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How to Choose a Women's Backpacking Backpack

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.

Each model we tested is different; some innovative designs like no other, and some slightly reimagined versions of each other. Some have designs created for versatility and some are intended for specific uses. Some are best for backpacking or traveling; some are ultralightweight, some carry heavy loads better than others; some have tons of pockets and others are simple. Consider the length of your typical trip, the size of your average load, and the environments you will be in to hone in on the right pack for you.

Backpacking Styles


There's a wide range of backpacking styles. By deciding which you prefer, you will narrow your choices toward backpacks that suit your needs. Consider whether you like to go short or long-distance trip and whether you prefer 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. Each is unique to personal style and geographical parameters.

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.
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.

Leisure


Some hikers prefer to 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, breaks, and rest time around camp. This hiker goes out for any length of time, from an overnight trip on the Appalachian Trail to a week-long amble through the Wind River Range. There is less concern for lightweight, compact gear, and this hiker can afford to carry an extra pound or two in both time and energy.

This specific style covers shorter distances per day and typically enjoys shorter length trips overall. This style of backpacking may be much more open to different backpack designs and features. Most women's packs are suitable for this style of travel. 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. Less important 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 who are carrying light gear but don't want to sacrifice pockets.
The lightweight, yet fully-featured Maven is a good option for those who are carrying light gear but don't want to sacrifice pockets.

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. Pockets that allow this hiker to access gear and snacks without stopping are top priority for putting down the calories without slowing down the pace.

The Blaze 60 has straps all around the pack for fitting bulkier items. Some of these straps are removable for easy customization.
The Blaze 60 has straps all around the pack for fitting bulkier items. Some of these straps are removable for easy customization.

Thru-Hike


And then there are thru-hikers, who backpack long distances over an extended period, typically from the start to the end of a particular trail, like the Appalachian Trail or the Pacific Crest 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 put to the test for an extended period.

You may find yourself seeking a fusion of one or many of these backpacking styles. By determining your style(s), 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 and fast for multiple days in the alpine.
The Kyte is the perfect workhorse pack for those looking to go light and fast for multiple days in the alpine.

Seasons, Climate and Environment


Most backpackers find that the summer months offer prime backpacking conditions with extended daylight hours, stable weather, and warmer temperatures. For those backpackers extending their hiking season to three or four seasons, consider the features you will need to be comfortable. Even in summer, it can snow at high altitude. Determine the range of conditions you will be backpacking in and the different needs of each season, from extra layers in the winter to less food 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.

Also, consider the landscape and climate when determining your backpacking style. If you are planning to hike in warmer regions, a proper airflow design is critical. If you are planning to walk in colder areas, airflow is still necessary, but it's not as big of an issue to have a pack that rests directly on your back, which can also provide a degree of insulation.

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 20 mile days who can tell you how many grams her sawed-off toothbrush weighs.

If you fall smack in the middle of those two styles, 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. If you're unsure, you can always take all your gear into your local outfitter and pack up a few packs to get a better idea of your needs.

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. Using a flexible measuring tape, measure the distance from your C7 vertebrae to your iliac crest. The C7 vertebra is the most prominent bone at the back of your neck. To locate it, tilt your head forward. 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. If you were to draw a line between your thumbs, across your back, that is your iliac crest. It's also where your backpack should rest. Your torso length will determine which size you order.

Manufacturers' sizing methods vary. Some models come in a single size with an adjustable torso length. 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 second step in sizing is to determine your hip belt size. Your hip belt should wrap around the iliac crest. A good way to check if you have it in the right place is to stand with the hip belt on and lift 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 expandable hip belt which extends the length of the padding with a simple adjustment.

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 to 30 pounds.
  • Put it on and loosen all of the straps to begin the size and fit assessment.
  • Put the pack on with loose 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, so having an accurate fit on the waist belt is very important.
  • 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. Tightening too much will cause you 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 on your neck or too low across your chest. Armpit height 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 should regularly adjust the load lifter straps to 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.

