For decades, women like myself have strapped ourselves into men’s and unisex outdoor gear to hit the great outdoors. We’ve dealt with the frustrating gap between our bodies and backpacks that don’t account for our shape, the absurdly long tails of their completely cinched shoulder- and hip-straps swatting at our bodies with every move, reminding us we don’t quite fit. We’ve suited up with base layers that hug too much in the wrong places, and billow where we need sweat wicked away. We’ve stepped up in order to challenge ourselves and support other women as hikers, cyclists, runners, climbers, and more in the absence of gear made with us in mind.
Over the past decade, the outdoor recreation industry has stumbled toward acknowledging men aren’t the only members of the community worth catering to. The movement really picked up within the past two years, arriving on a wave of campaigns; marketing materials playing up women’s athletic abilities and physiological needs; women’s-only skills courses; and, of course, “women’s specific gear.” Outdoor gear retailer REI alone scheduled 1,000 women-focused events, aimed overwhelmingly at beginners, and expanded the sizing and features of its women’s offerings as part of its 2017 Force of Nature campaign.
One reason for all this — despite women having published impassioned editorials for decades now demanding room on outfitters’ shelves, in outdoor-focused media, and on the trail — is that financial reports and bottom lines are finally pushing design in our direction. Women now make up 51 percent of outdoor consumers, but haven’t historically spent as much per capita as men on outdoor footwear, apparel, or equipment.
Visibility is important, but the presence of women’s specific gear can sometimes complicate the buying process. It’s hard enough for anyone to figure out which performance features we need in gear for any given outing — which goes for anyone — without wondering whether gear claiming it accounts for alleged gender differences actually does or is even necessary in the first place.
It’s also disorienting for the swath of the population whose gender expressions differ from their biological sex, including product tester and journalist Kimber Streams.
“Seeing things labeled ‘men’s’ and others labeled ‘women’s’ particularly frustrates me because I don’t identify as either, and it makes me hyperaware of my identity and dysphoria,” says Streams, a past colleague of mine and the lead editor at Wirecutter, a New York Times-owned website that focuses on gear and gadgets. “What I need to know is, is there an actual biological reason for these differences, or is it a bullshit label? [As in,] because I have boobs, is it going to fit better, or worse?”
How much should a bike, backpack, or any other product’s gender designation factor into women’s purchasing decisions? When do women really need special gear tailored to their biological bodies or ‘gendered’ needs — separate, presumably, from men’s needs?
When I began investigating these questions, I had hopes of compiling a list of gear that women recreationists should always (or never) opt to purchase in women’s models when available.
It’s hard enough to figure out which performance features we need in gear for any given outing, without wondering whether gear claiming it accounts for alleged gender differences actually does.
But after more than a dozen phone and email interviews with industry experts and professional athletes, I’ve learned good heuristics are hard to come by when deciding whether to purchase women’s specific gear.
Ultimately, the problem is that manufacturers haven’t reached a consensus on what makes something women’s specific. Does it have to do with biology or gender? Is it the fit? Functionality? Aesthetics? Materials? A blend of all of this? And consumers don’t know how much of what they’re being sold is designed based on sound research. We don’t know how many companies’ claims simply pander to the vulnerabilities of women athletes and recreationists who have for so long been actively excluded from the narratives of activities they love.
After investigating the merits of women’s specific gear and why the category is so poorly defined, which is further outlined below, I identified a few helpful strategies for finding gear that fits our unique bodies and needs when biology or gender is factored in—hopefully making the outfitting experience that much less of a hassle for women, so we can get out on the trail sooner.
BUT FIRST: A Little Herstory
“Women’s specific gear” existed long before the distinction was adopted by the industry. In a recent piece for Racked, runner and author Jen A. Miller noted that sporting goods companies have been manufacturing performance products for outdoorswomen since at least 1977, when Moving Comfort debuted its category-defining sports bra.
In the decades since, though, designers have been “shrinking it and pinking it” — making smaller versions of men’s products in gender-signaling colors with no clear women-specific benefits, clearly demonstrating that women’s needs are afterthoughts not worth their own research and development processes.
