Jenny Bruso was hungover.
She applied her makeup and laced up a pair of metallic gold sneakers and, at 27 years old, felt ready for her first hike. Although she’d grown up spending weekends on some of San Diego’s best beaches, “nature” wasn’t really a concept in her lexicon or experience. But when her friend, who recently returned from a successful jaunt across the 2,659-mile-long Pacific Crest Trail, suggested a six-mile hike on Oregon’s Tom Dick and Harry Mountain, it didn’t sound so bad. It turns out she was quite mistaken.
Rather than soaking up the picturesque views of Mt. Hood and enjoying the lull of nearby creeks, “I was psyched out the entire time,” Bruso says. “I cried and was so embarrassed. It was a really hot summer day and I didn’t know how to prepare. No one told me how.”
Bruso was convinced she’d never hike again, until three years later when her current partner, Brie, gently suggested an outdoor date. While her first experience was definitely awful, Bruso decided to give hiking another shot on her 30th birthday.
“[That experience] really did plant some kind of seed,” she says. “Being under those trees, seeing that lake—you can’t just drive up to that. You have to actually walk to them. There was something about it that amazed me.”
Nine years after her first fateful walk in the woods, Bruso now leads several group hikes and helms a wildly popular Instagram page under the name Unlikely Hikers. It’s for folks who, like her, are deconstructing what it looks like and means to be an “outdoorsy” person.
“When I first started hiking [in 2012], I was immediately aware of who I was seeing on the trails. It wasn’t very diverse,” she says. “I wasn’t surprised by any means, but I really wanted to connect with other fat and queer people who were hiking—to connect with all kinds of folks who I wasn’t seeing on trails.”
Bruso set out on a digital quest to find those marginalized and underrepresented people who also were going against the grain and enjoying the outdoors, defying the stereotypical embodiment of an “adventurer.”
“Almost immediately, I found people filling in those gaps—like Latino Outdoors and Outdoor Afro,” Bruso says. “But because I wasn’t seeing much about queer and fat hikers, I felt like I really needed to do something.”
That something was launching a personal blog. In one of her early postings, she called herself an “unlikely hiker,” and the tongue-in-cheek sentiment quickly stuck. With over 34,000 followers on Instagram, nearly half as many uses of the hashtags #unlikelyhiker and #unlikelyhikers, and a recent profile on Oregon Field Guide, it’s clear the misfit mantra is resonating.
“I wanted to tell a different story about who is using the outdoors,” Bruso says. “Fat people, queer people, trans people, people of color, and people with disabilities. I also wanted to talk about why things are this way, have discussions, and give other people space to tell their stories.”
White People Love Hiking
The cliché that white people love the outdoors is something Bruso openly discusses, highlighting outdoor culture’s affinity for thin, straight, typically white people. Three of 136 entries in the infamous, long-defunct blog Stuff White People Like are dedicated to white people snubbing others who don’t camp, hike, or don fitness wear. While clearly satirical, iterations of this character abound in the Pacific Northwest—be it the holier-than-thou digital nomad, urban homesteader, or crunchy carefree parent. A quick look at any REI catalog, Coleman ad campaign, or Google image search for “people outdoors” will confirm the narrative, but it isn’t a new phenomenon.
The National Park Service (NPS) has reportedly kept track of the racial makeup of their visitors since the 1960s, but the earliest stats most often cited are from a 1985 study that found that 94 percent of visitors identified as white, while 2.2 percent were Latinx and 2 percent were Black. The latest figures, which tracked visitors from 2008 to 2009, show that 78 percent of visitors were non-Latinx whites, 9 percent were Latinx, and 7 percent were Black, confirming the assertion that there’s an overrepresentation of non-Latinx whites in the outdoors when comparing figures to census data.
In a 2017 report, the Outdoor Foundation—a not-for-profit 501(c)3 that seeks to “inspire and grow future generations of outdoor enthusiasts”—found that while outdoor participation in the United States has continued to increase, 73 percent of these participants identify as non-Latinx white and 47 percent have an annual income of $75,000 or greater. Meanwhile, 9 percent are Black and 10 percent are Latinx. By comparison, the 2016 census estimates that 61 percent of the US population is non-Latinx white and the average household, across race and ethnicity, earns $55,000 per year, while 13 percent are Black and 18 percent are Latinx. Asians are proportionately represented, while Native Americans’ participation hasn’t been consistently tracked.
