Two years ago, REI launched their Force of Nature campaign to promote gender equity in the great outdoors. This year, as part of that campaign, they’ve decided to invest even more in their Extended Sizes program, offering a variety of “plus sizes (1X – 3X, 16W – 24W), petite sizes (XS – XL, 0 – 18), tall sizes (XS – XL, 0 – 18) and wide shoe sizes (5 – 12)” online and in nearly 20% of locations nationwide. In addition to working with brand partners over the last several years to increase the apparel options for co-op members, REI has also been seeking feedback from the community of women and non-binary folks who enjoy being outside. Vanessa Friedman, Abeni Jones, and I recently joined that group of feedbackers. REI invited us to choose one of the zillion classes they offer and sent us some apparel from the extended sizes line to test drive. Afterward we got together to talk about the gear, the outdoor sessions, extended sizing in general, and what it’s been like to work with REI at Autostraddle over the past year.
Heather: I was originally going to do a mountain biking class, because biking is my all-time favorite thing — but then my back went berserk due to a pinched nerve so I shifted and took an outdoor photography class in Brooklyn in the very freezing cold. I actually learned a lot! I started out photographing dead foliage but by the end I was photographing pedestrians with a blur. Probably my next stop will be National Geographic.
Vanessa: My REI class was called Hike & Hops! I chose it because it featured a hike in the area near where I live, which I haven’t gotten to explore a lot yet because I’m in school and feel overwhelmed learning the hiking routes of a new place by myself, AND it featured a beer flight at a local brewery afterwards!
Abeni: I attended their Three-Season Wilderness Survival class primarily because I am terrified of a sort of political apocalypse happening? Like, I really want to up my survivalist skills in case Trump refuses to leave office or peak oil or the grid goes down or something. Everything I do is almost completely dependent on the Internet and electricity. What if I lost access to those? Would I just die? I already like camping and outdoorsiness, but now I know how to make a basic shelter, and better skills for making fire, and what to have in my like, basic survival pack, and things like that. It’s also useful just for, like, hiking because what if I get lost? Then I can probably survive at least one night so then I could get rescued.
Heather: I read your gift guide, Abeni; I feel confident you’ve got what it takes to survive!
Abeni: Well, I do now!
Heather: What was one cool thing y’all learned or did in your classes?
Abeni: I learned so much. So much! I learned you can survive THREE WEEKS without food! What? I get hungry, like, five minutes after eating
Heather: I read this in your guide! But three days without water!
Abeni: Yeah, and I ALWAYS have prioritized food over water on hikes and trips. But it should be the opposite! I also learned, though, how to make a little shelter with just a tarp and some paracord. I think that’s like, the legit lifesaver. It’s way easier than you’d think to have a totally functional rain-proof shelter with just $10 of materials.
I thought it was pretty cool that my girlfriend and I took this class and the other two people in the class were a lesbian couple!
Vanessa: I would say the coolest part of my class was serendipitous – my hiking leader and I realized his best friend is a boy I had a huge crush on in high school who I haven’t spoken to in years! I realize that is not like, outdoor-hiking specific but it does reflect on what a small sweet world it is, even outside the queer community (lol), and how comfortable I found myself with the leader of our hike that we were chatting like old friends after just a few hours together!
Heather: Vanessa, that is such a you experience!
Abeni: LOL Vanessa!
Vanessa: I actually felt really nervous going on a group hike that was not specifically led by a fat person (I’ve only ever group hiked with Unlikely Hikers because usually group exercise gives me anxiety because fit/thin people can be mean at worst or just exclusionary at best!) and also because a fit-seeming able bodied cis straight man was leading the hike! But! I would say Greg, our leader, was one of the best parts for me. He was SO kind, so inclusive, and shared with me that he’s not a natural outdoorsman! He grew up in NYC and only got into outdoorsy things later in life. He was able to meet everyone on the hike where they were at AND didn’t draw attention to the fact that I was the slowest and fattest and while that seems like pretty baseline, it is actually very difficult, and I was deeply moved.
Abeni: My instructor was also really sweet too!
