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Choosing a Rucksack or Backpack

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The bulk of the guiding done in Zimbabwe involves being based at a lodge or driving to a place with a truck full of equipment and setting up a camp. From there the guide and clients can walk or drive out on expeditions into the bush.

There are occasions, however, where a guide will be hiking with clients, even for only a day, and will need to be carrying equipment for the client’s food and drink and their comfort and safety. Under these conditions you will need to supply yourself with the ideal rucksack or backpack. The following article touches on all the aspects you might need to consider in making this important choice.

By the way you will also want to consider the difference between a rucksack or a backpack, because the terms are often used interchangeably.

On the whole a backpack is smaller and more simple than a rucksack and is what you might take to carry a few things on a day’s hike, like sunblock, swimming kit, water and some snacks. A rucksack is essentially a large, rugged backpack which has pockets and belts used for holding heavy loads and accommodates a more substantial amount of gear than a backpack. To spread the heavier load comfortably rucksacks can also have hip belts and often chest belts as well.

In this article I am just going to use the term “rucksack” throughout to avoid the cumbersome “rucksack or backpack”.

Rucksack – What To Consider

1. Rucksack Size in terms of Capacity

Rucksacks are classified by the capacity of their packing space:

  • Small – 30-50 liters, maybe under normal circumstances for a child or a weekend outing where you do not need much
  • Medium – 50 – 75 liters, maybe a 3 to 5 night expedition in warm weather
  • Large – 75 liter and above, appropriate for an extended trip of over 5 nights, in winter weather conditions, accommodating warm clothing, sleeping bag, tent, etc

It is not just a matter of “bigger is better” because you will be able to fit in more supplies. Give serious thought to your own size and level of fitness and capacity for carrying a heavy weight over a prolonged period. 

Picture scrambling up and down slopes and squeezing through narrow places. You do not want your backpack catching on things or to be clumsy and unbalanced because of an over-large rucksack. Unless you are an experienced backpacker – do not go for a bag bigger than 65 liters.

2. Rucksack Size in terms of Fit

If you were thinking previously about how much you could get into your survival bag, here you are thinking about how this bag fits your own particular body. This is a vital consideration if you do not want to end up incapacitated by back pain! The correct fit prevents over-straining the shoulders and back and avoids injury.

This is so important that it is worth noting that this important rucksack is not one of those things that should be bought sight unseen. You really do need to go to a reputable outlet and physically try out various options, assisted by professional staff.

If you buy a rucksack that is too short or too long for your specific back you will get into difficulties when you are carrying weight for a prolonged period.

The most important measurement, therefore, is the length of your torso (not height) measured from C7 (the vertebra on a level with the top of your shoulders) to your waist or the point just above your hips (where the bulk of the weight of a rucksack will sit). This torso measurement produces the second categorization of rucksack.

  • Extra small – Less than 15.5”
  • Small – 16”-17.5”
  • Medium – 18” -19.5”
  • Large – 20” -21.5”
  • Extra large – 22”+

The second important measurement is around your waist. If you have a very narrow waist you might find that you cannot tighten the hip belt sufficiently to make the bag secure. If you have a very broad waist you might need to buy an extending strap. (Some packs offer several interchangeable hip belt to accommodate different waist sizes.)

Once you have established these two measurements and have approximately the right rucksack to try on, ask the sales person to supply you with weights to put in the bag, to get a sense of carrying a load, and then to help you make the necessary adjustments to be sure that you can get the bag to fit perfectly to your body for the most efficient and comfortable way of carrying a bulky pack.

A correctly fitted ‘loaded’ rucksack will hug your back, moving easily with you as one unit and allowing you to stand upright in a natural posture, with no sense of pressure on the front of the shoulder joint.

Really take your time getting the feeling of the pack interacting with your body.

  • Look at yourself in a full length mirror
  • Walk around the shop wearing it for as long as they will let you.
  • Picture having this pack fully loaded and having to carry it for miles and days.

3. Rucksack Frame Type

The frame of a rucksack is carefully designed to distribute the weight correctly, taking pressure off your shoulders and directing it down into the hips so that you can stand straight and balanced. The three possibilities are internal-frame, external-frame and frameless.

  • Internal-frame – the metal supporting frame is invisible and incorporated into the bag. These bags are relatively light (the frame is usually composed of carbon fiber or tough plastic.) They are slim in design, fit snugly to the body and are easy for maintaining balance on rough terrain. (The down-side is a tendency for them to produce a sweaty back. To counteract this effect some rucksacks have a trampoline-like design where a highly breathable mesh rests against the back and the actual frame-supported pack rides a short distance away from your back.)
  • External-frame – the metal supporting rods are visible and can be used for hanging extra bits and pieces from the pack or for securing the pack to an immovable object for security – but can also catch on things. This is the sort of pack you need for carrying large uneven loads and provides good ventilation for the lower back.
  • Frameless – this type of pack is suitable for a simple hiking or mountain-climbing trip with minimum kit.

4. Rucksack – Access To Supplies

There are two options here – top-loading and front-loading or panel access.

