To be honest, as a plus-sized hiker, I used to hate hiking.
I’ve always been “plus-sized.” Because of my larger body, growing up I always felt extremely perceived doing outdoor activities. I didn’t feel like I fit the blueprint of an outdoors person, and I wasn’t sure if I wanted to.
I’d be hiking, rushing to catch up with the group, only for them to leave as soon as I got there. Or, worse to me, I’d be trying to catch my breath while someone gave me a sickly sweet pep talk. “You can do it! I’m so proud of you!”
It was embarrassing.
I grew up in Roanoke, VA, surrounded by mountains and the stunning vistas of the Blue Ridge Mountains. Hiking was a huge part of the culture there. I was a Girl Scout, for goodness sake. As hard as I tried to avoid hikes, I found myself huffing and puffing my way up a mountain at least once a year.
Finding my own pace
When I moved away from the mountains, I rebuilt my own relationship with the outdoors and my body. I realized took the mountains for granted. I missed making my way to a summit.
Turns out, I just wanted to do it for myself at my own pace.
Hiking and spending time outdoors on my own terms has allowed me to develop a confidence in myself that I didn’t have as a kid. Now, I hike all the time! I love getting outdoors and exploring the world around me whether it’s in the city or out in the mountains.
If you’re a plus-sized hiker or are simply new to hiking, here are some tips and tricks I’ve learned over the years. I hope this helps you make the most of your time on the trail and take on anything that nature throws at you.
Map your quest
Before you go on any hike, it’s important to do your research. Study your map. You want to know how long it is, how strenuous it will be, and what type of terrain you’re dealing with. Are there bathrooms nearby? Are there any weird turns? Is there a place to fill my water bottle?
Always bring a map and ideally a compass no matter how short or easy your hike seems. In the city, a cell phone map will often do the trick, but make sure to download the map before you’re out of service range!
I always look online beforehand to get any tips or tricks and figure out what other people have to say about the hike. Here are some great websites to help you set your expectations.
Assemble your crew
Hiking is more fun (and often safer) with friends. Hiking is one of the best exercises to do with friends of all fitness levels. Good hiking partners will pace themselves with you and not make a big deal about it.
If you don’t have a hiking buddy, there are often local groups you can join who may have similar interests to you. In Washington, D.C. there is a whole page of different types of hiking groups you can be a part of on Meetup.com. There are also communities like unlikely hikers and Fat Girls Hiking specifically aimed at empowering the underrepresented outdoors person and the plus-sized hiker.
If you do opt to go out by yourself, let a friend know where you’re going. People get lost or hurt on trails in Washington, D.C. all the time—and that’s in the city!
Hydrate or die-drate
You need to drink water before, during, and after your hike.
Common guidance suggests you should pack about a half-liter of water for every mile you plan to hike or one liter of water for every two hours on the trail. (For reference, one Nalgene bottle is a about a liter.) In the heat, this can be closer to one liter per hour.
As a plus-sized person, I find that I sweat a bit more and drink a bit more than my straight-sized friends in general. So I’ll bring try to bring extra water, even though it adds to the weight I’m carrying. Adding an electrolyte powder will help you rehydrate even faster. I personally use nuuly electrolyte tablets.
It also seems like its obvious advice, but it’s way more effective to drink water in smaller sips throughout the hike instead of chugging it at breaks. You’re more likely to stay hydrated and avoid feeling sick.
Slow and steady sets the pace
Don’t let the trail runners get you down. It’s okay if you can’t go as fast as experienced hikers. A slow and steady pace is the best way to make it through your hike, feel free to take plenty of breaks!
You’re also way more likely to spot wildlife when you’re taking your time. It’s your slow-hiker superpower.
Dress for success
Finding the right clothes often makes the difference when it comes to feeling comfortable on the trail, but it’s often a challenge for a plus-sized hiker because many popular activewear companies have a track record of actively trying to keep us out.
For me, the right clothes include leggings that prevent chub rub and don’t slide down, shoes that support my ankles and cushion my feet, and plenty of layers for surprise changes in the weather.
Chub rub was the bane of many summers growing up. Now, I hike and exercise in leggings and bike shorts, or I use an anti-chafing lotion. My favorite is Thigh Rescue from Megababe. Long sleeves and leggings also keep your legs protected from the sun, ticks, and poison ivy! So many wins.
Fat Girls Hiking has a great list of stylish, plus-size outdoor clothing for women. Insider put together a list of plus-sized hiking gear.
Start small and work your way up
If you’re new to hiking, you should probably start on a shorter hike to get an idea of your personal limitations. As you get more experience and more confidence, you’ll naturally want to move on to longer and more technical hikes.
With that in mind, don’t be afraid to try new things and fail! The first time I did Old Rag in Shenandoah National Park, I only made it halfway up the fire road because I was afraid of the rock scramble. The next time I visited Old Rag I had a lot more experience and was able to do the full hike! It took a full 9-hours and many rest stops, but I am so proud of myself for finishing.
Most of the trails in city parks are great places to explore your limits without being too far away from civilization.
An hour of moderate hiking can burn 600+ calories! Hiking takes a lot of energy and so it’s important to snack as you go. Non-perishable calorie-dense foods like trail mix, granola bar, beef jerky, and whole fruit are great ways to carry your calories.
I personally always bring a treat, like a really good sandwich or a special drink to help me look forward to the summit or end of your hike.
Always bring a little more food and water than you need. Once I brought a whole days worth of food on a short 1.5-mile loop. When we were three hours in after taking a wrong turn, we were glad to have enough food and water to keep us safe.
Protect yourself from the sun
As a plus-sized hiker, you have more skin to protect!
No matter how cloudy it is outside, the sun will find a way to sneak up on you! Always pack some extra sunscreen so you can reapply after you spend an hour or two sweating. You want sunscreen between 15-30 SPF and UVA and UVB protection.
It’s also a good idea to wear sunglasses, long sleeves, and a hat to protect yourself from the sun.
First aid, a knife, and a rope
To this day, my Dad packs a full first aid kit, a knife, and a rope when we go hiking. I’ve rolled my eyes about a million times, but these items could save your life one day when you’re out on the trail. I’ll never forget the time we got stuck on a longer-than-expected trail at Fairy Stone State Park and my Dad used his knife to make us all hiking sticks and keep us going.
Be prepared yourself. REI has a list of 10 essential pieces of hiking gear, most of which we’ve covered in this blog.
Know you belong and have fun!
Sometimes I still get stuck in my head. But I know I deserve space on the mountain or in a park as much as the next person. These public green spaces are for everyone, and there is no right or wrong way to be a “hiker.”
The outdoors are for everyone, and, let’s be real, your taxes probably pay for park upkeep. Don’t let anyone make you feel like you don’t belong on that trail.
After all is said and done, being a plus-sized hiker isn’t that much different than just being a hiker! No matter what, being prepared can help you get over your first hiking hurdle—getting out on the trail!
For more ideas on how to get outside in the Washington, D.C. region, click here.