The NPS says they aren’t trying to actively exclude diverse visitors from the country’s parks, but there are a slew of factors that contribute to the divide, including history, barriers to access, and cultural perceptions. People, for example, must be interested in spending time outdoors as well as have the freedom in their schedules to plan and attend excursions. While an afternoon hike might sound appealing, time away may not be feasible for someone working three jobs. For others, it may feel like a huge step to spend thousands of dollars on presumably necessary gear. Depending on one’s identity, their sense of personal safety and security in the outdoors can also greatly vary.
Meanwhile, most national parks remained segregated under Jim Crow-era laws through the 1940s or longer. In 2013, NPS launched the Office of Relevancy, Diversity, and Inclusion to address some of those barriers—though currently there aren’t any statistics or intents to study diversity as it relates to body types or sexuality.
“Growing up, I never saw people that looked like me in outdoors media,” Bruso says. “It didn’t feel like something that would appeal to me because I [didn’t] see people who looked like the people I knew. There can be subconscious messaging in not seeing yourself represented. And sometimes it can be overt.”
Bruso says representation and inclusion go beyond media and have real implications in her daily life.
“I can’t go to most retailers and buy things that fit me. It’s getting better, but I can’t just go and buy a pair of leggings, or even a sleeping bag,” she says.
Out on the trails, it’s much the same.
“I’m a white person and I pass as a straight one, but being fat—people make weird comments,” Bruso says. “Somebody, usually a man, will say something like, ‘You look like you could use a break,’ or they’ll seem surprised that I’d be out doing the same thing they are. And then there’s misplaced support: People will say things like, ‘You’re almost there,’ or, ‘You can do it,’ and talk to me like I’m a five- year-old. I know they’re not talking like this to other thin, athletic-looking people. Older people will say it too, like, ‘I’ve been hiking my entire life.’ It’s good-spirited, but based on assumptions about someone’s body because of the way they look.”
Rico Smith, a 57-year-old hiker living in Las Cruces, New Mexico, who uses the #unlikelyhikers hashtag on his Instagram posts, can relate.
“For the past two decades, I’ve been passionate about sharing my love of the outdoors with those who have never had the opportunity or desire to get out in nature,” he says. “When I came across the #unlikelyhiker hashtag, it was great to see someone who shared my goal of breaking stereotypes. Not only am I an unlikely hiker, but I’m an unlikely mountain biker, an unlikely snowboarder. In my job, I’m an unlikely park ranger, an unlikely wildland firefighter, and an unlikely fire information officer.”
Kanani Harwood, 40, also lives in New Mexico and regularly uses the #unlikelyhikers hashtag. Although she grew up in Maui surrounded by nature and hiking as a child, she still feels like her experience isn’t the mainstream.
“I feel more represented in outdoor outlets now than I did 15 years ago, [since] the outdoor industry has been forced to adapt. It’s because of people like Jenny, who gives us such visibility,” Harwood says. “I am an unlikely hiker [because] I’m heavily tattooed. I’m a minority. I’m a Native Hawaiian. I’m a mother of two. I’m 40. I’m a domestic abuse survivor. I’ve battled eating disorders. I use the hashtag because maybe someday someone will hear my story and feel inspired to explore nature. Or maybe someone currently traveling the path I’ve been on will find hope.”
“While the word ‘unlikely’ creates this idea that hikers like myself are not out there, you look through the Instagram page and hashtag, and you see we are here, and we are seen,” says Iris Zacarías, a 24-year-old Latino Outdoors ambassador living in Seattle, Washington.
“I see outdoor outlets making an effort to be inclusive,” Zacarías says, “but there are still ways to go. I believe they need more folks of color and all body types represented in their media, their ads, and their models.”
Part of Bruso’s mission to help shape a more inclusive outdoors landscape has dovetailed with the creation of one of the industry’s most powerful coalitions.
“Danielle [Williams of Melanin Base Camp] had the idea to start the Diversify Outdoors coalition,” Bruso says. “Essentially, it’s going to be a hub of information for people who want to incorporate diversity, equity, and inclusion practices into their outdoors pursuits or businesses. We’ll have information about consultations, speaking [engagements], and a trove of information people can turn to.”
Other founding members include Ambreen Tariq of @BrownPeopleCamping, Elyse Rylander of OUT There Adventures, Len Necefer of Natives Outdoors, and Summer Winston of the Brown Ascenders. While the coalition is still in its early stages, Bruso says their collective power was palpable during their initial meeting, and she’s excited for their future.
“We’re all working on our own, but also all together,” she says. “We’re obviously making a difference already—so how can we build on that and support each other?”
More Than Just a Hashtag
For Bruso and her followers, hiking goes well beyond the perfect Instagram post. Many hikers use trail time to heal from trauma and find purpose in their life’s path.
