Neil Smith

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Rucksacks.@& Help

Neil's Blog & Advice
= & Experience

Back in the “Good old days” of my 1970s youth there were really only two kinds of rucksacks to choose from. One was the small knapsack used by county council road menders to hold tea and sandwiches and the other was the larger army rucksack used by people who charged around fields brandishing weaponry.

As hillwalking and camping grew in popularity it was these iconic styles that were most seen in the outdoors as people got their gear from hardware and army surplus stores.

The most common fabric used for these packs was canvas; coarse, abrasion resistant cotton with steel buckled straps which froze solid in winter and with little or no padding anywhere. The smaller bags were nothing more than handbags that could be worn on the shoulders while the larger ones had a triangular steel frame to spread the load more evenly on the back and wider, possibly slightly padded shoulder straps.

Both types weighed quite a bit to start with and got significantly heavier in the rainy, wet weather that was hardly a rarity in the Scotland of my youth. This weather also served to highlight the fact that cotton has all the waterproof properties of the average teabag. Forgetting to wrap your sleeping bag in a plastic shopping bag meant running the serious risk of spending a very cold, wet night out on the hill before getting into your damp clothes in the morning. It’s a wonder that people stuck with it long enough for things to improve.

We have, fortunately come a long way since then. Even the word “knapsack” sounds like a hangover from the age of dinosaurs.

Rucksacks now come in all shapes and sizes and are often designed specifically for different activities. Materials are lighter, stronger and more weatherproof. Back frames offer appropriate support for all loads and sizes and it is now extremely rare to finish the day with one’s shoulders red raw from rubbing against the straps.


Most rucksacks are made from some form of polyester. Nylon was common for a while but the extra cost and poor resistance to fading in UV have led to it becoming much less popular in recent years. Backpack fabrics are chosen because they have two important qualities: Tear strength and Abrasion resistance.

The former makes it less likely that the pack will split if snagged on thorns or barbed wire while the latter quality makes for a rucksack that can be scraped across rock or thrown down a cliff with less chance of being terminally damaged.

The thicker the material the heavier and more durable the pack will tend to be. Durability and strength can be improved without an increase in weight by using “Ripstop” materials. These are fabrics with a woven mesh running through them which stops short tears from forming and prevents small tears becoming larger. Ripstop is more expensive and is usually found on higher end packs where weight is more important than cost. Shoulder pads and back panels may incorporate polypropylene or other wicking fibres to try to keep the back from becoming too damp from perspiration. These fabrics usually cover shaped 3D foams on body contact areas so that moisture has somewhere to escape to. This means that contact surfaces dry quickly and comfort is maintained.

Some larger packs feature mouldable foam in the harness for a more precise fit right from the start but for most people this just reduces the “Wearing in” time for a pack and is “nice” rather than necessary.

Back systems.

The simplest back “system” found on basic day packs is no more than two padded shoulder straps. A slightly more up market option might have a padded back as well and a day pack for a more serious hiker or someone trekking in a warm country would have a firmer frame and a vented back system. A frame distributes weight across the wearer’s back and prevents poorly packed objects poking into the wearer.

The bigger and better the rucksack the more likely it is to have a hip belt to relieve pressure from the shoulders and redistribute weight to the legs. Hip belts however are only of use if they sit on the hips. Some short packs have belts which could only sit on the hips of someone around two feet tall. Such straps will prevent a bit of bouncing but they can’t transfer weight to an area of the body they are not in contact with. A common feature in most packs now is a chest strap. This helps relieve pressure on the shoulders and can enhance stability on rough ground or when running. Don’t over tighten these. They need to be loose enough to not inhibit breathing or freedom of movement.

Large rucksacks often have an adjustable back harness which allows the user to match the pack to their ideal back length. These systems all add weight to the empty rucksack but improve the fit and comfort. If you do lots of long backpacking trips or travel a lot then this is a price worth paying. A diminishing number of manufacturers offer rucksacks in different back sizes so that you can find a good fit without the extra weight but manufacturing costs and market demand mean that this is a small and shrinking sector unfortunately.

Big bags. (50 to 140 litres).

These are the juggernauts of the outdoor luggage world. They carry the heaviest loads, get carried on the longest continuous trips and can put up with the most abuse. There are generally two variants of this species; Trekking packs and Travel packs. The former are usually tall, narrow top loaders with harnesses that are somewhere between good and excellent at distributing the load around the harness and the carrier’s skeleton. They are designed for maximum stability on rough ground and minimal wind profile. Fabrics used vary depending on purpose. Expedition packs used for the work in the most remote mountain ranges may have the thinnest, least durable fabric with the most basic harness system in order to keep the weight to an absolute minimum. This is no problem if you jettison your pack after one Antarctic expedition or if sponsors are picking up the bill but most normal users require a longer usable life than this. Most trekking packs use a more reinforced fabric and sacrifice a bit of weight for a longer, more acceptable lifespan.

Travel packs are basically luggage that can be carried comfortably on one’s back. They have a boxy, rectangular shape and a front that zips open to allow for ease of packing and convenient access. Internally there are pockets, straps and dividers to keep clothing neat and travel documents to hand. On the outside they have a harness or flight cover of some kind which stashes away when not required. This cover protects the harness from rough baggage handling when checking in for flights or other journeys. Travel packs can be used for trekking although the stability is less than on a trekking pack. Likewise trekking packs can, of course be used as luggage but the straps are a nuisance at check in and clothing tends to come out looking like it was stuffed in randomly and without care. As indeed mine usually is.