  • Top-loading is by far the most common sort of tall, cylindrical rucksack that allows you access to the contents of the bag through the hole at the top. It is essential that you only pack at the bottom of the bag what you do not need immediately otherwise you have to unpack everything to access an item from the bottom.
  • Front-loading or panel-access, on the other hand, allows you to access everything relatively easily. There are a couple of different types you might want to look into. The “clam shell” design allows you to unzip around three sides and use the fourth side as a hinge while you lay the “lid” back to see all the contents of your pack. A relatively new design has a zipper the full length of the outer front/middle of a conventionally shaped rucksack, so that if you need to you can access items at the bottom of the bag.

5. Adjusting Straps

Any good rucksack has a variety of adjustable straps. These need to be broad, padded wherever they contact the body, and made from or covered with a single piece of fabric that will not easily split open. They need strong stitching or double stitching that will withstand rough handling.

  • Hip belt or strap ensures that the vast proportion of the weight of a pack is being carried by the hips (not the shoulders) supported by the powerful muscles of the lower half of the body and maintaining your balance from a lower center of gravity. The strap needs to be well padded and positioned so that it sits on the “shelf” made by the jutting out of your hipbones. The buckle does up at bellybutton level, with adjustments so that the strap can be firmly tightened for maximum support of the bag hanging off your back.
  • Shoulder straps (suitably padded) must curve over the shoulder and join the rucksack about 2” below the level of the shoulder. (If they run straight from the shoulder to the bag – parallel to the ground – or, even worse, upwards to the bag, the weight of the bag will be putting very unpleasant strain on the shoulder joints.
  • A sternum or mid-chest strap connects your shoulder straps. This strap (which should be at a level that runs about 2” below your armpits) prevents the weight of the bag from cutting into your shoulders and allows you to adjust the shoulder straps to an ideal level. This also guarantees that your pack will not shift and throw you off balance when you are making your way over uneven ground.
  • Load-lifter straps are attached to the top of the shoulder straps and connect higher up on the pack. Ideally, they will form a 45° angle between your shoulder straps and the pack. Their function is to pull the upper portion of a pack towards your body. (The further the top of your pack is from your body the greater the strain on your back.)
  • Stabilizer straps, like load-lifter straps, pull the pack in more firmly toward your body to maintain your stability.
Fitting A Backpack
Fitting A Backpack

6. Lumbar Back Support

It is desirable that the pack supports your lower back by being shaped and padded to fit into the hollow of your back. This feature will improve your bag-carrying posture by keeping your spine in a neutral arch and at the same time distributes bag weight more evenly.

7. Compartments, Pockets And Attachment Points

The ideal bag for carrying your supplies will have multiple compartments to separate out different types of material and promote retrieval.

You will want at least one main compartment, a couple of medium-sized compartments and a number of pockets. There is a huge range of possibilities, for example:

  • Front pocket(s) added to the exterior, to hold smaller, less-bulky items;
  •  “Sleeping bag” compartment at the bottom, also useful as an easy-access compartment;
  • Elasticized side pockets lie flat when empty but can stretch out to hold items you want easy access to, like a water bottle;
  • Hip belt pockets can accommodate small items you want to reach easily such as a phone or snacks;
  •  Shovel pockets (originally designed to hold a snow shovel) – flaps stitched onto the front of a rucksack with a buckle closure at the top – can hold a map, a jacket, etc.;
  • Detachable “day bag” which is normally carried as an integral part of the pack;
  • Water bottle or bladder pocket with specific “hose portals” through which you can run a sip tube. (You can see how useful that would be in an emergency situation.)

Apart from actual pockets a really useful rucksack will provide loops or rings or a daisy-chain of webbing on the outside to which you can attach various sorts of equipment. In an emergency situation you might be very grateful for these additional methods for carrying your survival kit, though obviously you will not want to decorate your pack with extra bits and pieces to such an extent that it becomes awkward, unwieldy, unbalanced and prone to catching on things.

8. Waterproofing

If you are surviving in the open for a number of days you definitely do not want to have your pack sodden after a rain storm. Most rucksack are at least water resistant but you will want to go for one of the following options:

  • Fully waterproof (which is often a heavy option);
  • A separate rain cover which fits over the outside of your survival bag (though experts warn that sometimes these can be plucked off by particularly strong winds);
  • Water-proof sacks inside the backpack to keep the contents dry;
  • A set of garbage bags to act as waterproof sacks.

9. Durability

It is not overstating the case to say that the survival bag in which you are carrying all your emergency supplies could affect your survival! If your bag fails and you are left without a compact means to carry your supplies from one place of safety to another you could find yourself in great difficulties.

Sometimes, though not always, durability comes through paying more, rather than less, for your rucksack. A long-term warranty signals a company’s faith in their product (though in an emergency you do not want to be trying to collect on a warranty!)

Look for a tough fabric that will resist being perforated by something sharp or snagging and being ripped open. Especially check the strength of seams, zippers, and straps.

10. Bag Weight (unloaded)

This is a tricky juggling act. You want to aim for –

  • Light
  • Strong/durable
  • Lots of capacity
  • Comfortable

11. Color

You do not want to draw attention to yourself by having a bag that looks too colorful. It should be in a muted, dark or natural color – grey/black, brown, dark green or dark blue.


After you have made your choice of rucksack make use it on a field trip – you will need to feel confidence in this all-important piece of kit.

Paddy Pacey

Zimbabwean field guide and trainer of aspiring guides

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