Backpacking Rucksacks

Hands up all those travellers who still use suitcases. Precisely, you can't. Not unless you put one of them down. Which leaves you with even more than a bit of arm-wrenching if you're being followed at close quarters by several hundred rush-hour contestants not too keen on tripping over your luggage whilst you give your arms a rest.

Whether you're battering your way through seething throngs of people, the saner but more vegetated tangles of the jungle, or you're plodding along a dusty track, it isn't just the fact that a rucksack leaves your hands free to fend off ticket collectors, mosquitoes or over-friendly cattle - it's a lot healthier on your back.

Backpacking rucksacks cover a multitude of sins, simply because there are so many different uses. Packs made for climbers aren't the same as the sort of thing most useful for a long-distance trek, and indeed, there are even special travellers' rucksacks which convert into soft luggage by hiding the harness beneath a zip-over panel.

Whilst they're still pretty popular in North America, where trekkers are more likely to load up with two or three weeks supplies at one go, external frame rucksacks have now become almost entirely superseded in the UK by the more ergonomic internal frame rucksacks. If you aren't carrying so much - and it's inadvisable to carry more than a third of your own body weight in any event - it's a lot more efficient to get the load as close as possible to your own centre of gravity. It makes for a more comfortable carry, and it doesn't compromise your stability so much when you're picking your way across dodgy terrain.

Just what type of sack you get, whether a single compartment sack, split main compartment, and with various combinations of top and side pockets, is up to you. British backpackers tend to favour packs with side pockets permanently attached, whereas on the Continent, they seem to prefer to do without, or strap on accessory pockets when needed. It's actually quite a good approach, because the straps to which you attach side pockets also act as compression straps, so you can stop the contents of an underfilled main compartment from slopping about and possibly affecting your stability. And whilst accessory pockets used to slop about themselves, many are now available with stiffened backs, so that once attached to a rucksack, there's little difference between them and stitched-on pockets.

Rucksacks with adjustable harnesses to fit different back lengths are very popular these days. Of course, it improves versatility, giving you the opportunity for more than one member of the family to use the rucksack, and retailers like it because they don't have to stock a range of sizes. On the minus side, adjustable rucksacks do tend to be heavier than their fixed length counterparts.

The fact that backpacking rucksacks transfer the majority of their weight to your hips means that, logically, you want to look for maximum comfort in that area. I've used sacks with thinly padded belts which after just a few hours have badly bruised my likewise thinly padded hips. The better rucksack manufacturers also make their hipbelts conically shaped, so that once adjusted to a comfortable fit, a heavy load won't make the belt slip down.

Shoulder straps don't want to be too thin, either. If you're down to a T-shirt, a lot of weight pulling on thin straps can be most uncomfortable. Most of the quality rucksack manufacturers now provide chest straps as standard. They're especially useful at keeping the shoulder straps from slipping sideways, and does away with the need to latch a thumb behind each shoulder strap to keep the rucksack comfortably up against your back without over-tight shoulder straps. The better ones are either completely elasticated, or have a short elasticated section so there's a bit of give. There's usually a choice of positions for chest straps, and it pays to get the most comfortable, so you don't get it so tight it impedes your breathing!

A good rucksack is one of those things which becomes a friend on a long trip. It's part of you, moves with you, the real traveller's life support system. But even so, the nicest feeling is always at the end of the day - when you take it off!

Fabrics 
Good, bad and even completely lousy rucksacks are generally made from nylon or polyester. The more you pay the better the quality, the fancier the name and the more abuse it will take. Although the fabrics are waterproof the seams usually are not. So always pack everything into a liner inside the rucksack. 

Lid 
The lid should completely cover the main opening of the rucksack, to prevent gear falling out and rain falling in. Some lids work well when the rucksack is full, but let water in down the back when the sack is half empty. There are usually pockets on the lid that are ideal for maps and guidebooks, so make sure these items will fit. 

Volume 
For backpacking and camping you need tons of gear, including a tent, sleeping bag, food, spare clothing and a stove, for wich a sack of around 65 litres is ideal. But on outings where more than a couple of days' worth of food will have to be carried then look for a 75 litre rucksack. Longer trips demand even bigger packs. 
     To account for every eventuality some rucksacks have variable volume. If you're not sure what you are going to get up to this summer, one of these could be the best choice. 

Snow extension 
Under the lid there should be a long snow extension, to provide double protection from the elements. This will help keep the snow and rain out of the main compartment, particularly when you start to overload your rucksack, which you surely will one day. 

Side pockets 
Side pockets allow for a compartmental approach to the packing of your rucksack, but they also mean that your rucksack can grow quite wide. Many modern sacks have bellows pockets that can be folded flat when not in use to retain a narrow clean line - also pretty useful for ski tourers and mountaineers when they need to carry their skis. Water bottles and fuel bottles are easily stowed in side pockets, so check they are big enough to take them. 

Compression straps 
Compression straps are used to compress the contents of your rucksack and prevent them from jumping about inside. When compressed, a rucksack is more stable on your back, while a sack without compression straps is often only stable when fully loaded. You can also stow sleeping mats, tent poles, walking poles or even a stick of French bread under most compression straps. 

Ice axe loops 
If you intend using your rucksack for year-round use, look for an ice axe loop or two. Most sacks have them. 

Back system 
A fairly stiff back system with ventilation channels is ideal. Soft backed rucksacks require more careful packing to ensure you don't get lumpy bits of your load poking you in the back, while very stiff backed rucksack are less comfortable. You may be able to find a fixed back length rucksack that fits you, but if you are having problems, try a rucksack with an adjustable back. Women's rucksacks have shorter back lengths to cater for this. 

Hip belt 
As you'll be carrying heavy loads, the bigger the hip belt the better, as long as it is well padded and comfortable on the hips. There should however be some stiffness in the belt for comfort and stability. People with narrow hips may find some hip belts so long they can't tighten them correctly. Women's rucksacks have shorter hip belts to cater for this. 

Shoulder straps 
These are one of the most important features of the rucksack. Well padded wide shoulder straps are the best. But check that the shoulder straps are correctly spaced so that they don't pinch your neck, or hang off the end of your shoulders. The straps should fit comfortably around the chest. Women's rucksacks have narrow shoulder straps for a better fit. 

Chest strap 
This holds the shoulder straps in place on your shoulders and aids stability of the rucksack. On a long walk with a heavy pack, a chest strap is very useful as it allows you to vary the placement of the load on your shoulders to reduce strain. 

Top tension straps 
These pull the top of the rucksack towards your back for a more comfortable and more stable carry. You should be able to adjust them while wearing the rucksack. 

Accessory straps 
These allow you to attach a sleeping mat, walking pole or even a pair of crampons to the outside of the rucksack. Compression straps can also be used as accessory straps and many people pack sleeping mats under these. Think ahead and make sure you have enough straps to attach things where you want them.