“I’d love to get to a place where it’s not remarkable to see a person of color doing mountaineering,” Jenny Bruso said. “Or when we see pictures of women, have all kinds of body types represented and it not be a talking point that you see all over Facebook the next day.”
As the founder of Unlikely Hikers, a group dedicated to busting up preconceived notions of who belongs outdoors, Bruso thinks about these issues a lot. And as a self-identified “fat, queer, former indoor kid,” she knows how it feels to be left out by outdoors media. She’s not alone: In just a year and a half, Unlikely Hikers has attracted tens of thousands of followers from all over the world.
Bruso sat down with us to talk about how it all started and why she thinks this group resonates with so many people.
This interview was edited for length and clarity.
Q&A with Jenny Bruso, founder of Unlikely Hikers
Kelsey Wallace: How did you get interested in hiking?
Jenny Bruso: I didn’t grow up outdoorsy. I never went camping or hiking. I never really thought about the outdoors growing up.
Then six years ago I started dating my partner, Brie, and one of our first dates was a hike. And we went on the Maple Trail in Forest Park. That trail’s not very difficult, but it was for me at that time. But when we got to the top of that one really big hill, I felt like I’d accomplished something, something that felt real, and you know I felt kind of hooked. After that. I started hiking all around Portland and the (Columbia) Gorge and just trying to find out as much about hiking as I possibly could.
Wallace: And how did that love of hiking become Unlikely Hikers?
Bruso: When I started hiking I had a lot to learn. I didn’t know what to wear, what to bring. I did a lot of online research but (it) was always written in this way that assumed the reader was already very comfortable in the outdoors and knew what certain gear even was, and I had to learn by a lot of trial and error.
I wanted to share everything that I was learning, so I started my blog to write about my process of figuring out this whole outdoors thing. You know, how to find clothes that fit me as a plus-size person. Just sharing all of my information and wanting to encourage others who might be curious but not able to find the information like I was.
After a couple of years of doing that, I started really feeling like there was this untapped energy and I wanted to find more people who were feeling like unlikely outdoors people, too. So I started the Unlikely Hikers Instagram community to connect with other people, but so much has happened since then. So many people find it and they tell me that they were always needing something like that. Like they finally feel seen.
Wallace: And what is an “Unlikely Hiker”? Who is the group for?
Bruso: I think the standard “outdoorsy” person up to this point has been the white, thin, usually young, affluent person who has all of the right gear. I think we get that image from outdoors media, magazines — so often the cover is of a white man or of a white woman and the woman has to be very stereotypically attractive. You know, looking sexy and good and not just being an awesome outdoors person.
But Unlikely Hikers isn’t about that story line. It’s about everybody else who’s just trying to get into the outdoors in whatever ways feel good for them, even if they don’t feel represented. What I do with Unlikely Hikers is sort of show the opposite of what we see in all of the other outdoors media and social media.
Wallace: Why is it important to create this space in the outdoors?
Bruso: I get messages from all kinds of people. I get messages from teen moms, from people who just hiked to their first trail because they saw something on Unlikely Hikers. I get messages from “likely hikers” who just want to say that they never thought about it before and that it matters to them and they want to be a part of these conversations. I get messages from people who feel suicidal but they don’t when they are hiking.
There have been times in my life where I haven’t really wanted to be a part of the world and being in the outdoors makes me feel like I am a part of the world. It makes me feel like I am a part of nature. I am nature.
Wallace: What do you say to someone who has never been outdoorsy but wants to give it a try?
Bruso: You know sometimes I’ll tell somebody to very simply go to a park and lay on a blanket and see what happens from looking at trees and birds and water. Ask yourself, “What might come to you from just taking that space in the outdoors?”
I didn’t know what nature had to offer me when I went on that first hike with my girlfriend, but a whole new world opened up to me. I know there are so many people out there who could benefit from having that experience.