Katherine Donnelly | 06.27.2018

As part of Outdoor Project's Women In the Wild series this summer, I have had the honor of working with outdoor women from all over the industry to dig a bit deeper into who they are, how they got to where they are now, how they approach the outdoors, and more. These women are all rad in their own right, regardless of where they come from, what they look like, or how "badass" they might be. Whether they're mothers, daughters, sisters, professional athletes, beginners, weekend warriors, "instafamous," or anywhere in-between, their unique stories, journeys, opinions, and perspectives are incredibly valuable and insightful as Outdoor Project - and the industry as a whole - progresses and evolves to become more inclusive to every type of outdoors person. 

Through in-depth and often thought-provoking interviews, I hope to highlight these women's stories, their work, their adventures, and so much more with an eye toward giving them their well-deserved share of the spotlight while inspiring and empowering even more women to get outside!

In this feature we talk to Jenny Bruso.

I first saw this Woman In The Wild speak at a She Ventures event in Portland and was quickly taken aback by her openness, honesty, and power. Her voice is strong, her story real, and her passion for both the outdoors and creating @unlikelyhikers and an inclusive outdoors is straight-up contagious. Get the full scoop below.

Photo by Chelsea Parrett.

OP: Give us the quick and dirty on who Jenny Bruso is.

Jenny Bruso: I am a self-identified fat and queer writer, hiker and late-bloomer to the outdoors, and I live in Portland, Oregon. I only started hiking about six and a half years ago and didn’t grow up outdoorsy. Early on, I knew I stuck out like a sore thumb on the trail, which wasn’t surprising, but I was kind of tripping on how white outdoors culture is. As I began researching trails and gear to improve my adventures, I was disappointed to find that so much outdoor media isn’t really written for the new outdoorsperson, even "how-to" pieces. This felt like a barrier, and a frustrating one. This, on top of how difficult it is to find plus-size gear and how cost-prohibitive so much of it is, had me kind of up against the wall with this thing that I was loving so much that didn’t seem to have a place for me. In response, I started my blog, jennybruso.com, to write about these issues, share my own hacks, and hopefully meet other unlikely outdoorspeople. And it worked! Except my social media feeds still mostly consisted of images of this extremely one-dimensional, all-positive, inspirational, thin, white version of who is outdoorsy. These things aren’t inherently bad, but it was all I was seeing, and I couldn’t take it anymore.

I started @UnlikelyHikers with one small goal: to change my Instagram feed. Unlikely Hikers focuses on the underrepresented outdoorsperson. This means a lot of things! I feature the stories of people of color, people of size, trans, non-binary and queer folks, people with disabilities and beyond. We also discuss the issues and politics that go along with being underrepresented and the healing power of nature and movement. A lot of us have really broken relationships with our bodies and with movement. We also talk about the politics of land conservation, land protection, and all that goes along with that.

The response was immediate and undeniable. I knew there was something special about it before it even became a thing, but I couldn’t have imagined my work would be featured in all kinds of major outdoors publishing platforms like Outside Magazine, Huffpost, She Explores, REI Co-Op Blog, Oregon Field Guide, Merrell Blog, Self Magazine and more. I’m also leading hikes all over the country. It’s been a huge learning curve, and one that I’ve had to navigate largely in public, which is a lot of pressure. Still, it is the best thing I’ve ever done, and I feel this tremendous sense of purpose that I’ve never felt in my entire life.

OP: When did you first know that you were going to spend your life in the outdoors?

Jenny Bruso: I first started hiking at an intensely transitional time of my life. The clarity, peace, and sense of place I found in the outdoors was something I desperately needed. Knowing I can tap into this almost any time I go on a hike is all the motivation I need to keep going. While I dislike the dismissiveness of conventional therapy I often find on outdoorsy social media (example: picture of forest with tagline “the only therapy/antidepressant I need,” etc,), it is definitely a form of therapy for me as well as a place for spiritual connection. I rely on this for my self-care, and it is so important for me to share what I’ve found with others, especially those who may have never considered the possibility of the outdoors and its healing properties.

OP: What does it mean to you to be a woman in the outdoor industry?

Jenny Bruso: If I dig deep, I’m sure it means a lot of things, but “woman” sort of sits third place to my identities as a fat and queer person. I find this representation almost non-existent in outdoors culture, and while the support I’ve received tells me the time has come for a presence like mine, I am still dodging so much hateful crap online, I frequently have to ask myself why I keep putting myself out there like feed for wolves. Why do I keep putting myself in spaces where voices like mine aren’t taken seriously? The answers lie in the questions. It’s time for new outdoor stories.

OP: What has the outdoors done for you, and how do you pay it back?

Jenny Bruso: Because hiking and nature have been such game-changers for me, I do a lot of small things to show my appreciation. I pick up trash on every hike I do, and I encourage those with me to do the same. As a Groundskeeper for Granite Gear, I’ve been weighing the trash I collect, and in the last three months I’ve picked up over 20 pounds! That doesn’t sound like a lot, but it is. Most of it is that tiny microtrash we tend to not see, like the corner that gets torn off of an energy bar, or the cap to a plastic water bottle. Now, on the group hikes I lead, everyone picks up trash. It’s amazing to witness.

