The Future Of Outdoor Gear Is Female

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So it’s not a stretch to say that the avid climber, skier and paraglider quite literally puts her life in the hands of the people who design her gear. And yet, her approach to choosing the right equipment is pretty straight forward. 

“You find the proper gear for the proper use,” she said. “You use it, try other types of gear from your friends and choose what’s right for you. Simple.” 

However, designing the gear that keeps up with these kinds of high-altitude adventures is not always as simple – and designers have a multitude of factors to consider. They think about the technical side of things – the latest materials, technologies and manufacturing techniques. Then they factor in different terrains, temperatures and extreme uses (like taking on the Alps!).

Photo by: Jeff Ruepple, Sea to Summit

Photo by: Jeff Ruepple, Sea to Summit

“Most product engineers turn to the numbers when they start designing a piece of gear,” said Sea to Summit designer, Brendan Sando. “We can’t help but think in terms of dimensions, weight, size, materials, temperatures, R values, market demand and all that.”

To make things more complicated, designers need to think about what people want from their gear – what they want it to do and what their priorities and preferences are. This means catering for the people who measure their gear down to the gram for a thru-hike, who crave extra comfort on a 4WD trip or who are on the hunt for the most compact gear to store on their mountain bike. Hence, there’s a lot of stuff out there that’s been created around lots of different preferences.

But what happens when most of these preferences are coming from men? 

Particularly in industries like climbing, men have been the ones that have spoken up about what gear they want. After all, in terms of sheer numbers, they’ve dominated most outdoor pursuits for a while. Female climbers have simply had to live with the hangover of this – with gloves and helmets that are too big and climbing boots that are too wide. They camp with mummy-shaped sleeping bags and sleeping mats that are designed to suit a ‘typical man’s body’. In an industry that designs around the details – to shave off weight, generate heat or eliminate bulk – these innovations have rarely been dictated by women.

And in the past, when designers have tried to address this gap in the market for women’s specific gear, they’ve gotten it dead wrong. 

“Pink it and shrink it – there you go,” said Brendan. “Designers have made some terrible mistakes when designing gear for women. They didn’t make considered, tangible improvements to their designs. A lot of them went forward with a bunch of preconceived ideas about what women wanted and, not surprisingly, their gear bombed.”

But it’s not all doom and gloom. Professional climbers Collette McInerney and Hazel Findlay say changes in the climbing industry are moving things in the right direction. These days, more women have taken up the sport and more money is on the line for elite female climbers. 

“The tides are really changing,” said Colette. “When I look at youth teams now, I see just as many female athletes as male athletes – and they’re crushing it! That’s what the future of climbing looks like.”

With more and more women ascending to the top in outdoor pursuits, their collective voices are ringing loud and clear in designer’s ears. 

“Climbing clothes have taken a while to get good for women but now we’re seeing a lot of improvement,” said Hazel. “We’re seeing clothing with more pockets, better fit, a better range of movement and better insulation in the thighs and bum to keep you warm.”

Hardware is also starting to come to the party – with better fitting helmets and harnesses for more extreme uses. Aussie companies like Sea to Summit are making serious headway in women’s camping gear too – and have just released a comprehensive range of sleep systems designed specifically for women. We’re talking sleeping bags, pillows, liners, sleep mats – the whole lot. 

“Up until now, we’ve been focussed on providing unisex options with enough variants and choice to cater for men and women,” said Brendan. “But we’ve gone with a different approach with our women’s sleep systems range. We started the whole design process from the ground up to give us a completely new perspective.”

A new perspective was exactly what the design team got. The closer they looked, the more and more things they found that could be tailored to women. A combination of consultation and biometric data revealed how to better cater for a woman’s size and weight distribution, the way they store heat and the way they sleep (on their side, mostly). Then, they put their designs to the test with their female ambassadors.

The result is a range of sleeping bags that offer extra warmth in the core and feet, where women typically lose heat – and a roomier style designed to fit the body shape of the ‘typical woman’. A variety of sleeping mats have been created to support women’s different physiology (and accommodate all that side sleeping) and their lower body temperatures.

And in an effort to learn from the mistakes of the disastrous ‘pink it, shrink it’ movement, they didn’t just release one piece of pink female gear amongst a sea of blue – they released a range of gear and sizes that provides choice. So you can still find the proper gear for the proper use – with not a bit of pink in sight. Simple.

Photo by: Steven Horne

Photo by: Steven Horne

“It’s these small design changes that can really change someone’s experience of the outdoors,” said Hazel. “As a result, hopefully more women will feel supported in their pursuits – with fitted gloves that help us climb trickier ascents, shoes that can take on the trails and sleeping gear that gives us the recovery we need to take on mountains.” 

With both big retailers and more women demanding this kind of thoughtful design, hopefully it will not only encourage women into the outdoors, but into the design space. While little data exists on the exact figures (you’ll hear anything from 5-30%), women are clearly very much outnumbered in the industrial design industry. 

But until the numbers even out, there are still plenty of ways that designers can begin to deliver on the demand for women’s specific gear.

“I’d love to see more designers working together with female climbers,” said Liv. “These women are out there almost everyday on the terrain and have a certain sensibility and interest when it comes to gear – they have the ideas that are going to move this whole thing forward.”

Story by: Sarah Joanna Pope

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