State-of-the-art clothes and accoutrements that give unisex the boot.

May 2, 2004
Outside Magazine
Women Outside, Fall 1998

The Girl-Gear Revolution
State-of-the-art clothes and accoutrements that give unisex the boot.
By Gretchen Reynolds and Cristina Opdahl


GEAR: EQUIPMENT | Errata | Toys

With apologies to F. Scott Fitzgerald, men are different from you and me. They have higher basal metabolic rates, for one thing. And lower arches. And tragically exposed reproductive equipment. All of which must be acknowledged when creating high-performance outdoor gear for women. It's not enough merely to take, say, a climbing harness built for a man and make it smaller. Or pink. The best distaff gear designs involve extensive physiological studies of the female form, followed by field testing and several generations of refinements. It was only as the first tentative woman-specific products came to market (the running bra was introduced in 1977) that women began to realize they could expect — nay, demand — gear designed just for them. Mistakes have been made, of course: chest cups, for chrissakes? But the finest women's gear for 1998 and 1999 is smart, spectacularly engineered, competition-ready, and in its own muscular way, beautiful. None of it, you'll note, is pastel.

Trek Women's 6500

Geometry is destiny in mountain biking. Frame shape dramatically affects weight distribution, which in turn determines handling — i.e., whether descents end in shoulder separations. Balanced distribution is ideal. But on frames engineered for men — meaning most frames — a woman's seatbound weight centers behind the cranks, leaving the front wheel unweighted and squirrelly. The all-new 6500, bless its aluminum soul, addresses this with a notably steep seat tube (so the saddle can be moved forward over the cranks) and a shorter top tube, the better to achieve that mortality-defying Giove tuck. Available early 1999. $650. 800-369-8735.

Marmot Chambeau
Lowe Alpine Flash

Some designers of technical jackets seem to believe your typical woman is the freakish offspring of Gwyneth Paltrow and T. rex. Yes, women's arms are shorter than men's; their necks, longer. But that doesn't mean sleeves should end above your wrist or collars bunch under your chin. That's why the Chambeau and the Flash are a relief, with sleeves that extend enough to meet mittens and slim roll-over chin guards. Both shells have multiple ventilation zippers — because even the most swanlike of women sweats. Marmot, $400, 707-544-4590. Lowe Alpine, $325, 303-465-0522.

Salomon Axendo Series Lite

Big tushes, believe it or not, are a good thing for skiing. It's our physiology's gift for carving turns. (Low-riding mass, as anyone who has tipped a canoe can tell you, serves as perfect ballast.) But our blessing sits closer to the slopes and farther back than a man's center of gravity, which prompted the makers of good women's skis (case in point: the Axendo Series Lite) to inch the bindings toward the tips. And because our low mass weighs less, so does the Axendo, the better for lightning turns. $715. 800-225-6850.

Sierra Designs Georgia

Women, unwitting Madonnas all, hoard body heat in their midsections to protect babies. Such selflessness, while lovely in theory, means a girl's hands and feet just freeze. Happily, this condition isn't insuperable. A savvy woman-specific sleeping bag adds several ounces of extra insulation in the feet and shoulders (Sierra Designs) and/or is cut shorter and narrower than a man's bag but with the same amount of insulation (both of these bags). Regardless, mama and her digits are equally cosseted — justly so, considering how the poor woman gives and gives ... The North Face, $485, 800-447-2333. Sierra Designs, $220, 800-635-0461.

K2 Impulse

The cuff is flared, the skeleton soft, and the alignment pigeon-toed. So the Impulse is just plain fast. Designed for the advanced skater, the open-at-the-shin cut lets you crouch low enough to sniff the road but provides support when you're more upright. A cutout makes room for a woman's lower, more prominent calf muscles. As for that pigeon-toeing? It's a response to anatomy: Women's wider hips cause a slight inward tilt during stroke execution. $300. 800-972-4063.

Gregory Petit Dru Pro

The load of a backpack is distributed across hips, shoulders, and chest. Not to belabor the obvious, but these are also the points where the sexes most diverge. So Gregory, with an efficiency we applaud, replaced the shoulder harness and hipbelt on its excellent men's pack. No palming off a smaller, less sturdy bag as the woman's model. The narrower harness doesn't rub against prominent collarbones, while the hipbelt slants to accommodate curving hips. $420. 800-477-3420.

Speedo Aquablade Leg Suit

Further proof that skimpy bathing suits are the devil's own design: You swim faster in the Aquablade, which features more fabric and less skin. It was in this suit that Amy Van Dyken broke the 50-free world record in Atlanta, creating such demand for coverage that we expect the boys — who have tiny Speedo issues of their own — to snap up the male version when it debuts in Europe next year. $92. 800-577-3336.

