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Taking Up Space Outdoors: White Water Rafting

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Ashley Manning is a self-proclaimed plus-sized outdoorswoman. From hiking the Appalachian trail to working as a white water river rafting guide, she prefers being outdoors above all else, and she loves changing the perspective of those around her while doing it. 

Whether it’s on the river, out hiking or on any other adventure, Manning encourages others to take up space outdoors, something she says stems from her early days of adventuring when she was afraid of getting in people’s way or of slowing them down. 

“I think taking up space to me means being unapologetic about just being there,” Manning says. 

Manning became a white water rafting guide after becoming addicted to the adrenaline rush of rafting after her first trip, but her path to become a guide wasn’t easy. She says from the very beginning, there has been disrespect and the assumption that she couldn’t be a guide because of her size. 

“When I was in training I felt like I was working four times harder than any of the men I was training with,” Manning says. 

Ashley Manning plus-size white water rafting guide

Overcoming Barriers to Become a Plus-Size White Water Rafting Guide

Even after earning her certification and guiding for a year, Manning was removed as a guide because of her unconventional way of getting into the raft: She uses a rope system to help get herself into the boat and one manager told her she couldn’t be a guide because of that. 

“The more research I did, I found out people on other rivers do this too, but it was a no-go. I had to face the fact that I didn’t feel wanted as a guide. On top of being female there is the plus-sized aspect,” Manning says. “I was strong in my own right and very capable. It felt quite targeted. There were four other people on that river that got in the same way I did. They were smaller than me, but they never got taken off the river.” 

Manning says that incident has stuck with and although there have been other challenges in her career, it has been worth it. She says she often gets comments from guests or even park service volunteers about her size, but instead of being offended, she uses it as a learning opportunity. Earlier this year, Manning says, she had a conversation with a 7-year-old boy about being fat and how it isn’t the worst thing in the world. 

“It is moments like this that make all the other moments worth it,” Manning says. “People see a fat girl out there doing all this hardcore stuff and minds are changed.” 

Manning says it’s not just about her being capable as a raft guide, but her health is also often questioned. She says when on river trips they eat healthy foods like veggie wraps, chicken curry and quinoa kale salad. 

“Even when you are hiking hundreds of miles or have hundreds if not thousands of miles under your belt as a river guide, and you spend days and days at a time in the wilderness, eating healthy and working your ass off, people are going to make the assumption that you’re not healthy,” she says. “And even if not, who cares, leave the unhealthy fat people alone. Everyone deserves to just be. My health, whether it’s good or bad, is no one’s concern but mine.” 

Finding the right gear is another challenge Manning has faced, but she says more companies are creating quality, plus-size outdoor gear. She says brands like REI, Columbia, Torrid and even Walmart carry great pieces for getting outdoors. 

plus-size adventure travel
plus-size adventure travel

Planning a Plus-Size White Water Adventure 

She also says that if you want to go on a river rafting trip as a plus-sized person, do your research first. Manning suggests calling different river rafting operations and asking to speak to the manager, to inquire about personal flotation devices and to have a genuine conversation. If you’re in Utah or Colorado, Manning says her company, Adrift Dinosaur, is planning a five-day body positivity rafting trip next year.

Manning says despite the challenges, the confidence she’s gained as a raft guide has changed her life and in turn is changing the lives of others. 

“It’s huge that for the past two years, the people I’ve trained have been trained by a fat woman. That is something that keeps me going,” Manning says. “I get messages every day, ‘I want to go rafting but I’m plus-sized and afraid,’ If I can convince one person to go and they enjoyed it and loved it, it’s all worth it.”

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