Winter Daysacks

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.

All 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.

Back Systems

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
Pockets 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 bottle.

he 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.