Once you've nailed the adjustments, you can determine whether 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 regards to the waist belt, shoulder straps, load lifters, and sternum/chest strap. Walk around when you size a pack. Take the stairs if possible. Do squats, lift your legs high, 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 could go along way to teach you what to watch for and to assure the pack's comfort and functionality. Outdoor retailers are an excellent resource to assist you in sizing and fitting.

Women's Specific Features


While there are many options for backpacking packs, most women will prefer a women's specific design. The key differences between a men's model, a unisex model, and a women's model are the fit.

Most packs come in a range of sizes, colors, and features, but fitting is specific to the intended gender. Women's particular models have shorter torso lengths available, narrower shoulder widths, and waist belts designed for 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.

Compare the S-curve shoulder strap (left) to the J-curve (right).
Compare the S-curve shoulder strap (left) to the J-curve (right).

Our female testers find that women's specific packs work well for them. The curved shoulder straps are adequately proportioned so that they don't dig into your neck or inner arms. The waist belts accommodate more full hips so that the backpack rests comfortably. The benefit of buying a women's specific model is a fit that is specific to your anatomy.

As discussed throughout our review, comfort is key! When setting out on a 2, 5, or 10+ day adventure in the backcountry, it is essential to find support under a loaded backpack. By choosing a women's specific version, you will find a size and fit that lends to the comfortable enjoyment of backpacking.

Suspension Designs and Support


A backpack's suspension relates directly to its fit and comfort. Most backpacks have internal frames, which utilize a lightweight metal such as alloy within the fabric. There are unique suspension designs in our women's backpack review.

This light and airy looking suspension packs some serious weight in the hip belt but does offer a very easy to use  sliding torso adjustment for quick fit changes.
In the case of the Circuit  an uncomplicated design proves to be one of the most comfortable and easy to use. You won't get a breeze to mitigate your backsweat but you might just be willing to compromise that when your back  shoulders  and hips are all feeling fresh after a full day of rough trails and a loaded pack.

One style has a flexible mesh back panel that moves with the body. It offers incredible ventilation and repositions the weight of the backpack so that pressure comes off 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 you intend to use a pack in a warmer climate, a mesh back panel is best for 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.


An extendable waist belt offers the ability to widen a waist belt using an easy to use Velcro system. This feature is excellent for those who plan to change body size or want to be able to adjust the length of the padded section rather than just the webbing.

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.

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.
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.

An adjustable torso length can be a handy feature if you find that you fall in between sizes. Some models will come sized with no adjustability. These tend to be either budget models or ultralight models looking to shave weight wherever they can. Others will be available sized but with a few inches of adjustment and some are a "one size fits all" style with a wider range of torso length options. As with most OSFA items, women on the largest or smallest ends of the spectrum will find these to be less comfortable. 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


Other features might not be as critical to the functionality of a backpack, but they can be conveniences or luxuries for more enjoyment.

A long  wrap-around zipper means that not only is the lid spacious  but it's also easy to get into and find your gear.
Yes  a smartphone fits  but what's really important is how much candy will share the space. The answer? A whole bag of Swedish Fish.

Pockets


Pockets vary greatly. Some models have many pockets for organizing gear; others offer only a single compartment. Some pockets are underneath a zipper, and some pockets are of stretch fabric that does not close. Take a moment to think about your needs and wants when it comes to pockets. Also, consider stuff sacks as a suitable option for organizing gear.

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.
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.

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.

Gear Loops


If you hike with trekking poles, plan to use your bag for climbing trips, or like to attach gear to the exterior, consider seeking gear loops that are complementary to your needs. Some manufacturers also offer components that can be attached aftermarket.

The Aura has trekking pole attachment loops on the main body of the backpack and adjoining on the shoulder strap.
The Aura has trekking pole attachment loops on the main body of the backpack and adjoining on the shoulder strap.

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.


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