Some companies have staked their reputations on giving women smaller versions of men’s products. Juliana Bicycles, the nearly five-year-old women’s arm of Santa Cruz Bicycles, factors in weight and height when adjusting “men’s” Santa Cruz mountain bikes for a female audience — that’s it. It pairs smaller versions of Santa Cruz frames with suspension tuned for lighter riders, build kits vetted by female testers, and different colorways. The message being, women are just as capable of riding men’s bikes well as men are.
When companies have made adjustments between their men’s and women’s offerings, it has often been to the detriment of female consumers, specifically when it comes to hard goods and high-performance clothing, experts say. That’s because historically, some manufacturers have conflated “women’s gear” with “gear for beginners.” Women’s versions of men’s skis, bikes, snowboards, hiking boots — beyond simply being smaller and in calculated hues — are frequently tweaked to be less aggressive than men’s versions. This often means they are also less technically capable.
“A lot of women’s specific gear was designed around looking at how women were a deficit in comparison to men, that men have always been normal. They’re the standard,” says Jen Gurecki, co-founder and CEO of women’s snowsport brand Coalition Snow. “And so anything that deviates from men has obviously been different, and many times for women, it’s around this idea that women aren’t as strong. So then you get this watered-down version.”
As professional downhill mountain biker Amanda Batty has learned from years of competition, it’s expensive to develop products for women, which means what’s available isn’t always what you want or need. “It was so bad at one point that I began sewing my own jerseys,” she says.
This is just one reason why it’s only been within the past few years that Batty even considered owning a women’s specific pair of mountain bike shorts. “I rocked around in men’s shorts for a very, very long time due to lack of sizing options, inaccurate fit, etcetera,” Batty told me. “I still refuse to wear women’s mountain bike jerseys as they continue to fall far short in coverage, quality, fit, and tech features compared to the men’s. Why wear a women’s jersey that’s cut lower and has a single pocket when the men’s provides better coverage, is much higher quality, has double the pockets and is the same price?”
“I want quality, durability, and technical gear for a good price,” she adds. “I want equal products, not exploitation. It shouldn’t be revolutionary to say that.”
One Phrase, Multiple Translations
Manufacturers today are less likely to release women’s models in pink as the only color option, and — eager to distance themselves from accusations that they’re merely trying to ‘pink it and shrink it’ — are increasingly incorporating “women’s specific design” into research and development.
The thing is, few companies elaborate on what “women’s specific” actually means, and when they do, are vague when sharing research backing up their claims.
“[Women’s-specific gear] is almost always designed by men who devote very little time, resources, and effort towards actually making a product that will sell, and then the lack of sales kills the line,” Batty alleges. “I’ve seen it a million times.”
In most contexts, women’s- specific design corresponds with fit. Apparel and soft goods like backpacking packs will be tailored to account for bustlines, hips, and other major physical differences between the ‘average’ man and woman. Hard goods, like bikes, may claim a “women’s fit” distinction if the overall geometry is tweaked to account for longer leg-to-body ratios, lower centers of gravity, and shorter arms — three common anatomical ways in which the average man and woman differ.
So long as these adjustments don’t compromise a product’s performance value — say, that by making a women’s running vest narrower in the waist, you eliminate a crucial pocket that’s available in the men’s version — this type of women’s- specific design can offer significant benefits.
“[I] can’t tell you how many times the women’s versions of things I’ve tested have been missing features that are on the men’s versions,” outdoor gear reviewer Eve O’Neill says. “Gussets. Zippers. Belt loops. Fabric lace loops instead of metal, different treads… it’s kind of ridiculous how long the list is.”
To prevent this imbalance, some companies are putting women’s products through design processes that are entirely separate from their male-focused equivalents: An average woman’s measurements serve as baselines from which to size out the rest of the line. By ensuring features deemed necessary in the men’s options are also available in the women’s version right off the bat, designers can better retain performance across the full product line.
