EveryBODY Belongs

Written by Mandi Hillman

This is probably my least favorite subject. It’s something I don’t like to talk about. It’s certainly not something I like to draw any bit of attent to. In fact, I spend a hell of a lot of time trying to shrink myself down and take up less space in the world, specifically when it comes to this issue. I live in a place of denial and avoidance about this topic. But here it is. I’m fat. Not everyone likes that term. Some might call themselves plus size, or curvy, or, my favorite, fluffy! To each their own. As I said, I don’t spend a lot of time focusing on this issue, so the words I use aren’t something I put a lot of weight onto (get it). 

So, why the hell am I talking about it now? Well, I have to. Yup. It’s really important that you and everyone else sees me – chubby, fluffy, fat me – existing in the outdoors. Not just in the outdoors, but doing some challenging things in the outdoors. Representation matters. And while I’m working through my own personal stuff about why I don’t want to be a representative of this, the fact is, I am.

I’m sharing this because I want every woman who has ever thought, “I don’t belong there” to see herself represented in my experience. And believe me, I recognize that those “where I belong” thoughts extend FAR BEYOND wilderness experiences. Because everybody belongs in nature. Or, as Wander Women Founder Jenn Riggs says, “nature doesn’t judge.”


Here’s a picture of me at the top of a ridge in the backcountry of Isle Royale. I’m pictured with three other friends. It’s not hard to pick me out of the photo, but in case you’re struggling, I’m the one on the right. I don’t “fit in” with the other three. It’s okay, it’s obvious. I know I DO fit in with these three, so, fear not, I’m all good there. I belong to them, and they belong to me. They are my people. We’re just talking about external stuff here. Physical appearance. Here are some things to note about me at the time this photo was taken:

·         I’m at my heaviest ever weight in my entire life. To be totally honest, I don’t really recognize myself (but we’re not unpacking all of that stuff here, this time).

·         I’m not “properly” trained and conditioned for this hike (kind of did no prep, my bad).

·         My fitness level far less than ideal for general health and well-being (for me) and for the endurance challenge I was smack in the middle of.

I don’t belong there. I don’t “fit” there. Fat people don’t hike. Fat people can’t hike. Right? WRONG! There I am. Standing on the top of that ridge. I walked the same trail, took the same steps, and climbed the same damn hills as my more-fit friends. My fluffy body did the same things as my less-fluffy friends.

Was it harder for me than my friends? Meh. Probably. It’s all hard in all sorts of varied and unique ways. The walking with a pack on the inclines may have been harder on me, but for my friend who fears the dark and the woods I might have had an easier time tucking myself in bed at night. Hard is relative. Here’s the point: everyBODY comes to the trailhead with their own unique challenges – physical, mental, spiritual; everyBODY walks the same trails; and everyBODY belongs in nature.

If you’re reading this and you’re “fluffier,” like me, and you grew up in America I’m going to venture to guess you’ve got yourself a fair share of “body image” stuff you’re carrying around with you. I also know that ANYwoman who grew up in America is carrying around some of that stuff too. I want to acknowledge that this body image stuff is, sadly, a seemingly universal experience for all women. Unique, but universal too. It’s a whole bunch of BS, isn’t it? Nonetheless, it’s there and we’re all working through in our own ways. One of the things that’s so great about showing up in nature and occupying space there is that it makes me appreciate my body. That’s not something I feel on the day-to-day. That’s my stuff (review the introductory line to this essay). When your body is doing badass kickass stuff – like all the other bodies on the trail – it’s hard not to have a deep reverence for the awesomeness that you are. I appreciated my body more on the trail. I experienced genuine gratitude for my body as it carried me through the journey. Those aren’t feelings I generally feel in my day-to-day life – certainly not when I’m trying to shrink myself down. Beyond simply belonging in nature, perhaps I actually need nature. I need to feel those feelings, which are so hard for me to come by. I need to hold reverence and gratitude and be reminded of both my belongingness and my capabilities. That’s what the trail offered me as a gift.


My capable and fluffy and strong body also went for a swim in the cool waters of Lake Superior. My body carried me to very remote spots and my body was deserving of the feeling of that refreshing lake water washing over my skin. I dove under that water with appreciation, not humiliation. I appreciated what my body had done. I don’t feel that way when I’m with my kids at the public swimming pool. On the trail, I had no hesitation to find myself equally worthy of occupying that space and indulging in the gift that cool lake had to offer me.


Today, I’m taking up space. Today, I’m claiming the thing that I and my big fat body did. Today, I want you to look at these pictures of me and see that the “fat girl” did the same hard things that the “skinny girls” did. Today, I know that I belong at the top of that ridge, on that trail, in those waters and so do you.

Photos courtesy of Melanie Sageghpour, trail partner extraordinaire

Dirt: A Love Story

I love dirt.

