Fat Girls Hiking by Summer Michaud-Skog

A couple of weeks ago I shared that while I am not participating in the 20 Books of Summer challenge, that I had 20 books I was interested in getting to this summer. You all voiced which you’d prefer I get to sooner, and Fat Girls Hiking: An Inclusive Guide to Getting Outdoors at Any Size or Ability by Summer Michaud-Skog was picked by several folks.

Recently published in 2022, the book includes profiles of members from chapters of Fat Girls Hiking, the group Michaud-Skog started that spread across the country. There are trail recommendations from the author and members. And you’ll find challenges fat and disabled people will face in relation to hiking. The book is full of photos, a feature I found benefited the book as a whole and made me want to get outside (and forget that bugs in a photo don’t bother you).

Not only go outside, actually. It was great to see images of happy fat women doing joyful activities. The more you look at such photos, the more you counteract what most of us have been conditioned to believe: that the only good fat person is one who feels ashamed and is always trying to lose weight. But that doesn’t hold up, right? Because think of how many fat people are humiliated when they’re “caught” eating a salad or exercising, things trolls “should” latch on to as “good.” Trolls are always hungry.

Michaud-Skog’s book has an arc to it, starting with how the group Fat Girls Hiking started and why their motto is “Trails Not Scales.” The author admits to why she didn’t begin hiking sooner, and what life is like living in a van. Being outdoors and hiking, she adds in another chapter, is part of our liberation, and connects us to the notion that we all realize at one point: people are just animals. Since a big part of encouraging other fat women to hike is sharing photos and advice online, there’s also a chapter on internet trolls.

Fat Girls Hiking is one of those books that wisely avoids addressing only fatness and includes disability and queerness, too. Really, they all go together, and as I read more about disability, the more I wonder why any author has separated fatness and disability. The fight about who is included and what accommodations are “acceptable” address and benefit both communities (among others; we know that making communities better for people with disabilities actually benefits everyone, but that’s a different conversation). Thus, every trail review includes whether it is ADA accessible.

That’s a challenging conversation because I don’t know how you would make a mountain or forest near a river ADA accessible, for instance, but it did make me think more about what we can petition for on the local government level. If a new park or nature preserve is going to be built, could I ask if the trail is paved and wide enough for a mobility device? If there are benches or other objects (tree stumps, fallen logs, etc.) on which to sit and rest along the way? If bathrooms are wheelchair accessible?

Some other challenges fat girls hiking face, which is noted in several of the community profiles, is how hard it is to find appropriate gear for different body sizes. The book includes advice on how to dress and what works, especially if you can’t find the necessary equipment. Hiking is something healthy white young people with the means to buy expensive gear do. Picture a hiker. I promise you we’re picturing vaguely the same person. Why? Patriarchy.

Okay, that sounds flippant, but hear me out. And after traveling alone in her van, the author discovered that oftentimes white male hikers openly made aggressive homophobic comments, not knowing she’s a lesbian. Michaud-Skog writes, “A competitive, performance-based culture exists in the outdoor world as much as on the football field, it just has a different flavor.” She describes how able-bodied, conventionally-attractive white people want to go to the top of a mountain, but she appreciates a path that “gently rises and falls along the river that collects snowmelt from the same mountain.” So, how is climbing to the top of a mountain more about patriarchy instead of ability/skill?

…the mountaintop metaphor is burdened with connotations of conquering, domination, struggle for struggle’s sake, planting a flag, and being the best or the first.

Of course, the mention of “planting a flag” makes us think of colonialism (okay, I confess, I thought of the moon landing first). Perhaps this is why, throughout the book, every trail discussed has an acknowledgement of the indigenous people who live/d there. I admit to not having heard of many of the tribes listed, but Michaud-Skog’s conscientiousness reminds us that America is not the home of God, guns, and white people, but groups that were displaced and terrorized.

Fat Girls Hiking really does serve as a guide, with advice about what to do if there are no bathrooms, safety (including cell phone access), how to respect everyone in a hiking group both physically and emotionally, and how scary it was for most fat girls to even get started — and how success isn’t defined by “conquering.” Really, is “domination” the relationship we want to have with nature anyway?

