Choosing and packing daysacks, rucksacks and travel luggage

lowe alpine rucksack
By Paul Deegan, Cotswold Outdoor, 03 April 2011
In the late 1980s, I went to the Himalaya for the first time. One of my stronger memories remains the sight of porters carrying enormous loads. But instead of taking advantage of the high-tech back systems on the westerners’ rucksacks they were assigned to carry, the porters simply threw a broad woven strap around two packs at a time. The strap then went around their foreheads. Taking all the weight of both heavily laden rucksacks across the front of their skulls, the porters walked further and faster than any trekker on the trail.

Since then, I’ve travelled with Zanskaris who pull their loads on sledges, and Chagga
people who balance duffle bags on their heads. I’ve learnt that whilst there are many
ways of carrying a load, the rucksack concept that we’re all familiar with suits me just

Day trips
People heading out for a day on the hill can choose from classic daysacks with externalpockets to cutting-edge packs specifically designed for activities ranging from ice climbing to adventure racing.

Snowboard and ski mountaineering rucksacks are fitted with attachment points that
enable your board or skis to be carried when they’re not attached to your feet.

Climbing packs feature gear attachment and ice axe loops as well as rope compressors. Rucksacks built around hydration systems are popular with adventure racers, mountain bikers and trail runners.

Some daysacks have mesh backs that sit away from the main compartment. These
designs are ideal on hot days as they encourage air to flow around your back.
If your daysack has pockets on the hip fins, you’ll have a convenient place to store snack bars so that you can more easily maintain your energy levels throughout the day.

Rucksacks in the UK and Europe have their volume advertised in litres. Some other
countries use different systems. For example, North American packs are measured incubic inches. The majority of daysacks have a capacity of between 15 and 35 litres. People engaged in winter activities usually carry additional clothing and equipment and will probably need a rucksack with a capacity of between 30 and 45 litres.

A few ultralight daysacks can be rolled up and popped into the bottom of larger
rucksacks so that you have a small 10 to 20 litre bag to use either when exploring citieson route to your trekking destination, or as an assault sack on summit day. These designs have very little in the way of padding or support and are designed for occasional use with light loads.

An increasing number of commuters are taking their paperwork and laptops to work in rucksack-style soft luggage rather than a traditional briefcase. Many of the leading
rucksack manufacturers produce daysacks specifically for use in the urban environment. Some of these designs incorporate padded inserts to protect expensive technology during the daily commute.

Backpacking & independent trekking
Rucksacks designed for backpacking with all your clothing and equipment – which may include a sleeping bag, stove, tent, food and fuel – have capacities ranging from 50 to 75 litres. It’s worth taking a moment to consider whether side pockets on a rucksack of this size are a good idea. Side pockets are handy for stashing items like fuel bottles that have the potential to contaminate other items. However, if you are jumping on and off public transport on your way to your destination, side pockets are likely to be a pain as they can snag in doorways. A slim sack that is no wider than you will make jostling with the crowd at the railway station a slightly less traumatic affair. Some rucksacks boast collapsible side pockets, which fold flat when not required and offer the best of both worlds for a small weight penalty.

You may also have a choice between one and two compartments in the main part of the rucksack. If you like the idea of being able to keep your sleeping bag or wet clothing in a separate section, or want to be able to access the gear in the bottom of your pack easily, then a divider two-thirds of the way down the rucksack might appeal to you. Some dividers can be zipped out when not required.

A lid pocket allows you to carry essential bits and bobs (such as a penknife, map and
compass, guidebook, phrasebook and headtorch) at the very top of the pack for easy
access throughout the day. It is not possible to waterproof a top pocket so keep items that can be affected by moisture in a transparent plastic bag fitted with a watertight rollover closure.

Adventure travel
In towns and cities, a smart piece of soft luggage looks less incongruous than a fully fledged rucksack. Soft luggage is also easier to pack than a backpack, and helps clothes to remain less crumpled. In addition, a bag fitted with a durable set of wheels will be a lot easier to move around hotel lobbies, airport departure halls and along the street between the bus terminal and your hostel.

However, as soon as you swap the urban landscape for a rural or wild environment, the advantages of a rucksack become clear. Carrying all the weight on two shoulder straps and a padded hip belt is a lot more comfortable than throwing a shoulder strap over one shoulder.

Nevertheless, rucksacks aren’t particularly stylish if you sometimes stay in upscale
accommodation. That’s where hybrid rucksack designs come in. The back system on a hybrid can be every bit as comfortable as on a regular trekking rucksack for the times when you want to go backpacking. When you’re about to check in to an upmarket hotel, the entire back system can be hidden from view behind a fabric panel.

