It's a fundamental fact of nature: Female backpackers have different needs than their Y-chromosome counterparts. They need a pack with specially-fitted straps that accommodate narrow shoulders. Hip belts that rest comfortably on curves. And maybe even a slightly smaller bag to account for their somewhat delicate -- but still rugged -- statures.
Though it took backpack designers several decades, they've finally tailored packs to fit a woman's physique. Over the past 12 months, we've scrutinized pack specs online, and trekked to REI and similar shops to try on packs over and over again. Then we took our selections to California's Joshua Tree National Park to put them through their paces.
Here are the three that stood out from the pack. Though we recommend the following for their design details, relatively low weights and sturdiness, it is advisable to visit an outdoor outfitter and try on different models to see which one best fits your needs. -- Renee Schettler
OUR PICK: Mountainsmith's Chimera ($230; 800-551-5889, www.mountainsmith.com). At 3 pounds 10 ounces and 3,600 cubic inches, the Chimera -- part of the Mountainlight series -- has sufficient room to stash gear for several days of backcountry camping, including sleeping bag and pad, tent, clothes and food.
FEMALE-FRIENDLY BECAUSE . . . of its narrow-cut shoulder straps, contoured hip belt and shorter torso length.
THE LOOK: Bland but inoffensive bronze color. Old-fashioned but functional in its long, narrow build.
PROS AND CONS: Side access panel makes for easy rummaging . . . . Features all-important waterproof rain zippers . . . Detachable hood doubles as a fanny pack for day hikes . . . Sturdy (but heavy) internal frame accommodates a weighty load. . . Compression straps aplenty to cinch it down . . . Narrower shape and fewer pockets than many packs this size make it relatively less cumbersome to carry -- and far easier to remember where you stashed your toothbrush.
OUR PICK: Camelbak's Isis ($80; 800-767-8725, www.camelbak.com). At 2.1 pounds and 1,245 cubic inches, it's large enough to accommodate a weekend's worth of clothes and magazines yet small enough to cram in the overhead flight bin.
FEMALE-FRIENDLY BECAUSE . . . of its Women's Independent Suspension Harness (a fancy and trademarked way to say the straps won't chafe against your armpits) and contoured hip belt.
THE LOOK: Sleek, simple design. "Dusk purple" color is preferable to pink.
PROS AND CONS: The Camelbak hydration system (a water pouch with straw that wends its way to your shoulder) means no stopping to reach for the Nalgene bottle . . . Organizer pocket keeps small stuff close at hand . . . The pack is surprisingly -- and dangerously -- capacious, which makes it tempting to fill it to capacity. Don't do it, and by all means, resist the urge to slip a laptop in there . . . The bag's basic suspension system seems to place most of the weight on the upper body. Translation: really sore shoulders if the pack is stuffed full.
OUR PICK: Granite Gear's Vapor Trail ($150; 218-834-6157, www.granitegear.com). At two pounds and 3,600 cubic inches, it's best for those who know that ounces add up to pounds and pounds add up to pain. The top few feet of fabric can be rolled down when not needed to extend the pack, making this versatile ultra-light pack variable in size. You can take the same pack for an overnight stay at the beach or a week on the Appalachian Trail.
FEMALE-FRIENDLY BECAUSE . . . of its contoured hip belt.
THE LOOK: Pretty simple. It's just a long stuff sack with some cinch straps, a hydration sleeve and two deep side pockets. Pseudo-argyle pattern in sage and black.
PROS AND CONS: Polyethylene frame makes the pack exceptionally light for something this sizable and durable, and it distributes weight evenly across back and hips . . . Made from nylon ripstop fabric, the pack is a lot sturdier than it feels . . . Carries up to 30 pounds . . . Internal hydration sleeve . . . Fits slender builds as snugly and comfortably as your favorite bra.