The Struggle of Being a Plus Size Girl in an Outdoor World

by | Mar 31, 2019 | Inclusive Outdoors

I have been sitting on an ever-changing draft of this post for nearly two years. So long, in fact, I just assumed that I had published it. I didn’t realize I hadn’t published it until I wanted to link to it in another post I was writing. (Obviously, I also need to sort through my drafts folder, lol!) ? 

My main hesitation in publishing this post was because, until that point, my blog had been about my travels. I didn’t share much about my personal life and hadn’t planned on doing so. At the time, I was really struggling with my body image due to my weight, hormonal disorder, and ongoing infertility issues. On top of that, I didn’t want to deal with the onslaught of negative comments from fat-shamers that seemed to be heavily trolling the internet at the time. You might not think that there are trolls in outdoor spaces, but you would be very very wrong.

Outdoor Industry Trolls

I first encountered outdoor recreation trolls and bullies while searching for recommendations in online gear forums. I started searching these forums in early 2015 when I was looking for recommendations for our trip to Alaska. It was surprising to see that the majority of plus size posts I came across had fat-shamers trolling the comments. The trolls would respond to a plus size person’s request with a not-so-polite comment that the writer shouldn’t be hiking, kayaking, etc. until they lost some weight. Honestly, I just wanted to reply to every troll with a snarky “Well, how the f*ck to do you expect us to lose weight if we aren’t getting more active?”

Thankfully, more often than not, the bullies would be met with a stream of supportive comments from moderators or body-positive folks. Still, it was disheartening to read those posts and comments. Not a single one of those ladies asked to be fat-shamed in their questions, they just wanted to know where to buy clothes and packs that fit their body. Since I first drafted this post in late 2016, there has been a rise in body-positivity IRL, online, and in the outdoor industry. In fact, I have found daily inspiration in an amazing community of body-positive outdoor women on Instagram.

Still, I am sharing my slightly-edited original post because it validates my thoughts and feelings at that phase of my life. So…

The Struggle is Real

I never fully understood the struggle of being a plus size girl in an outdoor world until we began planning our Alaskan adventure back in 2015. The trip was to celebrate our anniversary and my completion of my master’s degree. Plus, our visit would allow me to join the elusive 50 State Club – I was beyond excited! (Like *happy dance* in our living room excited!)

However, my excitement quickly faded when I began searching for clothing and gear designed for the outdoor adventures we planned for the trip. Let me tell you, it took months of searching, purchasing, and returning, before I found enough items to outfit myself for our trip. As much as I don’t want to admit this, there were definitely many tears involved. In the years since I have not found it much easier to find clothing and gear to fit my outdoor lifestyle. I have, however, found many workarounds and will be sharing these tips

Shopping In-Person

I cannot tell you how much time I have wasted scouring the racks of clothes and gear in the women’s department of any retail stores over the years. Every trip begins with an internal body-positive pep talk that usually goes something like “You will not let this small selection of niche items define your self-worth. Your body and the way others see it does not define you.”

Of course, this quickly turns to anger after yet another thing that caught my eye doesn’t come in a size above XL. I then get into a huff and mutter under my breath things like “Seriously, I cannot be the only woman above a size XL who has walked into this store looking for something.” After taking a moment to cool off, I then have to subject myself to the humiliation of having to ask a salesperson if they carry plus sizes.

I say humiliation, because I more often than not, get a looks of utter confusion from the salesperson. They never seem to know what to say because a simple “No” does not seem polite enough to most and they don’t want to hurt my feelings. When in reality, I would rather have a simple “No” instead of the typical response of “Have you checked the men’s department? They “might have something that would fit you”.

Have You Tried the Men’s Section?

Ahh yes, the men’s department where, you know, everything is built for a man’s body and also has very limited extended sizes. I usually respond with a polite “Oh, thanks anyway” when all I want to say is “Sure, I’d be happy to squeeze my hips and DD’s into some boxy clothes that make me look like I have no idea how to dress my body. What a confidence booster!” or “OMG! What a great idea – My husband and I could totally be #twinning on the reg while we hike.” If you can’t tell, my internal voice is way more sassy and sarcastic than I am in IRL! :)

In complete honesty, the men’s department is actually completely horrible. I have never found pants there that I like (with the exception of my rain pants), but usually have better luck with tops. I can always find and frequently purchase t-shirts from the men’s department. However, finding well-fitting jackets that can handle my curves is a totally different story. Ugh. Sadly, I rarely find a size above XXL in the men’s department. While this post focuses on women, I didn’t want to leave out my male counterparts entirely. Men of all sizes and shapes deserve to have access to extended sizes as well.