Heather: I love that for both of you! Meg Jones Wall came with me to the class, and she is a professional photographer, so between her and the guy who was leading the class, there was no end to the amount of questions I could ask. For example, why is my camera broken? Lens cap? Take it off? Oh! Right! Fixed, thanks! The guy who led the class does like day-in-the-life photoessay-style photos, so it was really interesting to hear his perspective on what brings a picture of a human and their surroundings to life. I wish I’d been a little braver and asked to take some photos of my favorite outdoor subject, which is: dogs in winter coats.
Heather: What kind of gear did REI pick out for you to wear? Mine was all from the extended sizes line, and then at the last minute they got me an REI-brand coat in XL because they realized I was going to be outside standing still doing photos and not riding a bike.
I also got some Kuhl hiking pants, an REI undershirt, and a Smartwool pullover that was shockingly warm. It’s very light but very warm. The coat was too, actually. It would be super easy to fit in a daypack but it also kept me toasty. I actually needed to wear some thermal cycling tights under the pants, which also fit really well — I’ve worn them several times since then just out and about — but the Smartwool pullover and a coat were very fine for the top of me.
Abeni: The base layer hoodie they sent me was really nice and warm and comfy. I have an issue with almost all clothing brands riding up, and this was no exception. Tops that are “tunic” length usually work OK for me, and I do think they actually have some shirts in those sizes, so maybe I’ll look at trying one of those next time. Similarly, their waterproof shells are extra long in the back, so they’d be perfect for me! And so many of their puffers are like “anorak” length so they’re long too! I tried out some PrAna pants that, to REI’s credit, were a tall size, but women’s pants sizing just doesn’t work for me. Well, men’s didn’t work for me when I was a man, either, actually. I’d love to try out some of their compression leggings, which is what I wear almost exclusively, because I’ve always been between sizes.
Heather: They should hire you as a tall women’s clothing consultant!
Abeni: I volunteer as tribute!
Vanessa: I LOVED my outfit they put together for me! I was initially very skeptical about the pants which sort of looked like a parachute in the box? But they turned out to be the comfiest hiking pants I’ve ever hiked in!
They sent me those cool pants, a long sleeve base layer shirt, a flannel that I am obsessed with, and a puffy jacket. It was all from the extended sizing line and it all fit well, which was a pleasant surprise, because I have a very specific and tragic memory of crying in the REI fitting room in Bend, OR in 2015 when my dad flew across the country to visit me and take me skiing and he wanted to buy me snow pants and literally not a single pair in the store fit.
So! I look forward to a future where maybe if my dad wanted to splurge and buy me snowpants at an REI, he actually could!
Heather: I have a similar memory, Vanessa! Like in my very early 30s is the last time I really tried to shop at REI because I feel like the pants went up to a size 10 and even finding a 10 was pushing it!
Vanessa: Yeah it’s so depressing when you actually want to spend money on a thing and they’re like…no, not for you!
Heather: Vanessa, was there anything you’d change about your outfit if you could?
Vanessa: I think I would have liked a short sleeve or a tank top so that I could peel off more layers (it was cold but I get REALLY hot when hiking!) and I paired it with my own hat and socks and gloves, but I have no complaints with what they actually sent. It was all size 2X which is way above what they used to include and it all fit me perfectly.
Heather: Did y’all feel like knowing this gear was available in sizes that could feel good and look good on you made you want to be outside more? Like getting gear ALWAYS pumps me up, for whatever thing it is.
Vanessa: Yes! I felt excited and happy and like, READY for a hike!
Abeni: I LOVE GEAR. If I’d had a cute, well-fitting outfit to get outdoors in it would DEFINITELY motivate me to be outside!
Heather: Queer people love gear! It’s universal! Have y’all had experiences in the past where what was available for you, gear-wise, got you down on the actual experience of doing the outdoor things you love? I definitely have, especially cycling, where everything is spandex, and every single bike shop conversation is about how to make your ride four or six ounces lighter.