Of course, one might assume this is a love story about all the ways that dirt offers my life something beneficial and my love is only out of natural reciprocity and gratitude. I’m grateful for the gifts of dirt from both a microbiological and ecological level, sure. These gifts are certainly worthy to acknowledge and do contribute to my adoration of dirt, but that’s not actually what this love story is about.

What I really love is being dirty. Yes, I mean actually having dirt on my body. No, I don’t bathe myself in mud and I promise I have regular bathing and hygiene habits.

The process of getting dirty is almost always fun, although it often means hard work might have been involved, I rarely count that as a bad thing.


Simply put, being dirty is fun. It’s a laid back state of mind. Being dirty means all the pretenses are gone. No more assumption that I am a together person. Nope. Just a messy dirty person existing in all my messy dirty glory. I’m not putting on any sort of a facade when I’m covered in dirt. The more I try to live an authentic life – one where the masks are off more frequently than on – the better and better I feel, holistically. Being dirty offers that release and acceptance.

Some of my favorite memories involved dirt in one way or another. A swim in a body of water created by nature, dirty! A hike in the woods or a walk through the prairie, dirty! Breaking ground in the spring and planting little seed babies, weeding, harvesting my garden, dirty! Camping and campfires, dirty! Art projects with my kids, dirty! Science experiments in the kitchen, dirty! Changing a tire, dirty! Why would changing a tire make the list? C’mon has a flat tire story ever not been told with some level of peril and adversities to overcome – that’s fun (and messy dirty)!

And finally, dirt is the best metaphor for life I’ve ever found. Life is messy and dirty, it’s rarely crisp, clean, clear, and pretty. Dirty. If I don’t learn to love the dirty mess, I fear I’m missing out on quite a lot.

Whether is literally or metaphorically dirty, I’m in love.

Why am I telling you this love story? Because our society doesn’t talk about women loving dirt nearly enough, if at all. My love story doesn’t dominate our discussions. Instead, we often hear stories about boys and their love of dirt. In fact, it’s a pretty common “ism” about boys. Boys + dirt = love. It’s just expected. If a girl loves dirt she’s a “Tom Boy.” With this moniker we assign her to the realm of men and boys, thus justifying her torrid love affair. Nah! Let’s not. I’m done with that and I think the rest of you are too. These rigid binaries are so very silly and restrictive. Our identities are complex and multi-layered. I’m telling you my love story because I think it needs to be heard. I also know that so many other women love dirt too.

Share your dirt love stories and use the hashtag: #girlslovedirt and help reclaim that narrative.

If you are curious about some of the benefits of dirt, check out these links:

NPR, Medical News

This piece was contributed by Amanda Hardy Hillman. Amanda is a faculty member at Iowa State University in the Human Development and Family Studies department. She is also a licensed mental health counselor and works in perinatal mental health in a small private practice. Amanda was born in Fairbanks Alaska making Denali National Park a backdrop of her childhood. Aside from loving dirt, Amanda also harbors a [mostly] healthy obsession with camping and traveling  If you’d like to contribute to the Wander Women blog, please submit your ideas to hello@wanderwomeniowa.com

This piece was contributed by Amanda Hardy Hillman. Amanda is a faculty member at Iowa State University in the Human Development and Family Studies department. She is also a licensed mental health counselor and works in perinatal mental health in a small private practice. Amanda was born in Fairbanks Alaska making Denali National Park a backdrop of her childhood. Aside from loving dirt, Amanda also harbors a [mostly] healthy obsession with camping and traveling

If you’d like to contribute to the Wander Women blog, please submit your ideas to hello@wanderwomeniowa.com

Day Hiking 101


The warmer weather is beckoning a lot of us outside to explore! A great way to explore is to embark on a day hike in one of Iowa’s many beautiful parks. We put together this guide to help you find a place to hike and provide you with a packing list.

THE TEN ESSENTIALS (from the American Hiking Society)

Packing properly for a day hike is essential for your safety and enjoyment. The ten essentials are items that every day hiker should carry with them. There is no need to run out and buy expensive gear or items—chances are lot of this stuff can be found in your house. And, if not, we have provided you with some suggestions.

Planning ahead is also a key part of making sure your hike is safe and enjoyable — be sure tell someone close to you where you are planning to hike and provide them with a timeline so they know when you are expected to return.

  1. Appropriate Footwear: Appropriate footwear is essential for comfort and support. A sturdy pair of tennis shoes, trail shoes, or hiking boots are great options.

  2. Map and Compass /GPS: It’s important to know where you’re going and plan ahead. Most parks have trail maps available online so you can download them before your hike. Another great option is the AllTrails app, which can be used without cell phone service.

  3. Extra Water: Your body needs water in order to function properly. Running out of water is dangerous, so always plan to pack more water than you think you’ll need. It’s also wise to carry a filtration system in case you do run out. We suggest the Sawyer Mini or Aquatabs as great budget friendly filters.

  4. Extra Food: Your body needs energy! Great trail snacks include nuts, jerky, apples, energy and protein bars, peanut butter packets, honey sticks, coconut chips, dehydrated fruit, and hard cheese. Be sure to pack out your food and packaging.

