Guest Article By Ro Kew - The Hiking Physio
Plus size hikers have unique challenges
Hiking is a fantastic way for people of all shapes and sizes to connect with nature, improve their health and have fun. However, plus-size hikers face some unique challenges. They are poorly represented in mainstream media, quality clothing and gear can be nearly impossible to find and research suggests being plus size increases injury risk (AIHW, 2023). With it being commonly believed you can’t be both fit and fat and that large bodies don’t belong on the trails, you’d expect most plus-sized people to stay at home.
The reality though is quite different. With nearly 70% of the Australian population having been reported as being overweight or obese (ABS, 2018) and almost 2 million Australians hiking annually (Statista, 2022) there are plenty of plus-sized hikers on the trails! However, for many larger people, the barriers to becoming a hiker can feel insurmountable.
Some people worry that hiking will put too much load on their knees and lead to osteoarthritis, but this is highly unlikely. A recent study on runners (Dhillon et al, 2023) found no association between joint loading due to running and runners reporting pain or developing arthritic changes on X-rays. Many studies even suggested running had a protective effect. Another recent study on people over 50 who walked for exercise found walkers were less likely to develop new knee pain and where arthritis was present the disease progression was slower (Lo et al, 2022)!
As a Physiotherapist, plus-sized hiker, and someone who has faced their own fair share of injuries, I can confidently say size does not have to be a barrier to having fabulous hiking adventures. If you are a plus-sized person looking to start hiking or wanting to take on a dream adventure, here are a few tips and tricks you might find helpful.
If possible, invest in a quality pair of hiking shoes or boots. Finding the perfect ones can be like finding a unicorn, but dedicated hiking footwear provides better traction which reduces fall risk. They also have more foot support which can help avoid foot pain, especially when there are higher loads through the feet.
Typically hiking footwear needs to be larger than normal. Firm lacing to hold the feet properly in the shoe and extra toe room are needed to avoid getting sore toes or black toenails going downhill. Being fitted is helpful, but if you can slide one finger behind your heel with your toes just touching the front (in the socks you are planning to wear) you are on the right track.
Blisters are the most common hiking injury. They occur where friction causes skin irritation and are much more likely to occur when the skin is damp. In addition to good footwear, choosing the right socks and allowing the feet to air when possible can help with prevention. Avoid cotton and bamboo which hold water. Instead, use merino or synthetic hiking socks.
If a sore or “hot spot” area develops, stop and apply blister care such as appropriate tape, hiker’s wool, or blister patches. If you have ongoing problems with blisters consider wearing a liner and outer sock, using specialist socks, or applying blister care for prevention.
Cool clothing and skin care
Chafe is a common hiking issue for larger bodies. As much as possible avoid cotton and use breathable, moisture-wicking clothing especially next to your skin. Quality quick-dry fabrics and rain gear with armpit zips will breathe, and help keep your skin dry and the latter when closed will keep you warmer.
Prevention is the best option for known problem areas including between the buttocks, legs, and armpit areas. A variety of balms and creams like “Glide” can be applied prior to setting off and making smart choices like wearing more slippery pant fabrics, the right sized clothing, and even long john style underwear can be helpful.
Hike the right hike
To have a good experience it is important to do your research, choose a hike within your ability, and hike it at a pace that works for you. It isn’t just about how long the hike is! Check the hike grading as elevation and the type of terrain (mud, sand, or wobbly rocks) can make hikes much harder. Heavier hikers often struggle more in hotter conditions, so watch the weather as it may be preferable to hike earlier or later in the day.
Everyone worries about being the slowest, but we all start somewhere. Congratulate yourself for showing up. Be brave and walk at a pace where you can talk and breathe through your nose instead of risking hurting yourself by trying too hard to keep up. If you just catch up to a group and they take off, they are not the right group for you! It may take a little time to find your hiking tribe, but keep in mind there are other larger hikers just like you out there.
Feel the feels and build gradually
To improve hiking performance, it can be tempting to just do more hiking, but doing too much too quickly can lead to all kinds of problems. This is especially true for larger bodies as the muscles have to work harder and the joints are under more load.
