Forget the "shrink it and pink it" mentality of days past. Now that more women are regularly hitting the trails, outdoor companies are serving up gear we actually want to wear.
I still remember when I bought my first pair of real hiking pants. I was with my boyfriend at the time. It was 2009, and we were prepping for our first camping trip together. I had done day hikes in the past, but I'd never tackled any trails that required specific gear. I'd just wear a regular pair of Adidas soccer shorts, a sturdy pair of running sneakers, and a sports bra, and I'd be set. But this was different—it was fall, which meant the temperatures in upstate New York required layers. Plus, we were hiking a few miles each day on trails that weren't exactly well-marked—meaning there would be plenty of opportunities for ticks to latch on. Looking back, I'd say it was one hell of a test for our six-month-long relationship, agreeing to spend our days together—just the two of us—while walking all day and sleeping in the close quarters of a tent at night. For this trip, I decided to up my gear and buy a pair of hiking pants. Seemed the least I could do as a beginner hiker.
Turns out, the pants were key. Without them, I'm convinced my mosquito-prone skin would've been attacked, thorns on random branches would've scratched with no mercy and, seeing as I didn't know the difference between poison ivy and a harmless leaf at the time, I'd probably have ended up accidentally rubbing my legs all over the stuff.
But there was just one problem with the pants: The fit was terrible. Sure, they slid over my muscular thighs okay. But there was a gap at the waist, the butt sagged in all the wrong places and, TBH, they just weren't figure-flattering at all. None of these, er, features gave me the cute look I was going for when trying to impress the guy hiking a few steps behind me. But it was all that I could find in the women's section of the store. (I wonder if I should've just grabbed something from the men's.)
Thankfully, that isn't the case anymore. Gone are the days of outdoor companies thinking they can take a product designed for men, "shrink it and pink it," and call it appropriate for women. Because women are no longer a small section of the outdoor industry—they're a major target. The Outdoor Foundation's 2016 Outdoor Participation Report found that 49 percent of outdoor participants between the ages of 25 and 44 are female. Plus, a recent national survey from REI's Force of Nature initiative found that 72 percent of women feel liberated and free when they're outdoors, while 85 percent believe the outdoors positively affects mental health, physical health, happiness, and overall well-being.
Because of those benefits, women aren't afraid to invest their hard-earned cash in gear. Last year, consumers spent $184.5 billion on outdoor recreation products, according to the Outdoor Industry Association's 2017 Outdoor Recreation Economy Report. While it's unclear how many of those dollars specifically went toward women's products, a consumer report from Nielsen revealed that women account for 85 percent of all consumer purchases—so it's probably safe to say that a fair amount of dolla-dolla bills were spent by us ladies.
That's not all, though: That same Outdoor Recreation Economy Report found that people spent an additional $702.3 billion on trips and travel spending, and you know females are the ones who typically plan a vacation. (Speaking of, have you seen these #BucketList travel destinations for 2017?)
All that's to say that women are making a mark on the trail and hiking industry. And if they're going to keep a woman satisfied, outdoor companies need to sell products that deliver. In other words: No more hiking pants that give me swamp butt.
How Women's Gear Has Changed
First and foremost, companies are listening to what women have to say. Back in 2010, Columbia Sportswear really began developing gear that was fit specifically for a woman, in anticipation of a 2012 release date, says Margaret Eder, global merchandising manager of outerwear. To do that, they first launched a brand-anonymous consumer research project, talking with women about what they wear, what they always made sure to have while out on a hike, and what they love about being outdoors. From that came a guideline for designers to develop products that would truly work for women.
"We really wanted to know what a woman wants and needs when she's out on the trail, and how those needs are different from men's," says Eder.
And that's the key—women need products that work for them. "When we start to design women's product, we know that women's bodies move and generate heat differently than men, so we dial in on fit, shape, silhouette, specific design line placement, and hidden details," say Shelby Collins and Rachel Luthy, product line manager and women's designer, respectively, for The North Face. "All of these things are really important when it comes to making a well-functioning product that works with women's bodies instead of against them. Ultimately, we want women to feel great in our product and be able to focus on exploring the world around them, not on the gear they're wearing."