Most hybrids can be opened up to allow them to be packed like suitcases, which is great if you’re carrying a lot of clothing. But the shape of hybrids means they can’t carry a heavy, bulky load quite as well as a traditional rucksack. If you plan to spend more than a third of your time using your hybrid on treks as opposed to in urban environments, you will probably be better off with a conventional top-loading design.

Several models of travel rucksack come equipped with an integral day sack. This can be zipped off the front of the main pack as cabin baggage on a flight, and also when you want to leave most of your luggage behind in your hotel or hostel. This day sack can also be worn across your chest in cities, allowing you to keep a closer eye on your valuables.
Expeditions & alpine
Expedition rucksacks are particularly cavernous. A capacity of between 70 and 100 litres is common. Before purchasing a rucksack of this size, it might be worth thinking about whether there are ways of reducing your load in order to avoid having to carry around such a huge pack. That said, people heading into remote regions without support often have no choice but to shoulder a gargantuan amount of food and equipment. Extendible lids and expandable side pockets will allow you to increase the capacity of your expedition rucksack when required. If you are carrying a heavy load, the fit of the rucksack becomes paramount.

Rucksacks for alpine climbing are usually smaller than expedition rucksacks. They
typically hold 45-60 litres. One of the things that makes cutting-edge alpine packs
different from other rucksacks is the type of material that they are made from, as fabrics that possess a high resistance to wear and tear are especially important. If the closed cell back pad in your alpine pack is removable, a sit mat can be created to improve your comfort on an enforced bivouac for no additional weight penalty.

Hip belts are often modestly padded and quite narrow on alpine packs. This is to help prevent them from interfering with a climbing harness. A few hip belts can be detachedafter the walk-in if you prefer not to be encumbered with an additional set of straps during the climb. Others can be reverse-wrapped around the back of the rucksack and clipped out of the way. Some hip belts are fitted with gear loops for gear racking.

Getting the right fit
Ensuring that your rucksack fits your back correctly is crucially important. A badly fitting rucksack can increase fatigue and create soreness around the shoulders, neck and hips. If at all possible, it is better to buy a rucksack from a shop rather than by mail order or over the web. That way you will be able to put some weight in several models and walk around and up and down a staircase with them on. There’s no point in trying on an backpack with nothing inside it because all empty packs feel comfortable! The amount of weight you place inside will depend on the carrying capacity of the rucksack and what you intend to carry. As a rough guide, five kilos in a 25-35 litre sack, eight kilos in a 45-55 litre pack, and 12 kilos in a 65-75 litre rucksack should be sufficient to indicate whether the design is going to be comfortable. Ensure that this weight is evenly distributed throughout the rucksack and not just in the base.

Rucksack back systems generally fall into one of two broad categories. These are
adjustable and fixed. Fixed back lengths either fit you or they don’t. Consequently, many manufacturers make their fixed length rucksacks in a number of sizes. Adjustable back systems can be customised to fit your back. This is ideal if you fall mid-way between fixed back lengths, or if more than one person is going to use the rucksack. Some people claim that fixed-back rucksacks have less to go wrong with them and are more durable, but to date I’ve never had an adjustable system fail on me. The crucial part of the fitting process, especially on larger rucksacks, is to ensure that the hip belt sits on your hips and not around your waist. This ensures that more of the rucksack’s weight is transferred from the relatively weak shoulders to the stronger pelvic girdle. Just how much weight can be transferred is the subject of much debate. It is fair to say that most people find that a properly-fitted, padded hip belt removes at least some of the weight from the shoulders. A few rucksacks are supplied with hipbelts that can be custom moulded to fit you perfectly. It is also important that the shoulder straps curve snugly over the shoulders rather than forming an apex. Take care not to tighten the shoulder straps until the hip belt is correctly sited.

Once you are happy with the general fit of the rucksack, you can adjust the top and side stabiliser straps. Stabiliser straps help to draw the load in towards the body to prevent the rucksack swaying around. By loosening and tightening these straps you will soon discover for yourself the tremendous difference they can make to the overall fit of your pack. It’s easy to adjust stabiliser straps as you walk along. This allows you to instantly tweak the rucksack if you switch from walking along a marked trail to scrambling across a boulder field.

Packing a rucksack
Over time you’re sure to develop your own packing order. In the meantime, these
diagrams may help you to get started.