Nike Air Imara

The first shoe in years to be built on a new women's last (the form around which a shoe is constructed). Women's lasts, of course, have been around since the '80s. But the geeky, hyperactive "footwear engineers" at Nike, dissatisfied with their aging female form, ventured back into the field to measure and cast hundreds of runners' insteps and arches. The resulting Imara has a narrower heel than most trainers — the better to cup one's foot during toe-off — and a slightly higher instep for increased stability. Available, we're pleased to say, only in blue and white. $70. 800-352-6453.

Smith Matrix Turbo C.A.M.

Hot-headedness may be a universal trait, but skull dimensions do differ. So when Smith created its new ski goggle with a fan attached, it downsized the strap from the men's version and slightly reduced the owlish dimensions of the goggles themselves. Flip the switch on the battery pack and the lenses magically clear of fog. $150. 800-459-4903.

Kokatat Women's Multisport Dry Suit

Created for Takako Takano, the only woman on Will Steger's 1995 arctic expedition, the ingenious drop-seat option solves the dilemma of answering nature's call while swaddled in nylon. Just reach around and tug at the 30-inch backside zipper, and you're ready to go. $522. 800-225-9749.

TYR Femme Sport

These fit so well that we've relaxed our formerly rigid boycott-anything-called-"femme" policy. Smaller and narrower than the men's counterpart, they hug a woman's head and accommodate closer-set eye sockets. They also have sufficient depth in the lens to allow for long eyelashes, which of course we femmes have been known to bat. $14. 800-252-7878.

Hot Chillys Shimmel

Essential for burning down double-black moguls Ç la Liz McIntyre. The wind- and water-repellent fleece Shimmel provides not only the now-familiar Ace-bandage-like support of any good sport bra, but also a modicum of extra warmth where it's especially welcome. $40. 800-468-2445.

Lotus Lola

Butterick dress patterns inspired a man to design this personal flotation device. A worthy model, for the Lola so assiduously addresses a big PFD problem: Things have changed since summer camp, and typical single-paneled PFDs don't account for cleavage. The Lola, with three front panels, suits the most buxom of paddlers. $84. 888-554-8155.

Terry Precision Liberator Pro

Rorschach rides again. We can't help but admit that the silhouette of the Liberator Pro reminds us of the old anatomy book sketch of the reproductive system. But the hole does away with the crotch-of-steel that conventional filled-in saddles require. The narrow profile is equally necessary. None of that offensive — and counterproductive — wide-load, mushy support here. (Which, by the way, reduces pedaling efficiency by positioning the rider too far back.) This saddle's beaklike profile promotes an optimal forward lean. $60. 800-289-8379.

Wild Country Wild Woman

As a rule, waists round into hips, unless you're Dr. Renee Richards. If the waistband of a harness doesn't similarly curve, it cuts. Hence the rather voluptuous contouring of the Wild Woman. Separate sizing for waistbelt and leg loops acknowledges climbing's thigh-muscle-enhancing effects. Perfect for women built like Olive Oyl above the hips and like Xena below. $70. 603-356-5590.

Vasque Cortina

Few memories are as searing as those that involve blackened toenails from 10 miles on the trail. The Cortina soothes the psyches of hikers who have been thus bruised. It's got an especially high arch and a skinny heel bed to keep feet firmly in place. No pulling up at the back (try not to think about the blisters you got when that happened) or slipping forward on descents, with disastrous consequences for one's forefeet. $205. 800-224-4453.

Mountain Hardwear Women's Gore WindStopper Pants

Particularly in pants, "unisex" usually translates to "fits folks named Mike." Most have excess fabric in the crotch and, after said excess forces you to a size small, not enough in the hips. Mountain Hardwear, under the stern direction of women's-wear pioneer Ingrid Harshbarger, reduced the frontal puffiness of its unisex fleece pants and widened them slightly in the seat. The result is a warm-weather layer that won't bunch in a harness or cling like flypaper. $185. 510-559-6700.

Avalanche SandersDesign 148

The old adage about shoe size and length correlating has never been more false. Just because a woman might be under 200 pounds with a size-less-than-11 shoe doesn't mean she wants to be consigned to a short snowboard. Expert riders, whatever their stature, covet carving power. The SandersDesign allows this with its extra-narrow waist; even a flyweight boarder can pull a dynamic edge. $420. 800-222-8820

Robert Earle Howells is the editor of the annual Outside Buyer's Guide.

Photographs by Clay Ellis

More at Outside

Elsewhere on the Web

Not Now

Need a Gear Fix?

Open email. Get latest gear. Repeat.

Thank you!