Climbing steeply out of the valley you start
to sweat. Uncomfortable, and realising that damp clothing will chill you high on
the windswept hills, you stop to remove the fleece jacket, warm hat and thick mitts
you needed in the frosty shade of the trees below. Swinging the rucksack off your
back, you open the top and cram the clothing in, alongside the crampons, insulated
jacket, waterproofs, insulated flask, headlamp, bivi bag and other necessary gear.
On the outside of the rucksack an ice axe hangs.
this gear and more can be needed on a day out in the winter hills. But it won't all
be in use all the time. Indeed, some of the time it will all be carried. And for
that you need a rucksack that is large enough and comfortable to carry. A 20-30 litre
capacity summer sack won't do unless you're gear is minimal in bulk or you travel
light and take chances with the weather. In winter a rucksack in the 35 to 50 litre
size range is needed. Such packs are also suitable for summer use for year-round
day walking, for hut-to-hut (or hostel-to-hostel, B&B-to-B&B) touring and
for Himalayan trekking. The largest of these packs are also big enough for short
summer backpacking trips, especially if extra pockets can be added or there are plenty
of lashing points.
Rucksacks in this size range generally have padded backs and padded hipbelts. Many
have internal frames or framesheets as well. Back systems like this add to the comfort
but they also mean that the fit is important. A bag with shoulder straps and perhaps
a padded back and thin waist strap will fit most people. Once a frame and a padded
hipbelt is added a more precise fit is required. For that reason I measured the back
length of all the rucksacks tested. The range is from 41.5 to 58cm (16-23 inches),
enough to make a considerable difference to the fit. This means that trying a pack
on with a bit of weight in it before buying is a good idea. Many of the packs have
top tension straps, which can be used to vary the back length slightly, but none
has an adjustable back and only one comes in two sizes - The North Face Freefall.
Pockets, Straps & Flaps
are useful for quick access to items like snacks, flask, hat and gloves. Most rucksacks
have a top pocket, some also have side or front ones. Sacks without side pockets
are often called "climbing" sacks, as the idea is that side pockets could
get in the way. The advantage for the walker is that the side straps that normally
come with such packs can be used for attaching items such as trekking poles or for
increasing the capacity with detachable pockets. You can also tighten the pack round
a smaller load with these straps for better stability. That said, for most uses a
pack with side pockets is perfectly adequate. Some packs have expanding side pockets
and side straps, a useful combination.
Ice axe straps are essential and all the rucksacks tested have at least one set.
Ideally they ought to be easy to use in the cold with mitts on though most have buckles
that are difficult to operate with liner gloves on, neither mind thick mitts. Why
makers don't fit the quick release buckles often used for side straps I don't know,
as they are much easier to use.
Whether you need other straps depends on what you carry. Crampon straps might be
useful though I usually carry mine in a bag inside the rucksack or under the large
adjustable front flap found on an increasing number of packs. These flaps were originally
designed for items like snow shovels or snowboards but can also be used for wet waterproofs,
bivi bags and other bits of gear. Open-topped shallow pockets - often called wand
pockets and sometimes pole pockets - at the base of the sides of a pack are useful
for holding the ends of trekking poles or skis. I find them a convenient place to
carry a map or to shove hats or gloves. Wider ones will also take a flask or water
The rucksacks reviewed range from 33 to 50+ litres in capacity. However litres as used by rucksack makers tend to be a variable measure so these volumes are only approximate. I've commented below on size variations. I also checked that a litre flask would fit into the side pockets of those packs that have them. There was no problem here though few would take anything bigger.