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Choosing a new hiking rucksack can be quite a challenge, can’t it?
There are so many makes and models available that it can be easy to get bogged down in an endless stream of features – comparing the length of the grab handle on one with the easy-to-use buckles on another. How do you pick the right one?!
In reality though, there are only two things that a rucksack needs to do. Firstly, it needs to be capable of carrying what you need it to. And, secondly, it needs to be able to carry it all whilst sitting comfortably on your shoulders. That’s all. Doesn’t matter one bit whether it’s a daypack for a family stroll around a local beauty spot or a much larger backpack for a multiday expedition around the Cairngorms.
I recently had to buy a new rucksack after mine, rather sadly, fell to pieces. To be fair, it had seen me through the last fifteen years of hikes, commutes and holidays, so it had done well. But, when the bottom finally disintegrated, I decided it was time to put it out to pasture and get a new one.
So, I’ve done quite a lot of research on the different makes of rucksack that are available and I thought it would be useful to write this all up in a simple guide to choosing a new one. I’ll take you through the features that you need to look out for, the best size rucksack for different activities and, along the way, I’ll give you some recommendations for the best rucksacks out there.
Grab a hot beverage and let’s dive in.
How to choose a hiking rucksack
I mentioned earlier that there are really only two features that you need to look for when choosing a new rucksack – whether it can carry all your hiking gear and whether it’s comfy to carry. This IS true, but it’s over-simplifying it a little, I realise. So, let’s go through the useful features that you need to make sure a new rucksack has. First off, let’s deal with the gorilla in the corner of the room – does size matter?
Does the size of your rucksack matter?
Well, does it matter? Is there a ‘best’ size rucksack for hiking? Yes, there is, and it depends on how long you’ll be hiking for and (to a lesser extent) the season when you’ll be doing your hiking.
Dealing with the second part first (the season), it’s fair to say that a winter’s hike will require more gear than a hike in the middle of, even a British, summer: An extra cosy mid layer or two, thicker hat and gloves, and a flask of hot soup will all help to keep you warm, but can take up plenty of space in a rucksack when they’re not required. If you’re like me though, the ideal rucksack is one that will be good for hiking all year round. I don’t have the budget or wardrobe space for backpacks for each different season, so I’m happy to have one rucksack that has a bit of spare space inside for the summer and is packed full for winter.
The size of rucksack you need then depends on the usual length of your hikes. As a general rule of thumb, you should choose:
20L rucksacks for short hikes lasting a few miles over a morning or afternoon
30L rucksacks for slightly longer hikes of 5-10 miles and a time lasting from an early breakfast to a late lunch, or brunch to dinnertime
40L rucksacks for 10- to 15-mile hikes lasting a full day
50L rucksacks for overnight hikes, carrying a small amount of camping gear
60L rucksacks for longer multi-day hikes requiring a larger amount of camping gear
Padded shoulder straps
My daughter will be delighted that I’m bringing this topic up again…
You see, we had lengthy (!) discussions recently about a new rucksack that she wanted for her birthday. It’s not a hiking rucksack, it’s a fashion rucksack, a Scandinavian fashion rucksack. As a fashion rucksack I can see the appeal but as a hiking rucksack it’s not a great option. There are a number of reasons for this but the main one is the lack of padded shoulder straps. For a pencil case and a couple of books to take to school, that’s fine. But for a day hike it’s a disaster. The narrow straps have no padding on them at all and so, with a heavy hiking gear load, will end up cutting right into your shoulders and being very painful indeed.
A proper hiking rucksack needs to have wide padded shoulder straps and that’s the same whether it’s for a couple of hours stroll or a multiday expedition.
Needless to say, I lost the argument with my daughter about the rucksack. When has a dad ever won a debate like that…?
A strap with a quick-release buckle that sits across the top of the chest is a useful feature. This helps to keep the shoulder straps aligned to the inside of the shoulders, where they should be. Without the chest strap, these can end up pulling backwards and digging into your shoulders.
Chest straps will tend to be an adjustable length and won’t have padding on them.
The job of the waist strap is to balance the weight of your rucksack between your shoulders and the top of your hips. On lighter daypacks this strap will tend to be unpadded. However on the largest rucksacks the waist strap will be fully padded and may also include zipped compartments. These are handy for getting easy access to items that you need frequently or want to keep a close eye on (car key, phone, wallet, etc). It’s a useful spot for a pocket as it means you can get these items out without taking a heavy pack on and off.
Some rucksacks have a straight line on the inside back (where it sits against your own back). They’re fine if you’re travelling light and in cooler weather. For heavier rucksacks and hotter conditions though I prefer to have a rucksack that has a contoured back as this gives a space to allow a little ventilation and avoid the dreaded “Sweaty Rucksack Back” syndrome. Shudder.
It’s useful, though not essential, to look out for rucksacks that are made from a water-resistance material. Some rucksacks also have a separate waterproof rain cover and that can be handy too.
You shouldn’t rely on this however as there are plenty of areas where water can try and get inside – zips, drawstring, seams, etc. The best way of ensuring that your gear stays dry is with a ‘dry bag’. These come in a variety of sizes and are excellent. They can be used for a long period of time and different sized bags can be put in your rucksack to keep various items of gear separated from each other.
In a pinch though you can also put your gear inside a bin liner in your rucksack and this will do the same job so long as you twist and roll the top opening. They will, however, need replacing more often as they’re not as durable as dry bags.
Sorry to harp on about that ‘fashion rucksack’ but I had another problem with it as well. Lack of compartments! It only had two – one large main compartment and a smaller front pocket. Again, fine for school, not great for hiking.
Larger expedition rucksacks will tend to have plenty of pockets but even with a day rucksack it’s useful to get one with multiple compartments. Extra clothing, waterproofs and food can go in the main section, with valuables in one pocket, water bottle in another, map and compass in another. I find that there’s nothing more irritating than having to repeatedly rummage round at the bottom of a rucksack trying to find the thing I need.
Rucksack buying can be confusing, but I hope that I’ve managed to simplify and demystify the whole thing for you?
At the end of the day you need the right size of rucksack for the hiking that you tend to do. Make sure that it also has comfy shoulder, waist and chest straps and it’s likely to be a winner. Add in some of the features I’ve talked about above and it may well be perfect.
Now all you need is a great hike to go on. How about a great circular walk in the English countryside?