7 Preparation Tips for First-time Plus Size Hikers

by | May 13, 2018 | Inclusive Outdoors, Outdoor Recreation

As a plus size hiker, I was overwhelmed before I even started my first hike. I was so worried about my physical ability to hike, stamina, and safety that I almost didn’t even set foot on the trail. Of course, I then turned to my good friend Google for advice and became even more overwhelmed by what I read. Knowing this, I wanted to write some tips that would be great for all beginners but really focused on plus size hikers. The following tips for first-time plus size and big and tall hikers are what I wished I had known before setting off on the trail. I hope you find them helpful in preparing for your first hike!

Disclaimer: Nothing written in this post or on this website should ever be considered medical, legal, or safety advice. The author and Inner Compass Blog are not legally responsible for your individual actions.

1) Determine if Hiking is Right for You

This may seem obvious if you’ve landed on this page from a search engine, but before you hit the trail ask yourself if hiking is right for you. Do you like or want to spend more time in nature? How about working up a little sweat? Do you want to challenge yourself mentally and physically? If you answered yes to those questions, then hiking is probably right for you. If you answered no to any of them, take some time to think it through. Hiking may not be for you. I’m not saying this to warn you off or scare you, I just want you to be sure this is something you want to do. Hiking can be physically and mentally challenging, but it is TOTALLY worth it in the end. Trust me!

2) Set Realistic Expectations

We all have sporadic delusions of grandeur, but hiking shouldn’t be one of them. You should set realistic and achievable goals for your first hike. Don’t focus on the number of miles, the time it takes you to complete it, the difficulty of the trail, or even how tired you are afterward. (I can be guilty of these things too!) Instead, set yourself up for success by being prepared, selecting the right trail for your ability level, and following through. As a result, you will be well on your way to reaping the benefits of time in nature, as well as the satisfaction of challenging your mind and body.

3) Find an Easy, Achievable Trail

Selecting the right trail for your first hike is the hardest task you will need to accomplish pre-hike. Following-up on the previous tip of setting realistic expectations, you need to find a trail that matches your ability level. You don’t want to push yourself too far (don’t start with an overnight or day-long hike) or hard on your first hike. This is especially important if you haven’t been hiking before or recently tested your fitness level. As a first time hiker, it’s important to feel a sense of accomplishment after you first hike, so pick one with relatively few barriers. Also, remember that you can stop to rest as often as you need to on the trail to catch your breath and hydrate. With that said, I’ve outlined my two favorite ways of finding an easy hiking trail below.

Ask a Park Ranger (or Friend)

Finding trails in state or national parks is a great first step for new hikers. These trails are well traveled and you can find park rangers at visitors centers to give you good trail recommendations. Talk with them about your ability level and explain to them what type of trail you would like to find. They will likely be able to recommend a trail based on personal experiences and knowledge. Rangers usually have trail maps that they will give you to take with you on your hike. Ask them to note any problem areas or points of interest directly on the map so you have them along with you on the trail. A friend who is familiar with hiking in your area may also be able to give you similar advice and might even be up for joining you on your first hike!

Use AllTrails

We have been using AllTrails and Hiking Upward for several years to find hikes in our area. While we love Hiking Upward, it is limited to the Mid-Atlantic region. So, I’ll walk through AllTrails, but if you are in my area you can check out either site. To begin, go to the AllTrails website and click Explore. Next, type in your location. Finally, set parameters that best match your fitness ability. For your first hike, I’d suggest selecting an easy trail, less than 2 miles in length, and less than 100-foot elevation change.

This will give you short, basically flat hike, which is perfect for your first outing. It will then give you a list of hikes that meet those criteria in your area (you can zoom in and out on the map as well to find more or show fewer hikes). I like to look at the pictures of the hikes and find ones that have awesome payouts (waterfalls, rivers, scenic vista, etc.). For me, these payouts are that sense of accomplishment I mentioned earlier. Plus, they make for great pictures and stories. :)

My Current Parameters for Reference

As I write this, I’m still rehabbing from my ankle surgery and need to modify my sorting options. So, I’ve been filtering my hikes to less than 3 miles and 100 feet in elevation change. This is about the maximum distance I can walk at this time and I’m keeping the elevation low to reduce the chance of uneven surfaces (really bad for my ankle right now). Before my ankle surgery, I had built up to filtering by 5 miles and a 500-foot elevation change or less. The hikes closer to the 500-foot elevation change were difficult with my weight and stamina but were a great challenge for my fitness level and mobility.

