What It's Like Being the Fat Girl On the Hiking Trail
I love my body—so why did the Pacific Crest Trail make me feel so bad about it?
The first time I went on a real hike, I thought I was gonna die.
I'm being hyperbolic, of course, but just barely. It was 2014 and I was visiting Utah with D., a girl I was dating at the time. She was an avid hiker and was excited to tackle some of the trails at Zion National Park. I was nervous; I had spent the past six years living a fairly indoorsy life in New York City, and my whole life living in a fat body. I wasn't convinced I knew how to hike, or that I deserved to be on the trails.
D. brushed away my fears that I would be too slow, that my thighs would rub together, that I'd get blisters. She assured me that hiking was easy, just glorified walking really, and told me to stop being a baby. Neither of us acknowledged what I was really asking: Am I too fat to hike? Is my body going to be comfortable in this space? Am I allowed to be here?
On the trail D. left me in her dust, trotting ahead of me with ease. I was slow, and my thighs rubbed together until they bled, and I got blisters. D. and I stopped seeing each other soon after that hike.
That was three years ago. I no longer feel like dying on a regular day hike; I've found leggings and Body Glide that prevent thigh chafe, I've found a toe-sock-trail-runner-gaiter combo that prevents blisters, and I've logged many, many miles on trails in Oregon, California, Utah, Washington, Montana, Colorado, and Arizona. Most importantly, I've established my own relationship with hiking and nature, one that does not depend on anyone else's speed or my own, one that is not competitive, and one that I might call "a meditative practice," if I were the kind of girl who said that kind of thing. (Spoiler: I'm 100 percent that kind of girl.) Knowing that I'm in charge of myself and my experience when I'm on the trail helps me feel safe and happy when I hike. I'm not a competitive athlete; I'm just a fat babe who likes to spend time in the great outdoors because it's often the only space that reminds me to breathe. (Related: Companies Are Finally Making Hiking Gear Specifically for Women)
In light of all this growth since my very first hike, one would think I'd be a super-confident hiker by now, secure in my abilities and proud of my accomplishments. And some days I am. On my best days, the trails I hike make me feel powerful and happy, calm in a way I do not usually experience, awed by nature and in love with myself and the world we live in. On my best days, the trails I hike remind me I love my fat body.
Then, there are the worst days, many of which happened to be this spring when I set out to hike the Pacific Crest Trail. Long-distance hiking had started as a dream for me and had grown into an obsession. The idea of hiking 2,650 miles from Mexico to Canada thrilled me. Unlike when I did my very first hike with D., I now knew I belonged on the trails just as much as thin people do, even if we do not see many representations of fat hikers in mainstream media. It was exciting to imagine being a fat person hiking the PCT; I wanted to inspire other fat girls, show them that we belong out in the wild just as much as anyone else, no matter what the glossy hiking magazines and curated Instagrams say.
I did my best to prepare my body and my brain for the PCT, a trail that winds its way through many different ecosystems and elevation profiles. I knew it would be hot in the desert, snowy in the Sierra, buggy in Northern California, green in Oregon, and wet in Washington. I imagined being lonely, tired, and sore. I also imagined being joyful, enthusiastic, and proud.
I did not imagine that I might start to resent my body.
Unfortunately, that is exactly what happened. Before I continue, I want to clarify that there are fat people who hike the PCT and other long trails and succeed at accomplishing their goals of completing the trails. I am absolutely not saying that fat people are unable to hike long distances. Quite the opposite! Of course we are. I hike long distances all the time. But usually, I do so with a positive mindset regardless of the difficulties, both logistically and mentally. Somehow, on the PCT, I was unable to do that.
It's hard to say, exactly, what happened to make me feel so bad in my body while doing this particular hike. The trail is difficult, without a doubt, often gaining and losing more than 1,000 feet of elevation in one day. The stress of hiking 15+ miles a day wears on a body over time, whether that body is fat or thin. And while I usually head into nature to escape the stresses of everyday life and bliss out on Mother Earth's bounty, a thru-hike is a different beast requiring lots of attention to logistics and allowing for quite a bit of stress and anxiety. I found myself running an unkind monologue through my head at any point of the day: Why are you so slow? Why can't you keep up with the other hikers? Why isn't your body stronger and faster? What are you doing out here?
What was most upsetting is how bad I felt about myself because I was feeling bad about my body. I pride myself on loving my body and being grateful for all it is able to do for/with me, and having negative thoughts about my weight and my shape brought me down mentally. I felt as though I were losing an important part of myself-the part that loved me unconditionally. I had thought long-distance hiking would bring me closer to my body. Instead, it was bringing me back to the mindset I'd had a few years back. I wondered again if I belonged on the trail, if I deserved to be on it at all.
I realized that if I wanted to reset and get back in touch with the version of myself that loves my body and believes I indeed belong on the trail, I had to get off the PCT. The competitive vibe, fostered by the trail culture and other hikers' obsessions with doing "big miles" and my own negative self-talk, was ruining my relationship with hiking.