“We talk a lot about mental health and how the outdoors does so much for so many of us,” Bruso says.
Both Zacarías and 24-year-old Ellie Hoffman of Portland told the Mercury they’re unsure of where they’d be without hiking.
“Hiking is a source of therapy for me,” says Zacarías. “It allows me to clear my mind, and I feel strong and powerful after finishing a long hike. [It’s] also a source of comfort.”
“Hiking is a reminder of how truly beautiful this world can be,” adds Hoffman.
“For me, I’ve always felt very disconnected and lost in the world,” Bruso says. “I’ve never known what I wanted to do or be. Hiking was the first thing I had that felt like I was a part of something.”
Bruso leads three group hikes—two of which happen monthly—for those with varying ability level. The “Nice and Slow” series is exactly as advertised—slow paced, flat trails, and two miles or less. People with mobility issues and chronic pain can get out into nature, she says, in a “safer, supportive setting.” The “Low Intensity Group” isn’t exclusively flat, but it’s never too unwieldy. Hikes are up to three or four miles, with 500 feet of elevation gain or less. The “General Group” is the most advanced, but still gentle: Hikes are five or more miles, and can have more than 500 feet of elevation gain.
“I try to make it so that more people can go than not, because I want them to feel included,” she says. “That’s why I do three trails—not every trail is for every hiker.”
Hoffman has only been on one group hike so far, but says she’s already hooked and eager to go on the next.
“It was so wonderful [to be able] to explore the forest with like-minded people, and getting to talk about the beauty of nature, as well as the struggles of an unlikely hiker in today’s society,” Hoffman says. “I’m part of many hiking groups on Facebook, but I’ve never really felt that I fit in as a queer, curvy woman. With Unlikely Hikers, everyone fits in, and I think that’s really special.”
“The hashtag, and other similar hashtags, are playing a very important role,” Rico Smith says, “in that it’s opening the eyes of not just the outdoor industry, but those of white people who have always taken for granted the easier access they’ve enjoyed to the outdoors. It’s always been ‘normal’ for them to hike, but for people of color, it is not something that we ‘do.’ However, it’s not true, and #unlikelyhikers is revealing the truth that Black people do enjoy nature.”
Bruso is invigorated by the collective effort Unlikely Hikers and other groups are undertaking to dismantle rigid norms in the outdoors world. In coming into her proudly queer, fat, feminist identity, Bruso says it’s important to understand that this movement is inherently political.
“It’s funny when people say they go to the outdoors to ‘get away from all of the political shit,’ because the way land is acquired and its history is so fucking politicized,” she says.
With that in mind, every hike she leads begins with a speech: In addition to setting guidelines restricting diet or weight loss conversations, she also gives an acknowledgement to the land.
“We talk about the land we’re recreating on and who the land belongs to—because we’re on Native land. There’s a lot of language in outdoors culture like ‘crushing miles’ or ‘bagging this mountain.’ [That’s] settler/colonialist bullshit language. I talk about that because I want people to be aware about how they talk about the land. The land gives us so much, and it comes at a price. Native peoples are continuing to lose their lands to this day. It’s not just our playground.”
Stay in the loop with Unlikely Hikers on Instagram @UnlikelyHikers or by subscribing to Jenny Bruso’s newsletter, Unlikely Outdoors. The next General group hike is scheduled for April 21. Get details at jennybruso.com/events.
Advice for New Hikers from Jenny Bruso
• Low mileage is good, but elevation gain is where it’s at. “The way we talk about trails in general, in the outdoor world, needs to change completely. Mileage is not the huge challenge, it’s elevation gain.”
• Pay attention to the terrain and other elements. “Not every three miles is the same. Are you going to be walking on rocks the whole time? Is there a water crossing? Is there a drop off with no railing?”
• Avoid cotton clothing. “When you sweat, they stay wet, and you get cold and uncomfortable.”
• Don’t be afraid to get thrifty! “Going to a thrift store and getting used active wear might sound gross, but it will save you so much money. I’m a plus size person and I still find stuff. Look at sale racks [and check out] gear libraries.”
• On the flip side, sometimes it’s worth the splurge. “Wear whatever you want, but different body types need different kinds of clothing for comfort.”
• Carpool if you can. Offer a ride to someone who may not be able to hike otherwise.
• Communicate well about what to expect. “I think a lot of people get taken on hikes like [the one I experienced] for the first time. Afterward they’re like, ‘Fuck this. I don’t want anything to do with this.’ I try not to do that with my group hikes.”