  5. Rain Gear and Extra Clothing: Weather can change very quickly, and the weatherperson isn’t always right. Dressing in layers allows for you to adjust your clothing as needed. If you don’t want to buy a rain jacket, this emergency poncho is a great option to carry in your pack. Its always a good idea to carry a hat too.

  6. Safety Items: Safety items include fire, whistle, and light. Fire is essential if you are caught in a situation in which you’re cold. A whistle can be used to signal for help (3 short bursts). And, light is great if you are out longer than planned.

  7. First -aid Kit: This first aid kit is a great option for day hikes. Be sure to refill it as you use items- you don’t want to get stuck without something. You can also put together your own kit.

  8. Multipurpose Tool or Knife: These can be used to cut bandages, repaired damaged gear and items, and remove splinters. They’re also great for whittling s’more sticks.

  9. Sunscreen and Sunglasses: Sunburns are the worst! Sunscreen and sunglasses help protect your skin and eyes.

  10. Backpack: You’ll want a comfortable pack to carry your essentials. Most backpacks serve this purpose just fine, so don’t worry about going out and buying an expensive daypack if you already have a comfy one at home.

  11. Optional items:

    • A small trash bag to pick up litter you see along the way and to pack out your own trash

    • Emergency shelter such as an emergency blanket or bivy

    • Insect spray and a tick key

Bringing a furry friend along is another great option

Bringing a furry friend along is another great option


There are great places to hike all over Iowa, but for this post we’re providing you with a list of some of our favorite day hikes in Central Iowa. To find hikes outside of Central Iowa, visit your local county conservation’s website or the Iowa Department of Natural Resources, and check out this blog post from us. The book, Hiking Iowa, is also a great resource for finding day hikes all across the state.

Click on each location to be directed to websites with more information and trail maps.


Why Iowa? Outdoor Opportunities Abound Here


You don’t have to leave Iowa in order to find an outdoor adventure. There are numerous outdoor opportunities right outside your door!

When most people think of Iowa they think of fields upon fields of row crops, pigs and cows, and flat terrain. They don’t normally think of Iowa as an outdoor mecca full of recreational opportunities. Only 2.8% of the land in Iowa is public, ranking it 47th in the nation for the amount of public lands. Over 85% of Iowa’s land was once covered in prairie, and today less than 1/10th of one percent remains. Given that information, It’s easy to see why people may view Iowa the way they do.

But, despite our small number of public lands, Iowa still has numerous recreational opportunities and beautiful places for us to enjoy. And, for those of us that live here, we know that Iowa isn’t just flat fields. I was born and raised in Iowa and I have been fortunate enough to travel across the state and visit a lot of these beautiful areas. I have hiked on numerous trails, wandered through a native prairie remnant, paddled miles of rivers, gone fishing in numerous ponds, lakes, and sloughs, and tubed down whitewater parks. I am passionate about sharing these places with others, which is one of the reasons I started Wander Women. Developing a sense of place among Iowa’s beautiful places is essential to protecting and preserving what we have.

Iowa is also home to 99 county conservation boards, meaning every single county in Iowa has its very own conservation board protecting and securing more public lands for all of us to enjoy. Recreational opportunities abound in our county park system!

Furthermore, Iowa boasts miles upon miles of river trails and bike trails for all of the paddling and biking enthusiasts out there.

Below is a list of some of my favorite places in Iowa. This list barely brushes the surface of all of the wonderful natural places in Iowa, so we would love to hear about your favorite outdoor places, too. Start start planning your Iowa adventures today! Be sure to check out our Wander Women all-inclusive camping adventures, too.

Click on the images below to find out more about each one of these great Iowa outdoor destinations:

Wildcat Den State Park

A small but mighty state park located in Muscatine near the Mississippi River

Loess Hills State Forest

A truly unique area of Iowa surrounded by dramatic ridges made of loess soil

Neil Smith National Wildlife Refuge

A prairie refuge with a 700-acre bison enclosure

Whiterock Conservancy

A 5,000 acre retreat just one hour northwest of Des Moines

Rochester Cemetery

One of the few remaining original prairie remnants in the state

Manchester Whitewater Park

Fun for the entire family on the Maquoketa River

Yellow River State Forest

Located in the Driftless region of Iowa, and home to over 25 miles of hiking trails.

Lake Ahquabi State Park

A beautiful lake meaning “resting place” in the Sauk language. Just 40 minutes south of Des Moines

Backbone State Park

Iowa’s First State Park. Filled with numerous recreational opportunities

Stephens State Forest

Over 15,000 acres just one hour south of Des Moines

Mines of Spain State Park

A rugged and interesting state park overlooking the Mississippi River in Dubuque


Effigy Mounds National Monument

Iowa’s only national monument, with over 200 Native American mounds


An outdoor lover’s dream town located in the Driftless region of Iowa