How to Choose the Right Women’s Backpacking Pack

Published 2018-06-03

With a pang of sadness, I’m hanging up my powder skis after a final day of slaying in Colorado, and I’m settling in for what outdoor enthusiasts call the “shoulder season.” Now is the time when the outdoor community rests and begins planning summer backpacking, climbing, and mountain biking adventures. My backpacking list for the upcoming months includes the iconic Snowmass trail from Crested Butte to Aspen, Colorado, numerous 2-3 day hikes, and a 32-mile section of the Colorado Trail that starts out at rolling Kenosha Pass and gains over 5,000 feet in elevation total. It’s going to be a good summer.

That said, as an outdoors-woman who backpacks through the high alpine tundra of Colorado’s mountains, I gravitate toward gear that is durable, fits my body comfortably, and can be customized to meet my needs. Whether I’m bagging fourteeners or backpacking below treeline through dense pines, my backpack needs to feel like an extension of my body. No “shrink and pink” for this girl—only expert craftsmanship that will carry comfortably over rough terrain and can take a beating.

For women with a penchant for the extreme who feel more comfortable on a trail than in an office, it is crucial to not only choose the right fit and size for your pack but also know how to efficiently pack your backpack for proper weight distribution. Luckily, MYSTERY RANCH has the right gear and guidance for you.

When choosing the appropriate backpacking backpack, I keep the following in mind:

Backpacking backpacks typically come in your standard sizes: extra small, small, medium, and large. On the rare occasion, brands will provide guidance on what to do when you need to “size up” or “size down.” Luckily, this information is included in MYSTERY RANCH’s women’s sizing guide.

Choosing a backpacking backpack “size” can be broken down into three separate and important measurements: torso length, and waist. These measurements help to determine the appropriate fit of your backpack.

Torso length may be the most important measurement for everyone when being fitted for a backpack. While your height measures the entire length of your body, your torso length is very specific and measures from the C7 vertebrae (the bumpy bone that sits between your shoulders, just below the nape of your neck) to the small of your back just above your hip bones, two fingers below your belly button.

To determine your torso length, have a friend use a tailor’s measuring tape to measure from the points described above.

If you happen to have a very long torso (18-21 inches), it will be important to purchase a backpack that offers a “large” or “extra large” option.

MYSTERY RANCH backpacks are equipped with an expertly architectured form-fitting yoke complete with a plastic adjuster which allows the wearer to adjust the backpack up or down to fit their specific torso length and height. To do this, simply partially remove the plastic adjuster, “break” the Velcro between the yoke and body and adjust to the right length. Since I’m relatively tall but have a somewhat short torso, this feature makes choosing and adjusting the fit of my backpack much more simple.

Waist or Hip Belt

Any woman who has ever bought a pair of jeans knows how grossly inaccurate the simplistic “small,” “medium,” and “large” measurements are for women. Our hips that dance, shake, and propel us up mountains cannot be reduced to such rudimentary labels. As such, you’re gonna go by the inches (or centimeters) and look for a waist belt that is adjustable. Certain MYSTERY RANCH packs have a cant feature, which allows you to adjust the waist belt to perfectly mold around your hips.


While height is an important factor when choosing a daypack, MYSTERY RANCH backpacks have plastic adjusters within the yoke that allow you to move the yoke up and down. As such, torso length and waist measurements provide greater accuracy when choosing a backpack.

Generally speaking, if you are 5’1 or under you will want to look at extra small packs and, if you are 5’10 or over, a large might be the right fit for you.


Because women come in a variety of beautiful shapes and sizes, it’s possible that you will fall outside of the “standard” measurements. If that’s the case, MYSTERY RANCH is happy to work with you to make sure you get the custom fit you need.

Along with an adjustable yoke, framing and harnessing are top priorities when I’m choosing the perfect backpacking backpack.

An internal frame will generally suit a backpacker better than an external frame; internal frames are typically top-loading and are not intended for strapping a lot of gear to the outside of the backpack. When you are navigating rocky terrain and potentially scrambling over dangerous sections of trail, you don’t want items knocking around or getting caught. MYSTERY RANCH’s internally framed packs ensure that you don’t get snagged on rocks or trees and allows your back and body to move fluidly.

For a design that fits you best, women should also pay special attention to harnessing. MYSTERY RANCH designs their women’s backpacks to utilize ergonomically curved harnessing that has a more narrow shoulder pad. This alleviates friction and allows your backpack to carry more comfortably. I noticed the difference between MYSTERY RANCH’s harnessing and other harnessing systems once I had packed 50lbs of gear into my backpack. There was virtually no pressure on my shoulders or upper back, the straps didn’t chafe, and the entire backpack felt stable and centered.

Depending on the type of backpacking you want to do, and whether you consider yourself to be an ultralight hiker, you want to make sure that you choose a pack big enough for your trail gear but light enough to not be burdensome.

For skilled hikers who are practiced at taking only the necessities, a 65-70 liter backpack should work well for 2-4 days trips. If you’re doing a five day plus excursion, you’ll want 70-80 liters.

