Fitting the perfect rucksack
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In my world, grown men do not
scream, yet this one was writhing in agony.
“Doc!” came his shout, as the
soldier lay face down on the couch. “Peel it off quickly. Take away this pain!”
The soldier’s back told a story. He had been walking the mountains of South Wales for a fortnight during a military selection process. He had passed, but to protect his back from his rucksack, he had strapped adhesive dressing to his skin and left it for the duration. He had asked me to remove it, which was not simple. Through gaps in the strapping, I could see blisters poking through.
It took me 90 minutes to remove
those dressings, a time when I learned more swear words than I knew existed. I
had no better lesson about the importance of a well-fitted rucksack than those
90 minutes in South Wales.
One look at my mountaineering
storeroom and my indecision about rucksacks is clear. I have at least a dozen,
of different designs and sizes. There are big ones, tiny ones, broken ones, and
sufficient colours for a rainbow. There are some with pockets, others without,
some lightweight, while plenty are heavy. There I am, an International Mountain
Leader, and even I cannot decide about a rucksack. What chance is there for the
Before I buy a rucksack, my first
question is “how large?” Any pack, of whatever size, becomes uncomfortable when
it is over two-thirds full, so I always leave my rucksack slightly empty. Outdoor
shops do not help, as the staff invariably ask what capacity of pack I am
seeking. They never mention dimensions, as is commonplace when purchasing
aircraft hand baggage.
“Twenty litres? Thirty? We have a
70-litre pack over here,” said a sales assistant in France’s Chamonix the other
week. She pointed towards a rucksack display covering the full length of one
wall. I was seeking 30 litres.
The fewer items I need for a walk,
the smaller my rucksack can be. For two hours on the hill, I carry a 15-litre
pack, but for a full day, I increase that to 30 litres. If I am away for
longer, perhaps sleeping out, that rises to 50 litres. In winter, when I carry the
kitchen sink, I can fill 70 litres without trouble. It is why I have so many
Fifteen-litre packs are generally
comfortable, whatever their design, as I strap them tight to my back. There is
no movement of the rucksack, whatever antics I perform. By 30 litres I am more
cautious, and by 70 I am obsessive. I seek a pack that lies close to my back
and a broad hip belt that can carry the weight of the rucksack on my hips,
should my shoulders struggle. I hate hip belts, yet I love them, as they are
utterly unforgiving. There is no better way of learning if a diet has been a
success. As I grow older, slowly I must allow my hip belt to expand. One day I
may have to leave it dangling.
I also seek padded shoulder straps,
with a chest strap connecting the two. I try to place 80% of the weight through
my hips, and 20% through my shoulders. I like straps in each side of the rucksack,
too, as they will hold my walking poles. The top pocket should be large, with
one point of vertical entry. Accessing a top pocket horizontally allows vital
items to spill out.
“What size?” asked the Chamonix
“Thirty litres,” I replied.
“Size, not capacity,” she said,
clearly annoyed. “Large, medium or small?” She clutched a blue rucksack as she
spoke. She was referring to the length of back.
I half stood on tiptoe, to appear taller than I was. “Thoughts?” I asked.
“Large,” she nodded, recognising
male pride and started to adjust the rucksack. Packs can often be tweaked to fit
different lengths of back. The end point should be a load resting comfortably
on the hips, and shoulder straps perfectly contoured to the shoulders.
I then saw the assistant struggle. “Merde!”
she declared, as she rummaged on the floor with the rucksack and glanced
repeatedly at my back. She was clearly unhappy.
“I see the problem,” she continued.
“You are not large, you are medium.” She emphasised the final word unsympathetically
and my male self-esteem vapourised instantly. Oblivious to her cruelty, but
with the dexterity of an artist, the assistant tightened several straps, and within
moments my rucksack was ready.
Ten minutes later I walked from the
shop sporting a perfectly fitted rucksack, but a male ego damaged irreparably.
Next stop was to fill the pack, but
that is a different story.
If you want to buy a rucksack
Rucksacks are widely available so
prepare to be confused. You will find them in many shapes and sizes, and they
can also be called daypacks, backpacks, or knapsacks. To me, they are all
rucksacks. Some are expensive, some are cheaper, and you do not always get what
you pay for.
Some reputable brands include:
I use an Exped
Cloudburst 15 for my short forays into the mountains. When empty it can
roll up to tinier than tiny.
For day trips on UK hills, I carry
Guide Lite 32+. This has been updated as a Guide Lite 30+.
For very long distance, or for
winter, I carry an Osprey
Aether Plus 70.
My favourite shops for rucksacks
Seven steps to buying a rucksack
your homework before you start and do not walk into a shop uninformed. You must
get this right, as the pack may be yours for a long time.
capacity do you need? Remember, you may eventually require more than one
- running: 10-25 litres
- hiking: 20-40 litres
- multi-day trips: 50-60 litres
- extended periods, especially winter: 60+ litres
you need a gender-specific rucksack? Not always. Men and women have different
anatomies, but plenty of rucksacks are good for both.
larger the rucksack, the more bells and whistles you will find. The smaller
packs may only have limited room for adjustment.
For the larger packs, look for:
- hip belt (padded)
- adjustable back system
- chest strap
- shoulder straps (padded)
- side compression straps
- side stretch pocket
- rucksack lid with top pocket (ideally with vertical access) - even better, the lid may detach as a separate waist pack
- loops for walking poles or ice axe
- rain cover
- hydration pack - plenty of rucksacks have these, although I prefer an old-fashioned water bottle
- separate lower compartment with front opening - perfect for sleeping bags and instant-access items
the rucksack. Your endpoint should be a hip belt secured just above the hips, a
pack that is closely applied to your back, and shoulder straps that precisely
contour your shoulders. Adjust the pack until you achieve this. The commonest
cause of unhappiness with a rucksack is that it does not fit. In the shop, the
rucksack will be empty. On the hills the pack will be full. Remember that.
- First, put the rucksack on loosely. Next tighten the straps, but in this order:
- hip belt
- shoulder straps
- top stabiliser straps until they are angled at 45 degrees
- chest strap
- bottom stabiliser straps until they feel snug
Walk around the shop. You should feel at one with the pack. When you go left, it goes left. When you jump up and down, it does not separate from your back.
you are happy, buy the thing, find yourself a hill and start walking.
More informationHow to fit your rucksack correctly (watch video)
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