• Outdoor gear brand Gregory announced the launch of the industry’s first-ever plus-size backpacks. The 20-product line will be released in Spring 2021.
  • Gregory is partnering with Jenny Bruso, the creator behind the popular Instagram account and community Unlikely Hikers, which promotes body liberation in the outdoors.
  • The outdoor and adventure industries have lagged behind when it comes to representation and inclusivity. As a result, hikers and travelers have created their own communities with goals of connecting with each other and removing barriers to these worlds.
  • This new line of size-inclusive packs will remove the barrier of finding proper-fitting gear that many plus-size hikers and travelers currently deal with.

Over the last few decades, the outdoor gear industry made innovation after innovation in product designs. Jackets are now waterproof yet surprisingly breathable, tents are so impressively lightweight one might mistake the aluminum poles for bird bones. But you still can’t buy a plus-size hiking backpack.

“When I think about it too much, I get really angry about it,”  Jenny Bruso, the self-described queer, fat, femme writer and hiker behind the popular Instagram account Unlikely Hikers told Business Insider.

That’s why backpack maker Gregory’s announcement that they’re releasing the industry’s first line of plus-size backpacks in Spring 2021 is such big news. Finally, hikers and travelers will have size-inclusive backpacks that reflect the diversity of their bodies. And Bruso, whose frustrations with the industry is a driving force behind her activism within it, is partnering with Gregory to develop the line. The release will include more than 20 different plus-size packs across the day hiking, multi-day backpacking, hydration and lifestyle categories.

Gregory wanted a powerful answer to the industry’s size inclusivity problem

“We didn’t want to do a partial launch that was like one or two products in black and grey,” Gregory Marketing Manager Lindsey Malone said about the robustness of their launch line. “We wanted to do it right if we were going to do it.”

The result of that determination to get it right led Gregory to its partnership with Bruso. Bruso has been an outspoken activist for inclusivity and body liberation within the outdoor world since she herself first got into hiking eight years ago and didn’t see people like her—or really anyone outside of the white, thin, straight, cis category—represented in the industry or on the trails in the pacific northwest where she lives. She started Unlikely Hikers for “everyone who doesn’t see themselves represented or invited to the table.” Gregory’s team didn’t want to assume they’d know what would work for plus-size hikers—they wanted real, unfiltered feedback from hikers themselves, and they saw Bruso as the perfect person to help them make their product line more genuinely inclusive.

“There was no hesitation, I was so thrilled about it,” Bruso said of Gregory’s offer for the paid partnership. Bruso, her partner, and hikers in the Unlikely Hikers group hikes that Bruso leads have tested current Gregory products and provided Gregory with feedback on fit, function, and even colors, which Gregory is using to develop prototypes.

Malone sees this project as an answer to a problem that Gregory, along with many other retailers in the outdoor industry, put a band-aid on for years: their backpacks weren’t size-inclusive, but some retailers make hip-belt extenders that increase the size ranges of their existing products.

After years of not offering actually size-inclusive products, Malone says Gregory, a brand that prides itself on being fit experts, wants this launch to be a thorough answer to the industry’s size inclusivity shortcomings. According to Gregory, the new line includes “wider shoulder harness angles, extended shoulder harness lengths, and a much larger hip belt fit.” They wanted to develop a line of well-researched products for experienced and entry-level hikers alike, in multiple colors, and at different price points. 

“There are going to be options and it’s going to continue to grow,” Malone said.

But beyond just size inclusivity, this product line is a much-needed step towards finally recognizing and championing diversity in the outdoor industry, which has historical issues with representation.

The outdoor world’s many barriers to entry

“One thing I noticed pretty early on is there was just a very narrow definition of who was outdoorsy, and it was perpetrated by social media and advertising,” Bruso said.

Edith Bernier, author of blog The Plus Size Backpacker which launched in 2013, refers to the prevailing image within the outdoor and travel world “the Insta Babes,” by which she means the type of conventionally attractive, white influencers who post highly produced photos of themselves doing yoga poses on top of mountains during sunsets with captions about feeling “aligned.”

“It’s a very white, thin world. And privileged,” Bernier said. That was even more true when she first started blogging in 2013, but even as the hiking and travel world has become more diverse in real life, many people still don’t see themselves represented.  

Beyond the discouragement from participation in the outdoor and travel world that comes from lack of representation, the lack of actually inclusive gear presents logistical problems that can be even more exclusionary.

“It could be quite discouraging to try to see yourself on Machu Picchu when you look at all the things you have to get that fit your body,” Bernier said. When she first went to buy a backpacking pack for her global travels, Bernier went to MEC, a Canadian outfitters store similar to REI. “I tried maybe 20 backpacks that day and finally settled for one. That was the only one that fit my body back then.”

Bruso says not having gear that fits tells plus-size hikers they’re not wanted. “Not having the gear you need to do the thing you need to do sends a message that you’re not being considered, that maybe they really don’t want you out on the trail.”

Hiking and travel gear is also expensive. And it can be even more expensive for plus-size folks because of what Bernier calls the “fat tax.” 

“Everything becomes more expensive when you’re a bigger person.”

To combat that discriminatory expense, Gregory will be pricing their new line of plus-size packs at the exact same price point as their current line of products.

Plus-size hikers and travelers have been here all along

Bruso first coined the term “unlikely hiker” when referring to herself as such in a blog post chronicling her early years of becoming an outdoors person eight years ago.

The term is catchy, tongue-in-cheek, a reclamation, and beautifully open-ended. Many people were quick to adopt the description for themselves, demonstrating that diverse hikers have been out on the trails, even if the industry didn’t recognize them, and they wanted to be represented. Suddenly Bruso’s blog of one became a community of thousands. 

Unlikely Hikers is now much more than an incredibly successful Instagram page. It’s also an in-person hiking meetup with monthly events in Portland, Oregon, and pop-ups in other areas of the country (though COVID-19 has put those on hiatus); it’s a podcast; and it’s a community for anyone who wants to support body liberation, anti-racism, and diversity in the outdoors.

Bernier’s blog has turned into a book deal. Her guide to combatting fat-phobia will be out this September.

Beyond Bernier and Bruso’s successful efforts, there are tons of communities and organizations creating space for diversity within the outdoor world. There’s Outdoor Afro, a network that inspires Black folks to connect outdoors. Fat Girls Hiking promotes body positivity in the outdoors. All these communities are proof that the outdoor world is much more diverse than the industry recognizes.

“The brands are behind,” Bruso says. “It is 2020 and I see plus-size people on the trail. I’m hiking with them all the time. I’m on the trail all the time.”

Malone recognizes the role that Gregory plays in that and is working hard to create more inclusivity through their brand. “We have influence over the photographers we work with, the talent we choose, the ambassadors we choose to work with.”

But actually creating a line of backpacks that allow for more people to hit the trails or travel the world is the most direct, tangible way to create real, honest inclusivity, and not just give those concepts lip service. 

“It’s what we do best,” Malone said. “At the end of the day, we build backpacks. Getting to do that in a way that is tangible and helps with diversity and inclusion is the best of all worlds.”