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Article Breakdown: Unlikely hikers? Activism, Instagram, and queer mobilities (Stanley, 2020)

Updated: Oct 24, 2023

Summary and Application By: Kelsey Johansen

In her article, Stanley (2020), a researcher from the United Kingdom who self-identifies as a "fat, middle-aged, woman (also White; also queer)"(p. 247), explores the rise of a mostly online community of so-called 'Unlikely Hikers' who have come together to promote the idea that "hiking is good for everyone’s mental and physical health and that diversity can and should extend to outdoor spaces including national parks" (Stanley, 2020, p. 241).


In this Article Breakdown, I explore the key findings of Stanley's (2020) journal article called Unlikely hikers? Activism, Instagram, and the queer mobilities of fat hikers, women hiking alone, and hikers of colour published in Mobilities and talk about how her findings can be applied to trails, trail-based recreation programs and trail tourism product development, as well as trail organizations in Canada. If you're interested in reading the original, full, academic article, you can access it here.


Unlikely Hikers


Circular Logo reads "Unlikely Hikers, we are nature" with multicoloured mountain range, forest and river.
© Jenny Bruso

'Unlikely Hikers', an organization started by Jenny Bruso, is "a diverse, anti-racist, body-liberating outdoor community featuring the underrepresented outdoorsperson ...Unlikely Hikers is for adventurers who are plus-size & fat, Black, Indigenous, People of Color, queer, trans and non-binary, disabled, neurodivergent and beyond" (Unlikely Hikers, 2023, par. 1). They are an Instagram community, a nationwide hiking group in the United States, and a podcast. According to Bruso,


The name itself is ironic, tongue-in-cheek, reclamatory. It isn’t meant to reinforce exclusion. In fact, the literal concept of the Unlikely Hiker is very western and wouldn’t exist without the normative, one-dimensional outdoorist representation we’ve become used to. Relationship with the land is foundational to many cultures and should be centered in justice, equity, diversity and inclusion (JEDI) efforts, yet these experiences are also often looked over and left out (Unlikely Hikers, 2023, par. 5).

Underlying messages within Stanley's (2020) article, and ones strongly espoused by Jenny Bruso and Unlikely Hikers are that "the outdoor industry and media has for too long displayed a very narrow definition of who is "outdoorsy" that isn’t representative of most" (Unlikely Hikers, 2023, par. 1), and that "the ways in which hikers have hitherto been represented in outdoors media, advertising, and wider social imaginaries present potential barriers to participation" (Stanley, 2020, p. 241). As Bruso elaborates,

Yes, the literal outdoors don’t discriminate. We know the trail, the trees, the lakes and so on, aren’t keeping us from going outside nor is anyone getting a handwritten invitation, but exclusion isn’t always verbal. There are many barriers to the outdoors: representation, unkind and aggressive outdoorspeople, financial access to gear, clothing, transportation, etc. Who is being targeted for outdoor recreation? Who has a seemingly natural sense of access? (Unlikely Hikers, 2023, par. 6).

Rather than calling out the outdoor industry, Unlikely Hikers and founder Jenny Bruso, focus on calling in. As Harvard University's Office of Diversity Inclusion and Belonging (2020) notes, "In fostering spaces of inclusion and belonging, it is important to recognize, name, and address when individuals or groups with marginalized identities are experiencing harm, such as bias or discrimination. The concepts of "calling out" or "calling in" have become popular ways of thinking about how to bring attention to this type of harm. Knowing the difference between these concepts can help us reflect, then act, in the ways we feel will best promote constructive change" (p. 1).


Calling in is an invitation to a one-on-one or small group conversation to bring attention to an individual or group's harmful words or behaviour, including bias, prejudice, microaggressions, and discrimination. This differs from calling out which is bringing public attention to an individual, group, or organization's harmful words or behaviour.


Calling in works best when:

  • You have influence, either personal or professional, with the person, group, or organization;

  • Being in a one-on-one or small group conversation will not compromise your safety; and,

  • When the person, group, or organization has demonstrated an openness or commitment to learning how to better foster spaces of inclusion and belonging.

Calling out may become necessary when:

  • There is an urgent need to hit "pause" to prevent further harm to others or yourself, and you need to make it clear to others present that you are not in agreement with what is being said or done by others;

  • There is a specific power or relationship dynamic that would render calling in harmful, unsafe, or ineffective for you or others present; and / or,

  • Previous attempts to call in have been unsuccessful.

To this end, Jenny Bruso and other Unlikely Hiker Ambassadors, have worked hand in hand with the outdoor industry to effect change - including partnering with companies like Gregory Packs to launch the first plus-size backpack line, Merrell to design gender neutral, size inclusive, outdoor gear, apparel, and shoes, and Eddie Bauer to fit-test their outdoor gear for diverse bodies.

