Since I was thirteen years old, I’ve been 4’11’’. Whether this is the gift of scoliosis, gymnastics, genetics, or pure luck, I have no idea – but that’s my height. I’m happy being shy of 5 feet. As a public high school teacher I heard the best gossip in the halls because no one saw me coming. As a shopper, I benefit from being able to wear kids’ size clothing and shoes. And as a frequent traveler, I have plenty of room when placed in a middle seat on a flight. The trouble I come up against, however, is finding a grown up style backpack that fits little ol’ me.
Finding backpacks for small torsos isn’t easy. When researching options, you find many articles geared to petite and small women. Then upon opening them, there are comments about being 5’1’’ or 5’3’’ and although I know they’re helpful to many – for me, this is still a struggle.
In 1996, I backpacked Europe after university. At the time, there were few sturdy backpacks that even came close to fitting me and nothing in the realm of women specific sizing. Comparing that giant, heavy, duffel bag that was constantly strapped to my back, pulling on my shoulders and wreaking havoc on my already crooked hips to today’s options is like comparing elephants to apples.
Today’s versions have women specific sizing, sturdy straps, lightweight frames, pockets upon pockets, removable hip belts and can be adjusted by each wearer.
I remember that first backpacking journey well. It was my first venture to Europe, my first venture with a guidebook and no net, and my first true foray into traveling on my own terms. But when I think about the actual pack (if you can even call it that), I wind up wondering how different that schlepping might have been had I had the technology of today.
Two decades later, I’m in the market again.
After a few visits to REI, online research, and conversations with friends who have similar issues, here are a few tips in searching for backpacks for petite women with small torsos.
Consider the Purpose of Your Pack
Figuring out what you’re looking for your pack to do for you is really important. Of course, the general answer is ‘carry my stuff’, but once you know your needs, it’s easier to narrow your search.
- Elana is a climber and thru-hiker
- Elaine takes weekend trips and long distance hikes
- Roxana is heading off on a five-day backpacking journey to Peru
- Emma is more of an urban traveler who enjoys long day trips spent in a new city
And me – I lean towards the day hikes, urban adventures and am always on the lookout for a pack that will work for a two month journey that includes city stops, longer day hikes and international travel that could include bumpy terrain and those unplanned spontaneous moments.
We all tend towards women specific sizing. Many of us would qualify in the ‘petite’ section and two of us are under 5 feet tall. The purpose of each pack is different, but we’ll all look for comfort, lightweight, good suspension, and adjustable options from straps to belts.
Consider Your Travel Style
Whether you’re looking for short distance, or long, high mileage, or low, thru-hikes, day hikes, week long expeditions, or those long weekend wanders, each style and geographic location is unique.
A leisure hiker wants to carry stuff but isn’t as concerned about lightweight gear as a thru-hiker might be. The leisure hiker might stop for heaps of photos and picnic breaks and relax around camps from time to time. The light and fast hiker is far more concerned with suspension and lightweight gear that has multiple uses and minimal weight.
Thru-Hiker & Ultralight
A thru-hiker is planning to carry gear and food and is conscious that the pack will be worn for many hours and many days. The ultra-lite hiker seeks minimal weight in both the actual pack and what’s inside.
The urban traveler is looking for ease of travel on public transportation, clean lines that won’t draw attention, and top tier design in interior compartments to keep things organized and balance electronics with urban travel gear.
Length and style of travel are important considerations in selecting the right backpack.
The Season You’re Traveling Matters Too
Are you a warm weather traveler or one who gets up and goes regardless of Mother Nature’s mood? Keep in mind that if you’re traveling during the summer months, you’ll need lighter weight clothing and have the ability to spend more time hiking in daylight hours. If you’re searching for those high altitudes, even in summer you can come across some snow and cold – so those extra layers are necessary.
For the actual pack itself, weather is also a consideration. Airflow is something to think about if you’re traveling in those extremely hot and humid climates. For those heading into more of a wet season climate, consider gear that will keep both you and the contents of your pack dry.
Measure your Torso
Your first step is to measure your torso (not your height). Have someone help you with this process.
- Tilt your head forward and the vertebra at the meeting point of your back and neck that sticks out the most is your starting point.
