Under the judging eyes of the Austrian Airlines clerk at O’Hare Airport, I pulled my raincoat and soft-shell jacket out of my carry-on. “What are you going to do with them?” she asked, barely masking her disgust, as I stuffed a pair of sandals into my purse. “Wear them?” Sweating from the pressure and warmth as I tied the soft-shell around my waist, I nodded. I pulled back on my favorite heavy travel sweater and shrugged my raincoat over the top, then heaved my suitcase back onto the scale. Though my carry-on remained far over the maximum weight, she shuddered and waved me through with impatience.
The week before, I stuffed my suitcase for a dry run, using compression packing cubes and testing which shoes fit inside other pairs. Hyper-focused on making sure my bag wouldn’t bulge a millimeter beyond the limited dimensions of European overhead bins, I failed to note the weight restrictions.
I wear size 16 pants and XXL tops, just big enough to make buying clothes in-person hard in major American cities. Anywhere else? It’s nearly impossible. For fat travelers (my preferred term instead of plus-size) like me, finding cold weather gear like the warm layers and quality coats I packed for my Albania road trip requires endless searches and online shopping. Even with all that effort, it can often mean settling for sub-par equipment. Checking my suitcase meant risking arriving without it. In an unfamiliar city with language barriers, lost luggage or a forgotten item isn’t a mere inconvenience. It can mean missed opportunities and could even become a trip terminator.
During recent travels, Marley Blonsky, an influencer and cofounder of All Bodies on Bikes, was invited on a ride. When she was unable to borrow gear, the group she was with encouraged her to pop into a store. “That’s not how it works,” she laments. “I can’t just go into a bike shop and buy a jacket.”
Even when companies make sizes beyond XL, they rarely sell them in brick-and-mortar locations. When avid skier Heidi Wasem went to update her outerwear, she realized nowhere in her hometown sold ski gear in her size. She ordered more than a dozen items online to find a fit. “It took an MBA to keep all the return policies and paperwork straight to return unwanted/unworn items,” she says. “It seems like an excessive amount of work for a $200 pair of pants.”
Checking reviews offers limited help for larger people: In The Wirecutter’s recent “Best Down Jacket” assessment update, all three of the New York Times outlet’s best choices (top pick, also great, and upgrade option) topped out at size XL. But research shows that the average American woman wears a size 16–18, same as I do, and those don’t fit me. That leaves the budget pick—described as a sticky-zippered, nonwaterproof coat that tears easily—and its extended size pick, which “didn’t provide as much warmth, and it was tough to layer under or over, given its boxy shape.”
Two months after my daughter was born and a few nights before my first ski day of that season, I pulled my gear out. I slipped my arms into the jacket and checked the zipper, feeling in the pockets for forgotten granola bars or lunch money. Then I pulled on my pants. Around the middle of my thighs, they stopped suddenly. I couldn’t get them near my waist, much less button them.
I live in a major metropolis within day-trip distance of at least four ski areas; it did not occur to me I should panic. But around the third large shop, fear set in. Finally, at the flagship REI, I found a pair of pants that buttoned. They were about two sizes too big, but I slipped a belt through the loops and rolled up the bottoms. I wouldn’t learn the biggest problem with them until a few weeks later, when I realized the water resistance ranked somewhere between dish-sponge and cotton sweatpants.
It feels dramatic to point out that for serious outdoors people this can be the difference between life and death, but as a skier who spent days in frigid -15°F temperatures and driving rain at 33°F this December alone, it matters. Even in situations with less dire consequences, like simply wanting to enjoy a spring vacation without having to hide from the rain, fat travelers deserve gear that fits, performs, and—to the chagrin of our overwhelmingly fatphobic society—looks good.
“Companies say that the plus-size gear they tried to make didn’t sell well, but they sabotaged it by not promoting it, having terrible fit, material issues, or because it is so ugly,” says skier Kathie DeWitt. “I’m convinced it’s because they don’t actually work with plus-sized people to create these items.”
In the few years since I rushed out in search of ski pants, the industry has advanced: I preordered the North Face’s added sizes the minute they were announced, and Outdoor Research worked with plus-size outdoor influencers to extend its line. But the local Backcountry store, which sells both of those brands online, carries nothing above an XL.
A soggy bottom won’t keep me off the slopes, but I’m hopeful someday I can impulse buy a cute puffy jacket on sale after too much après-ski in Sun Valley or teach a fat friend to ski without them busting out a spreadsheet to buy pants long before they understand the joy of faceshots on a powder day.
I am still going to get on the plane, but if you see me looking like the Michelin Man, with a white-knuckle grip on my bag as I board, know I just don’t want to wear a garbage bag for a raincoat or choose between missing epic runs and skiing Porky Pig–style. A few hours of discomfort on the plane guarantees one less worry on the ground. Or several, because outerwear is only part of the issue: Once, after searching five stores for plus-size underpants while on vacation in Greece, Blonsky recounts, she gave up and just went commando for an entire week.