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How to Choose a Women's Backpacking Backpack

Photo: Adam Paashaus
Tuesday November 5, 2019
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Searching for the right backpack online can be tough. How will it fit? Is it large enough, light enough, have the right type of pockets for me? All of these are essential questions. In this review, we focus on the critical components in an exceptional pack. We compared the top models on the market and figured out each packs' strengths and weaknesses in the following categories: comfort and suspension, weight, organizational systems, and adjustability.

Every model we tested is different; some creative designs like no other, and some slightly reimagined versions of each other. Some have adjustable features for maximum versatility, and some are created to fill a niche. We tested models that work best for fast and light backpacking and others that can haul a heavy load like it's nothing. If you like tons of pockets or you prefer a simple design, we tested both types and everything in between.

Backpacking Styles

No backpacking style is better than another, but there are packs that suit your style better than others. Starting the hunt for your pack by deciding on your style will help you hone in on the right pack for you. Consider if you'll be taking single overnights, weekends, or weeklong trips. If you're thru-hiking a long trail, considering the weight that you'll be hauling that whole way (this includes the pack itself) might be more important to you than if you plan to stick to shorter trips. Those who will haul gear for a group should focus more on comfort, padding, and capacity. Each is unique to personal style and geographical parameters.

If you're lugging extra food for the whole group, you'll appreciate...
If you're lugging extra food for the whole group, you'll appreciate that the 3.5 pound Renn can handle the load with it's strong and comfortable suspension.
Photo: Adam Paashaus


Some hikers prefer to stop and smell the roses; they move slow and steady and don't focus on covering a lot of distance. This style of backpacking is leisurely and typically allows plenty of time for photography, snack breaks, and rest time around camp. There is less concern for lightweight, compact gear, and this hiker can afford to carry an extra pound or two.

This specific style covers shorter distances per day and typically enjoys shorter length trips overall. Features that will be most important will be the pack's comfort with heavier loads, and capacity if you like to bring everything but the kitchen sink on your backpacking glamping rambles. A lower priority might be quick access pockets that allow you to get to your gear while still wearing the pack since breaks can be frequent and leisurely. It comes down to personal preferences on comfort and organization to choose the most suitable model.

The lightweight, yet fully-featured Maven is a good option for those...
The lightweight, yet fully-featured Maven is a good option for those who are carrying light gear but don't want to sacrifice pockets.
Photo: Adam Paashaus

Light and Fast

Light and fast style entirely opposes the slow and steady leisure hiker. These hikers are very concerned with weight and the ability to cover distances quickly. This hiker may sacrifice some luxuries in the name of carrying a lighter weight pack and less gear. Whether hiking 50 miles in 5 days or 2,000 miles in 5 months, this hiker pays the most attention to cutting down on weight and optimizing suspension to remain comfortable and unrestrained for going the distance. On-the-go pockets that allow this hiker to access gear and snacks without stopping are top priority so you can down a lot of calories without slowing down your pace. Thickly padded hip belts and shoulder straps can be eschewed in favor of trimming ounces. Lighter loads won't need the padding as they don't put as much pressure on the body.

The featherweight Osprey Lumina is an example of a pack that...
The featherweight Osprey Lumina is an example of a pack that minimizes features yet still retains the capacity and essentials for a fast and light style of travel.
Photo: Adam Paashaus


And then there are thru-hikers, who cover enormous distances over weeks to months, usually hiking continuously from the start to the finish of a particular trail. Similar to the light and fast style, the thru-hiker is typically very conscious of gear weight. This style requires more preparation and planning than a leisurely trip or even a weeklong trip. Thru-hikers tend to seek simplicity and durability with great suspension, as the packs will be used day in and day out for an extended period.

You might identify with one of these styles or even a combination but by defining your style and priorities, you can narrow your options down by size, weight, and organizational needs.

