( I originally wrote this for Fat Girl Reviews but it is no longer up so I thought I'd share it here).
I’m a fat woman and an outdoors person. I’ve always been a hiker/backpacker/skier/snowshoe-er, but I suppose I’ve not always been fat. If I look back to photos of me backpacking or skiing in my 20’s I now realize that although I had a bigger frame than some of my friends (and in my head, I thought my body was too big, ugh), I was not fat. I remember that when I went into outdoor stores, even though I wore either a size L or XL, I was still able to find clothes that fit me in the store. I admit that it was a little daunting, but I usually came home with something that would work for me. Thin privilege anyone?
This was the time before the internet, by the way. Back in the day, I had a large internal frame backpack, hiking boots, a daypack, a raincoat, rain pants, a ski jacket, ski pants, a climbing harness, a sleeping bag and everything I thought I needed to be prepared in the outdoors. Funny enough, thinking back, I don’t really remember what brands I owned. I purchased what I thought looked cool and mostly, what I could afford as a broke college student, I bought many off-brands or used what I got as birthday or Christmas gifts. This could be why I don’t remember brands as well.
Today, that is not the case. I know exactly what brands of outdoor gear I have because there are only a few that actually carry my size. For the record, I’m a small to medium fat person, wearing around a size 20, with a 3 XL on top and a 2XL on the bottom. I am writing this from my own personal experience, I know folks that are larger than me who have an even more limited selection.
I write about my experience when I was younger to illustrate the point that if you wear an XL or below, you can generally walk into an outdoor outfitter and buy clothes and gear off the rack. Herein lies the first problem that we plus size outdoor folks have to deal with. If you are above that size, and even if the company carries your size, it is rare that you can go into a store and actually try the clothes on. You have to buy off the internet. This is something that is difficult because as we all know, sizes vary from one company to another. So, often buying online requires that you either a) return items and exchange for another size, which takes time. How often do you go into a fitting room and everything fits on the first try? Or b) buy 2 or 3 different sizes of an item and then once you try them on at home, send back the ones that didn’t fit. That can be expensive and not everyone has the money to do that.
Let’s touch on the more specific issues that bigger people have when it comes to outdoor gear. Last month, I climbed Mount Kilimanjaro with the Curvy Kili Crew (CKC) and over the last year, there was much discussion about the specialized technical clothing and other gear we needed. I personally took this last year to upgrade my gear to be sure I had what would help me climb this mountain. Here are some things I learned and noticed.
Let’s talk about sleeping bags. Personally, since my years of backpacking in my 20s, I have mostly done a lot of day hiking and car camping with many dreams of getting back into the days when I could just walk and carry everything I needed on my back. Because I have been car camping though, I was able to purchase an inexpensive two-season double sleeping bag that my partner and I could share in our tent. (He happens to be in a thin body). The fact that most of the car camping we do is in the summer months, I didn’t have to worry if the sleeping bag could fully zip up or that it had a certain degree rating. I didn’t have to think about how small it compressed down to or how much it weighed either. However, once I signed up for the Kili trip, I knew I would need a bag that went down to 0 degrees, that could be compressed and carried. At first, I hadn’t really thought about the fact that it might not fit me. Then I started reading what other women were saying in our group. So I got out my old trusty backpacking mummy bag from years-gone-by and guess what...nope, that thing did not zip past my hips. Okay, well this was something I too now had to research and worry over. Between what I found and what women in our group said, this was not a super easy task.
The majority of “regular women’s” bags (I am using women’s gear here since that is what I mostly looked at) have a hip width of 59 inches and shoulder width of 62 inches. There were a few of those that offered an additional “regular wide” size that had a hip width of 67 inches and shoulder width of 70 inches (the REI Lyra 24). This would fit me, but the problem with most of the wider width bags is that they only went down to around 20 degrees. So on top of the sleeping bag, I would have to purchase a liner. All I could picture was me, all twisted up in the morning possibly accosting my tent-mate trying to find a way OUT! This sleeping bag weighs 3 lbs. 2 oz, which is 2 ounces heavier than the “regular” size.
After following a link that a fellow Curvy Kili Crew member listed, I was able to purchase a 0-degree bag that had a hip width of 72 inches and shoulder width of 67 (the Kelty Tuck EX 0). Let me tell ya, I am in love with this bag. For me, it has just the right amount of room and I can stick my feet out of the bottom. There are drawbacks with this bag though. It is big and bulky and I had to fight to get it in the compression sack I had to buy for it, is a job. It also weighs in at 4 lbs and 13 oz. This is almost 2 pounds heavier than the other sleeping bag I tried. Although I was able to make that work for my Kilimanjaro trip, for other trips where I need warmth and am concerned about weight, this is not going to be a great option. What some folks that are larger than me have found works for them is to purchase a double sleeping bag. These are generally not rated for as low a temperature as the mummy bag style, so other layers such as adding a backpacking quilt may be necessary. Upon doing a bit of research for this article, both of the sleeping bags I mentioned above were very hard to find online. These are important pieces of equipment that we need. I wish these companies were paying attention and making what they do already offer, more readily available.
