Plus size hiker Andy Neal found his passion by taking a walk on the Pacific Crest Trail. Since then, he’s gone all-in, taking on bigger and bigger hikes, starting a successful hiking podcast, and getting sponsored by some of the most well-known companies in the outdoor industry. We chatted with Andy about finding his passion, dealing with anxiety, and how other would-be big & tall hikers can get started.
How did you get into hiking? Has it always been your thing?
I was actually a pastor for 15 years and decided to go into film school in 2017. The area I live in has a thriving independent film community. So, I went to film school and got a second degree at Southern Oregon University. Having done that – leaving a career and my belief system behind, there was a lot of existential dread going on for me. I was trying to figure life out.
My wife and I had adopted three kids from foster care, two with special needs. I was going to therapy, and I was basically rebooting my life. I was 36 years old, and my therapist just suggested that I try getting into the outdoors.
I did not, and I do not look like a hiker. Being in Ashland, Oregon, it’s pretty hippy-dippy and outdoorsy. I went on the Pacific Crest Trail, which runs right by Ashland – a little two-mile hike along that two thousand mile trail, and I fell in love. I hiked up to a valley, and I could see the whole bluff, and it was like, oh wow. From there, I just kept hiking and hiking.
Then, the pandemic happened, and there was nothing to do. There was no work for me, and bill collectors started coming to the door wanting money. It was bad. So I just started hiking. At that point, there was nothing for us to do, nothing for our kids to do. I had created a Disney podcast that had been around for seven years, so I decided to start a podcast about hiking, and that just blew up.
I was kind of a novelty in the hiking world since I was a bigger guy. I just talked to hikers about how hiking has changed them and how they’re changing the world around them. I think it blew up because there are dozens and dozens of hiking podcasts, but no one thought to name theirs The Hiker Podcast. Google likes simple words and SEO, so it took off. That’s how I got into hiking.
I love cycling and it’s really interesting to see people’s responses when they see a big guy out on a bike. Some are positive and some can’t believe what they’re seeing. Are people surprised to encounter you on a hike?
Oh, absolutely. I’ll be on a trail, and people will be coming down a peak, and they’ll see me going up, and I’ll get “oh, good for you – just a little bit longer!” It’s like, I hike this hike all the time. I realize they’re trying to be encouraging, but it’s a little patronizing. People are surprised to see someone looking like me who has all the technical gear and knows what they’re doing but doesn’t look like they should be doing it.
When I first started hiking, I hiked up to this place called Wagner Butte. It was about 11 miles out and back, and about a 3000-foot elevation gain. It was the hardest hike I’d ever done at that point. I was huffing and puffing my way up there with my son, who was a very little guy. We get up there and it’s great. I’m coming down and I run into someone I knew, and they didn’t recognize me. She asked me “hey, how far did you make it?” It wasn’t conversational, she was kind of looking me over like she didn’t think I could do it. I told her we made it all the way up, and she couldn’t believe it.
You get that all the time in person on the trail. People are surprised to see you out there with the right pack and the right shoes. Not that there’s anything wrong with not having it. Early on, I’d go out there with regular shoes and no technical gear, and people would always offer their advice. I’m like, yeah – I got it, it’s good.
Online is where I get most of the criticism. People think I’m going out and setting up the camera to make it look like I’m hiking or something like that. If I’m working with a brand, I’ll go out of my way to get a shot, but I hike between 5 and 20 miles a week. I’m sponsored by one of the largest outdoor gear companies in the world – I hike!
Does the criticism online bother you? How do you process it?
I’ve always loved social media, and I knew that things could blow up at any point, and the criticism could come. You can never really prepare yourself for that. On January 7th, I uploaded a video, “Going on a stupid hike, in the stupid morning, for my mental health.” It’s at 37.2 million views now, and it’s insane. Before that, I had about 5000 followers on Instagram, and I would get the occasional comment.
My whole life I’ve been told to make myself smaller, but when I’m outdoors, I don’t feel like I need to do that. I can take up all the space I want. Next to a 1000-year-old redwood tree, I still look tiny. It’s amazing, and it puts everything into perspective for me.
