Gear · Hiking

Size In The Outdoors

Yesterday I was shown a sponsored post (ad) on Instagram from Outdoor Research (OR), the outdoor clothing company based out of Seattle. It was touting their new line of inclusive clothing that is coming this fall and next spring (and how I hate buzzword bingo and trendy words). I should be excited, I would suppose, but rather I am a wee bit sour over this. Why?

Over the years I have written a lot about women’s hiking gear and clothing. And in particular about how outdoor gear has been nearly always for those who fall within narrow parameters for women. Sadly the articles I wrote were lost when we built this version of TrailCooking’s blog a few years ago. However, what it comes down to is simple: A day late, and a dollar short for these companies that are riding in on the “inclusive” trend. People like me were begging to be heard 20 years ago. It’s hard enough being female in the outdoors, but if you are also a female AND are plus sized, they have pretended we don’t exist. I have, and am approached quite often by clothing companies to review items. Most of the time I look over the website sent to me, and realize nothing will fit me. They tap out at 10/12. Maybe a 14. But as you will see below, the sizing is “outdoor”, not street everyday clothing sizing.

I understand the anger and frustration. I have been at some point in every category for sizes in clothing. I have been skinny, I have been middle of the road, I have been over where I should be, and I have been far too big for my frame. And I have worked so hard to get back to where I want to be – and still have a long road of working out in front of me. I have had 3 children in my life and my abs are never coming back.

And during all that time….I hiked. I never stopped hiking. And I always needed clothing.

In fact, my body is why I started hiking. After I had my oldest son I started walking after work, road walking along Ebey’s Prairie on Whidbey Island, till I started walking the trails after I got confidence. Walk I did, I needed to be in better health after having Preeclampsia with my oldest (and back then I was normal size). And then I started backpacking. But I wasn’t small when I started hiking. I had ballooned after having him. As I became a hiker I first used mens gear: backpacks were not being made for women then, and sleeping bags as well. I did get lucky though. LLBean made hiking pants and shorts for women up to a size 20. And it was a “real” size 20, not an “outdoors” size 20 where it was really a size 14 (looking at REI, Columbia Sportswear and Mountain Hardwear for making clothing that isn’t street clothing sizes). The day my grey LLBean hiking shorts showed up in the mail I felt legit. I was a real hiker! They fit me.

After I had my last son I had Diastasis recti in my abs and my stomach wasn’t going back anytime soon. This is what happens when you have a short torso and carry a child who was 10 pounds 8 ounces. Years later, I still have that, and it affects the pants I can wear. I have no qualms admitting I have a mom gut. But what did change was what I wore on the trail.

On a trip with a friend back in the day. We’d joke how we often matched on the trail. Same pants, gaiters, nearly the same jackets. She had an athletic build, but not I. I was also shorter than her by a couple inches. We both loved the outdoors, but for her? Clothing was simple. Everything fit her. On me….not so much. Thighs in pants were my nemesis. 

But to start my tale, let’s go back to 2003 or 2004. At the time a company called Wild Roses had been bought up by OR. The company had made women’s athletic clothing for hiking, climbing and mountaineering. Only thing was it came in 3 sizes. And each size was made for a height change. So if you wore the largest size, you had better have been 5’9″ to 5’11”. It was a very odd sizing indeed. Once OR bought the company though, that changed, and they went to “normal” sizes. Normal outdoor clothing sizes that is. Always cut for an athletic body. Smaller boobs. Smaller hips, thinner thighs. And if you are under 5’5″, the arms and legs drag because they are cut taller at larger sizes.

I was living outside of Seattle then, and one day a hiking partner and I stopped into the OR store on 1st Avenue for my first time. Back when Seattle was still a sleepy and safer city. I saw this jacket and I didn’t care HOW much it cost. I had to have it. It was deep blue and was like a jewel. It was from their Wild Roses line. It was ultralight Goretex. It was so detailed, with high end zippers, and so incredibly feather light. Did it fit me? Well…not exactly. I was 6 years pass my first kid, and I was a 12-14 then in street clothing. I bought the jacket ($220 or so….) and could only wear it zipped up if I unzipped the side zippers (along the hips). It was depressing. I was in relatively good shape those years, but hips are hips, and once you have had a kid, they are not going back down by much. And yes, I bought the largest size they made.

I loved that jacket, I wore it for many years.

But at least I could wear it. I was wearing it in even in 2010, after having my second child. I was smaller then, and could even wear it fully zipped down.

Unlike the years of REI hiking pants that were cut the same in the thighs/hips/butt for all sizes. Or Columbia Sportswear where the waist was tiny compared to the hips.

But then…I had Triple B, Bowling Ball Buns. And I couldn’t fit into any of my hiking clothes. I was depressed that summer. And the next summer. I still got out hiking, even backpacking. But my gut wasn’t going back in. And nothing I tried on in stores fit me. I could get pants around my hips, but not zip up.

So I did what I had mocked for years. The tourist hiker……

I became the female hiker who wore jeans. Because they FIT. Stretchy too! Hahahaha! And I didn’t slow down. And that was something that changed me: I wasn’t snowshoeing at that point, it wasn’t feasible with 2 small children. I was hiking, pushing a BOB stroller or wearing a kid carrier. We were doing easy day trips. I wasn’t worried about the weather because we aimed for good weather having children along. Kirk would often joke “cotton kills” at me, but he got it. He knew why I was doing it.

And I didn’t go back to “hiking clothing” for a very long time. Why even try? It was depressing to be reminded you couldn’t fit into anything in REI on the bottom half, but the clearance racks were full of size 2 and 4’s, but nothing for my mom body.

I then went onto the next level: wearing leggings. And that was for me a pivotal moment. I suddenly understood why I saw so many women in them on the trails in the PNW as the years passed by. They moved with you. No binding. No waistband that didn’t flex. No buttons or zippers. And I could get a pair, that was thick and well made for a small price. And hold your cell phone.

Let me be blunt here: I have been working out very hard the past couple months (working hard on the previous gains I made last year) and I got into size 12 jeans last week. I picked up some outdoor clothing to celebrate this. And did any of it fit? No. I was down to a size Large in street clothing, but again, bam, I had to buy XL for my new fleece jacket, shirts and more. Since October of 2019 I have worked my way down from 16-18W to a Misses 12. And then outdoor clothing slaps me and says “No, you are not, fatty!”. And it just knocks you down a bit.

So for me at least, OR making inclusive sizes doesn’t mean much anymore. Yes, it would be nice to get a jacket for winter that fits. However I looked at the list of clothing they are bringing out…and the selection? It isn’t huge. Rain jacket, rain pants, ski jacket and pants, base layers and leggings. Yes, leggings. I had to laugh a bit over that. But in truth, there really isn’t much to get excited about. It’s still just a tiny portion of what they make, the same as Columbia Sportswear does. Yay? For trying though?

In the end very little changes. These companies get applauded for being inclusive to all sizes, but in reality they are not. Until their entire line runs the full length from Size 0 to 26, will it be inclusive (and even then, there are larger sizes for those who want to also take up hiking).

And let us not talk about being super tall as a man. That’s a whole post in itself. I’d say that honestly tall men have even less choices.

But in the end: Fat women hike. A lot of them do. And they want to look nice. Because it boosts self confidence. But until all the clothing fits (and gear as well….getting backpacks and sleeping bags to fit is horrible!), don’t bander around the term inclusive. Don’t use it to get karma points. Just actually do it.


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