Since we’re now talking about gear here, let’s talk about the other big gear purchase for many people: a backpack. Whatever the size you need, backpacks all have similar components. The way day-packs, internal, and external frame backpacks work, are all similar. Each has a waist belt, one or two shoulder straps and a chest strap. The main problem plus size folks have with backpacks is the waist belt. The waist belt should sit at the hips, low across the belly, and too often, it doesn’t fit. There are a few companies that will send you an extender for either no cost or a low cost. There are two companies that, thanks to Christa Singleton of Travel Fearlessly, their options are known. Osprey will send them for free and Gregory Packs will charge you between $10 and $12 for an extender. Both of these have to be ordered, and as far as I know, they are not available in the store where the backpacks are sold. This seems like a place where companies could quite easily add longer belts to their packs.
Moving on to outerwear. If you’re going to be hiking, doing anything outside in any season but the milder months, (even then, you still need rain gear), you need quality outer clothing. This is stuff that is either windproof, waterproof, warm or all three. The joke (it’s funny because it’s true) with all of us in the Curvy Kili Crew is that we were all twinsies, like seriously 10 pairs of twinsies. Because there are so few options in this regard, we all had similar, if not matching outerwear. Many base layers and mid layers were the same too. The companies that were the most common in our group were Columbia and REI. Both of these companies sell quality gear going up to a size 3X. Our puffy jackets and vests, our windproof shells and our rain gear often toted these brand names. My snow pants and rain pants are Columbia and although they fit my waist and thighs because I am fat and short, I had to spend $25 to a third party on top of the original purchase to get them both shortened around 5 inches.
In addition to this “outerwear” category, I’ll add leg gaiters. Leg gaiters (not to be confused with neck gaiters or alligators), help keep rocks, sand, gravel, mud, and snow out of your boots. Gaiters for the winter, generally go up over the calves. I have used OR gaiters for years. I use them for snowshoeing and hiking in the mud and snow. I noticed that over the last few years, they were getting tough to completely close without any gaps, but they still worked. As my CKC friends met me in New York for some snow hiking, I realized that this was a piece of gear that didn’t work for many of them. Some folks opt to buy “men’s” gaiters but run into similar problems. This is so disappointing that these companies haven’t extended their gaiter sizes. Since this piece of equipment is so useful, it would be within their best interest to add larger sizes.
Hiking boots are probably the most important piece of gear that anyone would need if they wanted to spend a lot of time on trails. This is a very personal choice. If there is anything I really want to emphasize to folks is that it’s important to try them on, use them and break them in. After saying that, many plus size folks need a wider width boot. My personal favorite has been my Keen boots. I do find the wider toe box to be very comfortable. Some CKC members loved their Lowas, Merrells, Vasques (these tended to come in larger sizes) to name a few of the common ones. If you live near an REI, go in and try on all the boots and talk to someone there.
For base layers, mid layers, hiking pants, and tops, most of the technical stuff stops at a 3XL. Companies like Smartwool, Duluth Trading Co. and again REI and Columbia, all fit in this category. For hiking leggings and technical tops, there tend to be more options since here, fat folks can find more activewear. Leggings and moisture wicking shirts can be found often up to a 5XL and 6XL. Companies like Superfit Hero and Rsport carry quality gear in a large range. Even Wal-Mart online carries higher than a 3XL. If people need clothing for day hikes where the temperature extremes are not too great, there are beginning to be more options. Another thing to mention here is that some of the companies I mentioned do make plus size clothing but do not sell it directly on their own site. They sell it only through a third party. Smartwool is one of those companies. You can buy only up to an XL on their site but can get some of their base layers up to a 3 XL on REI. I have found out that this happens often in plus size fashion. I will be reaching out to some of these companies to add my voice to others who would like more options in more sizes on the company’s own websites. We have money that spends the same as anyone else.
I hope that after reading this, you can begin to navigate the world of outdoor gear as a plus size person. One of my goals has been to give some tips and tricks when starting to build up your outdoor gear as a person in a bigger body. The more important goal in writing this is to point out that there is nothing wrong with the way your body is now. You and I do not need to change in order to get into the outdoors and enjoy it! I only touched the surface of some more common outdoor activities. I could add (and maybe will in another post) information on climbing harnesses, ski boots, and kayaks, oh my!
The reason you cannot find a lot of gear in your size is not because you don’t belong, it is because companies haven’t been listening to the demand we’re creating. Outdoor companies need to do better. Those of us in “non-traditional” hiker bodies need gear too. We need quality gear and we want options. We don’t all want to look alike, we want to have some originality in outdoor plus size gear. Our money is just as good as thin folks money. There is a market that is not being tapped into. People need technical clothing and gear so they can get out and have the adventures they’re dreaming about. We all belong in the outdoors.