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Meet the adventurer: hiking advocate Jenny Bruso on making the outdoors accessible to all

The US-based founder of Unlikely Hikers tells the story behind the inclusive community she created, and why opening up access to the outdoors is more important than challenging perceptions.

Published 16 Dec 2020, 08:00 GMT
Jenny Bruso is the founder of Unlikely Hikers, an anti-racist, body-liberating outdoor community for the underrepresented ...

Jenny Bruso is the founder of Unlikely Hikers, an anti-racist, body-liberating outdoor community for the underrepresented outdoorsperson.

Photograph by Jenny Bruso

What’s the concept behind Unlikely Hikers?

I started Unlikely Hikers because when I first started hiking and spending all my free time outdoors, I was noticing a huge absence of people of colour, and of conversations about social awareness and social justice, and I had a problem with that. As a fat person, too, I felt alienated by outdoors culture. I wanted to create a body-liberating, anti-racist community that addressed that.

How does the community work?

One of the biggest ways that we connect is with group hikes, although we’re not having those right now because of the pandemic, of course. With the help of some of my partners with Unlikely Hikers, I travel all over the US and I lead hikes in the Portland, Oregon area all the time. I want to make the outdoors seem as accessible as possible; you know, it’s not always waking up at dawn to get a sunrise on a mountain summit, sometimes getting out into nature is just taking a short hike in a local park.

How did you get into hiking?

I am a later-in-life outdoors person. I didn’t grow up doing outdoorsy things; I started hiking and camping nine years ago. I lived in Portland, Oregon, and doing outdoorsy stuff is part of the culture here. Finally, I got the opportunity to go on a hike and it just opened up a whole new world to me. I wanted to share those feelings and experiences with other people.

What are some of your favourite hikes?

I have so many. My favourite is in Portland, where I had that first hike. It’s a city park called Forest Park and it’s got thousands of acres of rainforest; it's mossy, with old-growth trees. It's so beautiful and 15 minutes from my house so I go there a lot. Then there’s the Columbia River Gorge — we have some of the most amazing waterfalls in the country — and Cape Horn.

Jenny Bruso loves that Unlikely Hikers is challenging people’s perceptions of who is outdoorsy and how they’re being outdoorsy. Her mission is to create a safe space for people of all abilities and backgrounds to enjoy hiking. 

Photograph by Peter Hanson

Are you an adventurous traveller?

I’m an aspiring adventurous traveller. Before Unlikely Hikers, I was a waitress for 20 years and had never travelled before. I didn’t have the money; I didn’t have the time off. By having this job, I’ve been able to start travelling for the first time in my life and that feels really important to me. In Peru, I did a multi-day trek called the Salkantay [ending at Machu Picchu] and it was amazing. It was the best thing I've ever done in my life — and the hardest. I hope to be able to start travelling again after the pandemic.

Have you had any surprising experiences in the outdoors?

I’ve definitely had experiences of feeling amazed at what my body can do. But the more surprising thing — even though I’m kind of used to it at this point — is sometimes the interactions I have with other hikers that are not super-friendly or welcoming. People often express surprise when I’m doing certain trails or give me unnecessary advice because they perceive me as somebody who’s either a beginner or not able.

I love that Unlikely Hikers is challenging people’s perceptions of who is outdoorsy and how they’re being outdoorsy, but my intention is not about challenging those perceptions, it’s about creating space for the people who are affected by those perceptions.

What are you most proud of?

Every time somebody tells me they went on a hike for the first time because of Unlikely Hikers, or because they saw a certain post or saw me doing something — that’s the best feeling in the world.

What advice would you give someone who feels intimidated about trying something ‘outdoorsy’ for the first time?

I always say as long as you’re respecting the land, leaving things just as you found them — or better — there’s no ‘wrong’ way to get outdoors. There’s no body type that is outdoorsy, there's no uniform, there's no wrong way to move your body outside. It's not a body type, it's not a look, it's not a skill set. All abilities, all disabilities — everybody has a place in the outdoors.

Whats your essential piece of kit?

My number-one thing is a stand-to-pee device called a pStyle. You can stand and use it and be really discreet, so you don’t have to find the perfect place to go to the bathroom. There are a lot of trails where there are not great trees or bushes to hide behind and this just makes you feel safer and more confident. If you’re somebody in a marginalised identity, it can feel extra vulnerable finding the right place to go to the bathroom without people stumbling upon you. Or if you’re alone and you don’t have a person with you to look out. There are so many things about it that I love, and I think it’s something a lot of people don’t know about.

Jenny Bruso is the founder of Unlikely Hikers, an anti-racist, body-liberating outdoor community for the underrepresented outdoors person.

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