How to Choose a Rucksack
“What have you got in there, the kitchen sink?” Pete gets asked, unashamedly struggling his way up the Miners Path on Snowdon, knees bowing under the weight of his old framed 65ltr Karrimor rucksack, a day’s walk on one of the hottest days of the year. Whilst Pete is prepared for any eventuality and the man to go to if you need snacks, extra layers, a shovel, ice axes etc….in this case he’s gone too far!
If you spend any time in the mountains then you will need to carry a multitude of kit to keep you warm, dry, fed/watered and safe….be it gentle strolls around mountain lakes, single day mountain top adventures or full on multi day trips. Picking the right rucksack for you is a case of understanding the demands of an outing, and personal preference as we are all different shapes/sizes and our kit can vary quite a bit in terms of pack space/weight. There are some basic guidelines on how to choose a rucksack though, so hopefully this information will help you little…
Different types of rucksack
The first category would be daysacks, which do exactly as they say on the tin…..a pack usually ranging from 15-40 litres which will store a range of essentials. In warmer/fairer seasons you will need to carry at the very least – water, food/snacks, waterproof top/bottoms, thin additional layers (remember the weather can be dramatically different in the mountains especially on the tops), map & compass/navigational device.
Additional items in colder seasons might include thicker layers (plenty of), flask of hot drink, hat & gloves (usually multiple pairs), head torch, crampons, ice tools etc.
Anyone who spends a lot of time in mountain environments should really be carrying personal safety kit such as a basic medi kit and something to get you out of the elements like a survival bag or shelter, these can sit in the bottom of your bag and forgot about, always nice to know they are there in case you need them though!
Within this category is a wide variety of choice and spec, a pretty standard set up is a large main compartment with two side pockets and one in the lid, easy to use and straight forward to pack – bulky bits in the main compartment and smaller items that you will need to access quickly in the external side and top pockets.
Some bags don’t have external pockets and are made up of one main compartment and additional storage in the lid, these packs are popular with climbers and scramblers due to their sleek design allowing better freedom of movement.
These cylindrical packs also tend to have compression straps which means you can reduce the volume of the pack around its contents. Great if you want to use the same pack all year round carrying more in the winter and less in the summer. These packs just need a bit more thought when it comes to packing, as more kit and equipment is in the mix of the main compartment.
Some manufacturers have added a full-length zip for easy access to items packed right at the bottom, gamechanger!! These bags can sometimes have floating lids and attachments for ice tools/walking pools…. great for climbers and winter walkers, but pretty redundant otherwise.
For longer adventures you delve into 45-75 litre rucksack territory. These packs are similar to their smaller siblings in many ways, however they tend to have additional features to help you with extra items that one must carry when spending the night outdoors. Additional to the items listed above for day outings, you will need to take with you a tent or shelter, sleeping bag (plus liners for colder weather), sleeping mat, water/water treatment, food, cooking equipment, clean clothes etc.
A lot of packs in this category will have two compartments in the main body, with a gaiter to split, this is useful for organising kit. You will notice that bigger packs have beefed up padding on the hip belt shoulder straps and across the back system in general, providing you with additional comfort when carrying heavier loads.
The size you go for really depends on the duration of your trip, what the trip entails and the pack size/weight of your equipment when stowed away….it sounds silly but the difference in weight and size between entry level kit and that of the ultralight can be dramatic, it will cost you though, less is more in this case £££!
Additional rucksack features / add-ons
Other things to consider when choosing a rucksack is the waterproofness of a bag, most good packs come with waterproof a cover that can be placed over the pack itself. This will keep the rain off but can be quite ineffective in very windy conditions and will act like a parachute in some cases coming away from the pack completely. Some manufacturers have developed waterproof packs that do not need such a system, these packs are usually very pricey though so using waterproof liners can be a great cost-effective way to keep the contents of your bag dry…very important!
Most bags these days can integrate with hydration systems such as platypus or other bladders, they simply slip into a compartment in the bag and allow the hose to feed onto the shoulder strap, sitting in an ideal place for one to drink from.
What’s most important is that the bag fits, in both purpose and on your back. There is no point having a shiny expensive rucksack that looks great and dons a flashy name, if it doesn’t fit comfortably on your back then it is going to cause you real bother on the mountains, and potentially leave you with ongoing back problems.
Back systems have come along way, gone are the days where rucksacks have vast scaffold like frames, these days much lighter systems exist with modern technologies providing extra comfort, breathability and stability. Some systems are fully adjustable so that in theory a multitude of people could use them, and some bags come in different back lengths off the shelf. Most manufactures release both male and female versions of the same model…. female packs usually having smaller pack sizes, shorter back systems and pretty colour variants (rightly or wrongly!).
A visit to a good outdoor store and speaking to a clued-up member of staff is always recommended, they should be fully trained to help you with bag fittings. Essentially most of the weight should sit on your hips transferring the load through your legs, the back system and shoulder straps following the natural curve of your back and shoulders…
After you have had some professional input in-store, hold onto your receipt and at home try fully loading your pack with all your clothing and equipment (remembering water) and get it adjusted and fitted on your back. Ask yourself two questions….is it the right size for all my kit, and is the back system right for the shape of my back and is comfortable?
If so fantastic, if not then back to the store, they will understand and should be able to help you look at different set ups. If you’re not confident that your nearest outdoor retailer has the expertise you require then there are plenty of social media groups, forums, websites, reviews etc to help you with additional info, be warned though as everyone is different, one man’s/woman’s 5 star “old faithful” might be completely the wrong bag for you, and vice versa….
To summarise – How to choose a rucksack?
In an ideal world we would either have a different bag for each activity, or, one bag that suits all activities… more likely it will be somewhere in between. Bear in mind that most packs will have been designed for a specific use, so make sure you read the blurb and reviews before settling on “THE ONE” …whilst using a sleek and simple designed climbing pack for wild camping isn’t the end of the world, it really isn’t designed for such an activity.
In most cases it really is a case of trial and error when finding the right packs for you, we are all different shapes, have different kit and ways of organising it. Packs can vary in cost so much and unless you are spending vast amounts of time in the outdoors then you really don’t have to pay top end. Shop around, try many on, ask your friends etc….as should be the case with any purchase of crucial outdoor kit!
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siBased out of Shrewsbury Shropshire, I spend most of my free time across the border into Wales, primarily in Snowdonia. A keen walker and explorer who has completed the Top 100 mountains in Wales and Shropshire's 50 hills. Taking on such challenges enables me to travel to remote, quiet areas and away from the crowds, those are my favourite mountain days. I very much look forward to contributing to the forum that is Mud & Routes, with route guides and gear reviews. Instagram: @rikthehiker Twitter: @RikTheHiker