Gendered benefits have their limits, of course — even having multiple sizes of women’s specific gear doesn’t account for body type.
“Even my [shopping] experience as a woman in the industry I think mirrors what a lot of women face, in that because we’ve been so binary [on gender and sex], we’re still missing the mark: Women are so different,” says Gurecki, who often buys men’s jackets because she prefers a looser, less tailored fit and doesn’t care for the pastel colors that many women’s options lean toward.
In other cases, women’s design is based on physiology. Biologically, men’s and women’s bodies are indisputably different, from the curves of our hips to the widths of our heels, and — if you believe proprietary market research — so too are our physiological regulatory habits. For example, for sleeping bags, sleeping pads, and some insulating clothing, designers at companies like REI will strategically add padding where women are more likely to lose heat, like the core and feet.
“[Temperature regulation] is a really interesting way of looking at how women’s bodies are different, but then you also just need to recognize, this is on average,” Gurecki adds. “Women tend to lose heat there, so it’s not to say that, across the board, it’s going to work for everyone.”
“If you want to make a good product that people will pay for, bring in designers and athletes and testers of all ages, sizes, races, genders who have knowledge and experience. Diversity is a very profitable tool.”
At Coalition Snow, women’s specific design isn’t so much about anatomical differences, but rather is dependent upon who’s in charge of product management and whose opinions matter. Women design Coalition Snow products, consult other women during focus groups and product testing, and market the end results. It’s a more rigorously implemented take on the WSG definition, to be sure, but simply knowing that women ideated and weighed in on a product intended to be used by women, Gurecki believes, can be just as important to some consumers as a product’s physical qualities.
“I think the more we have limited leadership positions, the more it is a very valid concern that women have that they’re being pandered to, or that this is just a ‘shrink it and pink it’ thing. The more women we have in leadership positions, the more we can trust we are getting something that has been well thought out for us,” she says.
“We’re not thinking about men at all. But it doesn’t mean that men couldn’t ski on our skis, or people who don’t identify [as either couldn’t],” Gurecki adds.
Batty agrees. If a company lacks gender diversity in leadership design positions, she’s wary that they’re not designing for a gender-diverse base of consumers, however well-intentioned they may be.
“Our experience informs our process. Unfortunately, that forces a very small niche for market application and often enforces smaller end-user ability,” she says. “It’s always blown my mind when companies release sub-par women’s gear designed by men and then, when it doesn’t sell well because it’s a bad product, they discontinue women’s products and claim that women just don’t buy those items. The thing is, we just don’t want to buy bad products. If you want to make a good product that people will pay for, bring in designers and athletes and testers of all ages, sizes, races, genders who have knowledge and experience. Diversity is a very profitable tool.”
Liv — the women’s arm of bike tycoon Giant Bicycles, and one of the only bike companies designing high-performance, women’s specific bikes — addresses the concern over designing based on global averages in an extensive unbylined argument. For Liv, sending bikes through beta testing with female athletes and ambassadors is essential to ensuring data doesn’t obscure real-world usability.
But as basic statistics show, creating complete bikes for the “average” woman, no matter how well tested, isn’t the same as creating bikes for the “mode” woman. The average woman is a theoretical abstraction of women who actually exist, and with very different bodies.
“I’ve always worn men’s/unisex packs and shoes because women’s sizing didn’t fit me properly,” says hiker Heather Anish Anderson, who broke Liz Thomas’ women’s unsupported, thru-hiking record on the Appalachian Trail in 2015. “I’m 5'8” with broad shoulders and narrow hips, so men’s packs just fit better.”
When companies make alterations based on feedback from their specific customer base, this doesn’t necessarily represent the needs of an entire demographic. For instance, to look at two outdoor gear retailers, Patagonia’s female customers and Osprey’s female customers might want different features in and alterations made to a backpack.
It’s important to note that not all companies claiming women’s specific designs follow through, as outdoor gear reviewer Ebony Roberts discovered while researching a guide to hiking boots for Wirecutter. While most boots came in men’s and women’s versions, she only found a few that took average anatomical differences between men’s and women’s feet into account. (Women tend to have narrower heels and overall lower-volume feet).
