Looking at Dana Gleason, you wouldn’t peg him for a builder of svelte women’s backpacks. Tall, broad, and bearded, he’s easily three times my mass, but like me, he occupies the underserved ends of the sizing spectrum. I’m little; he’s XXL. So back in 1985, when he founded Dana Designs, Gleason developed novel ways to make packs fit a broad range of sizes. Now, as owner and designer at Mystery Ranch, a backpack brand headquartered in Bozeman, Montana, he continues to optimize his products for envelope-pushing outdoorswomen and -men.
Take the Marshall ($595), which doesn’t just offer a way to carry a bow or rifle, it also lets hunters haul out their kill by storing meat between the pack bag and frame. It’s the kind of pack most companies would produce in men’s medium and large sizes only, arguing that there aren’t enough small-bodied buyers to justify making an expanded size range. But Mystery Ranch makes the Marshall in S and XS sizes, and women have the option of swapping out the standard hip and shoulder straps for custom ones on any of the sizes.
Gleason’s women’s-fit legacy began in 1987, when he introduced the Terraplane ArcFlex. It would be another five years before another pack company would offer a true women's specific backpack. (Osprey did so with its Isis.) The Terraplane ArcFlex was the first backpack to ever use a polyethylene plastic framesheet, and the first to offer customizations that improved fit and comfort for women. Offered in fives sizes, from XS to XL, it could be fitted with skinnier shoulder straps and a narrower neck opening that suited many women better than straps intended for broad-shouldered guys. Gleason also pioneered the angled hip belt that’s since become the norm among women’s packs.
“We do much more than that now,” says Gleason. Today, his packs (such as the new Mystic, $299) feature a patented Lumbar Wrap system that adapts to the variety of women’s hip shapes and sizes. “Most companies simply change the profile of their men’s belts by adding a little more cup or angle to suggest they're adapting to a women’s hips,” says Gleason. But his designs for women integrate structure into the sides to let the hips carry some of the load, rather than just the lower back. His belts also ride lower across the front, so they don’t dig into stomach tissue. “It’s not just a continuous waist belt,” he explains. “It features structure points where you can pivot to custom fits for different shapes.”
That comfort boost is critical for women who carry crushingly heavy loads. Whereas a day-hiker can tolerate sloppy-pack fit when they’re carrying 15 pounds, people toting 80 to 120 pounds discover that fit imperfections create major problems: hips rubbed raw, aching necks and shoulders.
“We’re building for people that use their gear hard,” says Gleason. “We fit women with the same equipment we’re building for men."
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