4) Understand that Safety Comes First

Your safety and the safety of your travel companions (humans and pets) is the most important thing to remember on the trail. Not to scare you, but every year hikers go missing on trails. Most often, it is because they were not prepared to manage an unexpected situation that arose. Review the safety information below to help you prepare for and feel comfortable on your hike.

Find a Friend or Hiking Group

There is safety in numbers. If you cannot find a friend to join you on your hike, look for a local hiking group. (Yes, they exist! Just search “hiking group near me” to find a group near you.) They often have beginner hikes that are designed for first-time or new hikers. Read about each group to find the one that best fits your needs. I recommend looking for groups with a designated trail guide and/or one in which they emphasize that you can hike at your own pace and someone will stay with you. Also, if you have a K-9 friend, they too enjoy hikes. Even our 20-pound shih tzu mixes loves to go on hikes with us!

Gather and Pack the 10 Essentials

The 10 Essentials are carried by experienced hikers across the globe. Ideally, everyone on the trail would have these ten items at all times. However, if you are just starting out be sure that at least someone in your group has all the items covered. Each individual should bring extra clothing that fits them in case of weather or temperature changes. The 10 Essentials are listed below and a lot of it can even conveniently be bought as a kit online:

  1. Navigation (map and compass)
  2. Sun protection (sunglasses and sunscreen)
  3. Insulation (extra clothing)
  4. Illumination (headlamp/flashlight)
  5. First-aid supplies
  6. Fire (waterproof matches/lighter/candles)
  7. Repair kit and tools
  8. Nutrition (extra food)
  9. Hydration (extra water)
  10. Emergency shelter

*While I don’t recommend hiking without the 10 Essentials, if you are going out without them please at least take water, food, and sun protection.

Study Your Maps

There should be two maps you study before every hiking trip. The first is the trail map. Get a feel for the map before you leave home by noting the route, elevation changes, turns, vistas, etc. Knowing these features will increase your confidence on the trail and can help more easily navigate. Print a copy of the map if possible or take screenshots of it on your (fully charged) phone. The trail should be marked, but having the map will help you navigate.

The second map you should study is a roadmap. Cell phone reception can be spotty in nature and you need to have a backup plan. In addition to knowing the route you are taking, take screen captures, download an offline version into your GPS (you can even do this in Google Maps), use a road atlas, or print the directions/map. This will be most helpful when you are tired after your hike and just want to get to find something to eat and head home.

Beware of Animals

I cannot stress enough that you should know what critters are in the area in which you are hiking. This is especially important if you are hiking in areas where there are large and/or potentially dangerous animals (bear, moose, snakes, mountain lions, etc.). If you are hiking on public lands (national parks, national forests, state parks, etc.) their websites typically have a listing of the animals in the area and how you should behave in their presence (this is super important, especially around bear!). For example, in Shenandoah National Park they have posted signs that tell visitors to stay 150 feet (four school bus-lengths) away from bear and 75 feet (two school bus-lengths) aware from most other wildlife. Park rangers can also provide this information.

Check the Weather

Weather can be unpredictable and even more so when you are in a remote area without cell coverage and cannot check for updates. For your first hike, I would avoid hiking in extreme temperatures (hot or cold). If extreme temperatures are unavoidable, be sure to only hike with someone (friend or group) who has experience in that environment. Depending on the weather you may also need to take special gear like rain gear, gloves, etc. Check the forecast often before you leave and be sure to check it for the specific location you will be hiking. We’ve made the mistake of checking at our house and having completely different weather and temperatures an hour away from where we planned on hiking. Never again!

5) Gather Your Gear

You don’t need to be decked out in fancy gear to go hiking. Can it help? Sure, when you get more advanced and are actually worried about cutting every possible ounce from your pack and/or want to enjoy the various benefits of different materials. However, it is not something you should stress about when you are just starting out. Especially when us plus size folks know shopping can be very stressful in itself! In fact, for your first hike, I recommend you raid your closet and make the most of what you have just like I did.

Before I get into my gear recommendations, I wanted to take a moment to talk about fit. Take your body shape into consideration before making a purchase. For example, I carry my weight around my middle, so I like high waisted options. I also am slightly taller than the average American woman at 5’7”, so shorts are often too short on me (hello chub rub!) and full-length pants often fall just above my ankles. I also prefer shirts that aren’t super tight on my body. This is especially true with regard to the fit of my shirt sleeves, as I often find them too tight. So think about your body as you select your gear, it will make your hike more comfortable and enjoyable.