Gurecki says this is an issue in the snowsports industry as well.
“I’m not gonna name names [of companies], but we own and have tested skis and know this as a fact — the men’s version and the women’s version are two fundamentally different skis and they legitimately shrunk and ‘pinked it’ and the performance is different,” she says.
Hard Goods: Where Women’s Specific Gear Creates the Most Confusion
The real value of “women’s specific design” is lowest when it comes to high-performance hard goods. Unless you’re familiar with a company’s design process, women’s products for advanced performance still aren’t all primed to help you elevate your game or recreative prowess.
For one, few high-performance, women’s specific goods even exist today, in part because companies don’t believe women are inclined to purchase technical goods. The Outdoor Industry Association’s 2014 ConsumerVue survey, for instance, found women “look for quality, comfort, and value. They are not interested in technical product features” or sporty looks as much as men are.
But dig into the research, and you’ll see men allegedly don’t prioritize technical features either (24 percent of men compared with 16 percent of women), and yet technical products for men exist. Worse, the survey found 54 percent of women report that they will participate at ‘extreme levels’ of outdoor sports.
Brands are slowly changing their approaches to designing technical goods and apparel for women though. CamelBak is in the process of redesigning its unisex trail running vests with a wide size run to better accommodate women’s bodies , specifically because women have been purchasing its products. “The reason we’re able to [make a women’s specific line] is that the product line has become popular enough that we can keep expanding it. It’s one thing for us to make all these different versions, it’s another thing for us to sell them somewhere, and for someone to want to have them in their shop,” says William Gordon, the director of industrial design at CamelBak.
This highlights the tricky future of women’s specific gear at major companies: For there to be more high-performance gear tailored to women’s bodies, companies are first waiting to see if enough women buy men’s or unisex products. “There’s a bit of a chicken and egg thing,” Gordon concedes.
As with most things, there are exceptions to the rule. Based on consumer feedback, women’s versions of hard goods do sometimes offer smart technical features, like ponytail holes in women’s snow helmets — but then again, not all women have long hair. These gendered ‘lifestyle’ differences aren’t clearly marketed as separate from features intended to improve function based on biological need.
Such as it is, anyone looking to buy high-performance products like road bikes or skis will have to do more research based on their individual needs to find something worth their investment, regardless of their gender. The more marginal gains you’re after, the more precise a product you’ll need.
Some major companies are changing their product lines to minimize gender. Specialized Bicycles, which had been making different frames for women and men over the past few years, found in a decade-long survey of more than 40,000 cyclists that different frames based on gender were unnecessary. Instead, providing easily interchangeable hardware like handlebars and pedals, and ensuring frames accommodate a range of sizes, are what matter.
“When you look at the statistical [anatomical] averages, the bell curves peak at different points between the biological sexes… [but] if you extend past averages into the outer percentiles, there’s a significant amount of overlap between the sexes,” says Katie Thompson, manager of advanced research and industrial design at cycling wholesaler Quality Bicycle Products.” To put it pointedly, there’s an incredible amount of variabilities that can be found in the human population. Some brands have chosen to build their brand, their marketing assets, and their products tailored to that bell curve of women. And that has proved successful for them. Others have really chosen to move away from the binary system altogether and work to develop bikes that fit all humans. And that resonates with me.”
So What the Heck Am I Supposed to Buy?
“I wish I had this easy answer of, ‘Yes, you can trust women’s specific design because companies are putting so many more resources behind R+D,’” Gurecki says. But she and other experts I spoke with impressed that, to really find the best product for you, you need to consider your needs beyond your gender or biological sex. It’s not just because each company’s particular approach to women’s specific design differs, but that our needs differ, too.
“Understanding your own body type, the way that you like to recreate, and what type of gear is going to help you have the most fun and feel the most confident in what you do… is really a better pathway, I think, than an individual choosing women’s specific or men’s specific or even unisex,” she says.
