I stood on the porch of a backcountry cabin high in Colorado’s San Juan Mountains with 15 other women, all of us there for a lesson in pack fitting from Becky Marcelliano, the marketing manager of Deuter, an outdoor-bags company. The women gathered around Marcelliano were all part of the outdoor industry and there as part of a leadership summit organized by Project16x. We were adventure photographers and writers, business founders, and professional athletes. The collective miles we’d logged over the years was indisputably considerable.
Marcelliano explained design elements and how exactly a pack made to carry 10, 30, or even 50 to 60 pounds of weight should be distributed on a woman’s body.
This level of attention to women’s design wasn’t always the case. One of the first people to design women’s-specific packs was Wayne Gregory of Gregory Mountain Products. He started making prototypes with the input of his wife, Suzie, in the 1970s. Decades later, many brands are still working to improve their women’s designs, focusing on everything from the shape of a woman’s body to how she moves with a pack on. The goal? Maximum efficiency on the trail, allowing the wearer to hike longer and carry more weight comfortably. But while a women’s pack will fit many female body shapes, some women might be better off ignoring which gender is indicated on the label.
“Gender is just a way to normalize some patterns that we talk about,” says Rosie Mansfield, Osprey’s product-line manager, who I called after the summit. She explained that the women’s or men’s lines are really shortcuts that help people find the product most likely to fit their body, saving consumers time and energy.
Dave Polivy agrees. He owns Tahoe Mountain Sports in Truckee, California, and has been fitting packs on both men and women for over 16 years. “Women should always start with trying on a women’s-specific pack. If it doesn’t fit well, they should try on a men’s,” he says. “It depends on the shape of your body. Same with men—there might be some who are skinnier or shorter who might fit better into a women’s pack.”
Women’s packs aren’t simply a marketing ploy. Most on the market today have tailored the three ingredients of proper fit—hip belt, harness, and torso length—to best fit the proportions, ratios, and shapes that are often found on average female forms.
“It’s like if you were to try to tie a ribbon around a football. Women’s hips tend to be a little more curved, and the hip belt has to fit that,” says Mansfield. “We changed the shape of the hip belt for women’s-specific packs in order to fit more conical hips.”
Like many women, I have very curvy hips and a lower center of gravity. Because of this, I hike much more efficiently when the weight of my pack is centered mostly on my hips and lower back, rather than dumping onto my shoulders. According to Mansfield, because I use women’s-specific packs, my hip belts have been designed to work with this lower-body strength and fit my curves, contouring to my hips to evenly distribute the weight on the strongest point of my body while minimizing discomfort.
Over the years, I have heard many women hikers complain about bruising caused by their hip belts, even on women’s-specific packs. “Women tend to be more narrow in the shoulders and torso than men, and have a smaller amount of space between the neck and shoulder, so accounting for that while reducing chafing and friction is important,” says Polivy. “The challenge for designers is in using less material than they would in men’s packs [due to average size differences between men and women] but making sure the weight is still distributed correctly. The overall goal is maximum comfort over distance and hours.”
And while it matters more that you find a pack that feels good on your body regardless of whether the tag reads W or M, the specific design elements unique to women’s packs provide a better distribution of load for many female athletes. “I always tell people to be relentless about taking the time to figure [out fit],” says Mansfield. “Having a bag that fits, from the hip belt to the harness to the back panel, will allow you to carry weight a lot more efficiently. Not only is it about comfort, but in a backcountry situation, it can be about safety—being able to move efficiently without getting tired or unstable.”