Jenny Bruso, self-identified fat, femme, queer, writer, and hiker, is challenging the outdoor world.
In social media parlance, Jenny Bruso is blowing up. Through her blog and Unlikely Hikers, her rapidly growing Instagram community, Bruso is on a mission to dismantle preconceived notions of who belongs in the outdoors. We had a chance to connect with Bruso recently to discuss the fateful hike that kindled a love for getting outside, the virtues of group hiking, and the need for better representation and inclusion in the outdoor community.
How did you discover the power of hiking, and how did that lead to the creation of Unlikely Hikers?
It all started accidentally. Six years ago, when I first started dating my partner, we went out on a hike together. Since it was a date, I was feeling self-conscious, breathing hard, and sweaty. At the same time, I felt like I had found something out on the trail. I started spending more and more time hiking the trails in Forest Park and the close-in parts of the Gorge. I felt a sense of place and connection.
I was also aware that I wasn’t seeing a lot of diversity on the trail. People made it known that I was out of place. I heard condescending comments, and people talked to me like it was my first hike.
I started a blog to share my experiences, in part because I didn’t relate to a lot of articles about hiking. I wanted to build a community of people who also felt like stories of hiking and the outdoors didn’t represent them. I used the phrase “unlikely hiker” to describe myself, and people really grabbed on to it.
Someone suggested that I start an Instagram community, but I resisted at first. I had joined Instagram because I wanted to be part of the outdoor culture, but I didn’t see anyone like me. I kept seeing the same kind of person. It’s not that I don’t want to see those people; I just also want to see everyone else!
I created a community for people of color, trans and queer people, fat people, people of all ages, differing abilities, and different bodies. I use the platform to talk about what the outdoors does for us. I talk about mental health and what nature means for people of different abilities. There are so many ways to connect to nature, and it does so much good for us.
The Instagram community has gotten some media exposure, and it has kind of blown up [33,000 followers as of publication]. Eight or nine months ago, I started leading group hikes in Portland, Oakland, and DC. I’m now sponsored by REI to lead these hikes around the country.
What was the impetus for building on the Instagram community with Unlikely Hikers group hikes?
I just keep responding to what people are asking for. With Unlikely Hikers group hikes, there’s definitely a feeling of building community while we’re out there, taking up space as a group of people who might feel vulnerable getting out on their own. Not feeling represented in outdoor media can definitely make a person feel unwelcome in the outdoors, subconsciously or consciously.
We have a lot of hike guidelines. We stay together as a group, and we don’t talk about things like diet and weight loss that could make people feel bad about their bodies. We want to be a team and be aware of each other’s unique vulnerabilities and abilities.
What’s the most rewarding part of growing the Unlikely Hikers community?
For one, I’ve met some incredible people. Also, my social media feeds look how I always wanted them to. One of the best things I hear from people is that Unlikely Hikers helped them get outside for the first time, or that it helps them keep getting outside. It’s also really hard work that is not financially rewarded very well. But right now it’s all new, and I’m learning a lot.
How can outdoor retailers and environmental groups foster a more inclusive community?
Representation is always the big piece. However, representation is rarely done well when there is not a diverse staff behind the efforts. When people with social capital are talking about people who don’t have it, those conversations rarely go well.
People of color, or fat people, or queer or trans people, or people of different abilities or disabilities should be highly consulted by the companies, retailers and otherwise, who are trying to diversify their image. Otherwise, the work will be fleeting. I see companies get accolades for having diverse imagery, but there’s not a lot holding that up. And people feel tokenized by that, like “Oh great, you’re using me to sell your product, but you’re not including me in any conversations.” There needs to be more diversity behind the scenes.