer and advisor for companies and organizations. Not only does it make me feel incredible to move step by step on a hiking trail and lead me to the majesty and wonder of the outdoors, but it opens the door to adventure for those who have not felt welcome on trails.

This is so incredibly important to me as someone in recovery from binge eating disorder. Hiking and experiencing nature are the exact opposite of bingeing.

For me, I used food to push away my emotions. I binged to distract myself from anger, anxiety, fear, even joy. But when I step into the woods I am consumed by the canopy and the surroundings. When I hike, I am pulling all those emotions in. Taking on a path is an experience of uncertainty and wonder, but still putting one foot in front of the other and moving forward.

I realize this isn’t easy. The fitness and outdoor industries can be landmines of stigma and stereotypes. Showing up can be a challenge.

I remember the first time I hiked here in New Jersey. I had the “50 Hikes in New Jersey” book and I suited up like I was on an Everest expedition to take on a 20-minute trail. I was terrified to put myself out there, in my body that didn’t look like that of a typical adventurer.

I wasn’t alone.

Weight discrimination, shame and stigma

A 2021 study by BMC Public Health looked at the behaviors of 30 men and women in larger bodies. Many reported that they excluded themselves from sport and exercise due to traumatic weight stigma experiences, self-discrimination and fear of stigma, using a variety of strategies.They prevented weight discrimination by exercising at home or only at certain times or spaces that felt “safe.”

People with larger bodies reported strategically planning their social outings to avoid stigmatizing reactions by others in exercise settings.

This could include hiking in public.

An interesting note is that just because people are self-excluding from group activities doesn’t mean they aren’t exercising. But if they are outdoors, they are often concerned about facing shame and stigma.

Several groups have emerged to welcome others into the woods and combat stigma together. Two of my favorites are Unlikely Hikers, led by Jenny Bruso, and Fat Girls Hiking. A friend introduced me to Body Liberation Hiking Club.

Over time, I have found my squad of diverse body types who hike at my pace (strong and slow) up and down paths. They make hitting the trail a source of joy, not judgment.

Shame and stigma follow me to my Instagram channel (@kararichardsonwhitely), where some comments claim my work, that of highlighting the outdoors as a plus-size adventurer, is promoting obesity.

This, to me, is such a strange thing to say. Because if this is coming from someone who is doing so in the interest and well-being of me and others, then wouldn’t they want to see more people realizing the mental and physical benefits of the outdoors?

But that noise and nonsense doesn’t keep me from getting out there and sharing my adventures.

In fact, there are hosts of other people who are doing so beautifully. Check out and follow folks online who are inspirational about the outdoors. Some of my favorites include Mirna Valerio, Cath Wallis, Megan Banker, Sam Ortiz and Andy Neal.

But there are so many more. Perhaps you, dear reader, will be one of them, to head out on the trail to welcome more diverse bodies into nature.

Kara Richardson Whitely’s book “Gorge” is being made into a movie with “This Is Us” actress Chrissy Metz producing and starring as Kara. You can follow Kara at @kararichardsonwhitely on Instagram and find her on the Binge Eating Connection Facebook page.

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