43 comments

  1. Oh my goodness, I love everything about the sound of this book. Intersectionality, yes! Connection to nature and humans are animals, yes! Helpful tips, yes! I need to check this out. I want to be more outdoorsy (not naturally an outdoorsy person with the exception of gardening.)

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    • If you feel like you’re not an “outdoorsy” person, keep in mind this book doesn’t push hikers toward goals that include distance or time spent outside, etc. It’s not about getting fit, and they DO NOT talk about diets or weight loss. It’s about connection to outdoors. So, unless you really just hate being outside in general, this book, I think, would be supportive to you!

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  2. This sounds excellent Melanie. I could comment on so much, but will choose just a couple. I remember becoming aware of the fact that hiking (bushwalking to us, which could connote something gentler now I think about it) has largely been the province of white people. Australia, like the USA, is a multicultural nation but when Mr Gums and I bush walk it’s mostly people like us (though across all ages) that we see. I’m thinking that’s partly because it’s us westerners who have had now, for a long time, the leisure time to take up such pursuits.

    Te climbing to mountain tops, I agree with most of what you say but I think there can also be some element of fitness and challenge and of just wanting to see the landscape/view from the top. So it’s a bit more nuanced but I agree with the principle of her point.

    Finally, I like the idea of accessible paths and they should exist but I also, as a bush walker like rambling through narrow more challenging paths. Both needs should be catered for. I understand, for example, that rough, uneven paths are good for bone health in a way that a nice flat enemy path isn’t (or is less so).

    People can be competitive about achievement, clothing and gear, no matter what they do but for me it’s all about comfort. On a side issue I love that there’s no fancy dressing in either my yoga or Tai chi groups for which I’m
    hugely grateful.

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    • I wonder if the attitudes about hiking are different in Australia vs. the U.S. because it is very much a 20-something, super-fit, white guy thing here. I guess when I said, “picture a hiker” I didn’t realize we may not all be picturing the same thing.

      I agree that it can be highly rewarding and motivating to achieve a goal such as reaching a certain place, like a mountain top. However, where Michaud-Skog is coming from is that a goal isn’t the point of her hiking group, which makes it more accessible. If someone has a wheelchair and will never reach the top of the mountain but wants to be in nature hiking, such a goal isn’t healthy, I think is what she’s saying. Plus, that connection to colonizing and dominating (which makes me think of the domestic violence book I read a few years ago called No Visible Bruises).

      I think there will always be wild paths that aren’t flat simply because a hiking trail can be wherever someone has worn a path through repeated walking. Yet, knowing where accessible trails are and documenting that is helpful to folks in wheelchairs or whose bodies aren’t going to be able to do a steep incline for a long time, etc. In the U.S. it’s not hard to find a trail, it’s hard to find an accessible trail. I didn’t know that part about bones, though! Now I’m interested, though I do know that walking on flat ground too long hurts my feet if I don’t have good arch support.

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      • No, clearly not. I pictured older, but yes white and lean people – that’s for sure. And both genders.

        Oh yes, thanks Melanie, I understood the point she was making. I just wanted to say that having that goal can be a valid personal challenge thing. For me the goal is enjoying nature – and finishing whatever route I choose! And again, I agree it’s very important to have accessible trails. More and more are being created here too.

        Don’t talk about feet: the bane of my life! I wear orthotics and they help a lot but without them, misery.

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          • Haha … even way back in my teen years I dreamed of being teleported! I have never in my life worn stilettos and haven’t owned any shoes with any sort of heel for decades (except for fairly low-heeled dancing shoes) as my feet have always bothered me. Roller-blades would at least get you there faster as you say. These days I’m wondering about a little scooter! You still stand but as you say, you get there faster!

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  3. Hmm, not sure that I agree about the desire to climb mountains being some sort of colonialist impulse! As someone who likes both a quiet amble along a flat path and the physical test of climbing a mountain, they are simply different experiences. The view at the top of a mountain is incredible, and having a defined, physically taxing experience that you want to accomplish is very rewarding. People are mentioned commenting on the view from mountaintops in the Old Testament, so I think the argument that it’s a hangover of imperialism doesn’t really hold water.

