How To Choose the Right Women’s Gear

Today’s outdoor gear specifications for women can improve comfort, performance, and even safety.

There was a time when outdoor gear manufacturers made products for women by taking men’s products—a backpack, for instance—and simply making it smaller (“shrink it”) and designing it with what they considered feminine colors (“pink it”). 

Thankfully, advancements in the industry—and female product designers both leading and within manufacturer ranks—have meaningfully improved women’s-specific offerings. Outdoor gear is now designed and constructed to be truly for (and often by) women, from apparel to skis, and running shoes to sleeping bags. Engineers and designers conduct studies about how women run (different gait), sleep (colder than men), hike (lower center of gravity), plus ski, ride, and climb (generally, with smaller, lighter bodies), not to mention sweat (different sweat zones). A new era of women’s gear addresses those differences between genders with interesting features. While not all women’s-specific gear works for all women better than the men’s versions for various reasons (read on), the progress in gender-specific design and development is clear.

Here are the top technological advancements in women’s-specific gear to consider when outfitting your next adventure.

Running, Hiking, and Rock Climbing Shoes

The majority of outdoor footwear marketed for women has the same features as the men’s models. But shoes with a true woman’s fit are built around a women’s-specific “last”—a foot mold based on a true woman’s foot. Shoes with women’s lasts tend to run narrower, especially in the heel, to minimize slippage by holding women’s narrower heels securely. And shoes built on a women’s last tend to have less volume overall, better catering to a more slender foot.

Some women’s-specific running shoes address more gender differences than just fit. Women have a different gait (i.e., running stride) than men. Women’s hips are also generally wider than men’s (genetically, to allow for birthing children), as is what’s called the “Q angle,” which relates the angle between the patella and two measurements in/near the hips. Shoe shapes sometimes account for the Q angle differences by adding slight pronation control in various forms to women’s shoes (larger hip width and Q angle means greater instances of pronation, where feet roll inward).

When shopping for outdoor footwear of any sort, keep an eye out for product information that reads “built on a women’s-specific last.” If you have wider feet, however, you may do just fine in men’s or gender-neutral footwear.


Speaking of Q angles, the late 1990s saw snowshoe brands begin designing women’s-specific models with frames that were shaped to allow women to hike or walk in snowshoes without kicking their opposite leg’s ankle bones. (If you’ve ever done this, you know how badly it hurts.) Many of today’s models are shaped to account for the stride differences.

Women’s-specific snowshoes also tend to feature bindings designed to accommodate smaller footwear than the men’s models. If you have large feet, or wear large, insulated boots for snowshoeing, you’ll likely be fine in bindings meant for men’s shoes—you just won’t get snowshoe frames shaped for women’s hips.

Sleeping Bags

Brands have worked over the past few decades to provide plenty of options in truly women’s-specific sleeping bags. Factoring that women (generally) sleep colder than men, especially in foot and core areas, women’s bags feature more insulation around those areas. The bags are cut differently as well; they’re shorter and narrower, tapering toward the feet more drastically and intended to fit more snugly—and therefore, to provide more warmth. That said, taller or larger women may have better luck purchasing a men’s sleeping bag—just know you won’t get the added insulation around the feet and midsection.    


Women’s-specific backpacks have been available for purchase since the 1970s and have only gotten better—and more gender-specific—over time. Differences are mostly about fit. Women’s backpacks tend to have shorter torso lengths, for one. Some feature wider, more padded, and uniquely contoured waist belts. Sternum straps on packs for both men and women should be vertically adjustable, but women will want to test the placement of these straps across the chest. Shoulder harnesses in both men’s and women’s packs are also adjustable, but some women’s-specific packs have contoured shoulder straps that fit narrower than those found on men’s/unisex packs due to women’s (generally) narrower shoulders.

Women also tend to have lower centers of gravity than men, and some gender-specific packs are designed accordingly, to carry the majority of the load lower on the body. These packs distribute weight around the hips more than throughout the torso or onto the shoulders.

Women should start by trying on women’s-specific packs but should also try on unisex packs. Some women—especially those with particularly broad shoulders and narrow hips—may find a unisex pack to provide better fit, depending on body shape and preferences.


Everything from tights to tank tops, apparel is arguably the most important category of outdoor gear to fit correctly. Improper fit leads to discomfort often due to restricted mobility and chafing…no fun. Women’s apparel is shaped, cut, and sewn for women’s bodies. Men’s items tend to be boxier, and just larger overall.

Other gender-specific apparel features include fabrications that take body mapping into account. Women’s heat and sweat zones, in particular, factor into items like running tops where body-mapped information is applied. Since women tend to sweat beneath the breasts and at the low back, running tops for women may feature mesh paneling or looser knit in those areas to allow for breathability. (Meanwhile, a comparable men’s product might have those breathable fabrications beneath the underarms and at the mid- or upper back.)

Skis and Snowboards

Lighter weight with more flexibility, skis and snowboards made specifically for women allow smaller, lighter riders to exert less energy to control their boards (two planks or one). They also tend to have deeper sidecuts, which makes them easier to turn. Some women’s skis and snowboards even have a different shape to them, tapering more toward the front of the ski/board for ease of turning under less weight.

All that said, not all women will benefit from women’s-specific skis or boards. Preferences depend on everything from height, weight and riding style, to subjective feel. Talk to a knowledgeable sales rep, and try to rent or demo skis or boards before buying.

Climbing Gear

From ponytail openings on climbing helmets (also found on certain running hats and beanies) to climbing harnesses with waist belts placed to fit a women’s body, there’s a whole host of women’s-specific climbing gear to consider.

Since harness fit can also impact safety, it’s worth shopping for a women’s-specific harness. And since climbing shoes are meant to fit tightly to allow precise foot placement and control, models built on women’s lasts (see footwear section above) have a larger impact on functionality.

Whatever outdoor gear or apparel you may be shopping for, it’s worth trying on the women’s-specific product first to see if it fits, feels good, and functions for your specific body and needs before defaulting to the unisex product. You just may find that the tailored features make your sport that much more enjoyable.

All articles are for general informational purposes.  Each individual’s needs, preferences, goals and abilities may vary.  Be sure to obtain all appropriate training, expert supervision and/or medical advice before engaging in strenuous or potentially hazardous activity.