How to carry loads when walking

How to carry loads when walking

This article covers: types of rucksacks, sizes of rucksacks for different types of walking, how to choose and fit a rucksack and how to pack a rucksack.

The usual rule of thumb is: lay out all the gear you think you'll need - then put half of it away!
Rucksacks come in a huge variety of shapes and sizes. Choosing the right one is important for comfortable load carrying. They range from simple sacks with shoulder straps to those with complex adjustable back systems with frames and padded hipbelts. Which you need depends on the weight you will be carrying.

For loads below 10kg (20lb) frames and adjustable backs are unnecessary. Padding makes packing easier but isn't essential. A hipbelt or waist strap will add stability, especially when scrambling or running, but again isn't essential. Once the weight goes above 10kg more support is needed. Up to 15kg (30lb) a padded back and simple hipbelt are adequate, above that weight a frame and a thicker belt will be more comfortable.

Size is important

Sacks range in capacity from 10 to 120 litres (and more!).
  • <20 litres: short walks in summer with light loads.
  • 25-35 litres: most day walks.
  • 35-45 litres: winter day walks, hut-to-hut tours and trekking.
  • 50-60 litres: 2-3 day camping trips (or longer if using ultralight gear).
  • >65 litres: longer trips or when using heavier, bulkier gear.
  • >85 litres: expeditions in winter conditions.
Make sure that you're happy with the weight of your sack. Your walk will always be much easier with a lighter load. With a big sack it's easy to overload it. The usual rule of thumb is: lay out all the gear you think you'll need - then put half of it away!

Lowe Alpine RuckackFit your rucksack

It's best to buy your sack in person from a specialist outdoor equipment retailer with a good selection so that you can be sure the sack fits you and is fit for your needs. Make sure the back length is correct. The hipbelt should fit over your hips so your top hipbone is about 2cm below the top of the belt. The top tension straps should rise off the front of the shoulder straps at an angle of 30-45 degrees.

Try the pack on with the weight you expect to carry in it. Walk around the store - up and down stairs if possible. If you can feel rubbing or pressure on your hips, shoulders or the small of your back the sack either doesn't fit or hasn't been adjusted properly. Don't buy until you find a sack that feels comfortable. Check that your gear will fit inside. Is there room for your sleeping bag in the lower compartment? Will your insulated flask fit in a side pocket?

Pick a pocket

Simple sacks are just bags with shoulder straps. These are fine for small loads but don't allow you to organise your gear. With larger loads you'll be thankful for external pockets for easy access to useful items like gloves, or your lunch. Most sacks have a zipped pocket on the lid or front of the bag. Side pockets give more room, though they can get in the way when climbing or if you want to carry items like skis. To overcome this, manufacturers have developed bellows side pockets that lie flat when not required. Mesh pockets are handy for carrying wet or damp items so they don't soak the rest of your load, or for items like water bottles and other anything not affected by moisture. Larger sacks (50+ litres) often have two compartments with a removable panel between them, for easier access to gear.

Most sacks have a lid that fastens with one or two straps. Lids need to adjust so they fit closely over whatever size load there is in the pack. A lid that flops around is a nuisance. Some sacks have a long zip that runs round the sides and over the top of the bag, rather than a lid. These give good access to the contents but it's not so easy to close the sack down around a small load.

Compression straps on the sides are designed to pull the sack in tight but they can also be used to attach long items such as tent or trekking poles

Compression straps on the sides are designed to pull the sack in tight around a small load but they can also be used to attach long items such as tent poles, trekking poles or even skis. Ice axe straps are invaluable for winter use. Crampon straps or patches are optional - you can carry crampons inside the pack.

When packing a sack
  • Make sure that no hard items can poke you in the back (which can happen with frameless sacks). Use your insulating mat or sitmat to provide some protection if the padding in your sack is not sufficient.
  • Bulky, light items - like sleeping bags and clothing - can go at the bottom of the pack.
  • Heavy items should go fairly high up in the pack and close to your back so they don't drag you backwards.
  • Keep items you might need during the day accessible, either in pockets or at the top of the sack.
  • Few packs are 100 percent waterproof, so it's always wise to pack items inside waterproof bags.
  • Keep stove fuel, especially liquids like petrol or methylated spirits, away from your food so if there is a leak it won't contaminate your meals.

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