Last fall, a friend and I were packing up for a weekend of backpacking in the Desolation Wilderness. She’s a badass professional guide, and I work in the outdoor industry, so naturally we started comparing gear—which led to a list of all of the gear we’d passed on buying because it was only available in “girl colors.” At times, we’ve both resorted to shopping in the boys’ section of REI (size-wise, it turns out that I’m either a slim woman or a very strapping 12-year-old boy).
When I first started working in the outdoor industry, I was so excited to be surrounded by other smart, tough women—and I still am. But whenever I go to trade shows or industry events, I’m shocked at how solidly, stubbornly pink all of the women’s options are—even gear for truly extreme sports, like mountaineering and ultra running. Women’s gear often lacks features that are available for men. For some sports, equipment isn’t available in women’s sizes at all.
Maybe I shouldn’t be so surprised; after 15 years of backcountry escapades, I’ve become all too familiar with the myriad ways that people underestimate women’s abilities in the wilderness. Sometimes it’s subtle—for example, when other hikers ask for directions, they’ll invariably address the men in my group, even when I’m the person holding the map. More often, the double standards show up in the form of concern. My boyfriend is an ultramarathoner, and when new friends hear about his latest 50-mile trail race, they respond with awe and admiration. But when I mention my latest solo backpacking trip, the response isn’t “Awesome!” or “I bet your calves are super muscular!” It’s “Weren’t you scared?” or “Isn’t that dangerous?” Instead of seeing a female hiker as strong and capable, they picture me as a slow-moving target in Tevas.
Then there’s the outright disdain. A few years ago, during a class on backcountry navigation, our male instructor asked each person to estimate their typical hiking speed. When I came up with a rate of 4 miles per hour (brisk, sure, but not blistering), he rolled his eyes and announced to the whole group that I must have miscalculated—nobody my size could maintain that pace.
In reality, some research suggests that women may have an edge over men in extreme endurance sports, especially long-distance swimming and hiking. Our bodies burn energy more efficiently over the long haul, and researchers also speculate that women use better judgment in the wilderness—we’re less likely to overestimate our abilities and crash midway through a race. If we are so well suited for the outdoors, why can’t we find equipment to match?
Jill Missal, founder of GearGals.com—a blog devoted to reviewing women’s outdoor gear—has been hearing the same feedback from her readers for a decade. “The biggest complaints regarding inadequacies of women’s gear compared to men’s are lack of pockets, color choices, and fit,” she says. For example, men’s ski pants don’t change much from year to year, but lately the industry has been designing women’s ski pants to look more like skinny jeans. The result? Too-tight pants that make it hard to move freely, with pockets so shallow they can barely hold your car keys.
Missal notes that the gap between women’s and men’s gear widens when it comes to high-risk, technical activities. “The biggest thing I want to see is high-altitude double-mountaineering boots for women. I keep hearing that ‘women don’t buy tech gear’— but if they don’t make it, how do they know?” She points out that most female mountaineers are stuck buying ill-fitting men’s gear. And on high-stakes expeditions, something as small as a too-wide, wobbly mountaineering boot can be a safety risk.
The market for women’s athletic gear has exploded in the past few years; according to the Outdoor Industry Association (OIA), sales of women’s gear grew by 10% between 2012 and 2013. But the industry still has a color palette problem: walk into the women’s section of your local trail outfitter, and you might as well be in the doll aisle at Toys R Us. It’s probably a solid wall of magenta, baby blue, and purple, with a generous sprinkling of flowers and butterflies. Pick up a catalog, and you’ll see the men’s gear displayed prominently on the cover, with women’s options relegated to the back pages, right next to the kids’ fleece onesies.
The disconnect is obvious: these companies are outfitting women who are scaling rock faces, running marathons, and scrambling up mountain tops. We need our clothing to be ultra functional, not ultra feminine. Sure, there are some women who gravitate toward traditionally feminine colors, and there’s nothing wrong with that, but there are also many of us who are desperate for a jacket in navy blue, hunter green, or charcoal gray. We’d also kill for pants with pockets big enough for our wallets, because none of us are bringing our purses on the trail. Lauren Heumann, a pro guide based in the Bay Area, notes that even unisex, one-size-fits-all items like hats and gloves are designed with men in mind, leaving her with “baggy items that inhibit peak performance, as I’m constantly readjusting and trying to tighten them down.”
If so many women are frustrated with their gear options, why haven’t things changed? When I’ve asked other people in the industry, they insist that the traditionally feminine designs and colors just sell better—but they seem to be overlooking the huge swath of women (including their own female coworkers) who are simply buying men’s gear instead. The industry itself is largely a boys’ club—in 2011, the OIA also reported that just 12.5% of the largest outdoor companies were led by women. In other words, brands are guessing at what women want and coming up with pink gear that often prioritizes fashion over function.
Some do seem to be trying to turn things around, especially now that major publications like Outside Magazine are calling out the problem. Last year, the REI foundation gave a $1.5 million grant to the Outdoor Industry Women’s Association with the aim of promoting women’s leadership in the industry. Up-and-coming companies are also focusing on making more unisex gear: Daniela Perdomo is the co-founder and CEO of goTenna, a company that makes devices that let people use their phones off-grid—especially useful for rangers and ski patrollers who spend their days in the backcountry. Her product recently won the “Gear of the Show” award at the Outdoor Retailer tradeshow, the industry’s biggest gear expo. Perdomo has made a concerted effort to avoid gender-based marketing: “I didn’t like those gendered flourishes when I was six and I definitely don’t like them at 30. I also don’t plan to release colors that feel more ‘feminine’ — whatever that means. Even as we craft messaging for specific audiences, gender doesn’t play a role in the character I think of as the intended target . . . I don’t think I need to separately message for ‘female hiker’ versus ‘male hiker.’”
As much as pink puffy vests infuriate me, I know they’re just the most visible aspect of harmful, pervasive attitudes that insist that women are less capable of handling themselves in the wild—the same biases that motivate middle-aged men to chase after me at the trailhead so they can offer some friendly mansplaining tips on how to “optimize” my running form. Like so many people, I head into the woods to forget myself, and if I’m lucky, I’ll enjoy a few exquisite hours of thinking about . . . nothing at all. But when I look down at my magenta running shoes (sadly, my favorite brand only offers them in that one color), it’s a little reminder that the world doesn’t always consider me to be as strong and capable as I feel. I hope more outdoor companies explore the outer reaches of the color spectrum when making gear for women, and more women can take to the mountains with equipment that matches their individual preferences and abilities. Until then, you can find me on the trail in my trusty little boy’s down vest.