Plus Size Hiking Pants

The type of pants you wear hiking should depend on your situation and what you have in your closet. For example, if you are hiking in an area that has a lot of ticks, opt for ankle length yoga pants or lightweight joggers. If you are in a hot climate, then you would likely feel more comfortable selecting capri-length yoga pants or even shorts. If you deal with chub-rub, I’d avoid shorts all together so that you can be as comfortable as possible on the trail. Whatever you do, avoid heavy, non-breathable material like denim or corduroy. These materials will retain moisture and heat.

Purchasing the Right Plus Size Hiking Bottoms

If you can’t find something that will work in your closet and can’t borrow something from a friend, you will need to look at purchasing something. When shopping look for items with fabric that is moisture-wicking, breathable, and lightweight. Don’t feel like you need to find something that has cargo pockets or is labeled specifically as hiking pants. These other options will work just fine as you start your hiking adventures. I’ve put together recommendations in three price ranges to get you started:

Suggestions and Recommendations

Level Women’s Plus Size Hiking Pants (mainly personal recommendations) Men’s Big and Tall Hiking Pants (what I’ve found through various searches)
Entry Level ($20 or less) Stop by or shop online at WalMart. These Danskin Now Dri-More Capri’s meet the criteria I noted above and come in at just $12. WalMart has some options, but many of them are cotton. These Hanes Sport Performance Running Pants ($18) may be your best bet.
Mid-Range ($21 to $40) Check Kohls, JCPenny, or Marshalls – they all have really good options in this price range. Personally, I have and like these Tek Performance Capri Leggings ($24) from Kohls. Kohls has a lot of Big and Tall hiking pant options in this range. These Cool Tek  Laser Cut Pants are a great moisture wicking option at only $36.
Investment ($41 or more) In my experience, Columbia makes the best plus size hiking bottoms options and it is worth the investment to purchase these pieces. My go-to favorite options are their Columbia Luminescence Legging ($80) and Anytime Outdoor Plus Size Bootcut Pant ($55). These are the only two bottoms I will wear on the trail. Also, for you tall plus size ladies, these leggings have extra length! Again, Columbia has great options. These Silver Ridge Cargo Pants come in at $65 and come in multiple colors and big sizes.
These Trail Magic pants ($195) from Columbia are similar to women’s leggings if you are looking for something more form-fitting and lightweight.

Plus Size Hiking Shirts

For tops, find a lightweight tank top or t-shirt for your main layer. Depending on where you are hiking and the local weather, you may want to grab a long sleeve option to start with as well. I personally always hike with an extra long sleeve layer, you never know when it may get cold or windy. (Layers are also one of the 10 Essentials.) For your short and long sleeve tops, just make sure you pick lightweight and breathable material.

Purchasing the Right Plus Size Hiking Tops

If your closet raid wasn’t fruitful, don’t fret! Walmart has several options in extended sizes for both men and women that come in around $6-$20 for various tops. I’ve seen quite a few plus size activewear options in stores and you can also order them online. Remember to see if a store has free store pickup for online orders to save a bit of money on shipping.

Suggestions and Recommendations

Level Women’s Plus Size Hiking Shirts (mainly personal recommendations) Men’s Big and Tall Hiking Shirts (what I’ve found through various searches)
Entry Level ($20 or less) Again, stop by or shop online at WalMart. I started with one of these Fit for Me shirts ($11) and it worked great at keeping the moisture off me. If you haven’t caught on, Walmart is my go-to for entry-level options. They have really stepped up their clothing game in the last year. A great option for men is this Russell Hyper Cool Performance Tee ($12), which comes in sizes up to 5X.
Mid-Range ($21 to $40) I have several tops from Kohls or JCPenney and almost exclusively wear them. These Nike Training Tee’s are a great deal at only $20 (Kohls). Kohl’s is another great source for Big and Tall men. These Under Armour Tech Tee’s come in 20 different colors and are made of quick-dry wicking, anti-order material. All for just $24 a shirt!
Investment ($41 or more) While I haven’t experienced a great return on investment beyond the mid-range options, there are a couple out there I have yet to try. Columbia has a couple options and so does REI. Similar to my plus size women’s comments, there really isn’t a need to go beyond the Mid-Range options. For those of you who want to can give Columbia’s Titan Trail shirt a go ($75).