The Kyte is the perfect workhorse pack for those looking to go light...
The Kyte is the perfect workhorse pack for those looking to go light and fast for multiple days in the alpine.
Photo: Meg Atteberry

Seasons, Climate and Environment

Most backpackers find that the summer months offer prime backpacking conditions with extended daylight hours and warmer temperatures. For those backpackers extending their hiking season to three or four seasons, consider the features you will need to be comfortable. Determine the range of conditions you want to be outfitted to travel in and the different equipment needs of each season, from extra layers in the winter to pack breathability in the summer. The bulk of warmer sleeping bags and extra layers calls for a larger capacity pack than one used solely for mild weather travel.

Pack Capacity

A simple internet search will prove that the recommended capacity for different trips length varies greatly from one source to another. The reason for this is that personal style, budget, and in which decade the recommendation was created all impact how much space you need for your gear.

You will fill the space you have. Err on the smaller side when selecting a pack.

If you are carrying gear bought during the Reagan administration and are heading out for seven days in the Sierra in April your needs are going to vary significantly from the techy gearhead, putting in 30 mile days in 70-degree weather who can tell you how many grams her sawed-off toothbrush weighs.

Most folks are going to fall somewhere in-between these two extremes and a good starting point is around 45 liters for weekend trips, 60 liters if you want to be able to stay out for 4-5 days, and 70 liters for week-long expeditions. Use that as a loose starting point. Don't hesitate to take all your gear into your local outfitter and pack up a few packs to get a better idea of your needs.

Just because the pack has a large capacity doesn't mean the frame...
Just because the pack has a large capacity doesn't mean the frame has the capabitily to carry everything you can fit in there.
Photo: Adam Paashaus

Sizing and Fit

It's a common misconception that your pack size is related to your clothing size. The only determinant in pack size is the length of your torso, while hip belt and shoulder strap sizing will relate more closely to your clothing size.

The most important step in sizing is to measure your torso length. Any experienced pack fitter at an outdoor store can quickly measure you with a specialized ruler but it can also be done at home. Using a flexible measuring tape, measure the distance from your C7 vertebrae straight down to the height of your iliac crest. The C7 vertebra is the most prominent bone at the back of your neck. To locate it, tilt your head forward and feel around. Find the iliac crest by placing your hands on your hips at the top of your pelvis, with your fingers forward, and your thumbs wrapped backward. Imagine a line drawn between your thumbs; that's the iliac crest height you want to measure from. It's also where your backpack should rest. Your torso length will determine which size you order.

Sizing methods vary from brand to brand. Some models have an adjustable torso length and only come in a single size. Others are sized specifically based on torso length and may be offered in extra small, small, medium, or large. Our women's specific review notes the available sizes for each pack we reviewed.

The sliding torso adjustment is easy to change and stable due to...
The sliding torso adjustment is easy to change and stable due to being attached to the back on both sides rather than just in the center.
Photo: Adam Paashaus

The second step in sizing is to determine your hip belt size. The hip belt of your pack should wrap around the iliac crest. Check to see if you placed it correctly by standing with the hip belt on and lifting one leg to a 90-degree angle like you are marching. The hip belt shouldn't interfere with your thigh. Hip belt sizing is most important for packs that offer and interchangeable hip belts. Some models have an extendable hip belt with an extra slide-out section of the padded belt.

If considering an Osprey pack, Osprey has a comprehensive fit guide for their backpacks.

Once you select a size, it is essential to adjust it to your back while weighted.
  • Begin by loading the pack with 15 or so pounds.
  • Loosen all of the straps before putting the pack on.
  • Saddle up with the loosened straps and lean forward, so the pack is sitting on your back and not sliding down your butt.
  • Tighten the waist belt first; it should wrap around your iliac crest. A woman's pelvic girdle is where a majority of the weight load should fall. Tighten this hip belt enough to just support this weight.
  • Once the waist belt is resting properly on your hips, tighten the shoulder straps. The shoulder straps will ideally follow the natural curve of your shoulder from top to bottom. Tightening too much will cause the hip belt to lift off your hips.
  • Next, tighten the load lifter straps that connect the top of the shoulder strap to the top of the backpack. There should be two load lifter straps, one on either side. These should be tightened to a 45-degree angle, give or take. A common mistake is to tighten these too much causing the wearer to feel more pressure from the front of the shoulder straps.
  • Lastly, tighten the sternum/chest strap, which connects the two shoulder straps across your chest to keep it in place and to add to the stability of the weight load. This strap should be adjusted so that it doesn't rest too high towards the neck or too low across your bust. Armpit height or just above seems to be about right for most people. The sternum straps should pull the shoulder straps inward to relieve any chaffing on your inner arms. They should also shift the overall pack weight into your hips by reducing shoulder pressure.

