We are women! Our height, weight or strength may be similar to men, but female bodies have a different center of balance than men’s. For hours of walking, the load on your back should be light and have a low center of gravity. You can find diagrams for packing your pack, but be sure to use one specifically for women, and then wear it for a while and make your own adjustments.
Backpacks come with internal or external frames. (The new ultralight packs have almost no framing but we don't find that they support a load comfortably for a week.) External frame packs are basically a structure of aluminum poles lining the inner corners of a canvas bag, and your gear is stored inside the framing. These packs have numerous outside pockets and straps, so lots of gear is close at hand. Internal frame packs have their structure mostly against your back with padding to protect your spine. These were designed for extreme sports such as mountaineering, rock climbing or hang gliding; they are compact and hug the torso, moving easily with the wearer. Most FLAB hikers carry external frame packs for two reasons: they weigh less than internal frame packs, and they are cooler because the frame holds the bag away from your back.
High quality packs have adjustable frames so the fit can be customized to your body. Be sure to buy your correct torso length (an outdoor gear store will know how to measure and fit you to the pack), then add about 25 pounds and wear it around the store for at least a half hour. While heavy, it should not give you any sore points in that short time, and there should be little swaying of the pack as you move and bend. Many good camp stores will allow you to exchange the pack, even after you’ve worn it on a day hike; you can also rent before buying your pack to give it a good test. Like your boots, it's critical that your pack fits well and is comfortable!
FLAB hikers work hard to keep our personal gear under 23 pounds; group gear and food add 10-15 pounds to the personal load. Your goal should be to carry about 25% of your body weight. In fact, you should try to carry less than these numbers, both for your own enjoyment and as an emergency precaution -- with a little room to spare, you could help carry the gear for someone who’s been injured.
For a week on the trail you’ll need a pack of about 4,500 cubic inches. The largest items you’ll carry are your sleeping bag and sleeping pad, a tent, and a bear canister (required in many locations). Be sure these can all fit into or be tied onto your pack, preferably at the midpoint or lower. Some packs have a long tent-pole pocket on one side, but most poles also fit inside your pack or strapped to the outside.
By far the heaviest single item you'll carry is your bear canister (2-3lbs) and your share of the food (6-8lbs). Your sleeping bag (4-5lbs), your half of a 5-6lb 2-person tent, and some portion of other group gear such as first aid and cook kits, will be next heaviest. Strap the sleeping bag below the pack and push the bear can down to the lowest section it will go inside the pack. Tents can be carried in sections: poles, tent, ground cloth and rain fly. Large group items will be a cook kit (one serves 5-6 women), first aid kit, and a large tarp. FLAB hikers divide these items among the group and then fill the remaining nooks and crannies with smaller items. We have found that packing clothing in ziplock bags keeps them organized, clean and dry. Your rain gear, maps and compass should be the last items in your pack, in a place that’s easy to get to.
Water can be carried many ways, and each of us seems to have a personal style. Some prefer a “holster” or pouch that hooks the bottle to the front of the hip belt – very convenient! Others keep it out of the way in a lower side pocket of the backpack, asking for help when they want it. Still others use a hydration system that fits inside the pack but has a drinking tube that clips onto any convenient strap or belt. Just make it easy to reach and don’t let its weight (which changes throughout the day) throw off the balance of your pack.
The outer, small pockets are great for things you'll need at stops along the trail: topo map and compass, toilet items, bug repellant, bird or flower book or binoculars (if you can afford the weight of these luxuries), etc. Many FLAB hikers also wear a waist pack for more frequently used items such as camera, candies, neckerchief and sun block. Just be sure to put the waist pack on before your backpack, and check that its strap and buckle don’t cause lumps under the backpack.