Paige Emerson of Old Town strikes a pose at Table Rock in Grafton Notch State Park during the summer of 2020. Credit: Courtesy of Paige Emerson

The idea of hiking appealed to Paige Emerson of Old Town long before she gave it a try this past spring. Originally, the 25-year-old graduate student thought she needed to be in better shape before pursuing the activity. Now she knows that’s not true, and she’s sharing her adventures and perspective on Instagram: @chubbyhikerreviews.

Though the social media page is just a few months old, it has already gained an enthusiastic following and inspired many novice hikers to hit the trails.

“My goal was just to show people that no matter what size you are, you can hike,” Emerson said. “I wouldn’t consider myself in shape, you know, and hiking can be really hard when you’re overweight, but there are still trails out there that are perfect for that body type.”

Like many people throughout Maine, Emerson turned to the outdoors during the COVID-19 pandemic as a way to get out of the house and improve her health. She was also looking for a way to challenge herself during a time when she was feeling especially low.

“Like everyone else, I was impacted by the pandemic, but I also had a lot of personal things going on at the time that made it worse and I had gotten pretty depressed,” she said. “Hiking gave me something to look forward to and a reason to get up in the morning. When everything in the world seemed like it was going wrong, hiking was the one thing that made sense.”

Paige Emerson of Old Town pauses while exploring the Dresden Bog Trail in Alna with her dog Bandit during the summer of 2020. Credit: Courtesy of Paige Emerson

Though Emerson felt uncertainty about trying the activity, she was encouraged by friends who joined her on some of her first hikes. Gradually, she started working her way up to more challenging trails. She discovered that she enjoyed hiking solo because it allowed her to go at her own pace.

In June, still a hiking novice, Emerson decided to create the Chubby Hiker Reviews Instagram page to share her photos and all that she was learning during her time in the wilderness.

“I chose the name to be a little bit ironic because, being a bigger person, people are always taken aback when they hear how much I love to hike,” she said. “My friend and I were tossing around name ideas during a hike one time and the name just stuck.”

Over the summer, the Instagram page collected more than 1,300 followers, and Emerson received comments and private messages daily. Thus far, the response has been overwhelmingly positive, she said. Many people have reached out just to let her know that her posts have inspired them to try hiking or some other outdoor pursuit.

“I think the most common thing that I’ve heard people say is that they enjoy how ‘real’ my account is,” Emerson said. “I don’t try to sugarcoat anything or make it look like I have the perfect Instagram life. I just try to be myself and hope that I can make people laugh in the process.”

Humor is a common thread throughout her posts, whether she’s poking fun at especially challenging aspects of a trail or embarrassing her young nephew by pretending to be a moose. Her personality shines through with sassy language and expertly placed emojis.

“After the 10th time of falling through the snow, I encouraged my hiking companions to leave me behind,” Emerson wrote in her Instagram post about a successful hike to the top of Borestone Mountain. “I more than Darth Vader breathed on this one.”

Yet it’s not all about laughing. Emerson also does a great job of being relatable and inviting conversations about serious topics — not just about hiking, but about body positivity and the importance of mental health.

Paige Emerson poses by the summit sign of Dorr Mountain, the second tallest mountain in Acadia National Park; Emerson of Old Town navigates some rungs while climbing Dorr Mountain; and she stands at an overlook on Tumbledown Mountain in Weld, one of her goals for 2020. Credit: Courtesy of Paige Emerson

In curating her page, she’s gained inspiration from Instagram influencer Allison Kimmey, @allisonkimmey, who has 233,000 followers and spreads similar messages about self-love, acceptance and pride.

Yet Emerson didn’t start her account to be “Instagram famous,” she said. She simply thought it’d be a fun project, and if it had a positive impact on just one person’s life, that was enough.

“I don’t think people should allow themselves to be limited to certain activities because of their body size,” Emerson said. “I want people to see someone that looks like them doing the things they didn’t think they could do. There are so many little mountains in Maine that are perfect for beginners, and you can take it at your own pace.”

While she enjoys many different outdoor activities, hiking has become her absolute favorite.

“I think it’s because of the amount of work you have to put in,” she said “You’re sweaty and struggling for the longest time, sometimes wondering why you chose to do this in the first place, and then you make it to the top and the view makes it all worth it.”

Throughout the spring, summer and fall, Emerson conquered 15 mountains scattered throughout Maine and hiked on a number of flatter, easier trails as well. She learned that hand-over-foot climbing over boulders and rock faces is one of her favorite things to do. Her legs became stronger, and her attitude became more positive.

And she also lost weight, but that’s not necessarily her focus. What’s more important to her is that she feels healthier, physically and mentally.

Her hiking journey is far from over. In fact, it’s really just begun. This winter, she plans to try hiking in the snow for the first time, even though she’s not a fan of cold weather. The constant encouragement from friends and strangers online has helped motivate her to keep hiking despite the weather or any other challenges that might come her way.

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Aislinn Sarnacki

Aislinn is a Bangor Daily News reporter for the Outdoors pages, focusing on outdoor recreation and Maine wildlife. Visit her main blog at actoutwithaislinn.bangordailynews.com.