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About Rucksacks and Backpacks

Whether you call it a rucksack or a backpack, when you set off on a walk carrying all you need to stay out over night on your back, you will need a comfortable one. Choosing the right one can make the difference between an enjoyable trip and a nightmarish one. The most important feature to consider is the back system. For loads much over 12 kg (26 lbs) a padded hip belt is needed so you can carry most of the weight on your hips, which are designed to bear weights, rather than on your relatively weak shoulders. This belt must fit properly and the key to this is matching the length of the pack to the length of your back.

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It is because everybody is a different size, pack makers offer various adjustable back systems, which can be fine tuned to exactly the right length for any individual. Others offer fixed back length packs in a number of sizes, note that what fits your trail companion may well not fit you. To transfer weight from the shoulders to the hips some form of stiffening is needed. In smaller, simpler designs this may be just foam padding. For heavy loads, however, some form of frame is required. Many frames are flexible so they can be bent to the shape of your back. Other back system features to look for are padded shoulder straps, lumbar pads, top tension straps and sternum straps.

The design of the bag itself isn't as important as the back system. How many pockets and compartments you want is a personal choice. Note though, that detachable side pockets are useful if you are intending to use the pack for scrambling, climbing or skiing as well as walking, as fixed pockets can get in the way. Check too that a pack has the necessary attachment points on the outside for items such as sleeping mat, walking poles, ice axe or skis that you might want to carry.

In terms of size we would recommend selecting a pack that will carry all you need on the longest trips you are planning. It's easy to cinch a pack down if it is not full. It is not so simple to force extra gear into an over stuffed one. Such an over loaded pack will not carry properly either. With a good, properly fitting pack you can carry surprisingly heavy loads and venture far into the hills away from roads and towns. Its worth a little effort to make sure you choose a pack that will enable you to do this.

Rucksack Choice

Its worth investing in a good rucksack - you'll appreciate it at the end of a long day! We stock rucksacks from top manufacturers inlcuding Camelbak, Mountain Equipment, Lowe Alpine, VauDe, Salomon, The North Face, Vango and Berghaus. A good rucksack is not just comfortable to carry, but protects your gear, organises it and makes it easily accessible. A good harness system allows you to carry surprising loads with ease.

Which rucksack you choose will depend on your intended use. Capacity will be your first guide. Whether you need a day sack of up to 40 litres for country rambles, or a full carrying system to contain all your gear for a week out in the wilds, requiring at least a 60 litre pack. The back system is very important. A simple, lightly padded harness is sufficient for a day sack, but for larger, heavier loads, a more sophisticated back system is essential to provide a stable load distribution. For climbing and rough terrain you will want a pack that hugs your back, but for days of trekking the priority may become a luxuriously padded hip belt!

Finally, think about the features. Side pockets may be useful for carrying frequently used items, but for certain activities with a lot of arm movement (climbing, ski touring) they will get in the way. If the amount you carry varies considerably then compression straps to stabilise smaller loads may be essential. Think about the various features available and decide which are going to be necessary or beneficial for you.

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Rucksack Features

Base compartment

A usefull feature for organising your gear. Perhaps more importantly, entry through the base of the sac makes that gear readily accessible. In most cases the base compartment is optional, with a zip out divider or variable draw cord closure.

Side Pockets

Your type of activity will determine whether or not these are useful (see above) Many sacks without side pockets can, when necessary, have them attached to the side compression as an optional extra. However they tend to sag more. In some cases on straight sides, wand pockets are located at the base. These are useful for locating tent poles, etc.

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Rucksack Closure

The top of the sack is closed by a draw cord and in many cases, particularly on larger sacks, a lighter weight snow lock extension with its own draw cord completely seals in the contents before the lid is closed. The lid usually has an elasticised skirt for a better weatherproof closure and is secured by buckles to the front profile straps. These straps help support heavy loads from sagging and can be adjusted to bring down the lid when the sack is not completely full, they often extend under the base of the sack so that extra gear can be attached - a sleeping mat for example.

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Rucksack Back Systems

Probably the most important part of your rucksack. A good harness will enable you to carry your gear with surprising ease and still be comfortable at the end of a long day. Small rucksacks are designed for light loads and therefore have a simple harness system. A waste belt and chest strap will improve stability and light padding of the shoulder straps and back give greater carrying comfort. With larger rucksacks and heavier loads the majority of the weight is transferred to the stronger muscle groups around the pelvic girdle, reducing strain on the weaker back muscles and spine.

Back Systems : Detailed Information

To maintain stability, however,a proportion of the weight has to be carried through the shoulder harness - to hold the sack close to the back. The shoulder harness is usually curved so that it spreads the weight evenly over the shoulder area rather than causing pressure points. A variety of tensioning straps help stabilise the load further and relieve any pressure points while on the move. Top tensioning straps join the top of the rucksack frame to the shoulder harness and can be adjusted to pull the sack closer into the back for extra stability or, alternatively, when loosened will transfer more weight to the hips and increase ventilation across the back. Chest harnesses, usually height adjustable, are useful for maintaining the shoulder straps in a comfortable position and freeing up the shoulders for easy arm movement.

Finally, hip belt stabilisers join the body of the sac to the hip belt and can be adjusted to pull the sack firmly into the hips and reduce roll. With varying degrees of sophistication, the cut of the harness system and the profile of its padding have been anatomically thought out to provide maximum efficiency.

Some rucksacks are available which have been specifically designed to suit the female form, with a shorter back length amongst other features. Fit is of course, important. Without a good fit the other benefits of the back system will be redundant. To get round the fact that we all have different back lengths, many manufacturers make adjustable harness systems where either the shoulder harness or the hip belt can be raised or lowered to provide a totally personal fit. Alternatively, with fixed back lengths, a variety of sizes are sometimes available.

N.B. Excessive adjustment to a small back size may make your rucksack less stable and out of balance.

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Fitting a Rucksack Correctly

First loosen the shoulder straps and all tensioning straps. Put the rucksack on and fasten the hip belt so that its upper edge sits comfortably over the top of your hip bones. Lastly, pull in the shoulder straps and tighten the tensioning straps.

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