In-Store Shopping Tip

I actually have some of my best luck finding extended sizes in the discount or clearance sections of outdoor retailers. Over time I’ve learned that stores don’t have a lot of options when someone returns an extended size online order in-store since they don’t typically carry extended sizes in-store. So, they put it in the discount section to get rid of it quickly.

Shopping Online

After my in-store experiences, I turned to online shopping. The selection of plus size outdoor clothing and gear is significantly better online than it is in-store. While the selection is better, you have to be really careful to read the size charts to ensure that you are getting something that will fit your body. Not only does each store have a different size chart, but some stores have different size charts based on each product.

The benefit of shopping online is that it’s a near judgment-free space (I say nearly because there is still a lot of sizeism). I like that I have a lot more options with online shopping, but hate that I have to go to multiple online stores to find the same things that “normal” sized folks can find in any store they step foot into.

Online Shopping Tip

Take your body measurements before you start shopping online for outdoor clothing and gear. These numbers will help you navigate the various size charts and will ensure that you buy the right size for your body. If I am on the border between sizes, I look at the materials to determine if I should size up or down. For example, I will usually size down on something like stretchy athletic pants and size up on a fitted rain jacket. If you are unsure about the fabric, I have found it helpful to read product reviews as at least a couple will mention fit.

Where to Shop for Plus Size Outdoor Gear

In my opinion, the holy grail of plus size hiking clothes right now is Columbia. They are my first (and often final) stop in my search for plus size outdoor and hiking clothes these days. I like the style and color options here way better than at other stores. Additionally, the fit of the plus size clothes makes me think that they have actual plus size designers or beta testers – which is amazing.

My runner up for the next best outdoor clothing is JC Penney. I buy nearly all of my activewear tops there and am happy to see that they keep expanding their various lines. I especially love their dry-fit type tops because the cuts are made for a curvy woman (ie, room for our chest and hips without being boxy). While most of these clothes are made with gyms in mind, I often wear them out on the trail as well. Plus, they are more affordable than Columbia.

If I can’t find what I’m looking for at either Columbia or JC Penney, I turn to REI,  Duluth Trading Company, or Old Navy. REI and Duluth Trading Company have very limited plus size outdoor clothing, but it is hit or miss and often not as visually appealing as Columbia. Old Navy is my backup for activewear if I can’t find something at JC Penney.

Feedback for Outdoor Retails

Basically … for the love of all that is holy, give me some options!

  • Don’t limit your in-store options to just S-XXL in men’s and XS-XL in women’s. Stock and display extended sizes for men and women in-store.
  • Make sure that your extended sizes have the same visual appeal and quality as your “normal” sizes. For some reason, people tend to think the only way they will sell extended sizes to women is if they make items bright pink or purple. When in reality, I rarely buy anything in those colors unless I am desperate. This especially bothers me when a store’s traditional sizes have more muted natural color palettes.
  • Market to people of all shapes and sizes. You have a HUGE untapped market of people out there and not only have you traditionally shut them out of your stores, but you also shut them out of your marketing. Only once (shout-out to REI) can I recall seeing a plus size person (male or female) while scrolling through outdoor retailers mass-market ads and social media feeds.
  • Promote diversity in your ambassador programs. There are a lot more people out there who hike, camp, and kayak than just crunchy-looking skinny people.

Do Your Part to Enact Change

If you are as frustrated as I am please take a moment to contact your favorite retailers to ask for more designs, sizes, and in-store options for both men and women. Retailers won’t change unless they hear from enough of us. So please speak up. Talk to your local store’s manager and let them know that you would like to see more options in-store. Reach out to companies on social media and ask them to make more options that fit all bodies. 

It is SO important that we (my curvy female and our male counterparts) do not let the limited choices and sizes stand in our way of enjoying the outdoors. Everyone has a right to explore nature and challenge themselves with outdoor recreation.


By Sara Beth

Sara Beth is a wanderlust soul who is focused on simplistic and mindful living. She is passionate about National Parks, road trips, and board games. Her early years were spent in the Driftless Area of Wisconsin. After graduating from university, she moved to Las Vegas, fell in love, and adopted a dog. Today, she lives with her husband and their dog in the suburbs of Washington, DC.

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