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Women’s Lightweight Backpacks: How to Choose

Womens Lightweight Backpacks

Shrink it, pink it, call it unisex. That’s the approach taken by many backpack manufacturers who want to sell backpacks originally designed for men to women. But women have narrower shoulders, breasts, wider hips, and different proportions than men and need backpacks that more anatomically appropriate for their sex.

Comparison of ULA's S-Shaped Shoulder Straps designed for women (left) and J-Shaped Straps designed for men (right). Photo courtesy of ULA Equipment.
Comparison of ULA’s S-Shaped Shoulder Straps designed for women (left) and J-Shaped Straps designed for men (right). Photo courtesy of ULA Equipment.

S-Shaped Shoulder Straps

While some women can make-do with a smaller sized unisex backpack that was originally designed for man, there’s a crying need for backpacks designed specifically for curvy female bodies. For example, backpack shoulder straps with an S-curve are often more comfortable and a better fit for women, especially for women with larger breasts. The typical J-curve often lands in the middle of the breast, squashing it. The pressure can be quite painful, and if you loosen the straps, the pack moves from side to side, defeating the intent to hold weight close to the body. Some men also prefer S-curve straps, particularly those with athletic builds, as it results in more freedom of movement around the armpit, and a shorter sternum strap.

Granite Gear Crown2 Men's and Women's Hip Belts. Note how the women's belt flares upwards to wrap around curvier female hips.
Granite Gear Crown2 Men’s and Women’s Hip Belts. Note how the women’s belt flares upwards to wrap around curvier female hips. Photo courtesy Granite Gear.

Hip Belts

Similarly, hip belts designed for women tend are more rounded and contoured to accommodate wider hips and sit higher up on the hip bones than men’s hip belts. Here’s a comparison (see above) of the men’s (unisex) and women’s Re-fit hip belts available for the new Granite Gear Crown2 Backpack. The women’s hip belt has a curve that flares upward and sits at a slight angle to match the hips. These modifications keep the majority of the weight of a pack on women’s hips where it belongs and make a big difference in all-day comfort.


Sizing is important too, but best when it’s accompanied by women’s specific shoulder straps and hip belts. Smaller in stature, women have shorter toros and narrower hip circumferences than men. The best fitting women’s specific packs often have interchangeable hip belts that can be swapped independent of the torso size of the pack or even adjustable length hip belts, like the RE-FIT hip belt used on the Granite Gear Crown2 (see my review of the Granite Gear Crown2 Backpack.)

Backpack Make and ModelWomen's Specific FeaturesTorso Sizes (Fixed Length or Adjustable Length)Hipbelt Sizes (Fixed Length or Adjustable Length)Weight
ULA CatalystS-Shaped Shoulder Strap OptionFixed: 15-18", 18-21",21-24", 24+"Fixed: 26-30", 20-34",34-38",38-42", 42+"44-48 oz
ULA CircuitS-Shaped Shoulder Strap OptionFixed: 15-18", 18-21",21-24", 24+" & (Adjustable: 12-18")Fixed: 26-30", 20-34",34-38",38-42", 42+"41 oz
ULA Ohm 2.0S-Shaped Shoulder Strap OptionFixed: 15-18", 18-21",21-24", 24+"Fixed: 26-30", 20-34",34-38",38-42", 42+"27.5-32.5 oz
ULA CDTS-Shaped Shoulder Strap OptionFixed: 15-18", 18-21",21-24", 24+"Fixed: <30", 30-36", 36+"19-24 oz
Granite Gear Crown2S-Shaped Shoulder Strap, Women's Specific Hip BeltFixed: 15-18", 18-21"Adjustable: 28-38"34 oz
Granite Gear Blaze A.C. 60 KiWomen's Specific Hip BeltAdjustable: 14-18", 18-22"Fixed: 26-30", 30-34", 34-38", 38-42"43-46 oz
Granite Gear Crown VC 60 KiWomen's Specific Hip BeltFixed: 15-18", 18-21"Fixed: 26-30", 30-34", 34-38", 38-42"34 oz
Granite Gear Leopard VC 46 KiWomen's Specific Hip BeltFixed: 15-18", 18-21"Fixed: 26-30", 30-34", 34-38", 38-42"42-44 oz
Granite Gear Leopard AC 58 KiWomen's Specific Hip BeltAdjustable: 14-18", 18-22"Fixed: 26-30", 30-34", 34-38", 38-42"46-49 oz
Gossamer Gear Mariposa 60Extra Short Torso LengthsFixed: 11.5-15.5", 15.5-19", 19.5-23.5"Fixed: 24-34", 30-40", 38-50"30.7-34.8 oz
Gossamer Gear Silverback 50Extra Short Torso LengthsFixed: 11.5-15.5", 15.5-19", 19.5-23.5"Fixed: 24-34", 30-40", 38-50"34.9-40.5 oz
Gossamer Gear Gorilla 40Extra Short Torso LengthsFixed: 11.5-15.5", 15.5-19", 19.5-23.5"Fixed: 24-34", 30-40", 38-50"31.7-35.7 oz
Six Moon Designs Flight 40S-Shape Shoulder Strap OptionFixed: 16-22"Fixed: 23-38", 27-39", 31-41",35-55", 27-37", 29-39",33-43", 37-5729-43 oz
REI Flash 45No information availableAdjustable: 16-18", 17-19"Fixed: 28-38", 30-40"44 oz
Exped Lightning 60No information availableAdjustable: 14.2-20.9"Fixed: 30.7- 55.9"40 oz
Exped Lightning 45No information availableAdjustable: 14.2-20.9"Fixed: 30.7- 55.9"38.8 oz
Osprey Packs Tempest 40S-Shaped Shoulder Strap, Women's Specific Hip BeltFixed: 13-17", 16"-20"Fixed: 27-42", 29-44"36-38 oz

