• Outdoor industry finally eyeing women
     | September 17,2006

    BELLINGHAM, Wash. — Most women wouldn't shop for their underwear or jeans in the men's department because their shapes and tastes tend to be different from men's.

    For the outdoorswoman, those differences can be magnified, especially when she's carrying 40-plus pounds of gear on her back for a week in the backcountry.

    Gear manufacturers have caught on that women who are active carry their own weight, and they're giving them options to be as comfortable as their male counterparts.

    Vivienne Blythe, a 55-year-old REI sales associate, specializes in camping and climbing gear. The veteran hiker and climber carried unisex packs for years.

    When women's packs first emerged, they were just smaller with a shorter torso than the male version.

    "There was a feeling that women can't do it ... they're only carrying a small amount of weight," Blythe says. "I carry my share of the gear. We're supposed to be the weaker sex? Well, that doesn't fly."

    Newer women's gear better accounts for the differences between men and women.

    Backpacks, for example, are built for smaller torsos with smaller, more angled shoulders.

    They have a slimmer profile, and they are built to put more weight on the hips than a unisex pack that might be more comfortable for a man who can carry more weight on his shoulders.

    Blythe says women-specific designs might matter more for some products than others. Backpacks are essential, and the heavier the pack, the more it matters, she says.

    "Everybody — males and females — needs a pack that fits."

    Manufacturers are using women's designs even on smaller packs for improved comfort.

    Women are buying the gear, and manufacturers are responding.

    Sales of outdoor gear specific to women increased 60 percent from 2002 to 2004, according to the Outdoor Industry Foundation in Boulder, Colo. By comparison, sales of unisex and men's clothing increased only 4 percent for the same period.

    Women's specific backpack sales have increased from 60,126 packs sold in 2002 to 113,062 so far in 2006, according to the foundation.

    Most of those packs are small to mid-size packs, which is in line with a trend for both sexes - more car camping and day trips than long backcountry trips.

    Other gear has women's bodies in mind, too.

    Sleeping bags, sleeping pads, climbing shoes and harnesses, are all available in women's designs.

    Here are some of the differences:

  • Sleeping bags: Shorter and narrower for women's bodies, which tend to be smaller. That means women's bodies won't have to heat so much empty space, so they stay warmer.

  • Sleeping pads: Foam is punched out of the pad to reduce weight, but not by the feet, where women say they tend to get cold, or by the hips, where more of a woman's body weight might be focused when she's lying down.

  • Climbing harnesses: Longer in the rise with larger leg loops to accommodate hips and thighs.

  • Climbing shoes: Narrower shoe, and most importantly, a narrower heel. "I love it," Blythe says. "If the heel cup is too big, your foot will slide out."
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