Whether you’re going hiking, camping or travelling, choosing the right rucksack is absolutely essential. Picking the wrong one could result in your running out of space, not having the features you require or even being detrimental for your health.
Read more: How To Pack A Rucksack: The Essential Guide
There’s actually a surprising amount to consider when buying a rucksack, so we’ve tried to make things a little easier for you with our in-depth guide, covering essentials such as how to fit a rucksack, what size to choose and what features you might need.
There is a wide range of bags when it comes to the outdoors, so it’s easy to get confused by the sheer number and names of them. Rucksacks and daysacks have often been interchanged when it comes to names and products, with ‘rucksack’ attached to many smaller bags. These are the different types of bags or packs:
- Travel Backpacks
- Belt Bags (bum bags, fanny packs, hip belts, lumbar pack)
- Hydration Packs
The focus here is on rucksacks and daysacks. So, what is the actual difference between the two? It’s size. The traditional rule is that a rucksack is anything with a capacity of 50L or more, and a daysack is anything with a capacity of less than 50L.
Anatomy of a rucksack & common features
With the shoulder harnesses taking a good portion of the weight of the rucksack, it’s essential you’re happy they feel comfortable enough. The thicker the shoulder harness, the more padding and comfort it will provide, although at the expense of flexibility and increased weight. Some also feature mesh for added ventilation.
Most bags also feature load lifters at the top of the shoulder harnesses. These small (but important) straps allow you to alter the bag sits against your bag, raise it higher and above your hips if you feel it pulling away from you.
Depending on your activity, the back panel can either provide you with more comfort or look to really cut down on weight. Hiking or backpacking can take its toll on your back after a while, so having a padded back panel can help ease the pressure and is also handy to prevent anything in your pack from digging into your back.
Most rucksacks will have a padded back panel, some being adjustable, whilst you can also get packs with breathable mesh, which is perfect for warmer days, and is certainly a good feature to look out for.
This little strap can make a huge difference. It clips across your chest from the shoulder harnesses and helps improve the stability of the rucksack. It keeps the harnesses in position, preventing them from moving too much, and can help raise the position of the pack so it’s above your hips.
It will usually be adjustable to suit your comfort and can sometimes include an integrated emergency whistle!
Adjustable Back System
As the name suggests, this means you can alter the position of the back padding to suit your height, body shape or comfort.
The adjustable shoulder straps under the harnesses allow you to raise and lower the pack to suit your comfort. They should be pulled reasonably tight to keep the rucksack in the correct position but be aware of not over-tightening them as this can transfer the weight of the bag from your hips onto your shoulders.
The hip belt is an incredibly important part of the pack to ensure you carry it safely. It will likely have a good amount of padding to sit around your hips, and, along with the sternum strap, will help stop the pack moving around too much. Always ensure the belt is sat on top of your hips and is fairly tight.
The lid pulls over the top of the rucksack, helping to keep everything secure inside. It will clip to buckles generally located towards the bottom quarter of the bag and most lids will include a top pocket, which is a great place for your personal belongings, first aid kit and headtorch.
Side Compression Straps
Side compression straps will pull the pack in from the sides, reducing the amount of wasted space and ensuring a more compact and easy-to-manage rucksack.
Walking Pole – Ice Axe Loops
If you’re taking walking poles or ice axes with you, then they can be attached to the rucksack on these loops when you’re not using them. Not all rucksacks will have these, so double-check if it’s something you know you’ll need.
A top tip for when these loops are not in use is attaching your tent poles to this area, which will allow you to pack your tent flysheet down to a size you wouldn’t believe!
Some rucksacks will feature side pockets in which you can store a few essential items you may need to access quickly and easily.
Side Stretch Pocket
Again, some packs may feature a stretch pocket on the sides, ideal for storing a water bottle you can grab as and when you need it. To ensure good weight distribution, you can ever store your gas/liquid fuel in the opposite side pocket.
Front Rucksack Opening
This zipped opening at the front makes it easy to access the main compartment of the rucksack, meaning you can get items further down the pack without having to unpack everything from the top.
