Out in the Open

Fat, tattooed and on the trail: Meet the woman changing what it means to be a hiker

Meet the woman who carved out a space for herself, and thousands of others who don't fit the mould, in the world of outdoor activities.

Fat Girls Hiking is a movement that welcomes all genders and all body types to explore nature

Summer Michaud-Skog founded the collective Fat Girls Hiking because she wanted there to exist a community for people of all abilities, genders and sizes to enjoy nature together. (Submitted by Summer Michaud-Skog)

This story was originally published on December 7, 2018.

It was discouragement and shame that led Summer Michaud-Skog to go on her first solo hike. 

"My ex-girlfriend and I would hike together and my speed was very slow and she would leave me behind. It didn't feel great. I did like being outside with people but I didn't want to have that shame," she explained.

Michaud-Skog craved a sense of community the more she grew to love hiking, but worried existing hiking groups wouldn't provide the type of inclusion she needed.

Connecting with each other and nature and ourselves is essential to our happiness.- Summer Michaud-Skog

"Outdoor media is not really representative of me and the way that I look … I'm a fat, white woman, I'm queer, I'm covered in tattoos. People wouldn't believe I was really a hiker," she told Out in the Open host, Piya Chattopadhyay.

Thus, Fat Girls Hiking was born, in Portland, Ore., in 2015. Michaud-Skog founded the collective for anyone who feels unrepresented in the mainstream hiking community.

The community isn't exclusive to people who are fat or girls, though.

Summer Michaud-Skog (front row, flowered skirt) with a local chapter of Fat Girls Hiking on a trail hike. (Submitted by Summer Michaud-Skog)

"We welcome all genders and all sizes," Michaud-Skog said. "It's for people of colour, it's for people with disabilities, it's for queer people."

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Although the notion of inclusion and diversity is top of mind for Michaud-Skog, that hasn't been the case within the mainstream outdoor industry. Recently, Mountain Equipment Co-op (MEC) was called out for its lack of diversity in the clothing retailer's advertisements. It forced CEO David Labistour to issue an open letter promising change. 

"We've let our members down ... the truth is that we haven't represented the diversity of Canadians or of our five million members."

Build it and they will come

Today, Michaud-Skog hits the trail for the exact opposite reasons as when she started. And she does so across North America. 

The nature lover is living out of a van, driving from city to city to launch local chapters of the collective. From Los Angeles to New York City to Vancouver, Michaud-Skog is planting the seed and the locals take it from there.

"People overwhelmingly want to have communities like this in their areas," she said. "I feel like I have a place where I belong. And all these other people have a place where they belong too and that is such a gift."

There are more than 15 local Fat Girls Hiking chapters up and running right now, with more in the works.

Fat isn't a bad word

The word 'fat' is rife with connotations and undertones, often used as an insult rather than self-descriptor. Michaud-Skog challenges that. 

"It feel like it's a political statement to call myself fat and use it in a positive way," she explained.

Michaud-Skog discovered her love of hiking almost by accident. Now, she can't imagine life without it. (Submitted by Summer Michaud-Skog)

"It's the shame that society puts on people who are fat. The word itself doesn't necessarily have to be a shameful word. And I just want to, like, try to do whatever I can to dispel that belief and to extract the stigma from that word."

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Michaud-Skog embraces the word 'fat' as a form of activism, and to show the world that being fat is okay.

"There are so many things I was told I couldn't do in my life because of my size," she said, remarking on how healing it is for people who identify as fat to come together and go on adventures in nature, defying the expectations of themselves and others.

Escaping the 'safe little bubble' of urban space

It's important to Michaud-Skog that people find ways to explore green space and remove themselves from the 'safe and comfortable' of everyday life in the city.

The amount of North Americans that live in urban areas is continually rising, so Michaud-Skog stresses the importance of breaking away from the city and interacting with the earth.

Not only are the clean air and beautiful sights refreshing and energizing, the Fat Girls Hiking founder says nature is helping her mend her relationship with herself.

Fat Girls Hiking has grown substantially since its inception in 2015; there are now over a dozen local chapters of the collective across North America. (Submitted by Summer Michaud-Skog)

"I feel like I found myself and I found healing. I came to love myself and what my body was capable of. There's a self-reliance that comes from hiking and a confidence that grows," she said.

Between the adventures in nature, the physical activity, and bonding with like-minded folks, Fat Girls Hiking has changed lives.

"Having intentional community, connecting with each other and nature and ourselves is essential to our happiness," Michaud-Skog continued.

"We won't be able to thrive without this."

This story appears on the Out in the Open episode "Community Creators".