Best Women’s Backpacks

I’m often asked which backpack manufacturers offer women’s specific backpacks that weigh 48 ounces (3 pounds) or less, which is considered to be the boundary between traditional packs and lightweight/ultralight alternatives.  There aren’t as many of them available as one would hope, but here are the ones that I know about along with detailed information about the torso lengths and hip belt sizing available with each model. There’s a lot of information here, but it’s a good place to compare options and sizing across manufacturers and models.

The best pack lightweight packs for women are made by ULA Equipment, Granite Gear, and Gossamer Gear. They have the best selection of women’s specific backpacks and have a track record of investing in women’s specific features beyond the standard shrink it and pink it mentality manifested by other outdoor brands. Just calling a backpack a “women’s model” doesn’t cut it in my book. I want to know exactly how a pack is optimized for the female anatomy before I recommend it to a friend. If a brand, be it REI or Exped, doesn’t take the time to explain how their women’s packs differ from their men’s packs, I can only assume their distinction is marketing fluff.

ULA Equipment

ULA has offered S-Shaped straps on their packs for women for years and nearly 50% their customers request them. The hip belt offered on their Catalyst, Circuit, and Ohm backpacks also has two straps that allow it to be tightened flat for men or flared, which helps women get more load transfer to the hips.

Granite Gear

Granite Gear’s new Crown2 backpack (2017) is the first lightweight backpack with S-shaped straps for women and a women’s specific hip belt. The women’s version of this pack is so popular that the Granite Gear online store sold out of in a few weeks when it became available, although you can still buy it at REI and other online retailers. Like ULA, Granite Gear has also had women’s specific packs for years (identified as “Ki”), which refers to their women’s specific hip belt.

Gossamer Gear

Gossamer Gear has the best sizing for women with support for torso sizes down to 11.5″ in length with interchangeable hip belts like ULA and Granite Gear, so you can get the hip belt length you need if you have a short torso and a narrow waist. While their packs are still unisex and not women’s specific, they’ve made to changes to their shoulder straps and hip belts in an effort to make them work for both men and women. This includes changing the lateral exit angle of the shoulder straps to accommodate a woman’s chest more like an S-shaped strap, widening the hip belt, and adding extra hip belt padding. 

What’s your experience been with these lightweight, sub-3 lb backpacks?

Written 2017.

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  1. I’ve bought and carried, over time, five different backpacks, three of which were made for women. And I really appreciate the evolution of women’s gear in general. One thing I will say, however, is that if it is pink or purple, or possibly even another pastel color, I ain’t buying it! My favorite, most well worn pack is a light blue Osprey, but it took me hours before I broke down and bought it. If it had been pink or purple—no way at all!

    • Yes yes yes about colors! I’ve repeatedly heard friends (and 20-something daughter and her friends) complain about bright and pastel colors in gear and clothing.