Stanley's (2020) article contributes to the goals of fostering an inclusive outdoor space for all hikers by investigating how the presence of these diverse 'Unlikely Hikers' on hiking trails, and their "online activism contests mainstream representations in outdoors media, advertising, and social imaginaries" (p. 242).


Article Summary


Hiking trails include practical elements like the actual trail infrastructure and wayfinding systems, as well as an intangible cultural, social and economic context where hiking and other forms of outdoor recreation happens. Within these systems, there are either affordances (things that enable trail uses like hiking) or constraints (things that restrict trail use), and whether a given person’s use of the trail is afforded or constrained is a function of those intangible cultural, social, and economic context. For example,trail use and engagement in other forms of outdoor recreation and nature-based tourism are affected by the overwhelming social ideas we have of who belongs and is legitimately welcome in recreation and tourism spaces - as such on hiking trails and / or in hiking clubs.


Stanley (2020) begins her article by exploring the concept of queer mobilities - which she frames as being about more than sexualities, and instead is about deviance from social scripts that dictate who does and doesn't belong where and doing what. She calls on the outdoor industry to engage in 'queering practices' or the process of disturbing "the order of things, causing us to notice, problematize, and perhaps rework the taken for granted" as it relates to who is, as Jenny Bruso says, "being targeted for outdoor recreation and who has a seemingly natural sense of access?"(Unlikely Hikers, 2023, par. 6). In this sense, we need to recognize that while "wilderness spaces are open to all, powerful imaginaries of exclusion construct the social meanings of hiking trails [including who can and does access them]" (Stanley, 2020, p. 243).

Just as the outdoors itself is not ‘natural’, there is nothing ‘natural’ about the ways in which outdoor magazines, advertising, and other media portray legitimate outdoorspeople in very specific ways: White, male, straight, muscular, and able bodied. In contrast, non-White, female, queer, fat, disabled, and other deviant bodies are rarely represented at all (Weatherby and Vidon, 2018). And where women are included, they are usually pictured caring for family in campgrounds and occupying passive roles such as watching men read maps or put up tents (McNiel, Harris, and Fondren, 2012). Such images reinforce men’s roles but they also reinscribe heteronormative expectations that women are mainly wives and mothers. Further, in portraying men and women as the only type of outdoorsy couple (including hand-holding and sleeping-bag-sharing couples), outdoor media portrayals erase queer bodies (Stanley, 2020, p. 244).

One way to disrupt the 'norm' of who is represented and seen in the outdoors, as illustrated above, is to employ queering practices to queer the outdoors, or give visibility to diverse people and bodies recreating in the outdoors. The online Unlikely Hikers Instagram community, using hashtags like #UnlikelyHikers, #MyBodyTookMeHere, #FatAndOutdoorsy, #WeAreNature #DiversifyOutdoors, #BodyLiberationHikingClub, #PlusSizeBackpackers, #TheVentureOutProject, and #AllBodiesAreHikingBodies achieves this by challenging and changing the dominant imagery of who is active in and enjoys the outdoors.


Application to Canadian Trails


So what does this mean for Canadian trails? As we wrap up Pride Month, and embark on Pride Season, a time where a wide range of Pride events will take place over the summer and when 2SLGBTQI+ communities and allies will come together to spotlight the resilience, celebrate the talent, and recognize the contributions of 2SLGBTQI+ communities, it's important to keep an intersectional lens at the forefront of your planning, including keeping in mind the emotional and physical safety of all participants.


Here are a few other points to consider:

  • Pronouns are important - encourage participants to be respectful and use identified pronouns;

  • Use inclusive language, for example language that focuses on the person, rather than their demographic attributes (age, gender) or (visible / invisible) disability;

  • Compensate folks who are invited in as experts;

  • As the event planner/host, ask yourself whether you are addressing your biases in advance of hosting your events, and review your marketing materials to ensure diverse representation;

  • Work to educate yourself on how anti-Queer, anti-Fat, anti-Disability, anti-Blackness, and anti-Indigeneity shows up in the outdoors, including hosted events, like group hikers, that occur outdoors; and,

  • Address ageism and disability access and how they inform your views on what creating safer and welcoming spaces looks like for the community.

Year round, we also encourage you to consider what and how you are leveraging your social media presence to illustrate your values as a trail organization. For example, if you have an Justice, Equity, Diversity, Decolonization, and Inclusion (JEDDI) Policy, how is (or isn't) that reflected in your marketing, promotion, volunteer and staff training, and risk management materials, and online via your website and social media presence?


Here are a few things to consider:

  1. Post information on your website about the sizing and fit of gear you have available for rent:

    1. If this process reveals some gaps, consider adopting a more inclusive approach to your merch, and rental gear inventories.

    2. Inclusive sizing is generally considered to include size 6XL through XXS, as well as tall, regular, and short lengths.