- Your ending point is slightly above your hipbone (on the iliac crest) where the backpack will rest.
Remember to check the sizing for each company’s packs as well as on the individual packs themselves. Not every small pack is fit for the same torso length. For those of us on the lower end of the measurement spectrum, taking a look at youth size packs is also an option.
Look for padded shoulder straps that won’t dig into your arms on the top or bottom. Next, you get to check out hip belts and sizing. Keep in mind that hip belts and waist straps are different. Look for those padded hip belts that distribute weight and don’t poke into your skin regardless of the levels of layers you’ll be wearing. Not every pack has a hip belt and these days many come with them as an adjustable option or additional item. Now the trying on session begins.
Fitting Backpacks for Small Torsos
Here are the steps for fitting a backpack:
- Pick a pack
- Add weight inside
- Loosen all straps
- Put the pack on
- Tighten waist belt while it rests along your iliac crest and the middle of the belt sits on your hip bones
- Once set, tighten shoulder straps; ideally the straps to follow the curve of your shoulder with little space in between the pack and your back
- Tighten chest strap and adjust to your comfort level
- Lastly, work with other load lifter straps to secure your pack and distribute weight
If the stars align and this pack is the right one, you’ll know. You’re looking for comfort, limited pressure on your shoulders, and feeling most of the weight distributed to your hips. If the straps are placed correctly and the fit is right for you, you’ll feel good padding on the shoulders, with no chafing or poking anywhere.
In search of the packs that fit my tiny 15 inch torso, I had a conversation with backpack specialist, Jessica Lee. Jessica has been in the backpack and camping industry for nearly a decade. Presently working at REI, Jessica told me a few things about backpacks.
First, she suggested that when choosing the weight of a pack, travelers are advised not to carry a backpack weighing more than one quarter of their body weight.
When I asked her what she believed to be the most important point for someone purchasing a new pack, she said, “When buying a pack, try it on with weight fully loaded.”
Her choice for favorite backpack is the Osprey Aura 65 and her favorite daypack is the Osprey Tempest 20.
In her opinion, the two best companies for backpacks sold at REI are Osprey and Gregory. She’s happy to chat about travel and choosing packs and will help you get the right fit if you come see her at the San Diego, California REI.
Suggested Packs for People with Small Torsos
After much research, I found that there is something to be said for a pack designed specifically for women. The shoulder straps curve fully around the shoulder girdles and the straps come in at a narrower angle so as to allow room for chests and arms of all sizes. The hip belts are designed with angles and curvature to allow for a woman’s hips whereas the men’s and youth hip belts are straight.
Also, many of these packs have a lower top so that the back of the head is free to move, with or without ponytails and hoods, and without worrying that you will constantly knock into the back of the pack. Especially for those of us on the bottom of the torso measurement spectrum, many of these packs have the adjustable shoulder straps allowing for women of all torso sizes to get something other than a one-size fits all model. While each pack has various accessories and accoutrements, each of the following options provides generous pack room, optimal pockets, weather protection and a comfortable fit.
- Osprey: Kyte (36/46 Litre)
- Gregory: Jade (all weights)
- Deuter: Womens’ ACT Lite
- Osprey: ACE 50, youth pack
- Tortuga Backpacks: Outbreaker 35
We think the Outbreaker 35 is the best travel backpack for petite women and the best backpack for urban travel. In addition to the sleek and functional front loading design, high-grade waterproof fabric, TSA friendly laptop and tablet sleeve, the Outbreaker has something very important to travelers with small torsos. The shoulder straps are completely adjustable along the length of the back of the pack.
Oh yes, you can fit this pack, exactly, to your torso measurements. Even mine:
Do your research carefully, try on several packs, and perhaps speak to a professional about how to fit a backpack properly. When choosing a backpack to fit your short torso consider the following:
- Before researching or purchasing, be sure to measure your torso from the C7 vertebra to the iliac crest
- Figure out your travel style and needs before purchasing any pack
- Before purchasing any pack, be sure to have it fit, try it on and add a weighted load
- Adjustable torso straps allow for the best fit for small torsos
- Ask questions, read reviews, find the best fit for you