Alpine rucksack 45-60 litres
1. Closed-cell foam mat (in compression straps down side of rucksack)*
2. Map & compass, guidebook, whistle
3. GPS (optional) or altimeter (altimeter might be on wrist watch)
4. Snacks
5. Buff, suncream, sun hat, sunglasses, lipsalve, headtorch
6. Money, insurance, EHIC, mobile phone, multitool / penknife
7. Water bottle
8. Rope & climbing gear (pack harness, krabs and slings in helmet during approach)
9. Gloves or mittens, goggles, warm hat, first aid kit
10. Waterproof and breathable jacket, spare fleece jacket or soft shell
11. Bivi bag
The Knowledge: Rucksacks. Page 9 of 12. © Paul Deegan under licence to Cotswold Outdoor Ltd.
12. Stove, fuel, food, matches, spoon, mug, pot & lid
13. Overtrousers (with full-length zip) †
14. Spare clothing
15. Sleeping bag or duvet jacket
16. Compact camera in pouch on hipbelt
17. Hydration bladder and tube (optional, many alpinists prefer hard bottles)
* If you prefer to use a self-inflating mattress, this should be stowed inside the rucksack.
† Depending on the conditions, some alpinists eschew overtrousers in favour of waterresistant
soft shell trousers

Note: crampons and ice axes will be attached to the outside of the rucksack during the
approach. Other bits and pieces should be wedged between bulkier items throughout the rucksack.

Backpacking rucksack 55-75 litres

1. Bits and pieces bag inc. suncream, lipsalve, sunglasses, sun hat
2. Guidebook, phrasebook, camera memory cards
3. First aid kit, whistle, headtorch, multitool / penknife
4. Energy bars, dried fruit, snacks
5. Maps, compass, personal documentation, money, insurance, passport etc.
6. Tent poles (under side compression straps)
7. Trekking poles (under side compression straps or attached to dedicated loops)
8. Water bottle ?
9. Energy powder for water, additional high energy snack food
10. Stove fuel
11. Stove spares, matches
12. Camera bag on hip belt
13. Sleeping bag and liner in bottom compartment
14. Self-inflating mattress
15. Spare base layer clothing and socks
16. Stove, pan, lid, utensils, food, mug
17. Share of tent, waterproof clothing, gaiters (near top for easy access in wet weather)
18. Spare mid layers, warm hat, gloves
19. Wash kit
20. Sandals
21. Notebook, reading book

If you use a hydration system, the bladder would be slipped inside the main
compartment next to the back and the tube fed out to attach to a shoulder strap.

Note: other bits and pieces should be wedged between bulkier items throughout the

Packing advice
Packing a rucksack is something of an art and a science, and no two people pack their bags in precisely the same way. Nevertheless, for the first-time packer here are some general guidelines that might be of some help.

Firstly, draw up a kit list. Many outdoor books dedicated to specific sports or destinations include such lists. If you are travelling with a trekking company or tour operator they should be able to supply you with one. Using a kit list increases the chance of packing all the essential items. Secondly, try to collect the gear you need several weeks in advance of your departure. That way, if you need to buy something and the store is temporarily out-of-stock, you’ll be able to allow extra time for the item to be ordered and delivered.

Savvy travellers adhere to the maxim, ‘If in doubt, leave it out.’ By only taking items
along that you know you will use, it should be possible to keep your load to a manageable size. Fewer items mean fewer things to lose and a shorter period of time spent packing and unpacking each day. That said, if you have to take something along that is absolutely vital to the success and safety of the trip, consider taking a spare. For example, if you are climbing in the Alps, a pair of sunglasses is essential to prevent snowblindness. Taking a spare pair for your group in case someone breaks or loses their glasses makes a lot of sense as trying to lead someone off a mountain who has snowblindness is no fun.

If you are climbing or walking on uneven terrain, keep the weight close to the spine in the centre of the rucksack. By contrast, walkers following well-maintained paths with a heavy pack sometimes prefer to get the weight a little bit higher up in the rucksack so that it sits over the hips. Some people who have a short stature like to keep the weight a little lower in their rucksacks. It’s worth experimenting to find out what suits you best.

Even if you have a well-padded backpack, slipping something soft down the inside of the rucksack next to your back will help to reduce the chance of an object digging into you as you walk along. If you do discover a problem with your load, take a moment to stop and re-pack: walking for several hours with an uncomfortable rucksack is something to be avoided.

Whilst rucksacks are made with waterproof fabrics, it is simply too expensive to seal all the seams. Investing in an inexpensive, seam-sealed, waterproof liner or rucksack cover will help to keep all your equipment dry during extended downpours. Keep your sleeping bag in a second waterproof bag because accidents do happen and sleeping in a wet sleeping bag is no joke. To that end, store water and fuel bottles outside of your waterproof liner.

This guide is part of the series from The Knowledge and you can read more from this series within The Active Guide or alternatively watch The Knowledge videos online at

Paul is the author of the award-winning ‘The Mountain Traveller’s Handbook’, and is under licence to Cotswold Outdoor Ltd.

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