I’m a travelaholic. I’m also a petite 5’1″ woman with narrow shoulders and a short torso.
That means that I’ve had my share of adventures over the years finding a well-fitting backpack to haul around all my stuff when I travel. Sure, I could use a suitcase on wheels. But where’s the fun in that?
The first thing that everyone will tell you when shopping for a backpack is that you need to measure your torso length. Everyone’s is different. And while being petite makes it more likely that you will have a short torso, it’s by no means a guarantee. You could be a tall person with a relatively short torso, or a short person with a longer torso.
To measure your torso, get a friend to help you. You want to measure the distance of a vertical line between your C7 vertebra (that’s the bump at the base of your neck) and your iliac crest, which is the top or “shelf” of your pelvis, aka, right where the hipbelt would sit on your hips. If you’re having trouble, most hiking or camping gear stores have staff who are trained to measure you properly.
I happen to be in the petite AND short-torso’d category. Mine measures out at approximately 14″, which, according to most pack manufacturers, puts me in the extra-small torso category.
In fact, only a handful of manufacturers even make packs for torsos shorter than 15″. Which makes the shopping experience frustrating, to say the least.
That’s why I’m writing this blog post.
Let’s get this out of the way: “Unisex” means men’s.
That’s not to say that women can’t wear unisex packs. Many women, especially taller or broader-shouldered women, will be more comfortable in a unisex pack. But, the gear industry is very male-dominant. So-called unisex gear is designed, engineered and marketed with male customers in mind, and we women are an afterthought. It’s not fair, but neither are a lot of things.
Women’s specific packs tend to have a few design features that curvier or shorter women will appreciate:
- Narrower shoulder straps that curve inward to avoid sliding off your shoulders
- Chest strap that’s adjustable so it can be moved over, instead of right across, the chest
- Angled hipbelt that accounts for curves
- Shorter and more adjustable torso ranges
There’s some “shrink and pink” going on in the backpack industry, I won’t lie. If the specs of your pack are identical, but the women’s model is in a more “feminine” colour — and costs 20% more — then run for the hills. Plus, send a strongly worded letter to that company’s management.
But those cases are increasingly rare. Overall, there are real and appreciable differences between men’s and women’s backpacks. And, depending on your body type, you — like me — may find that a women’s pack is a better fit.
What about children’s packs?
If you’re very short and tiny, you may be tempted to look at backpacks made for kids. Not only are they made for shorter torsos, but they’re also usually less expensive. And many are available in neutral colours, so you’re not stuck with a Harry Potter backpack on your jaunt around Europe. Win-win, right?
Well, that may be an option for you, depending on body type. But consider that kids’ packs generally are made for kids’ bodies. They aren’t designed to accommodate boobs, hips, or other assorted curves that many of us women have. If you have a very straight up-and-down body type with narrow hips and a small bust, you may find that a children’s pack suits you fine. But if not, you could quickly find it becoming uncomfortable.
I’ve personally never found children’s packs to work for me, so I haven’t reviewed any here. But maybe they will for you. As usual, it’s worth getting fitted in person. You won’t know unless you try.
- Your shoulder width will be a factor, since backpacks need to sit comfortably on your shoulders. Women’s packs typically have slightly narrower shoulders than men’s packs do, so if you have narrow, sloping shoulders like me, that’s a good starting point.
- Hip width is also an issue. I’m a pear-shaped petite with sizable hips — perfect for carrying a heavier load. In comparison, I have less upper body strength, and I prefer not to strain my back. I like to make sure that my pack bears around 80% of its weight on my hips, and only 20% on my shoulders. Some packs have interchangeable hip belts, allowing you to choose one that with the right length and angle.
- Your back width is an issue, too. It is a backpack after all. Most packs won’t have a straight back, but instead, will follow the curvature of your back. Many of the better packs will have mesh or other features designed to keep your load away from your back and allow air to flow to prevent sweating and sticking in the heat.
- And, finally, ladies, let’s talk boobies. Don’t be shy. If you’re, erm, blessed in the chest department, then that chest stability strap is going to sit awkwardly. Look for one with as much adjustment as possible, so you can move the strap out of the way of the girls.
Okay, here’s the thing about pack size: Everyone starts off with a pack that’s waaaaaaay too big. Especially us petites, for whom even a mid-sized bag is going to be a real slog to carry after a while.
Over a decade ago, I travelled around the world with a Gregory Electra 70 expedition pack. I know, I know. What was I thinking? It was almost as big as I am, and I had far too much stuff in it. At the end of four months, I arrived in London and I seriously wanted to pitch it off the Tower Bridge.
After that trip, I downsized slightly, to a Gregory Deva 60 pack, which, in size XS, has a 58-litre capacity. This bag, a longtime favourite of petite travellers everywhere, has been with me on trips around the world for going on a decade now, to more than two dozen countries on five continents. It’s still probably bigger than it ought to be, but it’s been manageable. And it’s extraordinarily comfortable and well-fitting, which makes it easier to carry around.
Recently, I’ve been trying to downsize again and convert myself into a carry-on only traveller. The advantages are manifold: Not having to check luggage saves a ton of time, money and potential hassle on flights. Having a smaller pack overall is so much easier to carry around, and discourages over-packing. Really, you don’t need a bigger pack for a longer trip, because you can do laundry while away. A bag that can fit 7-10 days’ worth of stuff is pretty much good for any length of travel.
