choosing and packing daysacks, rucksacks and travel luggage
In 1988 I went to the Himalaya for the first time. One of my strongest memories remains the sight of porters carrying enormous rucksacks. But instead of taking advantage of the high-tech back systems, the boys simply threw a broad strap around two packs at a time. The same strap then went around their foreheads. Taking all the weight on their skulls, the porters walked further and faster than any trekker on the trail.

Since then, Iíve travelled with Zangskaris who pull their loads on sledges, and Chagga people who balance gear on their heads. Iíve learnt that whilst there are many ways of carrying a load, the rucksack concept that weíre familiar with suits me just fine. It isnít always a perfect solution, but the packs available today cater for almost every outdoor activity.

This booklet is designed as precursor to buying your rucksack, but Cotswold staff are in the best position to advise you on individual models. Happy packing!

Paul Deegan
Paul is the author of the award-winning ĎThe Mountain Travellerís Handbookí, published by the British Mountaineering Council and available from Cotswold.
day trips
organised treks
People who are heading onto the hills for the day can now choose from classic daysacks with side pockets (the more advanced models come with mesh backs for maximum ventilation), to specialised ice climbing, rock climbing and cross-country skiing packs. On the other hand, if your thing is adventure racing, then dedicated rucksacks built around hydration systems abound. These designs are also popular with mountain bikers and trail runners.

The majority of daysacks fall into the 10 to 40 litre size range. (All rucksacks in the UK have their volume advertised in litres. Some other countries use different systems. For example in the United States, packs are measured in cubic inches.)

The lightest daysacks can be folded up and popped into the bottom of larger rucksacks so that you can have a small bag to use either when exploring cities en route to your trekking destination, or as an assault sack on summit day.

An increasing number of workers prefer to take their paperwork and laptops to work in rucksack-style soft luggage rather than a traditional briefcase. With this in mind, certain designs of packs incorporate padded inserts to protect expensive technology during the daily commute.

On an organised trek, such as along Peruís famous Inca Trail, porters or pack animals will carry most of your belongings. As I described in my introduction, many people around the world have very different ideas about load carrying than we do, and therefore it is quite possible that your rucksack will end up being carried upside down in a wicker basket! Also, rucksack straps which are left to flap around can easily become snagged and torn off. Of course, two weeks spent on the back of a mule is enough to make any rucksack look extremely dirty and tatty. For these reasons, it might be a better bet to pack your expensive rucksack inside a lockable rucksack cover, or leave the rucksack at home and just take a holdall instead.

A large number of duffle bags are available, ranging in all sizes up to and over 100 litres. The full length zip makes them quicker to pack than a rucksack, and faster to locate items in too. Some duffles have internal compartments which can be handy for dividing clean and dirty clothes and footwear. However, most people simply arrange their kit inside differently coloured stuff bags for easy identification.

On an organised trek, the trick is to ensure that you carry anything fragile or breakable in your daysack. That way, if something is lost youíll have no-one to blame but yourself! Also, try to avoid having to access your holdall during rest stops. This is because porters and pack animals tend to move semi-independently of trekking groups during the day. Bear in mind that your gear may arrive several hours after you arrive in camp, so it is always worth carrying a spare fleece or duvet jacket and a warm hat in your daysack so that you donít get cold whilst waiting for your stuff to turn up.

If you are carrying essential medicines, it is a good idea to carry one complete set in your daysack and a second course in the holdall. That way, if one is mislaid or damaged youíll have another to fall back on.

An increasing number of clients on commercial treks are quizzing their operators before booking a holiday to ensure that minimum standards of porter welfare, as suggested by the International Porter Protection Group (, are being adhered too. A porter who is properly paid, clothed, fed and insured is a happy porter. And happy porters are better able to assist clients in achieving their goals.

Once you move into the 60-70 litre rucksack category, your choice of rucksack widens considerably.

Itís worth taking a moment to consider whether side pockets on a rucksack of this size are a good idea. If you jump on and off buses on a regular basis, side pockets might become a pain as they can snag in doorways. By contrast, a slim sack will be no wider than you, making 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 with few disadvantages.

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.

The size of the top pocket (or pockets) becomes quite important in large backpacking rucksacks. A voluminous pocket allows you to carry additional bits and bobs at the very top of the pack for easy access during the day.

adventure travel
getting the right fit
Adventure travellers often require something of a hybrid rucksack when it comes to choosing a load-carrying device. In towns and cities, a smart piece of soft luggage often looks less incongruous than a fully-fledged rucksack. Soft luggage is also easier to pack, and helps clothes to remain uncrumpled. But get off-the-beaten path and the advantages of a rucksack become clear; you donít want to toil around carrying 15 kilos on a single shoulder strap.