When you get on the trail, you may find regularly adjusting the load lifter straps helps account for terrain changes and as your pack content weight changes. The load lifter straps move the backpack's bulk closer to your body to create stability or move the load away from your body to shift the weight load.

Only after you've nailed the adjustments, can you determine if a pack is a good fit. It should be comfortable under a load, with very little pressure on the shoulders and most of the weight on your hips. It should pad well with no chafing on the shoulders and hips, the length should match your torso well, and it should fit comfortably with no pain points. Once out on the trail for a day you are likely to experience some tenderness from even the best fit pack but you shouldn't feel this when just trying them on. Walk around when you size a pack. Take the stairs if possible. Do squats, lift your legs high, walk with trekking poles, do anything that will give you a feel for how the pack moves over uneven terrain.

Sizing and fitting a pack if you are new to backpacking can be confusing and the wrong measurements or placement of straps can lead to an uncomfortable or downright painful trip. If it's your first pack, a professional fit can go a long way to teach you how to feel for the right fit. Outdoor retailers are an excellent resource to assist you in sizing and fitting.

On certain shaped hips, belts can curve up and put pressure on the...
On certain shaped hips, belts can curve up and put pressure on the belly. If you can, take it for a spin before you commit.
Photo: Adam Paashaus

Women's Specific Features

Most, but not all, women will prefer a pack designed specifically for women. The key difference between a men's model, a unisex model, and a women's model is how the pack fits differently shaped bodies.

Women's models often have shorter torso lengths available, narrower shoulder widths, and waist belts designed for the angle of women's hips. Every single body is different, and these specific features are not intended to suit all women. Some women may find that a men's or unisex model fits better and men with narrower shoulders will sometimes find a women's model to suit their needs better than a men's model.

Compare the S-curve shoulder strap (left) to the J-curve (right).
Compare the S-curve shoulder strap (left) to the J-curve (right).
Photo: Adam Paashaus

Our female testers find that women's specific packs work well for them. The curve on the shoulder strap is sharper than for men, allowing the strap to wrap around smaller shoulders without sacrificing padding or restricting movement. The curved shoulder straps are adequately proportioned so that they don't dig into your neck or inner arms. The curve and angle of the waist belts accommodate curvier hips so that the backpack rests comfortably. The benefit of buying a women's specific model is a fit that is shaped for your anatomy.

As discussed throughout our review, comfort is key! When setting out on any length adventure, whether 2 or 25 days in the backcountry, it is essential to find a supportive, well-fit pack that you will love all day long.

Suspension Designs and Support

A backpack's suspension relates directly to its fit and comfort. Most modern backpacks have internal frames, which utilize a lightweight metal such as alloy within the fabric. Our review includes many varieties of internal frame designs that can be better suited for different body types and travel styles.

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One style has a flexible mesh back panel that moves with the body. It offers incredible ventilation and repositions the weight a little further from the back.

Another is a foam padded back frame. This suspension design is very comfortable but tends to offer less ventilation. Many models have arched the foam to oppose the natural curve of the back, which then allows airflow. This design typically contacts the back at the shoulder blades and the lower back, while many designs make contact with most or all of the hiker's back.

The third (not pictured here), and least common, is a hinging system that moves with the hips while stabilizing the shoulder straps. This technical design is unique and is built to move with you.