Instead, it is best to increase your hiking gradually and listen to your body. This means taking a rest on the trail when you feel tired even if you have to speak up. It also means addressing pain at the first sign, prioritising sleep and recovery activities like massage and easy movement after harder hikes or training.
Generalised muscle soreness which goes within a couple of days is rarely cause for concern. Sharper localised pain which lingers for longer means something needs to be adjusted. You may need more rest, to slow down a bit or if the pain persists longer than 2 weeks get professional help.
Mix it up for the win
Spending some time hiking is typically required to improve hiking performance. However, doing other types of exercise can also result in improvements with less risk of injuries due to repetitive stress.
Allowing your body to warm up gradually may reduce injury risk. This can be achieved by performing some dynamic stretches like easy leg swings, high knee marching, ankle and shoulder circles, and taking your time at the start of a hike. After a hike, it can be helpful to do some longer slow stretches to improve flexibility and mobility. Including some pilates or yoga are other great ways to achieve this.
Strength training has numerous benefits, but for hiking it can specifically improve joint stability and make it easier to move on more difficult terrain. Activities like cycling and swimming can build aerobic fitness without placing as much strain on the joints and balance training can reduce fall risk.
Having the right equipment can make a big difference. Hiking poles can help propel you uphill, reduce strain on your lower body going downhill, and help you balance, but make sure to practice and avoid tripping.
Gear should be chosen carefully to be as light as possible to minimise any additional load on your body, but it must also function well. An ultralight sleeping bag is no good if it doesn’t keep you warm enough, you don’t sleep well and then fatigue leads to you taking a tumble!
Where possible it is wise to see and try things in person. Mummy sleeping bags can be notoriously uncomfortable for larger bodies! Social media groups, bushwalking clubs, and gear suppliers can be useful sources of assistance.
Moving a heavier body requires more fuel. Heavier hikers may also lose more fluid through sweating and breathing. Hence, it is important to eat and drink small amounts every hour or so to stay well-hydrated and have enough energy. Snacks and water should be easily accessible. Adding electrolytes to water can make it taste better and help replace salts lost through sweat, especially for hikes longer than an hour and in warmer weather. You should aim for pale pee!
Hiking isn’t about losing weight, nature doesn’t have a size requirement![a] It is about spending time outside, having fun, and living the life you want to live on your terms. It is okay to start by walking around the block if that is what you are able to currently do. If the block is too big, walk a few houses down, but start!
Injuries, obstacles, and narrow-minded people should never prevent you from getting outdoors and learning what your amazing body can do. With the right mindset, preparation, and attention to your body’s needs plus size people can thrive on the trails. Size does not need to be a barrier to having incredible hiking adventures.
Hiking is really just plus-size walking.
So give it a go.
Your adventure is waiting.
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If you would like to connect with Ro for your own personal journey, we highly recommend her online physiotherapy consultations.
- Dhillon, J., Kraeutler, M. J., Belk, J. W., Scillia, A. J., McCarty, E. C., Ansah-Twum, J. K., & McCulloch, P. C. (2023). Effects of Running on the Development of Knee Osteoarthritis: An Updated Systematic Review at Short-Term Follow-up. Orthopedic journal of sports medicine, 11(3), 23259671231152900. https://doi.org/10.1177/23259671231152900
- Lo, G. H., Vinod, S., Harkey, R. M., & McAlindon, T. E. (2022, June 8). Association between walking for exercise and ... - Wiley Online Library. Wiley Online Library. https://acrjournals.onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1002/art.42241
- National Health Survey: First Results, 2017-18 financial year. Australian Bureau of Statistics. (2018, December 12). https://www.abs.gov.au/statistics/health/health-conditions-and-risks/national-health-survey-first-results/latest-release
- Published by Statista Research Department, (2022, July 20). Australia: Number of adult bushwalkers by age group 2021. Statista. https://www.statista.com/statistics/1321144/australia-number-of-bushwalkers-by-age-group