For newbies to the backpacking world, MYSTERY RANCH 62-80 liter backpacking backpacks are a good place to start. It will allow you to get comfortable with packing your gear appropriately and will condition you to carry more weight. Once you know what kind of backpacking you want to do in the future, you can always stick with this size or go smaller if lighter hiking is your thing.

Now that you’ve chosen the perfect MYSTERY RANCH backpack, you need to know how to pack it. When packing for a long backpacking trip, load carriage and balance is everything.

Bottom Pack Items

When I pack my backpack, I start with the bottom pack items first, and I generally pack in this order:

  • sleeping pad
  • sleeping bag
  • tent (external using available straps)

Because my pad and sleeping bag can easily be compressed, this allows for plenty of room in the core of my backpack for my heavier or bulkier items. Depending on the type of terrain I’m traveling on, I may choose to attach my tent to the outside of my backpack, or I will make room for it inside. My general rule of thumb: If the terrain is uneven and rocky, my tent goes inside my pack. If the terrain is relatively flat and gradual, I’ll attach it externally.

Core Pack Items

Core pack items are typically your heaviest and, as such, you want them as central to your back and hips as possible for proper weight distribution. I pack the core of my backpack in the following order:

  • food, toothpaste and toothbrush, gum, cooking equipment (stove, pots and pans, silverware), toiletries in my bear canister
  • hatchet (You can also carry your hatchet externally for easy access)
  • water in my reservoir
  • clothes (I pack clothes around these larger items and typically carry two pairs of socks, three pairs of underwear, and two shirts for a 3 day trip)
  • travel towel
  • jacket

Anything that is smelly should, ideally, go in your bear canister but I do make an except for sunscreen and chapstick. I pack these items in outside compartments for easy access on the trail—then, once I make camp, in the bear canister they go.

Top Pack Items

I consider the top of my pack my lifeline when I’m hiking. This is where I store everything that needs to be easily accessed such as:

  • snacks
  • Lifestraw for a quick but safe sip from a mountain stream
  • headlamp
  • feminine hygiene products such as tampons, pads, menstrual cup, and ibuprofen if you’re hurting
  • rain cover for your backpack and a small rain jacket

Outside Compartments

In the outside compartments located on the exterior of my backpack’s core, I pack items that I will need sparingly on my trip, such as:

  • water purification items like tablets and my gravity fed water filter
  • toilet paper
  • trowel
  • first aid kit
  • bug spray
  • lighter
  • paracord
  • carabiners (I use carabiners to attach numerous items to my pack including hats, water bottles, and various gear)

Hip-Belt and Water Bottle Compartments

I utilize my hip-belt compartments for items I will need to access without taking my backpack off. These items might include:

  • small knife
  • camera or phone
  • GPS device
  • folded maps
  • compass

I typically don’t carry water bottles on the trail, so I often use my water bottle compartments for my knife and phone. These compartments are versatile, but items should be clipped since the water bottle compartments don’t zip.

It’s worth mentioning that packing your backpack will be dependant upon the season, climate, and terrain in which you’re adventuring. For winter excursions, expect more weight since you will no doubt be packing heavier clothing and gear such as ice axes and crampons.

If you’re traveling in an unusually wet climate, you’ll need to be sure to pack a tent footprint, rain cover, and certain items will need to be placed in waterproof containers or bags.

Now, perhaps more than ever, women feel empowered, skilled, and capable of venturing into the wilderness on their own. With the appropriate knowledge and practice, solo backpacking can range from a simple delight to a deeply moving experience. It is, however, important to keep in mind that any solo backpacker is more vulnerable alone than in a group so make sure you consider the following:

  • Train for the extra weight you will have in your pack since you cannot disperse the gear amongst companions
  • Carry bear spray in a MYSTERY RANCH holster for easy access should you encounter wildlife
  • For women who prefer to carry a weapon, MYSTERY RANCH has several backpack compatible holster accessories. As a woman who has done several solo adventures, I never hit the trail alone without my .38 Special and my bear spray. Luckily, I’ve never had to use either. Knock on wood.
  • When backpacking alone, it’s wise to have check-in points along the way where you will call to let someone know you’ve arrived safely. If they don’t hear from you within a specific window of time, then they can alert the rangers or rescue teams in your area.
    Pack a first-aid kit and consider carrying items such as antibiotics and prescription strength pain medicine should you get sick or injure yourself on the trail. Consult with a physician and ask if they are comfortable prescribing these items to you before you set out.

Stay away from “shrink and pink.”

It can be tempting to buy a cheap backpack from a manufacturer who has no experience in designing gear specifically for women. Unfortunately, your back and hips will pay the price.

Always be prepared for an emergency.

Carry a first aid kit and, if you’re going solo, consider taking a satellite phone, bear spray, and a firearm.

Bear canisters are big, but they’re worth the extra weight.

On one of my first overnight backpacking trips, I skipped the bear canister and paid the price. Luckily, the black bear only ripped my backpack open and flung it in a creek. It could have been much worse.

Break in your backpack…

…by packing it and taking it on several shorter hikes before you go on a longer hike. This will allow you to get used to the weight and how your MYSTERY RANCH backpack carries.