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    • Maybe I’m not explaining it correctly, as Sue, another blogger, said something similar to you. In the U.S. hikers have a very “conquer” attitude and even use phrases like “I’m going to conquer that mountain” to mean hike or climb. It’s less about doing it and more about the attitude of “dominating that trail.” The language is quite aggressive. I do agree that there is something special about having a goal, like climbing a mountain, and achieving it. Michaud-Skog points out that getting to the top of the mountain is not the only way to be a hiker, as some bodies physically cannot get to the top, be it size or ability or disability/accessibility.

      Biscuit and I were talking about fitness challenges recently. She and my sister-in-law run in 5K races frequently, and they’re always trying to improve their times. However, one of my nieces who runs with them, never tries to improve her time and just seems to enjoy being there — which sounds very much like her Aunt Melanie. I think what Michaud-Skog is saying is that both versions would be considered “running a race,” even though the goals and approaches are different. Does that make sense?

      Also, you better share Peru mountain photos! I’m looking forward to it already! When do you leave?

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      • I leave in 38 days, according to the little countdown app on my phone! There will definitely be pictures 😊

        That does sound very different culture-wise to hiking in the UK (which depending on region and generation might be called rambling or simply walking). The stereotype of a hiker here is probably two sturdy-looking middle-aged women in comfortable checked shirts and old boots. I know a lot of people from all backgrounds who walk for pleasure and exercise – it’s probably one of the most unifying activities in the UK, actually, since it’s free and easy! Depending on the area and the intensity of the walk, you will see anybody from young families through to elderly couples out walking on a spring or summer afternoon. An advantage of living in a small country well-linked by footpaths and bridle paths, maybe?

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        • Whoa, that is the opposite of what you see in the U.S. and totally what I think Michaud-Skog would applaud. I do think it could be an advantage of a smaller country, and also perhaps what you and I have talked about in the past: how much further back the history in the U.K. extends compared to the U.S. Just recently the U.S. was about discovery and taking over, whereas you guys have a history that stretches so far back I picture your ancestors living like hobits.

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        • I rarely hear people here (I’m in Wales) talk about hiking. Walking is more commonly used among the people I know, even those who belong to the Ramblers’ Association. Just like in any activity there are people who have to have the full kit and seem to regard the socks over the trousers look as a badge of honour. But fortunately there are plenty of people like me who as long as we have decent shoes and a waterproof jacket are happy.

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          • When I said that I’ve seen people of all ages and backgrounds walking for pleasure in the UK, I was partly thinking about many wonderful childhood holidays in North Wales! I remember seeing lots of families and older people out walking the same hills as we were. And yes, I agree that I rarely hear people talk about hiking here. I think my grandparents, who were keen walkers well into old age, would have said rambling, but I rarely hear it now.

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            • Oh, what a cool connection between you and Karen! Now I need to Google North Wales to get a sense of what the area looks like.

              *after Googling* Oh, lordy, it’s beautiful!

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          • It truly sounds like folks are more laid back about hiking in countries other than the U.S. and now I’m wondering if it is because we are a young country. We are still in dominating mode.

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  4. This honestly sounds like an excellent book. Even if you took out fat/queer/disabled parts, it just sounds like an awesome guidebook in general. (Now throw all that back in there because those ARE the important parts. I just love the way it sounds like the whole book is laid out.) I enjoy that she mentions those people who just have to conquer nature because there does seem to be two distinct groups in the hiking community. Those who race to the top of the mountain and those who enjoy the ride. I’m in the enjoy-the-ride category. I would also like to live in a van down by the river.
    I also like that she covers safety, especially for women. Rob doesn’t like me to hike alone but if he doesn’t want to go, well damnit, I’m going anyway. His reasoning is safety, and I can’t say he’s wrong. We recently discussed purchasing pepper spray. I also need to find my pocketknife. Plus, I usually hike with my dog, who hates other humans so she’s a pretty good deterrent but, would she attack someone?? My instincts say yes but you don’t know until it happens.