Plus Size Hiking Jackets and Layers

This will likely be the easiest category for many in which to find something in your closet. Depending on your weather, your layer can be anything from a lightweight rain jacket to a fleece. Many of us already have them, so as long as you don’t mind it possibly getting a little dirty, you are likely good to go. I usually start with my layer option in my backpack or tied around my waist. It really depends on what the weather is looking like. If there is a chance of showers, I like to keep my rain jacket tied around my waist for quick access. If it’s sunny, I’ll leave it in my pack.

Purchasing the Right Plus Size Hiking Layering Options

For the purchase options in this area, I’ve shifted from keeping them all the same type of item. These options vary drastically based on climate and activity, so I wanted to give you a few strong options. I have these items in my closet or have very similar ones and combined they have gotten me through everything I have needed so far in dry climates. (I also have rain gear from the men’s section at REI that I’m looking at replacing.)

Suggestions and Recommendations

Level Women’s Plus Size Hiking Layers (mainly personal recommendations) Men’s Big and Tall Hiking Layers (what I’ve found through various searches)
Entry Level ($20 or less) Again … Walmart. I actually just added this long-sleeve Fit for Me shirt ($11) while I was looking for a good entry-level option. :) This $13 Russell Ventilated Performance Pullover from Walmart is a great second layer option.
Mid-Range ($21 to $40) I’ve had the best luck finding in-store activewear layering options at Kohls. In fact, I have a couple of these Tek Gear Dry Tek hoodies ($25) and they work great. This Nike half-zip from REI is also a good option at $40. Another great Kohl’s find is this $40 Nike Breathe Dri-FIT Performance Pullover. Kohl’s has a great online selection of free store pickup for many of the items if ordered online.
Investment ($41 or more) I practically live in Columbia’s omni-heat vests ($50) during fall and winter because it keeps my body warm and arms slightly cool when paired with a long sleeve shirt. (That combo keeps this Wisconsin girl at the perfect temperature.)  I also really love their fleece jackets ($60) for when I want all-over warmth. Columbia’s Titan Trail brand is a great resource for Big and Tall men. This Titan Trail Half Zip ($90) looks to be a good option in this price range.

Hiking Shoes

I’m sure that many of you may think that you need to have hiking boots before hitting the trails. In reality, the majority of the people I see on beginner trails have on running shoes. They have decent tread and people usually have them in their closets already. If you do, then you should be set for your first hike. If you don’t, check out the purchasing options below.

Purchasing the Right Hiking Shoes

Similar to my layering options, the recommendations below cover a range of options. Shoes cost more than a lot of other gear, but I think they are worth it in the end as they will be the one thing that is always hitting the trail. Also, be sure to find wide/narrow options to match your feet. The folks at REI are great at fitting hiking boots and I will be forever thankful for them for finding me the perfect pairs of Merrell’s and Lowa’s.

Suggestions and Recommendations

Level Women’s Hiking Shoes (mainly personal recommendations) Men’s Hiking Shoes (what I’ve found through various searches)
Entry Level ($30 or less) Walmart has running shoes for as little as $12. Walmart has a lot of running shoe options in this price range.
Mid-Range ($31 to $60) Stop by DSW or another shoe warehouse store to find some decently priced hiking shoes and boots. DSW has several options around the $50 mark. Stop by DSW or another shoe warehouse store to find some decently priced hiking shoes and boots. DSW has several options around the $50 mark.
Investment ($61 or more) For years I hiked in Merrell’s ($110 – similar to these) and loved them. However, after my ankle surgery, I needed something that better accommodate my new foot shape (who knew that would happen?!) and ankle brace. My REI sales staff recommended these Lowa’s for their wide heel box and I love them. Both options come in wide, which I love/need. My husband wears a pair of Merrell hiking boots similar to these $130 ones (they don’t make his anymore). He’s had them for years and really likes them.

Daypack Options

You will need some sort of backpack to carry your 10 Essentials and anything else you want on the trip. (If you will be hiking with a dog, be sure to pack enough water and food for them as well.) When I did my first hike, I carried my water and an extra layer in an old drawstring bag I found in my closet. Feel free to use one of those if you have them or even an old school backpack.

Purchasing the Right Plus Size Hiking Packs

Most backpacks work fine for a plus size body. Both the entry-level and mid-range options below will work with pretty much anybody. However, once you get more involved in hiking and are taking longer full-day hikes you will want to carry more stuff with you on the trail. This means you will want to better distribute the weight in your pack through chest straps and waist/hip straps. I struggled to find a women’s pack that fit my body. However, the patient staff at the REI near me helped me test several packs until I found the one that worked for me. If you go this route, be sure to try them on in person!