When pressed, experts say you’re more likely to be happy with gendered clothing and other soft goods if fit is your priority, and especially if fit is itself a performance quality, as with base layers.
Once you know what fits your body well, Thompson says, you should consider the experience you want to have with a product.
“Let’s understand what you want to do with it first,” she says. “How often are you going to ride? What kind of rides are you going to go on? Then you can be directed to a product that is going to fit you.”
Gendering products might not be the most responsible or efficient way to segment performance gear products and help consumers make decisions, but having more fit options increases the likelihood that you’ll find something that fits you.
Unless you’re jonesing for high-performance gear, the weight of deciding between gendered products shouldn’t stress you out . If your needs aren’t competitive, simply buying from a company known for quality can usually be enough.
“A beginner skier’s technical needs are going to be very basic, but will vary little across gender,” Batty says. “The beginner mountain biker doesn’t need a high-end, high-priced performance product because they don’t know what they need yet or what they prefer, while a more experienced user knows that taped seams, pockets, solid zippers or flexible material are integral to their performance at the level of demand,” she says.
Getting hard goods to fit your body shape is less of an issue — think of skis, bikes, and kayak paddles. Men’s and unisex products can still serve women well, for many reasons already outlined. Women’s versions of hard goods are often lighter (to account for women being , on average, lighter), though, so if you prioritize weight savings, that can be important to consider.
Whenever possible, smaller women should avoid unisex soft goods, especially high-performance products with limited size-runs. That’s because fit-related unisex product design often reflects a bias toward men, says CamelBak’s Gordon.
The company’s K.U.D.U. gear and hydration packs, which have limited appeal to broad audiences, only come in two sizes; there isn’t yet enough interest in the product for CamelBak to justify investing in further R+D to diversify its offerings.
“I’m trying to hit a 6'4”, 220-pound man [with the medium/large], and then I’m also trying to fit all the people in the middle, and then with a small/medium, I’m trying to fit all those people all the way down to a 5'1" woman who weighs 90 pounds,” Gordon says. “If you’re a woman who’s on the smaller end of the size scale, there are certain products that you’re going to find are just going to be too big.”
Each expert I spoke with maintains that more men should consider women’s products. Climbing experts note that lots of male climbers wear women’s climbing shoes, which better fit lower-volume feet. Even products you’d never expect to appeal to both sexes, like bicycle saddles, can be surprisingly easy for a consumer to use the opposite gender’s offering. Bike gear retailer WTB recently relaunched its women’s specific saddle, rebranding from the “Diva” to the “Koda,” after discovering it was popular with men as well. (For the disconcerted, I asked Thompson about any safety concerns when it comes to using products intended for the other gender’s anatomy. She says it would be a rare instance where that would be unsafe.)
Both within and outside of the gear-review community, there are many women who wish companies would offer products based more on body features, and less on which gender is stereotypically associated with those features.
The Bottom Line
Gender designations are suggestions — not guarantees — that a product will work well for you.
Gendering products might be neither the most responsible nor efficient way to segment performance gear products and help consumers of all genders and sexes make decisions, but having more fit options increases the likelihood that you’ll find something that fits you.
“The bottom line for all gear, clothing, and shoes is to try on a wide variety, regardless of who it’s marketed toward, and find what is comfortable and functional for each individual,” says Heather Anish Anderson.
So if a manufacturer wants your business and support, make sure they’ve earned it:
- If a product is the women’s version of an existing men’s product, inquire to see whether the manufacturer underwent unique design processes to create each version.
- If you’re buying hard goods, don’t consider any claims made about your physiological needs until you’ve tested the product yourself. When it comes to top-of-the-line hard goods like race bikes and competition skis, women’s specific products on the whole are still lacking.
- If you plan on using a product frequently and/or investing a lot of money, seek fit help. There is no substitute for an expert evaluation.
- Check a manufacturer’s warranty or an outfitter’s return policy, to make sure you can use a product for a bit before deciding whether it’s right for your body and needs.