Back to basics – How to choose a rucksack

As anticipated in my last blog, here I’m going to talk about how to choose the perfect rucksack. It might seem an easy job, but there’s so much to consider before buying one. So let’s start from the basics.

Size – How many litres?

This will depend on what you need the rucksack for. A bag’s size is measured in litres, and it can go from as little as 10 litres to normally about 70 litres.

For a day hike I normally recommend between 20 and 30 litres. It’s big enough for all your essentials, spare layers, food and water and you still have some extra space to add more stuff. If you’re going for a multi day hike then anything between 35/40 and 70 could work. This depends mostly on what you’re going to carry with you: are you camping or staying in a hut/bothy? How big are your tent and sleeping bag? Is it summer or winter? The answer to these questions will determine if you’ll need a full on expedition rucksack, or if a slightly larger day bag will suffice.

My fully packed expeditions bag with a large hip belt and padded shoulder straps to support a lot of weight.

Size – Back length

But let’s talk about the most important thing to look for when buying a new rucksack: the length of the back.

Depending on how tall you are, if you’re a male or a female, a kid or an adult, your back length will be different. And getting it right is crucial to have a bag that is comfortable to wear and carry. So, how to you check if it fits right?

The first thing to remember is that, when you’re trying on a bag, you should always have some weight in it so that the bag sits right on your shoulders and doesn’t “float”. Most outdoor shops will have some weight that you can use for this. Once the rucksack is full then follow these steps:

  • Loosen off the shoulder straps so that they’re definitely too long and put the bag on
  • Clip the waist belt and pull it snug
  • Adjust the shoulder straps to the right length
  • Check that there’s no gap between the shoulder straps and the top of your shoulders.

This is the main thing you need to check: if there’s a gap between the straps and your shoulders (and you can fit a finger or a hand between them) then it means the back of the bag is too long for you. If there’s no gap then the bag fits you well!

Different types of rucksacks, ready for a weekend away.

Size – Female specific?

In the last few years most brands have started to make a female specific version of their most popular rucksacks. Normally a female specific bag is slightly smaller, has a shorter back and the straps are shaped to fit the female body. So, do women have to buy a female specific bag? No, not necessarily. If you’re tall or have a long back then a male bag will be just fine. But if, like me, you are quite small and you always struggle to find rucksacks that fit your back length then a female bag is a must!

Straps and pockets

Now let’s talk about style. Depending on what you’re using the rucksack for then you’ll need to think how many pockets and straps you need.

If you’re after a streamlined bag to use mainly for climbing you won’t need many pockets: just a main compartment will do, top lid that can be tucked in and maybe somewhere to clip your climbing gear to. If you need a bag for day hikes or multi day treks then pockets will be fundamental. Being able to divide your stuff into different compartment is quite handy, so that you know exactly which pocket to open to get that specific thing. Another important thing in this case, especially if you’re planning on carrying a heavy load, is to have good padded shoulder straps and a comfy hip belt that will help you support the weight and spread it evenly between your shoulders and your hips.

My two climbing bags: just one main compartment and space to clip your gear and ice axes.

There’s so many different rucksacks on the market nowadays that it could almost seem impossible to find the right one. Try on as many as you need, fill them with weights and carry them around the shop for a few minutes so that you can have a proper feel for them. The bottom line is that you’ll have to carry it for the whole day, or for more than a day, so it needs to be comfortable on your back.

My rucksacks are:

Simond Alpinism 22

Lowe Alpine Peak Attack ND 34:45

Deuter Guide 30+ SL

Lowe Alpine Manaslu ND 55:65

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