Suggestions and Recommendations

Level Options
Entry Level ($20 or less) Walmart and Target have a ton of backpack options for under $20. This Ozark option from Walmart is a good example at $18.
Mid-Range ($21 to $40) We keep a pack like this one from Target ($25) for when we have gear-less friends join us on our hikes. We like it because it’s large enough to fit a couple granola bars and extra layers. It also has a hydro pack, which means they can easily carry their own water.
Investment ($41 or more) I personally carry an older model of this Osprey Hydration Pack ($165). I’ve had it since 2015 and it’s held up really well on our various adventures. It has waist/hip straps, but they barely fit me. So, be sure to try these on in person before investing in a pack like this.

Post-Hike Gear and Care

This may seem like an odd thing to talk about, but I find value and comfort in preparing for my post-hike actions and needs. For example, I am usually exhausted after hiking back to our car. All I want is to get something super cold to drink, grab something good to eat, and take my boots off to let my feet breathe a bit. To make sure I can meet these needs, we take a cooler with water and pop so that we have something cold to drink, take sandwiches or filling snacks, and have a pair of sandals ready. More often than not, we pop the hatch on the back of our SUV and sit down to rest for 10-15 minutes. We eat, drink, and let our feet dangle. It’s also the perfect time for us to reflect on the hike and listen to the sounds around us one last time before we head home.

Other Gear Recommendations

I’m not going to go into too much detail about the remaining items you should consider but did want to mention them. First, wear some kind of hat. In sunny times this will keep the sun off your face, which is helpful as you look for trail markers and wildlife. In cold times it will keep your head warm. Second, if you have lower-body joint issues, you may want to borrow or invest in a pair of trekking poles. I have only recently started using them, but they help keep my footing stable on the trail. Third, if you are especially worried about navigation, you can get a satellite-based GPS map system that you can carry on your journey. They are expensive, but I know they provide comfort for many hikers.

6) Prepare Physically

Once you get out on the trail, there is only one way back to the trailhead and that’s the same way you got there: on your own two feet. Regardless of what happens, you need to be able to make it back to safety. Before I head out to the trail, I make sure that I have a well-supplied pack, have enough water, and that I’m feeling in good enough physical condition to complete the hike I envisioned.

That last bit can be challenging for first-time plus size hikers. To me, being in good enough physical condition means that I don’t have any injuries that may cause me problems on the trail. If my ankle or knee issues are acting up we often postpone a hike until they have subsided. I also recommend stretching and walking daily leading up to your first hike. These will help prevent injury and help your body more easily adjust to your first hike.

7) Prepare Mentally

Preparing mentally for the challenge of hiking will be different for everyone. As previously discussed, set realistic goals for your hike as far as distance and time go. The hike itself will be harder than you expect, get comfortable with the idea that you will need to stop frequently along the way. I’ve been on hikes where I stop every 5 to 10 minutes and others where I only stopped once. Set your own pace.

Hiking is not a competition. Understand that there will be hikers who pass you. This is hard to admit, but I’ve been on an out and back hike in which people have passed me on my way there, arrived at the destination and passed me on their way back … all before I even made it to the destination. It’s a tough pill to swallow, but again, it’s my pace, my adventure. I owned that hike and knew that the glory would be all that much greater when I pushed myself and reached the lookout at the top of that mountain. I’ll let you in on a little secret, it was!

Final Thoughts

I’m so excited that you are about to hit the trail! I found hiking to be a rewarding activity. Being in nature, not just driving through it, is incredibly rewarding. It helps me recharge my internal batteries, gain mental clarity, and challenge myself physically. It’s wonderful!

As a first-time plus size hiker, I want you to accept a challenge to get outside and enjoy nature. Don’t wait until you lose that 20 pounds you’ve been dreaming of or until you get to some future fitness goal. If you keep putting it off, you will never get out on the trail. The best part of hiking is that your trail experience doesn’t have to be like anyone else’s. You can stop and rest as often as needed, you can determine the length and difficulty of the trail, and you get to determine what a successful hike looks like to you. This is YOUR hike, so go at YOUR own pace, and make it YOUR own unique adventure. I believe in you. You’ve got this!

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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1 Comment

  1. Terra Gatti

    I love that included that first bullet, about determining if hiking is right for you. It seems obvious, but I’ve definitely got friends who wanted to do the hiking thing and then realized it was absolutely not their thing because of bugs, sweat and uneven paths. Totally legit to just say, you know what, this is not my jam.

    Also, love all these tips!


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