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    • Oh, you should definitely see if your library has this book, and it they do not, request that your library buy it and get it. The safety stuff will totally apply to you. I will say that I bought this book after doing a Crowdcast live with the author, and she mentions how one thing people forget about van life is that you’re always sitting within a few feet from a jar of pee. Hooboy.

      One thing I wish Fat Girls Hiking talked more about, now that I think about it, is how climate change has made the tick population EXPLODE. The season is hot for so much longer, and now there are fricken ticks everywhere.

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  5. This sounds excellent! That question of accessibility is an interesting one to me because I feel like the emphasis for trails around here is to leave them as untouched as possible. So how do you balance a minimal environmental impact with accessibility? But I also really like the idea that climbing the peak and planting your flag, so to speak, isn’t always everybody’s focus.

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    • In terms of accessibility, several sections mentioned that trails were ADA accessible to a certain point at which the trail would continue. I wonder how the disabled community feels. Is that “good enough”? Is that exclusionary? Should trails be left alone as much as possible, which means they may not be accessible?

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      • That question kind of loops back in to the question of what is the purpose of hiking? Is it to be outside and experience nature? Is it to reach a certain point, like climbing a peak? Amongst hikers I feel like there is a certain pride in hiking trails that are harder to reach – for example several trails around here are hard to even get to if you don’t have a vehicle capable of off-roading.

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        • I sat and thought about your comment for a couple of minutes and kept picturing hikers. I imagined someone walking through nature and stopping a lot to look at the plants, rocks, trees, etc. and be in awe of, or curious about, what they see. Then I pictured a hiker who is not the dude-bro dominator, but someone who wants to reach a certain height on a trail, or hike an entire path in a certain amount of time. Even though I did not picture the person “dominating” the trail, I could still see how a personal goal as related to nature has something more self-centered behind it. And I don’t mean “self-centered” in a really bad way, but more than the self is the center of the trip instead of the trail itself. So, I suppose I would land on the purpose of hiking is to engage with something naturally occurring that is outside yourself and should not need to be part of a personal goal, time goal, distance/height goal.

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          • You’re almost describing the way my kids hike versus the way Peter and I might. Peter particularly is very goal-oriented. And I appreciate that because that can provide the push I need sometimes to try things a little out of my comfort zone. But it can also be really nice to do the meandering, look at every bug and leaf along the way style of hike. For that reason, I like revisiting trails and seeing them in different seasons and feeling like I really get to know that part of the natural world.

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  6. I love the sound of this book, mainly because I wish more people were confidant enough to get out hiking and in nature more regularly, but for the reasons this book touches upon, having the confidence to enter an environment that is potentially dangerous and also very intimidating b/c of the other people in it is very challenging, and we need to work harder at making nature more accessible for everyone. My husband and I are big hikers, but we are the typical white people with fancy gear, so that’s probably no surprise. Still, we are trying to teach our kids the benefits of being in nature, and bringing other people with us, doing easy trails that meander rather than conquer. My husband is big on summiting, but I am not – I like a nice flat trail, as do my kids! “interpretive” trails are a nice way of speaking to those kinds of trails – where signs are posted along the way and you learn stuff, but don’t really summit or gain elevation. It’s more a learning stroll, which is my cup of tea.

    Sorry I have been MIA, I’m on vacay but I wanted to read this post b/c I loved the sound of this book – yippee!

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    • Aw, so good to hear from you! I know you don’t do personal updates on your blog, but if you maybe on your next review (or video review? — ooooo) you could tell us a tiny bit about it.

      I learned something new recently. I can’t remember where I read this, but some place (my town? my hometown? someplace else?) is raising money to get these chair things that wheelchair users can borrow to hike. They go over rocks and sand and sound (to me) like wheelchair dune buggies, almost! I hadn’t even thought about how a trail might accommodate the person instead of the wheelchair, if that makes sense. The only issue I can see is I know some people have specialized wheelchairs or feel that their wheelchair is part of them, so maybe a different wheelchair would not work.

      Heh, I love that you call yourself out as white people with the fancy gear. I think you teaching your children about respecting nature and making it more accessible definitely makes you an ally. And if your husband says he’s going to conquer a mountain, tell him “Melanie says chill, bro.” LOL, jk.

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