Abeni: I often have to wear men’s gear, and especially being outdoors for more than a day means like not shaving too, or wearing makeup, and so the dysphoria can come, and fears of misgendering…
Heather: Oh yeah, absolutely.
Abeni: And I’m also a rock climber, and that can be kind of macho sometimes. Being outdoorsy in general can feel kind of hypermasculine. So not having gear that fits my gender just makes the whole experience a bit less comfortable. But I have to prioritize function, usually, so I settle for men’s stuff.
Vanessa: I think yes, I’ve definitely felt frustrated with gear in the past. I feel lucky that as I got into outdoorsy things, small cottage company operations were starting up. So I never felt like there was NOTHING. And also, I want to acknowledge that I am a small/medium fat person.So the extended sizing REI currently has still would not work for many fat people. Like 3X is not entirely inclusive sizing. So I think in some ways I’ve been spoiled because even though I’m fat I’ve still usually had SOME options. But, I usually do not have a lot of options, and like that story of the REI in Bend is one of many where I kind of just end up crying in the fitting room, or making do with something that isn’t really intended for the activity I’m trying to do but it’ll do.
Heather: I’m actually much more drawn to masculine-looking clothes, so I often shop in the men’s department for everything that isn’t pants, but I think, generally, most women and non-binary folks I know who would shop from this line would want really cute shit! That’s another problem with extended sizing, in general. Like two plain colors for that and ten cool colors/patterns/textures for smaller sizes.
Vanessa: I agree on that one too, Heather. A lot of fat women will say “ugh please don’t make everything sparkly and pink” and I hear that, but I actually do want everything sparkly and pink!
So variations, in general, would be nice.
Heather: I’m curious what some specific actions steps y’all think they could take to help embody that idea that “outside is for everybody.”
Vanessa: I do think REI taking steps to be more size-inclusive is a really good first step to breaking barriers for people re: gear/how it affects our desire to be outside. I also think the cost is absolutely a prohibitive factor for some people, and it would be cool if REI could accommodate sliding scales or offer more free activities for folks who simply cannot afford to pay a lot of money for classes. To that end their garage sales are great for getting less expensive gear, and I wonder if they could expand on that too – more affordable options for clothes and accessories.
Heather: I think making it easy to buy clothes online, try them on at home, and return/exchange them easily would be a good thing.
Abeni: I’m sort of repeating myself, but sometimes companies think “Oh we have to do this big thing to accommodate x type of person” when really, you could just do a bit of the legwork to make what you already have work. Like I was saying, there are already a ton of clothing options REI already sells that would be great for tall girls like me. But scouring through everything myself to find the ones that could work, then trying them on to make sure, then returning/exchanging/trying again, it’s a lot of work! And then I don’t end up passing the information on.
Most basic level: ensure that every single item, including items in REI Outlet, have a length measurement would be an amazing start and honestly if REI guaranteed just this very basic thing they would be miles ahead of most clothing companies. Next step, hire someone (like me!) to do the sorting and tagging for them. If I were paid to do it, I’d love to go through literally every single item of clothing that they offer, compare the lengths and stuff, and tagging things as “tall” if it could work for a tall person. then it’d be as easy as clicking the “tall” button when I sort/filter clothing by size on the website and I can see everything that was tagged “tall.” Not everything will be made “tall” by the manufacturer, maybe, but it could be a decent stopgap measure.
The final step is actually making things for tall women, which is much more intensive because we tend to have longer arms and torsos and stuff so just adding a few inches at the hem or whatever doesn’t really work that well. And, like Vanessa said, making things in XXL is great but it’s not that size inclusive. Same with making things tall but… up to 5’10” or something, which is better than normal but still not the best solution.
Heather: When you were doing this class or making your guide, was there anything that jumped out that you wish you’d gotten to try, clothing-wise or gear-wise?
Vanessa: I think I am always curious about how different daypacks feel – I have a really great pack I use for backpacking but I have yet to find my Forever Day Pack. I used my own on my hike but I would’ve loved to be fitted for a pack and tried a day pack specifically recommended to me by an expert!
