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In recent years, there’s been a long overdue push for more inclusive sizing in outdoor apparel and equipment. Today, the results of that effort are obvious. Brands like Outdoor Research and Eddie Bauer now offer apparel in XXL and 3XL sizes. Big Agnes and Nemo are making wider and taller sleeping bags. Osprey and Gregory both offer a line of extended size backpacks, ranging from lightweight day packs to multi-day load-haulers. And more seem to be following suit every day.
One segment of the industry that hasn’t seen the same kind of shift towards inclusive sizing is the ultralight space. While there are exceptions—take Senchi Designs’ apparel or Enlightened Equipment’s sleeping quilts—there hasn’t been the same level of innovation. One reason for that is the economic reality that holding inventory of uncommonly sized gear—tall, short, wide, or narrow—is expensive, especially for small companies. But there’s also a cultural dissonance: The ultralight cottage industry is dominated with brands targeting hyperfit thru-hikers in their 20s and 30s. With an outsize focus on hiking big miles and reducing pack weight at all costs, ultralight gear often seems to be designed with a single type of customer in mind.
But one trailblazing company stands out: longtime Minnesota-based brand, Granite Gear. Its latest ultralight backpack, the Virga 3, is a top-to-bottom rethink of the previous Virga, with more inclusive sizing at the center of the new design.
“Ultralight gear is alive and well, and I think the past few years really have proven that,” says Granite Gear’s design director, David Eisenberg. “Everyone is trying to get outdoors, and that includes more people than ever. The ultralight world needs to be able to provide those different options for different body types.”
The Virga 3 isn’t the first size-inclusive backpack, but it’s among the first explicitly made for an ultralight audience. It’s frameless, designed to carry 25 pounds or less, and weighs in at 27 ounces for the 55-liter version (the 26-liter pack totals 20 ounces). Eisenberg says that Granite Gear’s unique position in the industry—larger than the cottage brands but smaller than the major players—helped them turn the size-inclusive concept into a reality. “We have the means to come out with multiple sizes and multiple options, and cottage companies may not have that access.”
The Virga 3 inclusive design comes down to adjustability. It features shoulder straps and hip belts that are widely customizable. The standard hip belt—called the ReFit belt—accommodates waists from 28 – 42 inches (26 – 40 inches for the women’s model), and is exchangeable for a larger ReFit belt that fits waist sizes from 36 – 52 inches for no additional cost. The shoulder straps, meanwhile, can be adjusted up or down (to adjust the torso length by up to four inches), as well as horizontally, to accommodate narrower or wider shoulders.
Eisenberg says he focused on real solutions rather than quick fixes to sizing concerns. “If you take a one-size-fits-most approach, you run the risk of getting a watered down product,” he says. One example he cites is lengthening a hip belt by simply making the webbing longer. “If that’s the solution, now you just have webbing cutting into your stomach. That’s not actually increasing comfort or the ability to carry a load.”
The extra adjustability should increase comfort across the board, not only for people who consider themselves plus-size. Most backpackers are familiar with the concept of “dialing in” the way a backpack fits, and Eisenberg says the Virga design is, at its core, a way to expand the number of points that can be adjusted. “We’re just including more people who can be “dialed in” to our packs,” he says.
During testing, Granite Gear consulted with plus-size hiking advocates like Ashley Manning (@ashleysadventure), a professional hiking guide who leads trips on the Appalachian Trail.
“As a person living with a plus body, there have never been a lot of lightweight or ultralight options,” says Manning. “I actually used to make fun of people that were obsessed with ultralight, but it was honestly because there were never really any options for me.”
For Manning, the success of the Virga 3 comes down to a simple truth: Granite Gear prioritized that plus-size-friendly design, rather than treating it like a secondary concern.
“Plus-size people are often an afterthought in creating functional designs, so even offering a lightweight, plus-size option is important,” she says.
The Virga 3 is the second pack that Granite Gear has designed around this revamped suspension system. The more traditional, weightier Perimeter series came first, and Eisenberg says the entire lineup will soon adopt the size-inclusive changes. And while he’s proud that Granite Gear is among the first brands to offer inclusive ultralight gear, he hopes that they won’t be an outlier for long.
“The ultimate goal is that we don’t look different,” Eisenberg says. “It shouldn’t be a shock that we’re doing this, in the ultralight world or the regular backpacking world.”