Susan Viscon knew there was a problem with women’s outdoor gear long before the industry starting “shrinking and pinking” equipment to fit women.
“I’ve had the fortune of being at REI for 20 years,” says Viscon, the company’s Senior Vice President of Merchandising. “At that time I remember buying a unisex Gore-Tex jacket. It fit like a garbage sack.”
Thus began Viscon’s two-decade quest to recreate apparel, backpacks, sleeping bags, hiking boots, and other products, designed specifically for women. Thanks to REI merchants and a small cadre of industry visionaries, women’s backpacks today have more anatomically suitable hip belts; women’s sleeping bags add insulation in all the right places; even some women’s hiking boots have been created for women from the ground up, rather than building on the industry standard for men.
“Not everything has to have a gender lens on it,” says Viscon. “Only products where women are benefited by performance and comfort.”
In May, REI launched its women-focused “Force of Nature” campaign, acknowledging women’s place in adventure sports and athletics. The campaign dovetails an industry shift: The same month, Outside magazine proclaimed on its cover that the “Future of Adventure is Female.” And on June 15, bike maker Specialized unveiled the Women’s Diverge, a high-end adventure bike for the distaff side. There’s no doubt that ladies are crushing it. But women’s gear, which has notoriously lagged behind men’s, is just now catching up.
Not Just Boys’ Toys
For decades, women’s gear privileged form over function. Take the “Ladies Top Performance” ski debuted by K2 in the mid-1980s. The women-specific ski was light and flexible, but offered more in the way of pretty graphics than it did in performance.
“The ski was kind of a joke,” says Kim Reichhelm, a world champion extreme skier and technical advisor for K2. “Lower-level skiers loved it, but it didn’t take long to grow out of it because it wasn’t enough of a ski.”
That’s a common lament: Manufacturers get decent marks for creating entry-level products, but when it comes to gear designed for expert women, there’s been a gaping hole. The K2 ski, for example, was designed for beginners, making it too flimsy for experts to carve in steep, deep, all-mountain conditions. Skis built for men on the other hand, often came in too-long sizes that were too stiff, which made them difficult for smaller expert women skiers to handle.
In an effort to fill that gap, in the late 1990s K2 created the “Women’s Alliance,” a diverse core of female skiers (including Reichhelm) who relentlessly blind-tested skis to fine tune them for women. The testing process yielded tangible results—like moving the mounting position of the binding and the centerpoint of the ski farther forward, since women tend to weight the tail of the ski more than the tip. K2’s testers also experimented with core materials which, surprisingly, didn’t always translate to making a ski lighter just because it was for a woman.
“We do make skis in our collection that are lighter,” says Reichhelm, “but they’re not for a super aggressive woman skier.”
This fall, the company will have 17 women-specific skis in their line. Most are constantly-evolving upgrades in the line designed by the Women’s Alliance—which, incidentally, also includes male testers. “If we can get a guy to say our ski rocks, then you can confidently say a good female skier will like it,” says Reichhelm, who is most excited about the Luv Machine 74ti, a snappy ski with a titanium-reinforced wood-core that holds well on ice, perfect for East Coat conditions.
Jen Gurecki, co-founder of women’s ski manufacturer Coalition Snow, has taken the process a step further. “Women have tested skis for brands in the past,” she says. “But where have women been from start to finish? We’re starting with women first and designing around their strengths, rather than modifying a men’s ski. It’s not a better or worse process, it’s just a different process.”
Within the line, Gurecki’s go-to ski is the all-mountain SOS, a wood-core ski that comes in lengths from 157 to 180 cm—an impressive range for women’s skis—with 105 mm underfoot on its 173 cm ski.
“It’s a ski that solves a lot of problems,” Gurecki says, citing the proper lengths and stiffness. “It’s not about building a ski that women can go super rad on. It’s about building a ski women feel super confident on.”
Ride Like a Girl
Like the ski industry, the bike manufacturers have lagged to design high-performance bikes that fit women. On models designed for men, women sometimes struggle with frame sizes that are too large on high-performance bikes, shocks that are too stiff for lighter riders, handlebars that are too wide, and saddles that don’t accommodate women’s anatomy.
“Eighteen months ago our team did a huge initiative in cycle products,” says Viscon. “What we heard is that there are little or no full-suspension bikes for women—especially for women under 5’5”.”
So REI teamed with bike manufacturer Ghost to create the DREAMR4 and DREAMRX7 full-suspension mountain bikes, both built to accommodate more advanced and aggressive female riders. Designed by a female engineer, Tina Kutschki, in Germany, the bikes sport a shorter top tube to accommodate women’s longer legs and shorter torsos. They also come with a women’s saddle, narrower handlebars, and shorter cranks. The higher-end DREAMRX7 even has carbon rims—an expensive, bike-lightning upgrade almost unheard of on women’s bikes until now.
Bike manufacturer Specialized has taken a different approach. Over the past decade, the company has gathered between 40,000 and 50,000 digital data points from both male and female riders that indicate you don’t need to reinvent the wheel when designing a bike for women.
“Fit data has shown that there is no need for separate frames for each gender for the same experience,” says Joe Buckley, the mountain bike product manager at Specialized. Instead, he says all you need to optimize a bike for women is to adjust the touchpoints—things like the saddle, cranks, handlebars, and grips—plus tuning the suspension for a lighter rider.
To handle the discrepancy in height between men and women, Specialized builds frames in sizes XS, S, and M, which accommodate riders ranging from 4’11” to 5’11”. Most women fall into one of those categories. The L and XL frames accommodate taller, generally male, riders up to 6’6”.
Specialized’s latest model, an adventure bike called the Diverge, comes with touch points set for women riders. But the design process went beyond X and Y chromosomes.
“We looked at how riders fit on a bicycle regardless of gender,” says Stephanie Kaplan, a road product manager at Specialized. “Then we designed a geometry that accommodated as many riders as possible who want to be out on a bicycle doing this particular style of riding.”
Kaplan says the new bike is “mind blowing,” with the progressive Future Shock spring built into the stem, smoothing out the ride so much that it takes the relentless grind even out of gravel roads. It also has wider tires and significantly wider clearance for rugged conditions, rack and fender mounts for hauling gear, a lower bottom bracket for better handling over rough terrain, and the ability to take 650b and 700 tires. In short, it’s the ultimate gravel bike.
“If there was a need for a women’s specific geometry, we would 100 percent do it,” says Kaplan. “But we’re not going to do it just so we can claim there’s a bike for a woman rider. I just gave birth to my daughter seven months ago and this is the bike that I needed to get back into riding. It allows me to go to cool places and I love the way it feels. It gets me back to why I love bikes in the first place.”
And that’s all that really matters for any rider: to have the kind of gear that just works, regardless of gender.