I don't know why I didn't anticipate this happening. When I came home and discussed this phenomenon with fellow hikers and outdoorsy women, many of them attested to also feeling out of place in the competitive culture that can breed in any athletic group dominated by cis white men. Maybe because I've never been an athlete and don't spend much time doing group activities outdoors, I have been sheltered from this vibe. Dare I call it patriarchal! When I think of the people I am used to sharing space with on the trails, when I do choose to hike in a group, I immediately think of my friend Jenny Bruso. She runs an incredibly popular Instagram account, Unlikely Hikers, that spotlights folks who don't usually get representation in the world of outdoor recreation: "Bigger body types, people of color, queer, trans, gender nonconforming folks, differently abled people and so on." The majority of my hiking community comes from that realm-folks who have been told time and time again that we do not belong on trails, in the woods, climbing mountains, folks who feel proud of ourselves and each other for simply being out there, no matter how many miles per hour we hike or how many peaks we've bagged. Perhaps that's why I was surprised by the competition that others seem to accept as obvious in adventurous outdoor recreation sports.
Hiking, for me, is not a sport. It is a sacred relationship I have built with my body and my brain and Mother Earth. I wanted to save that relationship.
So at mile 454, I got off the trail and went home to Portland, OR. I felt sad and defeated, like I'd let down not only myself but all the other fat girls who told me-on Instagram, in person, via emails-that I had inspired them. I thought I would get out on some local trails as soon as I got home, but I found I didn't want to. So I did what I always do when I'm trying to reconnect with my body: I let it have some space. I did not push it into something it wasn't ready for. I went back to the basics of being kind to myself, to my body. I waited.
A month after returning home, I finally took myself on a hike. It was a baby hike, a tiny trail in comparison to the PCT and even pretty small and underwhelming compared to the 10- to 15-mile day hikes I often like to do when I have the time. I chose a familiar trail near my home, with very little elevation gain and no breathtaking vistas or jaw-dropping waterfalls to photograph. I didn't want to make a scene about this hike, didn't want to go in with the mindset that I would show off the bounty of my exercise on Instagram or in any public way. I just wanted to go for a walk in the woods and feel good in my fat body. I wanted to remind myself why I love hiking, why being in nature can be magical, why I deserve to be on the trails.
I packed a very light day pack and made sure to apply extra Body Glide between my thighs. The warm weather allowed me to hike in sandals, rather than trail runners, a guarantee (for me) to avoid blisters. (Find your go-to pair of hiking shoes here.) I had ample water and snacks. I put my phone on airplane mode. And then I got on the trail and hiked for four hours, not once stopping to think about what my body looked like, how fast it was moving, or who might be behind me wanting to pass my slow pace. Like a gift from Mother Earth herself, I did not see a single person on the trail that afternoon. When I got to the end, I cried. The hike had not been hard. It had not been particularly noteworthy at all. It was just exactly what I needed. I had been home for 30 days, but on that hike, I finally came home to my body. I let myself love and accept my body again.
Looking back on my experience on the PCT, I think allowing myself to be influenced by the competitive nature of thru-hiking was a big part of how uncomfortable I felt in my body. Falling in love with hiking, for me, was never about being competitive or seeking out an intensive form of exercise; hiking has always been a way I can find balance and joy. When I am hiking on my own terms, I can handle navigating the hurdles put up for fat hikers: the anxiety of finding clothes that fit my body, the reality of sometimes having to carry a heavier pack because my gear is physically larger and I need more food to fuel my body, and the unfortunate truth that while many hikers are encouraging to everyone on the trail, I often feel patronized or condescended to (or sometimes outright mocked) by fellow hikers. Sometimes people believe they are being kind and assure me that I'm "almost there!" (thanks, I know) or clap for me when I finally arrive at a water source that everyone else got to an hour before. (Did you clap for everyone when they showed up, though?) Sometimes people are just rude (no, random man who inspired me to run faster than I ever have on a trail just to get the heck away from you, I do not think the PCT is "extra hard for fat chicks," but thanks for asking!). But all of that can be overcome on my best days. A combination of physical exhaustion and mental exhaustion made it impossible to have very many "best days" on the PCT. So I came home, first to my physical home of Portland, then to my body. I am back, and it feels good.
I have not ruled out long-distance hiking for forever, and I still think it's important for fat people to know that they belong on trails and deserve to be there, whether the trails are long or short. I have dreams of attempting a PCT thru-hike again in the future, and in September I'll be going to Europe with my partner to hike the Camino, a 550-mile route through Northern Spain. I have heard from fellow hikers that the Camino is more relaxed and less competitive than the PCT, and it is also objectively easier terrain. I have high hopes that this trail will allow me to heal my relationship with long-distance hiking.
Hiking is something I started doing to teach myself my worth, to claim my independence. I don't want to compete with anyone when I am on a trail, myself included. It's important to me to push my boundaries and expand my comfort zone, but I never want to find myself belittling my body or questioning my self-worth. If I'm not lifting myself up through my hiking practice, then I am not accomplishing my personal hiking goals, whether I "make big miles" or not.
At the end of each day, I want to feel good about being on the trail and about my fat body that is working hard to take me on all my journeys. Because I do deserve to be there-and so do you.