I wasn’t prepared for how many people seemed offended that a person like me would be hiking. People went way back in all my posts and commented [negative things]. I’d have a post of me at the gym doing a kettlebell workout, and people are criticizing my form. The ones that get me the most are those that say I’m promoting obesity and encouraging them to live an unhealthy lifestyle because of what I’m putting out there about body acceptance and body positivity, that people are going to die.
These are legit “fitness bros” who slide into my DMs and say these things. I believe that they really believe that, but they don’t understand how toxic their culture is and how many people have hurt themselves or even committed suicide because they were criticized so much when trying to live up to diet culture standards. They just couldn’t handle it anymore.
The criticism is always gonna be there, and I just try to brush it off.
In your Instagram posts, you advocate for mental health, which is awesome. How does hiking help your own mental health?
Just being out in nature, clearing my head, having no service on my cell phone – something about that connection with the outdoors brings me calmness. My heart rate is lower, I can think more clearly, and it really just kind of resets my day, no matter what I’m doing. Jenny Bruso, who runs Unlikely Hikers puts it this way: The outdoors is a place where bigger is better. When you want to see bigger mountains [you get outdoors], when you want to see bigger trees, you can go to the redwood forest. My whole life I’ve been told to make myself smaller, but when I’m outdoors, I don’t feel like I need to do that. I can take up all the space I want. Next to a 1000-year-old redwood tree, I still look tiny. It’s amazing, and it puts everything into perspective for me.
You seem to be on the journey that a lot of us are on to learn to love ourselves and our bodies more. I know it’s a neverending journey, but where are you at on it now?
It has been a journey my entire life; I’ve always been bigger. Even when I was younger and ran track, I was very, very fit, but I was the biggest guy on the team. When I was a teenager, it was always a thing for me up and down dieting. My parents were bigger, and my mom was always yo-yo dieting, and I’ve always had that [voice in my head that says] “I’m too fat, I’m too big, I need to lose weight.”
Getting into the community and seeing other fat and plus size folks out there has been really empowering. Knowing that I’m not the only person going through this has been huge, and so has understanding that there’s nothing wrong with me.
In 2017 I was diagnosed with a binge eating disorder. Because of things in my past, I had a very unhealthy relationship with food. I would feel bad about myself, and I would exercise, but then I’d feel so unhappy, and binge eat. I felt good while it was happening, and then I’d feel horrible about myself, and I wouldn’t eat for two days. When I looked into the mirror, I just didn’t like what I saw. It was just this horrible cycle.
Getting into the community and seeing other fat and plus size folks out there has been really empowering. Knowing that I’m not the only person going through this has been huge, and so has understanding that there’s nothing wrong with me. There are still days I struggle with it, but getting into the plus size fashion world has made me feel completely empowered.
For bigger people, the idea of going on a hike can be intimidating. What would you say to people who are interested in giving hiking a try?
Anxiety is totally natural; that’s a real thing. As fat people, we’ve been told our entire lives that these spaces aren’t for us. We go to REI and see advertisements of very straight-sized people with perfect, chiseled bodies running, biking, and hiking. That’s what we’ve been told, and that’s what the industry is putting out there for us.
Get online. Go to Unlikely Hikers, or search [social media] for hashtags like #fatandoutdoorsy or #mybodytookmehere. Seeing what other people are doing will encourage you. Get into groups – there are fat hikers and fat backpackers Facebook groups. There are a lot of people there who are just getting started.
More practically, just go for a walk. Go to the end of your street, and then leave it. The next time, walk around your block. Then, find a park that has a walking trail. You don’t have to go out and conquer the Pacific Crest Trail or the Appalachian Trail on your first day. You don’t even need to get on a trail! Just get used to moving your body. There is so much freedom and joy in movement. [You can} slowly build your confidence.
My first hike was a mile and a half out and back. Now I’m doing 15 to 18 miles a day some days. I’m going to be summiting Mt. McLoughlin in June. I couldn’t have done that when I first started, and I’ve been working toward that. Give yourself patience and love yourself. If you start a hike and can’t finish it, that’s okay. Head back and do it again next time.