  2. From the Osprey F.AQ. page

    “Our women’s packs come in torso lengths that best fit women’s bodies. All packs come standard with women’s-specific harness and hipbelt. The women’s harness is narrow at its entry point in the backpanel, and tapers slightly outward below the collarbone to offer more comfort and freedom for the chest area. The women’s hipbelt is canted slightly upward to best cup the hips and is patterned with a narrower profile. Our women’s packs also come in women’s specific colors.”

  3. It can be really hard to find a pack for a petite person. I went all over and only found one that fit. The problem with most women’s packs is that the shoulder straps are too close together in the back, and many times they are actually connected together at the top making a V shape causing the straps to cut into the side of you neck. Also, the colors tend to be terrible pastels.

    • Have you looked at the unisex youth packs? Gregory has a good adjustable youth pack. Kelty must have a good pack as well. Colors are guaranteed to be limited to red, blue, green, khaki, and camo. ;)

      As for bright colors, I have to balance ugly vs. can the hunters see me. I have a fair amount of blaze orange accessories (winter hat, rain jacket, winter running shirts/base layer).

    • I’m curious if you can share what worked for you! I’m 4’11”, about 110 llbs, and planning a three day in the Sierra this summer. I’ve used my boyfriend’s ultralight GoLite previously, and liked it a lot, but its beyond salvage from years of use….and sadly the company doesn’t exist anymore. I don’t like a lot of bells and whistles, prefer a rolltop as I use cubes and stuff sacks, and would love load lifters.

      • GoLite products are now sold under MyTrail name. I also have an old golite that is hard to part with although it is showing some hard-to-repair wear after many years and miles.

  4. i have an ULA circuit and it fits me very well- i’m 5’6″ and 130-140 pounds- the pack works great with a tank top on or with full winter jackets –

  5. There are just not as many packs to choose from as men have, so many women, especially those who do not do extended hikes, opt for what’s available at the outdoor store where one can try on packs, often the more heavy women’s Gregory and Deuter backpacks or those Osprey packs designed for women. The Deuter Act lite has an adjustable torso length that is a huge benefit in comfort. In discussing the points women look for among my backpacking friends there are three factors:1) comfort via aspects designed for a woman’s shape; 2) pack volume/structure; and 3) price. Good discussion on the lighter packs which should push the major outdoor brick and mortar stores to carry a selection of ultralight packs for women. Would like to see reviews of the slightly heavier women’s packs if possible.

  6. It’s a Zpacks Arc Haul Zip for this woman. Very adjustable and you can’t get lighter and still gave a seriously good suspension. And it’s awesome green Dyneema. No stupid pinks. I also really like my Deuters, though they’re heavy. I still carry my Granite Gear occasionally…. best hip belt ever.

  7. Marianne van Ginhoven

    At the moment I am in the process of making my own backpack. Therefore I am greatly interested in the design of woman’s hipbelt you showed in this article. Is there a possibility of obtaining a copy of this design? That would be wonderwel.
    I thank you in advance for a reaction.

    • For the outline of the Granite Gear belt, you could just copy the “women’s fit” portion of the above black and white diagram jpg, resize jpg to “life size” (size you need) on the computer, get it printed at a copy shop that has roll printer (or segment the image and print, taping together the sheets), making sure there is plenty of space around all edges for you to draw appropriate fabric amount for seams. You sound like an experienced seamstress.

      Alternatives include projecting and tracing the image or using gridded paper to enlarge outline.

  8. I have the ULA Circuit and I am totally loving it – but, where/how do I attach my ZRest? Soo frustratating! Haven’t found anything that works well – it’s just flopping around. Thanks for your help.

  9. Best one that worked for me is the Kelty. Good hip belt and great support. Not to mention the bag itself with tons of pockets.

  10. Thanks, I’m going to go out on a limb here and at the risk of TMI – do you have recommendations for a fat, busty woman? I must call a spade a spade and hopefully my new hiking hobby will help with this problem lol! I almost ordered an Exos before realizing the hip belt was not adjustable. I have an 18″ torso but 48″ hips where the pack would sit, and a 48″ bust. Do you have tips on making shoulder straps and a harness comfortable with these measurements? Do I have to spring for customization? Thanks so much. Not my real name obviously!!!

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