The best adventure travel luggage sports twin shoulder straps and a hip belt hidden behind a fabric panel. This allows the bag to be carried like a rucksack as and when required. Some back systems are very similar to the ones found on top-line backpacking rucksacks. However, bear in mind that because of the shape of travel luggage, it is harder to pack heavy and bulky loads in this type of pack. So if you plan to spend more than 50% of your time using the luggage as a dedicated rucksack, you might be better off with a more conventional design.

Several models of travel rucksack come equipped with an integral day sack. This can be zipped off the front of the main pack when you want to leave most of your luggage behind in the hostel. This day sack can also be worn across the chest in cities, allowing you to keep a closer eye on your valuables.

Ensuring that your rucksack fits your back correctly is of crucial importance. A badly-fitting rucksack can increase fatigue and create soreness around the shoulders. Extended use of a poorly-fitted, overloaded rucksack can lead to long-term problems with your spine.

If at all possible, it is better to buy a rucksack from a shop rather than by mail order. That way you will be able to put some weight in several models and walk around with them on. Thereís no point in trying on an empty rucksack 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. But as a rough guide, five kilos in a 30 litre sack, eight kilos in a 50 litre pack, and around 12 kilos in a 65-plus litre rucksack should be sufficient to give you a good idea as to whether the design is going to be comfortable. Try to 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: adjustable and fixed. Fixed back lengths either fit you or they donít, and so many manufacturers make their fixed length rucksacks in a number of sizes. By contrast, 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 so are more durable, but Iíve never had an adjustable system fail on me (yet!).

The crucial part of the actual fitting process, especially on larger rucksacks, is to ensure that the hip belt sits on your hips and not around your waist. This way, more of the rucksackís weight will be transferred from the relatively weak shoulders to the stronger pelvic girdle. Just how much weight can be transferred is the subject of much debate, although it is fair to say that most people find that a well-fitting, padded hip belt removes at least some of the weight from the shoulders. It is also important that the shoulder straps curve snugly over the shoulders. However, take care not to tighten these 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 in order 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.

expeditions & alpine
Rucksacks for these activities are very popular and so deserve a special mention. Expedition rucksacks are often categorised as being especially cavernous: 70 to 90 litres is not unusual. However, 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 pack a gargantuan amount of food and equipment. In these situations, the fit of the rucksack becomes absolutely 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. Expensive, featherweight fabrics that possess a high resistance to wear and tear are the order of the day in this sector of the market. Hip belts are often unpadded and quite narrow on alpine packs. This is so that they do not interfere with a climbing harness. But some kind of belt is always welcome during walk-ins, so you might not want to discount this feature entirely. An alpine sack with a long fabric extension allows legs to be slipped inside should a ledge be the only available accommodation for the evening. And if the back pad can be removed, then a sit mat can be created for no additional weight penalty.

packing a rucksacks
socks and gaiters

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, consider drawing up a kit list. Many outdoor books include such lists, and if you are travelling with a trekking company or tour operator they should be able to supply you with one. Using a kit list means that youíll be less likely to forget something.

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, youíll be able to allow extra time for the item to be ordered and delivered to your door before departure.

Many explorers adhere to the maxim, ĎIf in doubt, leave it out.í By only taking items along that you know you will use, your load should be considerably reduced. Fewer items mean fewer things to lose and a lot less time spent packing and unpacking. 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 going climbing in the high Himalaya, a pair of sunglasses is essential to prevent snowblindness. Therefore, taking one spare pair between two or three people makes a lot of sense.

Over time, youíre sure to develop your own packing order, but to help get you started the diagrams on the adjoining page may help you to get started.

If you are climbing or walking on uneven terrain, try to keep the weight close to the spine. By contrast, walkers following well-maintained paths sometimes prefer to get the weight higher up in the rucksack. Slipping something soft down the rear of the rucksack reduces the chance of a sharp object digging into your back.

Donít be afraid to take a moment to re-pack your load during a break: walking for several hours with an uncomfortable rucksack is something to be avoided at all costs.

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 in order to keep all your equipment dry during extended downpours is a wise move.

All outdoor activities are potentially hazardous. The information provided on this site offers guidelines only, and is no substitute for personal instruction from a qualified person. Whilst every effort has been made to ensure the accuracy of the information, no responsibility can be accepted by the author or Cotswold Outdoor Ltd. for any errors or omissions. By choosing to follow any of the advice contained in this leaflet, the reader accepts personal responsibility for a) learning any techniques required, b) any risks involved, and c) any damages or injuries of any kind - including death - howsoever caused. Cover shot: Checking the way ahead on the Trekker's Haute Route, between Chamonix and Zermatt.
© Paul Deegan & Flirt Design under license to Cotswold Outdoor Ltd.