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what is a good size pack as far as volume should a woman carry for a section hike on the AT?
Hikes in Rain
Sounds trite, but really, it should be large enough to carry everything. The best advice I've read here is to gather together all your other gear, add four or five days of food, then head to the outfitters. The pack choice should be last to avoid getting the wrong size.
Obviously, you'll be carrying more gear in the colder months and when you have to carry more food. The other challenge is that you will tend to want to bring more, and bulkier, gear as you probably do not have much ultralight gear and think you need more gear than you probably will ultimately use.
Hikes in Rain has it right: Visit an outfitter with your entire gear list and that will determine pack size. However, you will benefit from a series of shake-down hikes, as well as spending the money to purchase a lightweight sleeping bag, sleeping pad, and shelter, and then a lightweight pack to fit everything.
Here's a women's pack that's a bit bigger than you should ultimately need (3900 cubic inches), but shouldn't be too large: Granite Gear Nimbus Latitude Ki (http://www.granitegear.com/products/backpacks/light/nimbuslatitudeki.html) You can also take a look at some of their smaller packs, which will be smaller and lighter. Unless you're petite, look on this site for ways to get your total pack weight under 30 pounds, and ideally less than 20% of your body weight.
What gear do you already own and whats your hiking style?
I think that the vast majority of people will buy a smaller pack out of recommendations and then cram stuff in it, causing a premature failure. The other large crowd of people get a huge pack that will end up getting filled with worthless stuff (like a hiker hiding a rock in it).
What I'd do is try on packs and see what weight you'd be fine with carrying. I'd try to go sub 30lbs if you could, but that requires a little nicer equipment and living without luxeries, and maybe taking whiskey instead of rogue beers. Once you get that in line, buy the gear to get you into that range, then try on packs that you can fit it into. Walk all around the store with the pack, and not just for 10 minutes, if you have time, do it for an hour or more. Walk up and down stairs. Do everything that you can to see if the properly loaded pack will be uncomfortable.
If it passes all these tests, then she's a keeper.
Mmm, Rogue beers (http://www.rogue.com/beers/beers.php).