For Unlikely Hikers founder Jenny Bruso, ‘body type, speed, and endurance’ aren’t important to hiking. Her organization is all about loving the outdoors.
Discovering a connection to the outdoors can be a long road. For some Unlikely Hikers, finding a sense of belonging can take even longer.
Jenny Bruso felt the same way when she found a passion for hiking later in life. The disconnect she felt between herself and how hiking is often represented drove her to do something about it. She founded Unlikely Hikers and is now a Merrell ambassador.
At its core, Unlikely Hikers emphasizes communion with nature and one another. From there, the group discusses the social and political barriers its members face. The goal is to increase access to and participation in the outdoors.Learn More About Unlikely Hikers
Unlikely Hikers is “a diverse, anti-racist, body-liberating outdoor community featuring underrepresented outdoors persons,” according to its website. Its members also make up an Instagram community and a nationwide hiking group.
Members share an interest in, if not a love for, the outdoors but find a lack of representation on the trail, on social media, and in advertising and coverage by outdoor media. The group’s “unlikely” moniker speaks directly to that feeling and acts as a uniting umbrella for diverse ethnicities, body sizes, sexual orientations, gender identities, and physical abilities.
We caught up with founder Jenny Bruso to find her inspiration for founding the group and how it works.
Bruso’s Path to Hiking
As someone who always enjoyed time outside, Bruso didn’t cross over into more outdoorsy pursuits until a decade ago. Getting there was a bit of a struggle.
“I grew up riding bikes, swimming in the ocean, and gardening with my mom,” Bruso explained. “We didn’t hike or camp, but being outside was simply what we did to have fun.”
But her teenage interests drew her away from the outdoors. Even as a young adult, riding her bike was more about a mode of transportation than recreation, though she admits she certainly benefitted mentally from those rides.
Things changed after she’d lived in Portland, Ore., for roughly 8 years. That’s when she finally went on a hike and was hooked.
While Bruso found a passion for hiking, she didn’t find many others to hike with.
“I generally preferred to hike alone so that I could go at my own pace, drop into my body, and hike my own hike without all of the nonsense messaging pounded into us from the dominant culture about what exercise should be and look like,” Bruso said.
“I don’t hike because I want to change my body — I hike because I love it. Body type, speed, and endurance are just details. They aren’t the point.”
Even as she found herself hiking and camping more, she noticed the lack of diversity out on the trail and in the social media she followed. She said the online representation of an outdoorsy person was predominantly someone “white, young, thin, non-disabled, and perceivably affluent.”
That just didn’t fit her life, her approach to the outdoors, or even her feelings out in nature.
Within the aura of otherness was the kernel for starting a group like Unlikely Hikers, but there was another layer too.
“Why is the vibe always whimsical and fancy-free? My outdoor life doesn’t look like that. Most peoples don’t,” Bruso said.
“I really wanted to find other folks with marginalized identities who had the unique experience of finding a love for outdoor recreation without growing up with it, or who perhaps didn’t feel an innate sense of access to the outdoors.”
In that way, the group is aimed at anyone who doesn’t fit that predominant look or vibe and doesn’t have an established path to outdoor recreation. And so Unlikely Hikers seeks to help show others a route, or support their journey to finding enjoyment outdoors — and hopefully earlier in life.
On community hikes, Unlikely Hikers discuss how they’d like the hike to go beforehand.
“We set guidelines, intentions, and community agreements that inform our collective highest good to have the safest and most fun time possible,” Bruso said. “Though we collectively have so many different life experiences, it’s amazing what that pre-hike chat does to get us all on the same page. It’s kind of magical.”
Part of inclusion can mean not emphasizing mileage or time, essentially taking performance metrics off the table. Then there are more subtle issues. Bruso explained there are different microaggressions in group dynamics, which can include being left behind, being too slow, being misgendered, as well as diet-culture talk that can keep members from being in their bodies and hiking their hike.
The Merrell Connection
Bruso said it was her outspokenness about the issues like harmful trail experiences, or simply finding good apparel and gear available in plus sizes, that caught Merrell’s attention.
“They’re one of our original sponsors and have been a major support in the continued growth of Unlikely Hikers,” she said.
Last year, Bruso and Merrell collaborated on a shoe made in sizes and widths beyond the brand’s standard offerings. She teased that more collabs could be on the horizon.Shop Merrell Shoes
Over the last few months, Bruso led group hikes and a backpacking trip all over the country. Based in Portland, she hit the trails in Vermont, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Virginia, Utah, Oregon, and California.
Bruso explained that while group sizes vary on the area, she looks for more heavily trafficked areas that are easier to access and tend to allow larger groups. “Most of our groups had about 20 hikers, and all but two events reached capacity online in less than 24 hours,” she said.
After wrapping those hikes, this winter’s focus will be on building its membership and involvement in high hopes it will lead to more group hikes and more access to in-person Unlikely Hikers community experiences.
If you’ve felt on the outside of outside activities, check out the website for a local chapter. An outdoor meetup or hike may change the way you see yourself outdoors.Learn More About Unlikely Hikers
This article is sponsored by Merrell. Find out more about the brand’s hiking footwear online.