The challenge is, ironically, most of the best-fitting packs for shorter torsos are actually bigger in size. There simply aren’t that many good options for carry-on compliant backpacks that will fit a 14-inch torso properly. And those that exist often have flimsy hipbelts not designed to carry much weight. That may be fine for larger people carrying smaller bags, but for us petites, even a 35L bag can be quite heavy when packed to the max, and a proper suspension system is essential for comfort.
But I’m not one to be deterred. So I’ve recently added a new pack to my lineup: The Gregory Jade 38. This pack has a 36-litre capacity in the women’s XS, and is big enough to carry everything I need and nothing I don’t. It fits great, has some nice features like a built-in raincover, front panel access, and generous hipbelt pockets, and has a similarly high build quality to my Deva, only smaller. Furthermore, as long as I don’t overstuff it, I should be able to take it carry-on on all but the strictest budget airlines, saving time, money and hassle.
So far, I’ve successfully test-packed it and it fits all the stuff I’d need for a trip that doesn’t require specialized or bulky gear. It’s 20L smaller than my Deva, but I don’t think I’ll miss the extra space that much, considering I rarely packed my Deva to its full capacity in recent trips. The only issue might be if I want to purchase souvenirs, but I can always take a small collapsible daypack or duffel with me just in case. I haven’t tested it out on the road yet, but I’m looking forward to taking it with me on my next adventure.
Overall, I think a useful pack size guide for petites is:
- 10-20L: Daypack or ultralight travel. Essentials only.
- 20-30L: A weird in-between size that I don’t find all that useful, to be honest. Maybe good for a weekender or business travel bag.
- 30-45L: A good size for streamlined or carry-on only travel. This bag will fit your essentials and a few extras.
- 45-60L: Longer-term travel if you don’t mind checking your bag. Useful if you need a lot of heavy or specialty gear.
- 60+L: It’s too big. Don’t even think about it. Put it back. You’ll thank me later.
So, okay, enough preamble. What packs suit petites? I don’t pretend to have an exhaustive list here. But here are a few brands or packs to look at:
I’m a Gregory fangirl. I have been for years. They were the first and remain one of the only backpack manufacturers to make a women’s XS pack, to fit a torso length of under 16 inches. Plus, their packs are high quality, and have lots of useful pockets, features and design aspects.
Gregory has an extensive women’s pack series. One thing I will mention is that their adjustable back length packs, like the Maven or Amber series, aren’t quite as comfortable for petites, because when you adjust the back length to its smallest setting, the top of the pack can stick out and hit the back of your head or neck uncomfortably. I prefer the packs that come in multiple sizes, like Deva or Jade, which avoid this issue altogether.
Osprey has a huge fanclub, and with good reason. Their packs, though they tend to be a little more expensive than average, are exceptionally well made. It’s quite amazing how much stuff you can get into an Osprey pack, and it will last you for years. I’d put their quality as similar to Gregory’s.
The downside is that Osprey’s packs don’t often come in extra-small. Or, when they do, they may be an XS/S hybrid size with a slightly longer torso. I’ve also found that many of their 35-40L packs have strange dimensions that make them a bit too big to qualify as carry-on luggage on most airlines. For that reason, I’ve tended to be a Gregory girl, though I do own an Osprey daypack that I like quite a lot.
Osprey does have one pack that may be very interesting for petites who travel for both fun and work: The new Fairview is the long-awaited women’s version of the much-beloved Farpoint series. It’s a hybrid pack that can be carried either with a shoulder or hand strap, or as a backpack with hipbelt. The 40L size is carry-on compliant on most airlines, and the larger 55L size comes with a zip-off daypack. The Fairview has business travel-friendly features not typically found in hiking packs, like lockable zippers or a laptop sleeve.
Hybrid bags tend to do most things decently but nothing particularly well, and this is no exception; it’s not nearly as comfortable to carry for long distances as a similarly-sized hiking pack with proper suspension. At this point, I’m used to travelling with a hiking pack, and probably won’t switch. Still, if you’re looking for one bag that can transition from trail to boardroom, the Fairview is worth a look — especially now that it’s finally available in a petite-friendly women’s XS/S fit. (I should note that I personally only was able to test the S/M size, since the smaller one doesn’t seem to be available at any local retailers here in Montreal just yet. Check out a more detailed review here.)
Some other packs that I’ve never owned or tested, but that may be worth a look:
- Deuter – a German brand that is not often available here in Canada. They make “SL” (“slimline”) women’s specific packs in a variety of models and sizes. I couldn’t find much torso length information on their website. Their FAQ mentions that standard packs are sized for 17″-22″ torsos, and SL packs for 13″-20″ with some models having variable harnesses. Another question on the website mentioned that SL packs are sized for a 16.5″ back length, which may be too long for most petites, so definitely try before you buy.
- MEC – in addition to selling a variety of other brands, Canadian retail co-op MEC has two women’s-specific lines of their own branded packs: the Mistral, which is more of a hiking pack, and the Flair, which is more of a hybrid travel pack. Their packs come in two sizes: “short/standard” is supposed to fit torsos of 14-17″. Personally I’ve tried both, and haven’t managed to get a comfortable fit with either.
- REI – if you’re in the US, you may have some luck at the American equivalent of MEC. REI is a huge retailer that also sells multiple brands, including their own. I’ve heard good things about the Flash and Trail series. Though, it’s worth noting, REI’s size chart indicates that the smallest size (S) fits a 16″-18″ torso, which, again, is probably too long for most petites.
This list is by no means exhaustive, and is always changing. The most important thing is to try, try, try. And when testing, make sure to pack the bag full of stuff that actually resembles the size and weight of what you’ll be packing with you.
I could write a whole separate post on packing efficiently, using compression bags, packing cubes, and staying organized. But that’s for another time.