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How a Plus-Size Hiker Found Her Footing on the Trail

Hiking is for everyone—but as Kara Richardson Whitely, a.k.a. Mama Kubwa, discovered, not everyone has gotten the memo.

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“How do you tell Long Trail hikers from Appalachian Trail hikers?” the man who went by the trail name Trash said, holding three fingers in the air.

I looked up at his tall, trim physique. He smirked, highlighting crow’s feet wrinkles on his perfectly sun-kissed face in a way that showed he thought the answer would be hilarious. “It’s BBB.”

“Boots?” I answered, looking down at my own, woefully inadequate, pair. My toes banged against rocks in the otherwise cushy trail runners I wore to soften my steps on this humid June day. I knew I’d end the summer with fewer toenails than I’d started with.

“Nope,” Trash said, shaking his head.

I sat perplexed with my fleshy bottom folding over a mound of quartz. I was having a Honey Stinger caramel waffle with my hiking partner and friend, Allie (trail name: June Bug). Our overloaded backpacks for our first overnight on this trail were flung to the side of the path. A sweat-soaked Long Trail thru-hiker named Kick Flip, one of the few solo female hikers we encountered, had just caught up with us. We had been giggling about the nudist couple wearing nothing but boots, kneepads, and backpacks—because why the kneepads?  That’s when Trash strode into our space.

“It’s big backpacks and . . . ” Trash looked around with the air of a school teacher waiting for one of us to figure out the puzzle. “Body fat.”

 Long silence ensued.

“Well, then,” Kick Flip said before continuing on, “I guess I qualify.”  

We shook our heads as Trash went on and on about the sections of the AT he had “conquered” thus far, followed by his adventures out West.

He didn’t look me in the eye. Instead, he looked past me to Allie and asked her trail name. He stopped to pick up a wrapper near our resting spot, explaining that’s why his alias is Trash. I finally offered my trail name to him mid-conversation. “I’m known as Mama Kubwa.”

You can guess what it means even if you don’t know the language. It was the name I earned hiking Mt. Kilimanjaro—Africa’s highest peak at 19,343 feet—three times (in 2007, 2009, and 2011), while weighing as much as 300 pounds. Mama Kubwa is Swahili for “big woman,” a name that translated wherever I hiked—from trails around my suburban New Jersey home to the treacherous wet-chain descent to Mooney Falls in Havasu Canyon. 

When I hiked Kilimanjaro the first time, I was the fattest female hiker the guides and porters had ever seen. Even when people weren’t calling me big or fat (which happened), I could feel them looking at me like I didn’t belong. 

I had to buy a men’s jacket because it was the only thing that came in 3XL. It was boxy, the sleeves hung down several inches beyond my fingertips, and even though it zipped, it didn’t fit around my hips, so I had to pull it up, doubling it over from my waist down to mid belly. Even on my third trip to Kili, I had to stand up for myself when the porters and guides laughed at me. I told them to bet on Mama Kubwa. 

They’d see.

"Kilimanjaro"
Photo: Sergey Pesterev

After Kilimanjaro, I kept hiking. The more I showed up and the more I showcased myself as a person who loved and deserved to be out there, the more I would hear stories of other people like me doing the same. 

But there was Trash jabbering on without giving me space to share my stories, because he assumed whatever stories I had weren’t worthy. And that’s the experience of the plus-size hiker: always having to prove myself, explain myself, justify myself.

I was sick of that “attagirl” look, as if I had only taken on adventures for weight loss. And as much as I hated the scowls, the shame about the space I take up in the woods, the unsolicited advice about fasts and keto—I needed to be here.

What Trash and other hikers don’t know about me is I’m not here to lose weight. I’m here to find my worthiness and rediscover the adventurer in me after a pandemic and a long absence from the trail. Trash didn’t want to know who I was, but I do.

The Long Trail’s outline as it traces Vermont’s Green Mountains mirrors my own life’s journey to wellness and peace with my body. It’s a fragile sort of peace, easily shattered by a stranger’s joke, even now. 

But hiking is something I must do even though it feels like I have 50-pound bags of flour attached to each leg. Even though arthritis swells beneath both of my knock knees. Even though I average a mile per hour on some trails. Even when I feel more like an animal than a person. Especially then.

I discovered binge eating when I was 9 and my parents were divorcing. I would chomp on walnuts in our pantry, or anything with a crunch loud enough to drown out the screaming. 

The ensuing years of living a financially strapped life in a single-mother household, being a latchkey kid who came home and was kept company by snacks, solidified my relationship with food. I learned to stuff down my emotions with handful after handful of cereal or clandestine candy bars, wrappers crumpled in my purse. 

It wasn’t until my 30s that adventure travel catalogs with glossy pictures of the Alps and Machu Picchu lured me back out of my shades-drawn room where I’d go from my bed to the television. When I first stepped foot into the woods near my home in New Jersey, it was an expedition. I was suited up with a bear bell, winter-grade wool socks, yoga pants, a hot pink T-shirt (for visibility, of course), a rain jacket (just in case on the clear day), and a food supply for three days in case I got lost from Watchung Reservation’s green trail, which has a book time of  20 minutes. Nevermind that if I wandered off the trail I probably would have ended up in a Target parking lot. 

But those first steps into the forest were the ones that allowed me to feel again. Instead of pushing everything away with food, I started pulling it all in. I felt the cool air of a spring day on my skin. I could feel my boot sinking into the mud or cracking a twig underfoot. I could hear the wind in the trees, a song I’d spent decades missing without knowing it. And as I continued to hike, New Jersey flats turned into the snow-capped summit of Africa. 

This isn’t the part where I tell you I lost 150 pounds. My relationship with food and the woods has been up and down—from Kilimanjaro to bariatric surgery. But I keep coming back.

I hiked miles upon miles to prepare myself for the Long Trail hike, and on that day, I was excited and ready. Then here was this hiker and his joke.

I had a choice: I could puff out my chest and suck in my belly. Or could I just be who I was. I stood up, shouldered my pack, and buckled the strap around my hips. Mama Kubwa was on the move.  

Kara Richardson Whitely is the author of Gorge: My Journey Up Kilimanjaro at 300 Pounds.