The preference for one suspension design over another depends on fit and comfort, as well as geographical use. If your trips tend to center around warmer weather, a mesh back panel will provide optimal ventilation. However, if you will be wearing it in colder climates, the foam padding may be preferred for added warmth while still offering breathability, and if you are seeking a stabilized, moving system, the hinging suspension designs are technical and unique.

Your pack should be supportive of your weight load. The majority of the weight should rest on your hips, and a comfortable, correctly fitting waist belt is essential. The padding should be sufficient to avoid chaffing and allow for a pleasant trek. There is a range of waist belt designs from interchangeable to extendable to heat moldable, and comfort varies between each model.

An interchangeable design may be offered to ensure proper fit. Typically waist belts are adjustable enough that you will not have to change out the waist belt, but for women with waists on the very small or larger end of the spectrum, an interchangeable waist belt may be best.

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Click to enlarge
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Models with an extendable section of padded waist belt offer versatility to more body types. This feature adds significant comfort over just lengthening the webbing for women with wider hips.

The heat-moldable waist belts are specific to Osprey and can be molded by an Osprey oven to customize the shape of the padding. This company offers a specified fit that no other design can provide, although it cannot be self-adjusted.

Many women fall in between sizes in packs or just aren't yet sure which one is the right size. If this is you, a model with a few inches of adjustment in the torso length will offer a more precise fit and some wiggle room as you learn how to determine the right sizing. If you are still growing or plan to share the pack with others, a "one size fits all" model with 5 or more inches of torso length adjustment might be the ticket. As with most OSFA items, women on the largest or smallest ends of the spectrum will find these to be less comfortable. Some packs don't offer any adjustability on the torso length. These tend to be the budget models or the ultralight models that sacrifice adjustability for weight savings. Typically the best fit can be had with a pack purchased for your torso length that has a few inches of adjustment to fine-tune your fit.

Other Features and Details

There are some features offered on packs that might not be the main reason you pick that model but if you find more than one pack to be just right for you, these small details might help you make your final selection.

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Click to enlarge
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The standard array of pockets tends to be a main compartment, two side pockets for water bottles, a top lid pocket, and a back pocket. Hip belt pockets are very common but vary greatly in size. If you want your phone handy for photos or navigation, make sure it will fit in the hip belt pocket. A pocket that our testers either loved or hated depending on size and accessibility was the back pocket. Large, easy to stuff versions are a great place to shed layers during the day while tight, zippered designs tended to be more work than we wanted to get gear in and out. There are models we tested that offer more than 9 different pockets to organize and store gear and some that only have a few. Take a moment to think about your needs and wants when it comes to pockets; sometimes less is more. Also, consider stuff sacks as a suitable option for organizing gear.

Thirsty? The Circuit offers a variety of ways to carry all the...
Thirsty? The Circuit offers a variety of ways to carry all the hydration you could need. This strap holster proves to be convenient and non-obtrusive.
Photo: Adam Paashaus

Hydration Compatibility

Nowadays, it is rare to find a backpacking pack that isn't compatible with hydration reservoirs. Most offer an interior sleeve and a port for the drinking tube to exit the pack. Some will have large sleeves while others can only accommodate hydration reservoirs up to a two-liter capacity. Most packs have side pockets designed for water bottles that can accommodate one to two bottles in each.

Osprey's "stow-on-the-go" pole straps give you a place to stash your...
Osprey's "stow-on-the-go" pole straps give you a place to stash your poles quickly and without taking off your pack.
Photo: Adam Paashaus

Rain Cover

Think it might rain one day? As much as we would like them to be, most packs are not waterproof. You'll need a rain cover or dry bags to keep your gear from getting soaked. Rain covers can be purchased separately and a few packs even come with them included. These cover your pack so all of your gear remains dry in all but the wettest conditions like paddling trips.

Now go test some packs, make your selection, and get out there!
Now go test some packs, make your selection, and get out there!
Photo: Adam Paashaus

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