The skill with all of these is to buy the smallest that you can get away with. Getting a 120 litre specimen usually leads to filling every spare cranny in the pack. Carrying such a load just makes everything more like hard work. Legs, backs and shoulders get more tired, more quickly and mobility in buildings or on steep ground is seriously impaired. Why do this to yourself if you don’t have to. Extra clothing that never gets worn, six months worth of shampoo and a pile of electronic gadgetry are the usual suspects in this case. When packing for a big trip load everything that you think you want to take and go for a twenty minute walk around your neighbourhood with it on your back. Only twenty minutes. After this you will either be happy that the load is comfortable to manage or you can start unpacking the stuff you put in “Just in case”. In this case less really is more.

Some travel packs come equipped with a separate zip-off day pack for day trips and sightseeing where you may wish to leave your main pack back at the hostel or in left luggage. This can be very handy but don’t pay over the odds for it. With a little ingenuity any cheap daypack can be attached.

These bags almost always have adjustable back systems. When purchasing, spend some time getting them fitted to suit you before you leave the store. The hip belt should rest on the iliac crest of the pelvis and the back length needs to be adjusted whilst the pack is loaded with some weight. Don’t do this with the pack empty or it will always sit too high.

Medium sized bags. (25-45 litres).

Easily the most diverse category in the rucksack section as there are so many different options. These packs are roughly about 25 to 45 litres in size and are designed for all manner of activities from short travel breaks to Alpine mountaineering. All bar the cheapest of these will have an internal frame of some kind to spread the load evenly, and some have an adjustable back but this is less important than for the larger expedition packs as the weight carried will usually be much less and the back lengths shorter.

Most of the bags in this sector have straps to attach gear such as trekking poles, skis, snowboards, extra pockets, cycle helmets and a whole host of other things. If however you possess no ice axe then there would be no need to pay for an ice axe holster on your pack. There is no advantage at all in being over equipped.

Back panels on pretty much all decent walking packs feature some kind of moisture reducing fabric which dries fast and helps keep you feeling a bit less soggy during the day. Bags with highly vented back systems have become very popular in recent years and are great for hot weather activities but do add to the price and bulk of the bag.

When purchasing a day pack try to have a good idea of what you want it for most of the time. Identify those features that you consider important and try on a couple of options. Walk round the shop with some weight in the pack to get a feel for how it sits. Try not to focus on brand labels or “bells and whistle” features. Let your shoulders and back do the thinking.

If you find it hard to make up your mind take reassurance in knowing that all the top brands produce really well designed, well made packs so it is genuinely difficult to make a really bad choice.

Climbing packs are light stripped down rucksacks with a minimalist back system. They sit close to the back and provide stability with little or no movement on vertical rock or ice faces. Often it will be possible to remove the waist belt from a climbing pack so that it does not interfere with the climber’s harness. If you are not climbing vertical faces then you don’t need one of these.

Simple day packs also tend to have a pretty minimalist back system, often not much more than some padding. At its most basic this is just a bag with a couple of shoulder straps. These are adequate for short walks with room enough for a drink, a sandwich and a perhaps a spare jacket. Some will have extra pockets, padded shoulder straps and occasionally a waist belt which is often just a nylon strap of limited purpose. These are ubiquitous. People us them for the gym, shopping, school, for work papers and lots more.

Technical walking packs are the bread and butter of outdoor suppliers. They are the high tech versions of the basic day packs described above. These will have very good harness systems including a decent hip belt on the larger capacity versions. Backs will be padded and vented internal frames spread the load well. Fabrics will often be lightweight, ripstop polyesters. Foams will be high quality and durable. Most will feature raincovers, hydration capacity and straps for attaching things like walking sticks. They are designed for comfort whilst walking no matter the distance and are usually very well thought out. Back systems are rarely adjustable so it is very important to try weighted bags on and make a decision based on how they feel. Ignore extraneous detail such as brand or colour. Let your back and shoulders do the thinking.

Carry-on bags. These are the little brother of the travel packs mentioned above. They are designed to conform to the standard size permitted by airlines for in cabin baggage. Much used for weekend breaks, business trips and short journeys some will have wheels, some will accommodate laptops and all have foldaway shoulder straps but mostly these are just designed to be light, compact and simple. A good buy for frequent travellers.

Small bags. (10-25 litres).

Straightforward, frill free rucksacks for people who just want to carry a couple of essentials around with them. They are used by, amongst others, walkers, cyclists, commuters and school kids. Easy on the pocket but comfy enough if the load is small.

Hydration packs.

Small lightweight rucksacks containing a reservoir for drinking water. For drinking on the move and keeping your hands free the bladder is connected by a tube to one of the shoulder straps and a bite valve allows the user to stay continuously hydrated throughout the day. Most of these have small pockets for energy bars or other snacks and keys. Sizes normally run from one to three litres with two being most popular and three used by people who travel in hot dry climates where drinking water might not always be readily available.


Rain covers. Many packs come as standard with these light wraparound covers made from proofed fabric but if not they are an easy way to improve the weatherproofing of you bag.

Seam sealant.

Spread over the seams in the rucksack periodic application prevents leakage through the stitching and prolong the life of the bag.

Drybags and stuff sacks.

Organise the contents of your bag more easily and keep related items together using coloured stuff sacks and organiser pouches. Small nylon stuff sacks are great for preventing toiletries from meandering around the inside of your rucksack. They keep similar things together and make finding things in your bag a doddle. For items which you simply can’t afford to get wet such as electronics, maps or passports then seam sealed, drybags are an absolute godsend. Available in many colour and size options they just make life that little bit easier and less fraught.

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