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Choosing the right size rucksack to fit all your wild camping gear into is never an easy decision. So, if you’re wrestling with this at the moment, then I’ve got some recommendations for you.
Get too small a rucksack and you’ll end up leaving important stuff behind. Of course, you’ll only realise how important that particular camping widget is when you’re deep in the wilds of Britain without a handy outdoor shop nearby.
…and, whilst you might think that there’s no downside to getting a rucksack that’s bigger than you need, believe me, there really is. No one ever leaves the house for a camping trip with a half-full rucksack. Instead, they’ll pop this particular item in because it might “come in handy” and that little gadget because “you never know!”. Before you know it, their rucksack is full to bursting, and their knees are buckling under the weight of all of those “essential items”.
There is a sweet spot when it comes to choosing the right sized rucksack for wild camping trips and that’s a rucksack that’s big enough for the things you REALLY need, without being too big that you’re tempted to take all the nice-to-haves.
I’m going to run through a few different wild camping scenarios to give you an idea of what you need to take and therefore what size of rucksack would be good to have. We’ll then discuss some of the factors you need to consider when you’re buying a new rucksack – are those “bells and whistles” worth paying for, or should you steer clear of them. First up, I’ve got a quick summary table of my recommended wild camping rucksacks based on the most common trip types.
Name Image Check prices COMPACT MID-SIZE FULL-SIZE
Best size of rucksack for different wild camping trips
I’m going to go through three categories of wild camping trip, give a run down of what kind of kit you’ll need to carry with you, and from that give you a recommendation of the size of rucksack you’d need for each. There are a number of factors that impact on the amount and volume of kit you’ll need. The season and weather are one biggy, personal preferences are another (i.e. the level of discomfort you’re prepared to tolerate on a camping trip!), and also budget (the more expensive your kit is, the lighter and smaller it will tend to be.
Let’s dive in and take a look.
Compact rucksack (approximately 35-45L)
A compact rucksack of around 35-45L in volume is ideal for camping trips that are limited to overnight adventures in the Summer months in warmer areas of Britain. You can pack your lightest-weight sleeping bag, your thinnest sleeping pad, and either sleep out under the stars, tuck your self up in a bivvy bag, or cut out as much weight as you can with your 1-person tent by leaving the fly sheet and a few of the pegs at home. A camping trip like this will involve regular checks of the weather forecast, crossing of fingers (and toes and everything else), and an acceptance that you’re probably going to get a little wet anyway from an unforecasted British downpour and that you’ll be able to take cover somewhere or dry out your soggy gear once you get home.
Catering-wise, you’ll either be dining out in whatever eateries you can find, or eating cold grub, but either way you’re unlikely to be packing a hefty camping stove to whip up a 3-course meal.
35L is very tight for space, 45L is a little more roomy, but both will require careful consideration of each and every item you’re planning on taking.
That being said, this is my favourite style of wild camping and, by preference, I’d reach or my 40L rucksack and head out all the time on these kind of adventures. Why? Well, I think less is definitely more when it comes to camping. The less you take, the less you have to lug around on your back. Even with careful packing you’ll probably be taking too much gear anyway and you’ll bring lots of it back unused. So, if you’re forced to carry less by having a smaller rucksack, then you’ll be lighter on your feet and able to cover more miles more easily.
Despite the space limitations from a small rucksack, this kind of camping also seems to need a lot less planning. I tend to keep my 40L rucksack mostly packed during the summer. That way, when the weather is looking good and settled, I can just grab and go. I’m prepared to accept getting caught in the odd shower if it means I can get to drift off looking up at the stars in some of the wilder places that this country has to offer.
Mid-size rucksack (approximately 45-65L)
Choosing a mid-size rucksack of around 45L – 65L allows for camping trips that are a little longer, a little more luxurious, and a little more outside the height of summer. The downside is that you’ll be carrying more weight and this will be more tiring.
If even the great Michael Fish can sometimes get the weather predictions wrong, then what hope is there for us mere mortals? We can check the forecasts before a camping trip as many times as we want, but there will always be some comfort on knowing that you’ve packed for inclement weather conditions. So, a mid-size rucksack means that you can carry the full tent, including the fly sheet. It also let you take a slightly heavier-weight sleeping bag.
The higher up you go in this weight category and you’ll be able to carry more in the way of warm and waterproof gear, all of which make an extended camping trip more enjoyable. Something else that makes a trip more enjoyable is being able to take your own cooking gear. Towards the top of the mid-size rucksack category and you’ll be able to pack a small stove, gas, and cooking utensils. That will enable you to camp further off the beaten track and go for longer periods of time.
Full-size rucksack (approximately 65-85L)
Full-size rucksacks of between 65L and 85L allow you to go on fully self-supported camping trips. You can carry tent, bag, sleeping pad, cooking gear, clothing/waterproofs, food and limited supplies of water. They’re usually sufficient to enable you to go on extended trips of a week or more (making them great for expeditions like those involved in the Duke of Edinburgh scheme) and, with the right winter skills under your belt, you can also take camping trips in the spring, autumn and winter using them.
They’re excellent, but there’s a big but here. A full-size rucksack that’s fully packed is heavy and can tire you out if you’re carrying it for long distances. For camping in challenging conditions, such as the winter time, then there’s no other option. However, if there are opportunities to cut out unnecessary gear, or invest in more compact items (such as a smaller sleeping bag) then that may be time and money well spent as it will potentially allow you to move down to a smaller and lighter rucksack.
How to choose a wild camping rucksack
So, we’ve looked at a few wild camping scenarios and seen what size of rucksack might work for each. Now let’s take a look at the factors to consider when you’re choosing a rucksack.
Key, as we’ve seen already, is the overall size of your rucksack: Compact, Mid-size or Full-size. It may well be that, over time, you’ll need to expand your rucksack collection as you get more into wild camping (for example getting a Compact for overnighters and a Full-size for week-long adventures). In the meantime have a think about when and where you’ll be taking most of your trips. If they’re all going to be multi-day, self-supported camping expeditions, then you’ll need to “Go Large”. On the other hand, if you plan on taking advantage of a few hot summer evenings to head out for a quick night under the stars, then you may well be able to get by with just a Compact rucksack.
Whichever rucksack you take for camping will weigh a significant amount when fully packed. For that reason you need to ensure that your rucksack is comfortable to carry. Look out for padded shoulder straps, quick-release chest strap (to stop the shoulder straps digging into your shoulders), and a padded waist strap (to keep the weight balanced on your shoulders and hips). This is particulary important with the full-size bags as they’ll clearly be the heaviest.
Single or multiple rucksack compartments
It’s my own personal preference, but I like rucksacks that have a main central compartment and multiple additional pockets. This means that you can keep everything separated out into its own space and easier to find when you’re setting up camp in the dark vs one single big compartment.
A degree of waterproofing and additional rain cover are useful on rucksacks (a soggy sleeping bag is never nice to crawl into at night). That being said you should never rely on the waterproofing of a rucksack. I always use a dry bag inside the rucksack or alternatively you can just wrap everything up in black bin liners.