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If you’ve been shopping for hiking or backpacking gear recently, you may have noticed some women’s specific gear. I’m not talking about clothing or shoes (obviously we need those)… I’m talking about backpacks, sleeping bags and more. Often this stuff seems to follow the same tired formula: “Shrink it and pink it”. Brands make the same outdoor gear they make for men, but in smaller versions and in shades of pink (or purple, or baby blue) and call it women’s hiking gear. But gear for women has been getting better. The outdoor industry is waking up to the fact that women do actually get outdoors. And some of that women’s specific gear is actually designed with women in mind. I have a lot of experience evaluating gear (both on the trail and as part of my day job), so here’s my take on which women’s hiking gear is actually worth buying.
Women’s Hiking Gear: Backpacks
Women’s specific backpacks are designed to fit the smaller, curvier body of the average woman. Compared to men’s or unisex packs, they usually come in shorter torso lengths. They also have narrower shoulder straps that are set closer together to fit women’s narrower torsos. The shoulder straps are also often contoured or curved to accommodate breasts. The hipbelts of woman’s packs are shaped to accommodate a woman’s wider hips. If you are just buying a day hiking pack, a great fit is not as important since you won’t be carrying as much weight. But if you are going on an overnight or multi-day backpacking trip you will be carrying lots of weight and you want the best fit possible. Below I’ve given some pack fitting tips for various female body types.
If you are a short woman, you will definitely benefit from a women’s specific pack. Men’s packs generally will not fit you well as their torso lengths will be too long.
If you are a petite/thin woman you will also want to consider women’s packs since the shoulder straps on a men’s pack will be set too far apart for you and the hipbelt may not do up tight enough.
If you are a curvy woman then you are in luck as women’s packs were designed to accommodate your hips and breasts. You could try on a men’s or unisex pack, but you will find that the hipbelt on a men’s pack doesn’t sit in the right place on your hips and the shoulder straps sit strangely on your breasts.
If you have a very straight up and down figure (not curvy) and aren’t short or super thin, you might not get any benefit from a woman’s pack. Mens or unisex packs will come in a small enough torso length to fit you and the unisex hipbelt should fit you fine.
If you are very tall (over 5’9ish) or you have a very long torso, you also might need to consider buying unisex pack. Women’s packs typically don’t come in sizes tall enough to accommodate you. (Sorry!)
If you are very short (under 5’2ish) AND you aren’t very curvy, consider looking at the youth packs. They are designed for tweens and young teens and they can often be much less expensive. (There is a tradeoff though as there aren’t as many youth packs to choose from, they aren’t designed to carry heavier loads and they often have less features.)
I recommend: I’m a curvy woman of average height. For backpacking, I wear the women’s version of the Boreas Lost Coast 60 (you can read my review here). Most of the day packs I own are also women’s specific. For summer I usually use my Greogry Maya 22 (I have an older version). Buy: MEC | REI. For winter I switch to a Deuter Freerider SL that has straps to carry my snowshoes. Buy: MEC | REI.
Women’s Hiking Gear: Sleeping bags
Sleeping bags for women are designed to fit the shape of a woman’s body AND to account for the fact that women generally feel the cold more than men. Women’s sleeping bags are generally offered in shorter lengths than men’s or unisex bags. Women’s sleeping bags are often offered in two sizes. The smaller size will fit up to 5’4″ or 5’6″ and the larger size will fit up to 5’8″ or 5’10”. Men’s bags are typically offered in 6’0″ and 6’6″ sizes. Empty space in a sleeping bag will just make you colder so you do want to choose a sleeping bag that is only an inch or two taller than you.
Slim cut mummy-style sleeping bags for women also have a bit more room in the hips compared to men’s bags. Since women often sleep colder than men, women’s bags often have more insulation in the torso and in the footbox – areas where we feel the cold most.
I recommend: If you are curvy, or you feel the cold easily, a women’s sleeping bag might be the right choice for you. I’m curvy and feel the cold a LOT so I use a women’s specific Big Agnes Roxy Ann -9C/15F sleeping bag. Buy: MEC | REI. In the past I have also used a unisex down sleeping bag from MEC.
Women’s Hiking Gear: Sleeping Pads
Like sleeping bags, women’s specific sleeping pads are designed to fit women’s shorter bodies and keep them warm. Women’s specific sleeping pads come in shorter lengths than unisex pads and have more insulation through the torso and footbox. Self-inflating sleeping pads for women may also have more foam in the hip area to make it more comfortable for women with prominent hips to sleep on their sides.
There aren’t that many women’s specific sleeping pads on the market. Most unisex pads come in shorter lengths that would suit shorter women. As well, unisex pads often come in versions with higher R-value ratings to offer more warmth. In general, women are probably fine to just pick a unisex sleeping pad in a length that suits them as long as they choose a higher R-value pad. I recommend an R-value of at least 4 if you tend to sleep cold.
I recommend: I use the Therm-a-rest NeoAir Xtherm. It is a unisex pad but provides one of the best warmth to weight ratios on the market. (It has an R value of 5.7 and weighs just 430g!) I used to use a Therm-a-rest ProLite Plus women’s version, but the NeoAir is far superior. No contest: the NeoAir Xtherm is lighter, more compact, more comfortable and way warmer. Buy: MEC | REI.
Women’s Hiking Gear: Trekking Poles
Women’s specific trekking poles come in shorter lengths since women are generally shorter than men. As well, they have grips and straps that are better sized for women’s smaller hands.
I wouldn’t worry too much about buying women’s specific trekking poles unless you have very small hands. Unisex trekking poles are height adjustable so they will work for shorter users as well as tall ones. On average, women’s trekking poles have a maximum length that is about 15cm (6 in.) shorter than unisex poles. If you also use your trekking poles to construct a tarp shelter, this extra length can be nice to have.
I recommend: I have small hands so I use an older version of the women’s specific Black Diamond Trail poles. I find that I can get the straps to adjust small enough to actually fit my wrists and hands – unlike the ones on unisex poles that I’ve tried. Buy: MEC | REI.
The next time you hit up your local outdoor shop, keep these guidelines in mind when choosing women’s (or unisex!) hiking gear. Which women’s hiking gear do you own? Tell me if it was worth it in the comments.
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