Women’s Gear

April 29, 2009

In 1955, Emma “Grandma” Gatewood became the first woman to thru-hike the Appalachian Trail. She was 67 years old and walked the entire route in a pair of Keds sneakers, carrying only an army blanket, a change of clothes, and a shower curtain for shelter. Her pack was a strapless handmade denim sack toted atop her shoulder. She went on to walk the AT twice more, in 1960 and 1963, and remains the oldest woman (75) to have completed the entire trail. When asked what inspired her, she replied: “I thought it would be a nice lark. It wasn’t.”

Perhaps her gear wasn’t designed with a woman in mind. Today’s female hikers not only enjoy significant upgrades from army blankets and shower curtains, they can also choose equipment specifically designed for their body types. Gear manufacturers are producing an ever-wider array of women-specific equipment, from backpacks to snowshoes, sleeping bags to socks. According to the Outdoor Industry Association, women’s products represent one of the market’s fastest growing segments. Sales of women-specific gear and apparel increased more than 31 percent between 2005 and 2007, nearly double that of the industry as a whole. But what exactly are the differences between men’s and women’s gear anyway?

The average height of an American adult woman is 5’4″. For men, it’s between 5’9″ and 5’10”.

FROM THE TOP Gear manufacturers design products based on some common assumptions about the average female form. Let’s begin at the top. Compared to men, women tend to have narrower shoulders, shorter torsos, shorter arms, curvier hips, and more substantial breasts. These differences are readily apparent in women’s backpacks. Shoulder straps are positioned closer together, torso lengths are less, the waistbelt is cut more conically to better match female hips, and the shoulder straps are S-shaped to curve around rather than squash the breasts. These dimensions are reflected in other gear as well. On women’s bikes, the distance between the seat and handlebars is proportionately less than on a men’s bike to account for differences in torso length. In apparel, a women’s top will feature narrower shoulders, shorter sleeves, and a more flared hipline.  

IN THE MIDDLE Perhaps the most significant variation between men and women is in the pelvis. Due largely to the physical requirements of childbirth, women have wider pelvises and hips than men. (A woman’s hips are almost always broader than her shoulders; on men the opposite is true.) For this reason, women’s sleeping bags are designed to be roomier around the hips. Women also tend to have longer rises, the distance between the crotch and waist. This is reflected in climbing harnesses; the leg loops are farther away from the waistbelt on women’s versions than men’s. The difference in pelvis width also affects the legs and lower body. Femurs attach farther from the midline on women, resulting in a narrower stride and toes that point more outward; women’s snowshoes feature more tapered tails to avoid any overlap caused by this difference.

AT THE ENDS Ever notice that women’s index fingers are often as long or longer than their ring fingers? And that the opposite is true for men? Women also tend to have longer, narrower fingers in relation to their palm size, all of which is reflected in women’s glove designs. The female foot is narrower as well, especially in the heel. Women’s shoes have long been cut differently than men’s. Now socks have followed suit, cut narrower to better fit a woman’s foot without bunching. A woman’s ankle, however, has a proportionately larger circumference than a man’s due to a lower attachment of the calf muscle. This is particularly apparent in footwear with high ankle collars. The upper portion is often way too tight for women; ski boots are a classic example. You also see this addressed in gaiter design; women’s gaiters tend to be wider around the ankle and lower calf than men’s.

BUT OVERALL… When averaged across the entire population, physical differences between the two sexes are apparent. But keep in mind that there is at least as much individual variation within each sex as between them on the whole. Don’t get sucked in by the marketing hype. Always buy the gear that best fits your body type, regardless of whom it’s designed for.

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Matt Heid

Equipped blogger Matt Heid is AMC's gear guru: He loves gear and he loves using it in the field. While researching several guidebooks, including AMC's Best Backpacking in New England, he has hiked thousands of miles across New England, California, and Alaska, among other wilderness destinations. He also cycles, climbs, and surfs.