Note from REI: You can! Head into any REI to be fitted — we offer in-store backpack fittings for all customers. We’ll measure your torso, listen to your needs, and then weight up a few packs and send you on “hikes” around the store. Some overnight packs even have interchangeable hip belts for different waists.
I think it’s important to remember that “getting outside” is billed as something we’re supposed to intuitively know how to do, but you’re not dumb or wrong or broken if you don’t know how, because there are also systems at work that actually purposely make it very difficult for the average human being to “get outside”!
Heather: Do you have any advice for queer and/or trans and/or fat folks who are either looking to get into the outdoors or to make getting to the outdoors a better and more affirming experience?
Vanessa: Oh I didn’t mention that I used hiking poles in the class! My own. I always do, and they make such a difference for me as a fat person with a fear of heights and steep downhills! That’s not really an answer to your question but if you’ve never tried hiking poles I would strongly recommend them!
Heather: Good tip!
Vanessa: I would really strongly suggest looking for community online that you can then take offline, because there’s an impressive amount of humans out there doing the work – REI is definitely helping, but marginalized folks have been doing this work for FOREVER and they were doing it before co-ops and other big corporations came along and realized it was cool. I personally like to shout out Unlikely Hikers, Wild Diversity, and the Venture Out Project because they’re Portland-based and I was in queer and outdoorsy community with their founders and leaders when I lived in Portland, and I’ve had very positive personal experiences with them. But there’s also Black Girls Trekkin, Indigenous Women Hike, We Color Outside, LatinXHikers…just to name a few!
I think it’s important to remember that “getting outside” is billed as something we’re supposed to intuitively know how to do, but you’re not dumb or wrong or broken if you don’t know how, because there are also systems at work that actually purposely make it very difficult for the average human being to “get outside”! So you shouldn’t feel bad about yourself if it feels overwhelming, but you should know there are people out there doing the work who want to include you in their community and want to help make it an achievable goal for you.
Heather: I don’t know if it’s just my very rural upbringing and outdoors stuff being very much about men and camo and hunting and fishing, but seeing how much REI has been willing to invest in our community — and even just seeing Pride stuff in there store in various ways when I was there on Friday — also feels very healing to me in a way. I’m willing to entertain the idea that I could pay more and make an investment in a piece of clothing because I feel like they’re investing in making me comfortable in a way, like, Dick’s Sporting Goods never has done or will do.
Abeni: This! I think it’s really important to make clear how much I love REI in general, and especially with this campaign and their Outside With Pride campaigns and stuff. I love REI! That they’re even trying this is huge, huge!
Vanessa: And I will say, it truly feels like they walk the walk, not just talk the talk. Knowing how many queer people REI employs. Knowing they are constantly looking for ways to partner with and amplify the voices of the most marginalized people. It makes me believe them that they care and makes me feel generous when it seems like they’re not “doing enough” and makes me feel really humbled when I see how much they are doing.
Abeni: I often think of being outdoors and wilderness and especially learning outdoor skills as a reclamation of sorts; colonization and capitalism and etc. etc. have forcibly separated many of us (especially people of color) from our ancestral knowledge and our heritage, purposely, because it makes us easier to control. I really do get the sense that REI would love it if people got outside and loved nature regardless of whether it’s with REI gear or not! For whatever reason, maybe because they’re a co-op not a normal corporation, their mission feels so much more authentic than a lot of places.
Vanessa: I mostly just love working with REI, and it feels really, really good to work with a co-op that I know in my bones values the same things I value! I think queers are really quick to be judgemental or dismissive, AND I LOVE THAT SKEPTICISM ABOUT US I DO, but in the case of REI, it does feel like the folks behind the ideas really care. I mean, it’s a co-op! I own a share of it, I guess?! I don’t know, it just warms my heart that some queers at the REI office were like “let’s work with Autostraddle!” and the folks in charge were like “hell yeah!” It reminds me that queers are everywhere, it encourages me that REI gives a shit about us, and it makes me feel like we should all go buy cute flannels and then hang out outside together!
For a full review of our favorite gear, check out the gift guides we put together!
Heather: For Dykes Who Love Their Bikes