I think I’ve said it before here, but I’m a freak for the outdoors. Give me the choice between gasping up mountain passes or watching the latest episode of something average, and there’s no contest. The fact that I’ve spent the majority of my adult life in Chicago (and now London) means that I seriously value my time outside, and when given, I try to explore in the manner of most control freaks – with good gear, good maps, and enough stuff to get me through any tight spots on the trail.
I started hiking as a 16 year old, with my father, stepmother, sister and stepsister, on trips to Colorado, Wyoming, and Montana. At that time, I wore what we all wore – cotton shorts and tee shirts, sports bras and high-ankled hiking boots. I’d return from an average day’s work with my super fit dad and stepmom a sweaty, gross mess, the necks of my shirt mis-shapen, my shorts baggy from sweat and we’d get up again and do it the next day.
Today, I sometimes long for that time – when clothes were baggy and hid everything, and when I never thought twice about jeans for a long hike. Today, though, I know the benefits of having good, technical apparel that can take you on an 8 or 10 mile hike that starts at 80 degrees and ends at 40; with jackets that keep the rain out and release the heat from within; and base layers that let you stay out having fun even when a chill sets in.
But I’ve realized recently that there are a lot of plus athletes still out there hiking in their husbands clothes, or in their own casual wear. They get hot and cold, and chafed and is it any wonder they don’t go back? No. But the good news is there are now a few select manufacturers putting together some great pieces for you to get your outdoors on.
Columbia has long been the marketer of the “everyman” approach to getting outside. For that, let me say up front, THANK YOU, you smart people. The company was one of the first to offer a good windbreaker in plus sizes, and if you enter any Dick’s Sporting Goods in the States, you’ll find a good variety of apparel that wicks moisture away, is of a decent level of quality, and is at an affordable price point. Columbia’s sizing can be very generous (in their coats, for example); and in the plus market, they have a wide variety of things that you can purchase online and in some stores.
Now, I’m a firm believer in teaching a girl to fish. And by that, I don’t mean trout-fishing (though Columbia does, and has a whole line devoted to helping you fish in better clothing). I mean this: “teach you to shop for your own apparel and you won’t always need me.” So, a few bits of advice about shopping with Columbia – online at least. As I’ve not been in a retail store that carried their products (some Cabelas, Dicks, and Sports Authority offer items), you may be limited to the online shop, but go with it, and learn a few tips to still get a deal, and then learn how to get the stuff that fits you.
First, their clothes for plus-size women are listed under the category of “Extended Sizes”. Like Nike & REI, if you want to search for their stuff online (and not through their site directly), you can Google “Columbia Extended Size” and you’ll find a whole host of people selling the same products, and sometimes they’ll even be on sale!
Second, Columbia offers both technical and casual wear in the plus range. You’ll need to be careful about what you buy from them, and by careful I mean: read the labels. Columbia still markets (in large part) to people who like the aesthetic look of hiking clothes, but never intend to do any hiking in them. If you’re not one of those folks, remember the golden rule, and eliminate from your cart all of the options with cotton. This will include most of the hiking trousers and several of their shirts.
Third, and most of you will know this one – be careful about the sizing. READ THE MEASUREMENTS. If you are a pear, chances are you’re going to have to order up in the pants sizes (same if you’re tall.) I also find their shirts (the technical button-down variety) to be un-pear friendly, but others may not have that problem. I was hiking with my friend in Toronto last month, and she had on a great shirt that I was coveting (see below.) I would highly recommend this shirt as an example of Columbia getting it right for us.
Finally, watch the sales. Columbia has a big Clearance section on their website, and the inventory changes regularly – it’s a perfect place to get a deal.
Best of the bunch:
The Tamiami shirt below is a good recommendation to start – snap buttons, a back vent, split sleeves, and four colors to suit your fancy – it’s also quick drying and would dress up enough for town if you needed it to.
Pants are a tough thing for manufacturers of plus size apparel. Stomach? Hips? Ass? Saddlebags? Thighs? I honestly do empathize with the makers of these clothes, and give them props whenever they create something technical and made of a fabric you can’t swim laps in. The Women’s Silver Ridge Convertible Pant is a great attempt by Columbia to do what we’d like our hiking apparel to do – look cute, be functional, and have some options in terms of color. At 5’8 1/2, I struggle with Columbia’s inseam (and with my new friend, Mr. Stomach, I struggle with the hip measurements) but if I were purchasing right now, these would be on my “try” list. They look great and get great product reviews, and at $70, are probably worth the investment. They’re also just that little bit more stylish than what I’ve seen from REI and others, that I would probably try them even if it was a stretch. ($70).
REI (Recreational Equipment, Inc.)
Most of you know I love REI. They were impressively the first retail outlet to provide a consistent line of active clothing for plus size women, and that continues to this day. Like Columbia, you can find their stuff online – and in this case, it’s exclusively online, unless a store near you receives a return in which case the best time to nab it is at one of their semi-annual sales.
Online,the search function you use to locate clothing is “Extended Sizes”. Today, they stock a variety of basic jackets, fleeces, winter and waterproof wear, and a good mix of four season hiking wear. Their people are experts, and they sell (for the most part) very high quality clothing – what they miss on, they often fix in the following season, and they warranty everything for life, so if you have a problem, you can walk into a store or ship it back and you’ll get it fixed.
I’ve been a power purchaser from REI and have owned the Neo Jacket (an excellent softshell for getting around Chicago before it gets really cold – or snowshoeing in the rockies when it gets time for fun); the lightweight rain jacket (does everything advertised) and the Sahara shorts and pants. The most technically impressive rain jacket they offer (the Taku) is currently on sale at a STEAL of a deal $107 (trust me, you’ll never see a better shell in our sizing); and the purchase of my year was a no-longer-on-offer Capri pant that I can’t even show you a picture of.
REI also has an online outlet (www.reioutlet.com) and they sometimes feature plus size clothes (usually Moving Comfort stuff, which has had a hideous track record of poor colors and even poorer fit over the last few years in their plus line). But if pushed, the value at REI is in their own branded line.
REI’s house fitness brand is the OXT line – and it’s very good for base layers – I’ve gotten a lot of cross-functional wear out of the tops. But for hiking, kayaking and travel, my all-time favorites are the REI Lightweight Polartec brand of clothes – they’re great for layering, and when you can get them (they sell out quick) they’re perfect additions. Right now, they’re only offering the bottoms – but in the past, they’ve offered multiple options in the plus sizes for tops. Worth a pickup, if you’re looking.
Oh, LL Bean. I want to wish them a warm, warm welcome to the party for finally providing an assortment of high-quality technical jackets which can help you hike, bike, and explore more. This season’s fall line seems to be the best yet, with 100 weight fleece (in jacket and pull-over form), the trail model rain jackets (in short and long form) and a reliable windbreaker for those days when you want to be out for a run but don’t want the weight of a waterproof jacket. (I’d give you pics, but we seem to be having technical trouble doing that).
LL Bean has tended to unflattering, boxy styles in the past, so see what happens when you order – but it looks as if they may have created some good options this year. If you’re hiking, I would advise staying away from 200 weight fleece in your pack – it’s VERY bulky and it doesn’t pack well – and go for synthetic down or real down vests instead.
Next post we’ll handle some of the gear recommendations for the best hiking you can do – in the meantime, happy shopping!