I also use the Unlikely Hikers platforms to share information and articles about land conservation and the environment, which results in a lot of interesting conversations. There’s this sort of pervasive attitude in outdoors culture that it’s all of the “newcomers” to the outdoors who are trashing things and not having a proper reverence. This is mostly false and the implications of it are unsettling, since the newcomers are also largely people who have experienced barriers to the outdoors. It’s rather gatekeep-y. In the conversations I’m having and witnessing through my platforms, it’s always the newcomers who are most passionate about how to be good stewards of the land.

OP: What does adventure mean to you?

Jenny Bruso: Adventure is limitless. It can be defined however one likes and should be constantly redefined and reclaimed. If adventure to one person is reading a book on a blanket in a park, then it is. Whatever gets people outside and interacting with nature is what matters. Nature can provide so much, and it kills me to think about how many people don’t know what it may do for them. Some of those people could be our next big leaders in conservation movements! As a person who lived 20 minutes from one of the tallest waterfalls in the world and visited only once out of obligation in the first eight years of living in Portland, I know what it’s like to not consider or care about something that doesn’t seem for you. When you don’t grow up doing such things, or see yourself represented in outdoors culture, it sends a message that it’s not for you.

OP: If you could give one piece of advice to yourself when you were just starting out as a hiker and outdoor enthusiast, what would it be?

Jenny Bruso: 1. Never trust anything anyone calls “easy.” One person’s “easy” is often not another’s; 2. Doing something at your own pace, no matter how slow, is still doing it; 3. Showing up is a big deal. What happens next might be out of your hands, but the point is you showed up for it.

OP: In a world seemingly run by online personas, how do you approach social media, and how does it play into your lifestyle - both work and play?

Jenny Bruso: Social media is so complicated. It feels like it is the best and worst thing that’s happened to modern culture. It can be a crusher of self-esteem, and it can also be the thing that provides real connection for a person mentally struggling in the world. For me, while I feel a lot of negative effects from constant social media use, it’s absolutely changed my life for the better. The things I’m doing might not exist without it. A huge part of my actual job now is posting on Instagram and blogging. When I was a kid, most people didn’t have the internet or even home computers, which is always a bizarre frame of reference for how things are now. I don’t like to police the way people use their social media. These aren’t popular opinions, but it’s how I feel: I don’t think one way has to be more authentic than another. I think doing outdoor recreation for the Instagram shot doesn’t make someone a bad person...at least they’re getting out! I think a highly curated feed (the “highlight reel”) and inspirational and motivational quotes are just fine, and I think none of us really know anyone based off of their social media accounts. That said, these things do occasionally have harmful side effects that are damn hard to not internalize. Personally, I’m always trying to strike a balance: I don’t lay my soul bare on social media anymore, but I do regularly inject it with the pitfalls and triumphs of my real life. Also, giving my adventures a little time to marinate before posting about them online helps keep my intentions in check and helps me create better posts. And while I acknowledge the crazy amount of work that goes into a curated Instagram feed, I will never do it. It seems like too much pressure, and I want to be able to barf up some feelings and pictures of my cats alongside the beautiful shots of my adventures.

OP: What’s next for you in the coming months and years?

Jenny Bruso: I’ll be doing a lot of backpacking this summer. I’m obsessed! I just had my first trip, and I’m hooked. As for Unlikely Hikers, it still feels relatively new. It just had its second birthday. It became a business before I had a chance to even figure out what I wanted from it other than to change my social media feed. My current goals are simply to keep figuring out how to do this best, provide more national hikes, support myself off of it, and find more time for my personal writing and hiking. I’d also love to do a group hiking tour, do a section hike of the PCT, and visit more national parks. I’ve only been to a few! One of my other goals is to write a book, and I’m hoping to be able to start digging into that process soon.

OP: The title of your autobiography would be...

Jenny Bruso: I Take the Long Way

OP: If our readers were to take one thing from this interview, what would you like it to be?

Jenny Bruso: The outdoors is political. When a person says dismissive things like, “I go outside to get away from politics,” they’re disrespecting the land they claim to love so much. The outdoors is not simply our playground, and I deeply question our entitlement to it. For one, we’re on stolen land. Native Americans have faced horrific subjugations from white settlers. The least we can do is acknowledge this in our personal outdoors practices. Native peoples are still losing their lands to this day (Dakota Access Pipeline, Bears Ears, Grand Staircase-Escalante, etc.), lands we claim to love. I always tell the people who attend my group hikes to revere the gift of being on this land and to act accordingly. Issues of conservation, diversity and inclusion, climate change, etc. are all political issues affecting the lands we love, as well. Want to fight for this land you love? Surprise; that is totally political.

Learn more about Jenny and follow along on her adventures on Instagram, plus check out Unlikely Hikers on Facebook and Instagram.


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