    3. Stock unisex (as well as mens, womens and kids / youth) sizes in your rental equipment and merch.

    4. Have single occupant gender neutral and accessible change rooms and fitting rooms available.

  2. Ensure that your marketing and promotion materials, and online presence, contribute to creating a welcoming environment.

    1. Without engaging in tokenism, critically reflect on how you can include images of 'Unlikely Outdoorspersons' in your materials, and whether your existing materials perpetuate heteronormative gender roles.

    2. Include a Territorial Acknowledgement on your website and social media posts (BEFORE the hashtags) that is heartfelt and unique to your organization, the outdoor activities you engage in, and the location(s) you operate from and visit.

    3. Visit https://www.whose.land/en/ and https://native-land.ca/ to learn more about the traditional territories that you work, live and recreate on.

  3. Undertake a risk management audit, and look for ways to ensure equitable and safe access to your programs and outdoor recreation spaces through the development of policies and training protocols that ensure your staff and volunteers are aware of the harms and impacts of exclusionary scripts created within the intangible cultural, social and economic context in which outdoor recreation, and trail use, occurs.

    1. Amongst other practices, this can look like:

      1. Adopting a 'Challenge by Choice' policy that recognizes that we all start from different places, and that all participants should make a conscious decision to participate when and as desired without pressure to undertake any element they do not actively choose;

      2. Providing information to support your 'Challenge by Choice' policy, including:

        1. Program or Hike duration, elevation gain, tread type and stability, pace, number / frequency of breaks, gear carrying requirements (e.g., Activity Level 1 [Scale of 1 to 4]: Slow pace~ 1 mile per hour; 2-3 breaks per hour or as needed; options to stay in camp and rest while others do an optional activity; flat to rolling hills; stable footing. Ability to carry daypacks up to 15lbs and overnight backpacks up to 35lbs for up to 4 hours at a time. Total trip distance 2 miles, estimated total trip time, including breaks 4 to 5 hours depending on the number and length of breaks); and

        2. Suitability for persons with diverse mobility levels (e.g., suitable/not suitable for persons by children in a stroller, suitable for persons using a wheelchair or other mobility aid), and presence / absence of benches for rest stops including distance between benches (e.g. benches at trailhead only, benches at trailhead and picnic table at halfway point, benches every 500m, etc.).

      3. Providing single occupant gender neutral and accessible washrooms, changerooms and fitting rooms where possible, and / or indicating their availability at a site you will be visiting;

      4. Reviewing your participant, risk management, and accident / incident forms to ensure that they are gender and culture affirming;

      5. Use gender neutral and gender affirming language and pronouns on your website, social media, in pre- and post-activity briefings, and during guided activities;

      6. Fostering meaningful connections with local communities and advocacy groups who can provide valuable insights into creating safe and welcoming spaces within your organization and its' programs; and,

      7. Providing 2SLGBTQI+ inclusion, decolonization, cross-cultural competencies training and professional development for staff and volunteers.

This is not an exhaustive list, and there are lots of other ways that we, as the Canadian trails community, can work to break down barriers to accessing to the outdoors - including how we build and design our trails.


The most important thing is to acknowledge that you as an individual, group, and / or organization, are on a learning journey - you may not always get it right. If this happens, reflect on how to do better next time, and work to make amends for any harms you have inadvertently caused, either through action or inaction. Together, we can make trails a welcoming, inclusive and enjoyable place for all.


Where To Go from Here

If you're interested in increasing the inclusivity of your trail, including associated trail tourism and recreation experience offerings, consider working towards accreditation through the Rainbow Registered Accreditation Program for 2SLGBTQI+ Friendly Spaces through Canada’s 2SLGBTQI+ Chamber of Commerce (CGLCC) in partnership with Tourism HR Canada.


Rainbow Registered is a national accreditation for 2SLGBTQI+ friendly businesses and organizations. When you see a Rainbow Registered symbol, you know the business or organization meets a stringent set of standards to ensure 2SLGBTQI+ customers feel safe, welcomed, and accepted.

© Canada’s 2SLGBTQI+ Chamber of Commerce (CGLCC)

The accreditation program grants a time-limited recognition to businesses and organizations for demonstrating compliance with the quality standard. Accredited businesses are deemed market ready for the 2SLGBTQI+ customer and given the right to be associated with the program’s prestigious Rainbow Registered designation mark.


You can learn more about becoming Rainbow Registered here. You can also learn more about Canada’s 2SLGBTQI+ Chamber of Commerce (CGLCC) here, and Tourism HR Canada, here.


Get In Touch

If you have questions about how to leverage this information within your own trail organization, including how to apply any of the study's recommendations to your trail or how to design trail tourism spaces, please reach out to us at: info@trailresearchhub.com.

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