Women-specific gear: What’s the difference, and do you need it?

On my first backpacking trip, I used a rented backpack, a massively unwieldy sleeping bag, and a sleeping pad better suited for a guest room. My pack must have weighed over 50 pounds. 

In the years that followed, I have gained hands-on knowledge with almost every gear category, and I have bought and replaced a lot of gear. Trust me — you should see my garage.

A large number of outdoor gear categories are truly one-size-fits-all. Tents, stoves and cookware, food storage solutions, and navigation equipment are among the many gender-neutral product categories. The right choice is a straightforward selection by weight, function, and personal preference. 

Things become more complicated with gender-specific products, however. I’ve found that some women-specific items are fantastic, but I’ve abandoned others for unisex or men’s styles. The “women-specific” label is no guarantee that these items were made with my specific needs in mind.

Let me help you navigate the intimidating topic of women’s specific outdoor gear. 

Women-Specific Gear

The outdoor industry has thankfully moved past the simple accommodations of “shrink it and pink it.” Progress has been made towards true women-specific designs, and the assumption that women are just tiny men has been discarded.

Modern women-specific designs are commonly created for:

  • Shorter heights
  • Lighter weights
  • Smaller shoulders
  • Wider hips
  • Narrower feet

Is this you? Fantastic! Women-specific gear may be exactly what you’re looking for. 

But women come in all shapes, heights, and sizes. The gear that works for my curvy 5’2″ frame may be all wrong for a frequent 6’3″ hiking companion. It’s important to select the gear that fits you, your body, and your needs. 

Tops – Jackets & Shirts

Many women-specific jackets and shirts are built to accommodate our unique shape. This may include varying amounts of consideration for chest sizes, narrower shoulders, and shorter torso lengths. It is important to research each manufacturer to determine the ‘typical’ body shape for which they are designing.

I rely on a collection of both men’s and women’s styles. I count on men’s styles for more generous cuts meant to fit over multiple layers, longer hem coverage, and longer sleeve lengths. I choose women-specific cuts for low-profile base and mid-layers. These are commonly mixed-and-matched in my closet to create the right stackable system for specific adventure needs.

Footwear

Selecting the right shoes starts with a solid understanding of the anatomy of your unique foot shape. The right category depends on which attributes fit you best.

Women-Specific 

  • Lower Overall Volume
  • Higher Arches
  • Narrower Heels 

Men’s / Unisex 

  • Wider Feet
  • Larger Sizes 
  • Specific Technical Requirements

Do not despair if you find yourself limited to a men’s or unisex shoe model. This may be unavoidable if you are searching for highly technical or specialized footwear. I have put in countless miles in men’s boots with SuperFeet insoles and/or thicker socks to fill the extra volume that my narrower feet and heels do not need. 

women backpacking with outdoor gear in foggy meadow

Backpacks

There are several key differences in the design of women-specific backpacks. These most commonly include:

  • Narrower Flared Shoulder Straps
  • Shorter Torso Lengths
  • Exaggerated Lumbar Support
  • Downward Canted Hip Belts

If you are built like me this could be a dream come true. But this could be bad news if you are taller, have narrower hips, or a less exaggerated lumbar curve. 

Most women-specific backpacks also top out at 70 or 80-liters in capacity. So it’s common for women to be forced to select a unisex backpack for larger expedition-style adventures. If this is you, seek out manufacturers that offer a women-specific interchangeable hipbelt option.

Sleeping Bags

Women-specific sleeping bags are created with a colder sleeper in mind. It is assumed that women need additional insulation for a warm and comfortable night of sleep. 

Some common differences of women-specific sleeping bags include:

  • Flared Hip Area
  • Increased Overall Insulation
  • Additional Insulation in the Footbox

The downside? All of this additional insulation results in a heavier or bulkier sleeping bag in your backpack. 

Do you need that extra insulation built into your sleeping bag? That’s hard to say — some women sleep colder than others. Personally, I carry a lighter unisex bag and supplement its warmth with down booties and an insulated jacket.

Sleeping Pads

Many outdoor brands are now offering women-specific sleeping pads. These commonly include additional insulation — measured as R-Value — designed with the needs of a colder sleeper in mind. 

Depending on the manufacturer, this additional insulation may also result in a shorter, narrower, heavier, or more expensive sleeping pad — and sometimes all four! It’s important to carefully read the technical specifications on sleeping pad models before making your selection.

I recommend prioritizing your R-Value insulation needs as your top sleeping pad selection criteria. For women, this is typically a minimum R-Value of 3.0 in the summer and an R-Value of 4.5 in the winter.  Then assess how long, wide, or thick you want your sleeping pad to be for a comfortable night’s sleep. I personally rely exclusively on unisex sleeping pads.

Trekking Poles

Women-specific trekking poles are also commonly different from unisex models in the following attributes:

  • Shorter Lengths
  • Smaller Grips

You may be interested in a women’s specific model trekking pole if you are petite or have smaller hands. I recommend trying before you buy to make sure the grips feel comfortable for your unique hand shape. 

women's outdoor gear in winter
Photo: Teresa Hagerty

My System

My typical backcountry system mixes-and-matches women-specific, men’s, and unisex outdoor gear. This breaks down as follows:

Three-Season Adventures

  • Tops: Women-Specific Base Layers
  • Jackets: Women-Specific Mid-Layers, Insulation, and Shell Jackets
  • Boots: Women-Specific Low Top Hiker
  • Backpack: Women-Specific 53 Liter Backpack
  • Sleeping Bag: Unisex 20 Degree Quilt
  • Sleeping Pad: Unisex R-Value 3.2 Sleeping Pad

Winter Season Adventures 

  • Tops: Women-Specific Base Layers
  • Jackets: Women-Specific Mid-Layers / Shell Jackets & Men’s Parka
  • Boots: Men’s / Unisex Insulated Boot
  • Backpack: Women-Specific 60 Liter Backpack
  • Sleeping Bag: Unisex 0 Degree Quilt
  • Sleeping Pad: Unisex R-Value 4.5 Sleeping Pad

The right gear for you is ultimately the gear that works, fits, and makes you feel like the empowered outdoor adventurer you are. Select your gear with care, focus on fit and function as your first priorities, and your gear will take care of you on all of your future adventurers

Posted in on May 13, 2020
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2 Comments

  1. Allie on May 14, 2020 at 10:33 am

    When I first tried on my first backpack made for women it was like I saw the light! It fit so slim and snug to my back, waist and chest. I felt more confident on trail since the pack didn’t feel like I was carrying excess around my curves. Thus sometimes making me feel a little unbalanced.

    Gear is personal but I always suggest to women to try women’s, men’s and unisex gear, you never know what will work for ya.

    ~Allie

  2. geo_jax on May 15, 2020 at 4:46 pm

    I have a women’s 15 synthetic sleeping bag and a unisex 0 down bag. Don’t notice much of a fit difference!

    One thing I was recently looking for was a technical lightweight hat for the trail. I was searching women’s hats, and the men’s has a much larger section! I definitely recommend going men’s for hats as there is a wider range of technical fabrics and styles.

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