So, functionality comes first. But it's not the only problem that needed addressing. "When I started working with Eddie Bauer in 2008, there was a noticeable need for women's-specific gear...[that] fits and functions for women in the outdoors—[they're] not just smaller men's items," says Melissa Arnot Reid, an Eddie Bauer mountain guide who works closely with the company in their Guide Built, Guide Tested product development process. (She's also one of the major women changing the face of the hiking industry.) "But we also make sure the clothing looks good, because most women know that if you look good, you feel stronger!"
That's where design elements come in. "With social media being everywhere and the opportunity to snap a picture always being present, you don't want to feel unattractive when you're outdoors, you want to feel good about yourself and like you can express your personality," says Eder. "So we started talking about how we can blend the two things—the ability to express personality while still delivering on the functionality that's specific to a woman's body."
One potential future game-changer: functional hiking leggings. Eder says that, while observing women's hiking trends in clothing, the Columbia team noticed a lot of women wearing leggings out on the trail despite their overall lack of functionality for such a rugged environment. (Leggings don't typically contain anti-abrasion features, for example, to prevent scratching or rips in clothing when brushing up against branches or climbing over logs.) "They wear them because the leggings are cute, and I get that— but what are our opportunities to evolve that trend?" said Eder. Now, she says the company is working to answer that question. "If she's wearing leggings on the trail, how do we make a legging that's actually trail-friendly?"
How Women's Hiking Gear Is Actually Different from Men's
It depends on what kind of gear you're talking about, but in general, a lot of the time it's fit. Women's bodies are made differently than men's, and they're also shaped differently, so gear needs to be designed differently. Things like pocket placement and hem length are constantly being tweaked on clothes, says Arnot Reid, while Alexandra Hasso, product marketing specialist at Merrell, says heel cup, arch shape, and toe splay all need adjustments when it comes to footwear.
"Our bodies are much different than men's bodies—we're shorter, our hips are wider, and we pronate," says Hasso. "This all plays into how we walk, and because of that, how our shoes should be designed." So a heel cup, for example, needs to be narrower because we have a narrower heel. Addressing that, especially in hiking boots, means you'll have more stability in the boot when you walk, says Hasso. And a wider toe splay helps prevent blisters and increases comfort, seeing as women's toes tend to spay much wider, she adds. (All of these necessities, BTW, are integrated into the brand's new Siren Sport Q2 shoe.)
Another big difference? Women are always cold—or at least colder than men, so the gear that kept men nice and cozy just wasn't cutting it for women. And there's a physiological reason for why. "Women are the ones to carry children, so when they're stressed, their bodies put all of their blood, warmth, and resources toward the core," says Eder. "That's the reason our hands and feet are always cold—we're focusing on that core area. Men are not designed that way."
Eder says the Columbia team figured that out after conducting a scientific study, and as a result, they then focused on creating a product that would focus on keeping the core warm for longer. "We had to figure out what we could do to give them that cozy factor, keeping their core warmer and in turn preventing them from feeling cold so quickly," says Eder. Enter Omni-Heat Reflective technology, which features a breathable space blanket–like insulation with little silver dots that reflect and retain the warmth the body generates to help regulate your temperature.
Columbia isn't the only company addressing heat loss, either. REI Co-op launched their AirRail Self-Inflating Sleeping Pad, which was designed (primarily by women, BTW) with increased insulation in that torso area to prevent heat loss. And Black Diamond Equipment tackled differences in women's hands and height with their Distance FLZ Trekking Poles (they focused on contact points that wouldn't create blisters from repetitive use, and provided height adjustability so there's never a one-size-fits-all problem out in the wilderness).
At the end of the day, "women need high-performing gear more than they need an infinite color selection of mid-quality gear," says Arnot Reid. And while there are still strides to be made, it's nice to see that, finally, women's gear is getting the attention it deserves.