Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00
0:00
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations
KANW is a member of the Mountain West News Bureau, a collaboration of public media stations that serves the Western states of Colorado, Idaho, Nevada, New Mexico, Utah and Wyoming. Our mission is to tell stories about the people, places and issues across the Mountain West.From land and water management to growth in the expanding West to our unique culture and heritage, we'll explore the issues that define us and the challenges we face.

Big Gal Backpackers hike to make all bodies feel welcome on public lands

Big Gal Backpackers Boise members make their way up Red Fox Trail near the Idaho capital's North End neighborhood.
Murphy Woodhouse
/
Mountain West News Bureau
Big Gal Backpackers Boise members make their way up Red Fox Trail near the Idaho capital's North End neighborhood.

It was a gray, overcast late January Saturday - mid-morning, near the base of Camel’s Back park in Boise’s North End. Despite the intermittent drizzle, a group of nine women - and two dogs - slowly assembled.

“Welcome to Big Gal Backpackers Boise,” founder Kirsten Strough told the group. “We are a body positive hiking club. We are free of diet and weight loss culture. And what that means is you come and enjoy hiking in the body you have.”

Before heading out on the 1-and-a-half-mile hike, they introduced themselves and pets, and shared a favorite group excursion.

“Hey, my name is Genie and this is Lucy Lou,” one longtime member said - with her pink sweater-clad Coton de Tulear in tow. “And I think our favorite one … was down when we went camping…And I'm struggling… Rock city?”

“City of Rocks!” her companions interjected.

Longtime group member Genie and her Coton de Tulear Lucy Lou.
Murphy Woodhouse
/
Mountain West News Bureau
Longtime group member Genie and her Coton de Tulear Lucy Lou.

The other canine hiker - Paddle, sporting a Snoop Dogg-branded sweatshirt and chain - was a little microphone shy, and loudly shared his skepticism of this reporter.

The group soon set out at an inviting pace up Red Fox Trail. Big Gal Backpackers has some 450 members now, but its origins go back to the fall of 2020.

“I was kind of inspired by other plus-size hiking groups like Unlikely Hikers, Fat Girls Hiking,” Kirsten said. “We didn't have anything like that here in Boise. So I said, ‘hey, I'll just start my own.’”

On social media, those groups have raised awareness over much of the last decade about the obstacles faced not just by women with larger bodies, but by racial and ethnic minorities and LGBTQ folks who also want to enjoy their public lands. Through organized hikes and chapters, they work to overcome those obstacles.

Kirsten said anxiety about being judged out on the trail was a barrier for her. Sometimes when she did go out she’d get unsolicited comments about how it would only get easier for her. However well-meaning, they made her feel like she was seen only as an “aspirational hiker.”

Group founder Kirsten Strough leads Big Gal Backpackers Boise back toward the trailhead.
Murphy Woodhouse
/
Mountain West News Bureau
Group founder Kirsten Strough leads Big Gal Backpackers Boise back toward the trailhead.

“But I am a hiker,” she said. “To be a hiker, you have to have a body and you have to go on a hike. And that's it.”

‘You can’t escape it’

Regular group hiker Makailah Dowell is the proud dog mom of Paddle, an Aussiedoole who had mostly gotten over his skepticism of microphones.

“We at Big Gals Backpacker don't believe in having nude dogs, so we dress our dogs,” she said, by way of explanation for Paddle’s hip look.

Makailah Dowell and her Aussiedoodle Paddle, who's looking good in a Snoop Dogg-branded sweatshirt and chain.
Murphy Woodhouse
/
Mountain West News Bureau
Makailah Dowell and her Aussiedoodle Paddle, who's looking good in a Snoop Dogg-branded sweatshirt and chain.

Makailah works with people dealing with eating disorders and was drawn to Big Gal Backpackers a year or so ago in part because it was free of America’s pervasive weight loss mania.

“You can’t escape it, right?” she said. “I mean, you open your phone, some of the first things, you see, you step into the grocery store line, right? You see the magazines lose 50 pounds in two weeks. It's ridiculous.”

She does as many as four outings a month. While women are the target audience for Big Gals, men and gender non-conforming people also join, and Makailah loves the inclusive vibe of what she says has come to feel like her “chosen family.”

“If we're thinking about people who are disabled, if we're thinking about people who are queer, if we're thinking about people who are BIPOC, then we're thinking about everyone who deserves to be on this land,” she said. “We're not only thinking about the people who look like you, who deserve to be on this land.”

‘I fit out there’

“I really wanted to cry and I really wanted to give up, but I really didn't want to do both and I was running out of time to make up my mind,” said Beth Bradley, a Colorado resident recounting her 2018 ascent of Mount Bierstadt, one of dozens of peaks in the state over 14,000 feet, in a 2022 episode of the storytelling podcast the Moth.

“No one else was struggling like I was,” she continued. “So I was scared and I was overwhelmed and I was hating my body for being too fat and my mind for being too weak.”

But with the support of friends, she faced the pain, doubt and self-loathing, and earned a tearful, joyous summit.

Beth grew up in Colorado but didn’t feel she belonged in the state’s famous mountains because of her size. After returning from a short stint in Seattle, she started hiking in her home state in 2017.

“That had been 20 minutes away from me my whole life,” she said.

Hiker Beth Bradley at the summit of Colorado's Chief Mountain in 2022.
Courtesy Beth Bradley
/
Beth Bradley
Hiker Beth Bradley at the summit of Colorado's Chief Mountain in 2022.

For Beth and many others, the social media postings of groups like Fat Girls Hiking served as key inspiration, just as her publicly sharing her experiences did for others.

“And I felt like the world just cracked open for me, that there were other people that felt the same way,” she said. “That had that wanted to get outside and that had felt excluded.”

Another barrier that Beth cited is the lack of gear at outdoor stores that fit hikers like her, though she said there has been some improvement. But whatever obstacles remain, she now has no doubt she belongs outside.

“The mountain or the trail, they're neutral to me,” she said. “They don't care how big I am or not. I fit out there.”

Building community

Back in Boise, the Big Gal Backpackers reach the halfway point and turn around. Some are longtime regulars, others are on just their first or second hike making new friends. That keeps founder Kirsten energized.

“I really enjoy providing a resource for people to get together in a community that makes them feel safe and welcome,” she said.

Big Gal Backpackers Boise founder Kirsten Strough, right, and her wife Emily Ryan walk Red Fox Trail.
Murphy Woodhouse
/
Mountain West News Bureau
Big Gal Backpackers Boise founder Kirsten Strough, right, and her wife Emily Ryan walk Red Fox Trail. "I'm so proud of Kirsten for coming up with this and and bringing people together," Emily said of her wife's project. "I really didn't have any concept at the beginning of how popular it was going to be and what a radically diverse groupof community members would end up coming to these."

Before long, the group was back at the trailhead where they started, and they started to say their goodbyes. With the days starting to get longer, Kirsten said after-work hikes would be starting soon.

Even as a regular hiker, Kirsten said that she sometimes hears that inner voice that says “I’m tired, I don’t want to go.”

“And every time, without fail, I get out on one of these hikes and I feel better after I feel pepped up, because I've gotten to spend time with great people.”

This story was produced by the Mountain West News Bureau, a collaboration between Wyoming Public Media, Nevada Public Radio, Boise State Public Radio in Idaho, KUNR in Nevada, KUNC in Colorado and KANW in New Mexico, with support from affiliate stations across the region. Funding for the Mountain West News Bureau is provided in part by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

Hey everyone! I’m Murphy Woodhouse, Boise State Public Radio’s Mountain West News Bureau reporter.