Other potential features
Roll mat straps
Ideal for campers, roll mat straps sit underneath the pack and mean you can easily store your otherwise bulky camping roll mat.
Extra compartment (5 – 10L)
Always a great place for sleeping bags with the amount of space they can quite often take up. In most cases, you should be able to make this compartment as part of the main rucksack space if it’s not needed.
Having easy access to water is essential for hikers and backpackers, which is where a hydration pack can help. Bear in mind, however, that you won’t usually be able to store as much equipment in a hydration pack.
Some packs come with reflective sections so you can be better spotted at night.
The rain cover will usually be stored in the rucksack lid so it can be easily accessed and pulled over your pack in case of a downpour.
Some rucksacks come with a detachable daysack attached to them. This allows for extra storage space, reduces the room taken up in the main compartment and means that it can even be carried by someone else in your party.
What size rucksack do I need?
The size of rucksack you need very much depends on the activity you’re doing, how long you’re doing it for, and how much kit you’re taking with you. Here’s a guide on the size of the bag needed for your activity:
Running / cycling (less than a day) – 5-15 litres
Day walking (1 day) – 15-40 litres
Climbing (1 day) – 30-50 litres
Multi-day walking/hiking (2-3 days) – 40-60 litres
Backpacking/travelling (5+ days) – 60+ litres
This is just a guide and the size of rucksack you need may differ depending on a number of factors. For example, in winter you’re likely to need extra clothing in case you get cold or wet, in which case you will need a larger pack.
For simpler, day-to-day use, such as using your rucksack or daysack for commuting to work or the gym, you shouldn’t need a bag larger than 50L.
How to fit a rucksack
Think of your rucksack as you would any other piece of clothing – if it doesn’t fit properly then it won’t do its job. Choosing the wrong rucksack can even result in pain or damage to your back, hips, shoulders and neck.
Proper fitting is only really needed for larger rucksacks where you’ll be carrying heavier loads, although it’s always important to ensure your pack feels comfortable and is well supported.
A fitting is generally required for rucksacks of 50 litres or more, and for those using it for long-distance load carrying. So, if you’re going on DofE or a longer camping expedition, you will need to fit your pack correctly.
When fitting a rucksack, remember that the strongest muscles in your body are in your legs. This is where you will want to carry the weight of your rucksack, not in your shoulders, otherwise, you could cause serious injury.
You should aim to have up to 80% of your pack’s weight distributed on your hips, so, if the waistband is too high, too much of the weight will be sent through your spine. The correct position will focus the load on your pelvis and, therefore, through your legs. The remaining 20% of the weight is distributed on your shoulders.
Here are some handy tips on fitting a rucksack:
- Use a rucksack that is, at least, partly full to simulate real-world conditions.
- The hip belt should, funnily enough, sit on the hips, not the waist. If it’s too high then it puts more pressure on your shoulders.
- The pack should sit stable and close against your back, not with a large gap
- If your pack has an adjustable back, adjust it so that it feels comfortable and offers enough support. You may need to measure your torso length to get the right rucksack. Do this by measuring from the top of your hips up to the base of your neck.
- Adjust the shoulder straps to alter the height of the rucksack. If they’re not tight enough then the pack will pull away from you; too tight and they’ll pull the pack too high up your back and onto your shoulders.
- Close and adjust the sternum strap until you feel it taking some of the weight off your shoulders. It should sit roughly in line with the bottom of the armpit. This can be awkward for women, so adjust until you find a comfortable fit.
- A good rule is that your backpack should never go above eye level.
If you pop into one of the various Winfields stores around the UK, one of our knowledgeable staff can help you find and fit the right rucksack for you.
Is there such thing as a men’s or women’s rucksack? Well, yes there is. Most rucksacks will be suitable for both men or women, but you can indeed buy packs designed specifically for women, built with narrower necks, different shoulder to hip ratios and shorter back lengths to reflect the difference in a woman’s body.
Last modified: September 25, 2019