Plus-Size Hikers Experiences Shopping for Clothing and Gear

Background

In 2019, I began collaborating with Laura Burns on Fat Folks Hiking, a study examining weight stigma and size discrimination in the hiking industry and communities. The study involved content analysis of nearly 40 years of hiking publications and a survey documenting plus-size hikers’ experiences on the trails and while shopping for clothing and gear.

I am the principal investigator on this project meaning that I am for designing the research plan, developing the survey and codebooks, training graduate research assistants, and supervising data collection, cleaning, and analysis. Our research is ongoing.

The Problem

As fat folks ourselves, Larua and I know that plus-size people often struggle to find clothing that fits our bodies and our aesthetics. This means that shopping for clothing is often frustrating, time-consuming, and ends in disappointment. As a hiking community leader, Laura knows the situation is worse for plus-size hiking enthusiasts who may not be able to find technical clothing or gear that is appropriate for their bodies.

Methods

While Laura and I have personal experience with shopping while fat, we know that our N of 2 is not sufficient data to making any meaningful conclusion. We began with a literature review to familiarize ourselves with academic work in the field of “Fat Studies”. This review gave us a lay of the land and allow us to begin developing our survey.

We were primarily interested in understanding:

  1. Plus-size hikers ability to purchase clothing, backpacks, and other gear in their size
  2. How plus-size hikers perceive they are treated by retail staff
  3. The challenges plus-size hikers experience due to not having appropriate clothing or gear

We developed fixed response items used to gauge participants’ experiences and perceptions. For example:

If you wanted to buy technical hiking clothing, would you be able to find it in your size in a brick and mortar store?

  • Yes
  • No
  • I don’t know

We also invited participants to share stories about their experiences shopping for technical clothing and gear in open-ended questions. For example:

Tell us about your experiences shopping for technical hiking clothing.

After going through several iterations of the survey we decided it was ready to go live. We had no research budget so using a panel service was out of the question. So, we deployed the survey online through our social networks and via organizations that support diversity and size-inclusion in hiking and outdoors. In less than a month, more than 530 people from 13 countries completed the survey. Here’s what we learned.

Key Findings

Most plus-size participants reported that they would not be able to find technical clothing in their size in a brick and mortar store.

  • 65% of small-plus size participants,
  • 87.8% of medium-plus size participants, and
  • 80% of large plus-size participants reported they would not be able to find technical clothing to fit their bodies in stores.

Fewer participants reported they would not be able to find technical clothing in their size from online retailers.

  • 13% of small-plus size participants,
  • 32.3% of medium-plus size participants, and
  • 60% of large-plus size participants reporting they would not be able to find technical clothing in their size from an online store.

Participants offered rich descriptions of their struggles to find hiking clothing in appropriate sizes for their bodies.

The examples below show the difficulty of findings one’s size, but also demonstrates that often hiking clothing does not run true to size:

“Oh boy, this one. Ok, so I’m a small fat, and in most stores, I can usually even find something in the straight-size section that fits. But outdoorsy brands’ sizes are sooo small. Most of them top out at a Women’s 8-10, and even then it’s a small 8-10. If I really need something, I can try to look in the men’s section because apparently men are allowed to be larger than what these brands think the largest women should be, but the fit is not always great. The few times I’ve ordered hiking shirts and pants from an online store and was able to find the correct sizes (1-3 sizes larger than I normally wear in regular clothes), the fit has been less than ideal because they don’t scale the clothing in a realistic way and it’s either too narrow and long or too wide and short. So yeah, I have issues with outdoors clothing companies’ size policies.”

Small Plus-Size, 34 year old White Woman from Washington, USA

“At a 4x/5x, I don’t bother going to brick and mortar stores because I know they don’t carry my size. I look online and cobble together the best options from what little is available. I’ve also sewn my own outdoor gear but patterns are a problem. Actual gear patterns don’t come anywhere near my size so I have to figure out how to alter plus size patterns to add technical features. This is the most frustrating part of all of the questions on this survey. I can ignore the nonsense from other people but if gear and clothing don’t work for my body, it can really diminish my enjoyment at best or prevent me from participating safely or at all at worst.”

Large Plus-Size, 44 year old, White Woman, Minnesota, USA

The majority of plus-size participants reported that retail staff do not treat them as well as other shoppers when shopping for hiking gear and clothing.

  • 60% of small plus-size participants,
  • 65.6% of medium plus-size participants, and
  • 67.5% of large plus-size participants reported that they receive poor treatment while shopping for gear and clothing.

“When I visit the backpack section I’m often ignored by employees and have to track down an employee and ask them directly for help  (at a store with the type of customer service where employees regularly check-in to see if customers need help). ” 

Small Plus-size, 32 year old, White Woman from Washington, DC USA

“Staffers always treat me like I have no idea what I’m doing/looking at/need in a store. It’s like they think I’ve never even been outside before. One time a worker actually started explaining what a backpack was to me…  :-|”

Medium Plus-size, 28 year old, White Woman from Arkansas, USA

“I’ve been trying to get assistance with hiking poles, and the sales associates at [redacted] treat me like I’m invisible.  When I called the 800 number to maybe get help and order, they recommended I go to a store, then laughed when I said I couldn’t get help, and recommended I make an appointment.”

Medium Plus-size, 52 year old White Woman from Michigan, USA

Not having appropriate gear or clothing causes injuries, especially for larger plus-size hikers.

  • 20% of small plus-size participants reported they had been injured or suffered on the trail because they did not have appropriate gear or clothing
  • 35.6% of medium plus-size participants reported they had been injured
  • 45% of large plus-size participants reported they have been injured or face difficulty on the trail because they cannot purchase appropriate gear or clothing for their size and/or weight

Recommendations

Based on our research there is a clear need for plus-size technical clothing and hiking gear. Clothing and gear manufactures should begin to develop products to meet this need. Additionally, retailers should offer extended sizes in both brick-and-mortar and online stores. Finally, retailers should provide size-inclusive competence training so that staff will treat plus-size shoppers with dignity, respect, and empathy.