According to sportswear legend, two Vermont-based female runners who were tired of wearing ill-fitting men's athletic clothes sewed two jockstraps together to create the very first sports bra. Now that's desperation!
Even after the passing of Title IX (a policy that would enable continual expansion of athletic opportunities for the underrepresented gender) in 1972, women were still wearing clothes designed for male bodies on the athletic field. Yet the invention of the sports bra five years after that would revolutionize women's sports and fitness as the first piece of athletic wear designed to address a woman's unique physiology. As female participation in previously male-dominated sports increased, the archaic notion that women were just too modest to sweat had finally been put to rest.
Today, more and more sportswear and gear manufacturers are studying the female form - and the distinctive way it moves - to better dress women for athletic and recreational pursuits. This female-specific gear has effectively shattered the assumption that one product can fit both genders.
At Sierra Trading Post, we point out women-specific items in the title of every relevant product. We've created this guide to help women understand the construction and benefits of gear designed exclusively for them.
Women's backpacks differ from men's in that they are specifically designed to fit typical female torso dimensions. As a general rule, women's packs have narrower shoulder harnesses and wide, adjustable waistbelt panels engineered to fit women's bell shaped hips, as opposed to men's cylindrical shaped hips. The shoulder straps on women-specific packs are usually positioned close together and are anatomically shaped through the bust. Women's backpacks also have a narrower profile.
Because women usually have less upper-body strength than men, women-specific packs are designed to place even more of the pack's weight on the hips. When you're selecting a pack, look for hipbelts that sit low on the hip bones, which are naturally equipped to bear more weight.
Internal-frame packs will also keep your load more stable. Women tend to sway at the hips when they walk and the body-hugging design of an internal-frame pack will provide the most balance and freedom of movement on rough trails.
For light hiking or day trips, a lumbar or fanny pack is probably a better option than a backpack. As mentioned before, a woman's strength ratio is greatest in her hips. In order to expend energy most efficiently, women should use their hips' strength to carry the weight of the pack so they can concentrate on their footing.
Women's sleeping bags are generally narrower around the shoulders than men's or unisex bags, which prevents cold air from entering and warm air from escaping at the top. Women's sleeping bags are also cut wider in the middle to accommodate a woman's rounder hips and thighs. They may come in various sizes (i.e. short, regular or long) to fit women of all heights and weights. Also, women's bags will often provide extra insulation for women's "cold spots," typically in the footbox and torso areas.
Due to the lower heat generation/ heat dissipation ratio of women (i.e., a more pronounced temperature sensitivity), women may need a bag with a lower temperature rating than men for use in the same conditions. When choosing a sleeping bag, anticipate the worst conditions you may encounter and pick a bag with a temperature rating slightly lower than the coldest temperature you expect to encounter.
Women's sleeping pads are shorter than unisex or men's pads and are shaped specifically for a woman's curvier shape. They may also be thicker and have added insulation in the feet and torso to combat women's common cold spots.
Women's trekking poles are designed with smaller hands in mind. They are usually shorter than unisex poles and have smaller, more padded grips. Women's poles are most often made from lightweight, flexible aluminum or aluminum alloy for easy handling.
As with most technical gear, fit is everything if you want a smooth-riding, comfortable bike. Generally, women's bikes have a shorter, lower top tube, female-specific anatomic saddles, and shorter crank arms. However, women's bikes are usually sized to fit women 5'5" and under. If you're taller than that, you'll probably be much happier with a slightly modified unisex bike. You can easily shorten the stem, raise the handlebars and adjust the saddle height on a unisex bike to get the proper fit.
If you go unisex, the only area you might need to address is the saddle, which can easily be switched out for something more comfortable. Because women's pelvises are wider than men's, women should look for a slightly wider, anatomically designed seat. Women-specific saddles have short noses and cutouts or indentations in the middle to accommodate a woman's anatomy.
Unless you are tooling around town on your cruiser, do not buy a wide saddle for comfort. These seats are too wide and too soft for anything more than recreational riding.
Because women have narrower waists, women-specific cycling shorts usually have a tighter waistband and a more tapered fit at the hips than men's shorts. Women also tend to have much longer waists than men, so manufacturers cut the front inseam a little longer in women's models to account for a woman's longer rise. Women's shorts usually feature shorter leg lengths that don't completely cover the quadriceps like a typical men's short. Also, regardless of body type any woman can benefit from the female specific chamois padding in these cycling shorts.
If you're short-waisted, have narrow hips or are particularly body-conscious, you may find men's cycling shorts more comfortable and better fitted to your body type.
In 1911, seasoned climber Annie Smith Peck summited Peru's yet-unclimbed Mt. Coropuna and planted a flag for women's suffrage. And she did it wearing bloomers.
Women's climbing gear has made many technical advances since then, with flexible, moisture-wicking synthetic fibers replacing confining cotton canvas and wool. Today, many manufacturers like PrAna, Gramicci and Stonewear Designs offer women-specific climbing attire that allows for unrestricted freedom of movement.
Most climbing shoes are unisex and will work equally well on a man or a woman's foot. Some women, though, may need shoes specifically designed to conform to the female foot, especially if they have narrow heels or high arches.
For many women, men's harnesses work just fine. However, women's climbing harnesses address a few anatomical differences between the sexes. Women with smaller waists and bigger thighs may need a harness designed with these proportions in mind. Also, women with longer rises (the measurements between the crotch and waist) might do well with a women-specific harness because the leg loops are designed to be farther away from the waistbelt.
Most unisex harnesses have fully adjustable waistbelts and may come in a few different leg sizes or with adjustable leg loops to fit a wider range of body types.
Women's skis are modified to optimize performance based on the unique physiology of the female body. Generally, women's skis are shorter, lighter in weight and have a softer flex than men's skis. Also, the bindings on most women's models are positioned farther forward on the ski to increase stability and make turning easier. Women can, of course, ski with any model appropriate to their ability and terrain preferences, but women with smaller builds may find women's skis are easier to control.
Narrower waist widths and softer flexes are just a few hallmarks of women's snowboards. Women tend to have smaller, narrower feet than men so most women-specific snowboards will have a waist width of 25 cm or less to fit the average female foot. This narrower waist translates to quicker and easier carving.
Women's boards tend to be shorter and softer-flexing than men's boards for better control. They also cater to a woman's lighter weight and lower center of gravity by featuring specially constructed cores and a range of softer flex patterns.
Women's feet are usually narrower through the arch and thinner in the Achilles and heel than men's feet. Women also tend to have longer calves that start lower on the leg than men. Women-specific snowsport boots are engineered slightly differently than men's boots to address these concerns.
To accommodate a woman's unique body shape, stride and narrower gait, women-specific snowshoes have light, slim frames and sometimes tapered tails. Anatomic and ergonomic adjustments are usually made to the bindings to better secure a woman's narrower mid-foot and heel.
The differences between men's and women's wetsuits used to be very minimal and based mainly on the idea that women are shorter than men and have less muscle mass. Essentially, women's wetsuits used to be smaller versions of the same men's suits.
Wetsuit manufacturers now examine women's very different anatomical characteristics and design suits accordingly. In fact, very few wetsuits are unisex anymore.
You can find women-specific wetsuits for all types of watersports that feature:
Wetsuits are sized according to your height and weight. (And don't worry, these sizes are approximate. Wetsuits generally have enough stretch to fit a frame that falls outside of the recommended height and weight guidelines.) If you're very tall - 5'10" or above - or have a lot of muscle mass in your arms and legs, you may need to try a man's wetsuit to comfortably fit your larger frame.