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Rucksacks & Wet Weather

Bill Orme - from Striders 102

The right rucksack is critical for the success of a long distance walk. It must :

  • hold all the gear you need in an accessible manner,
  • be comfortable and not too heavy to be carried for the whole walk, and
  • be reasonably able to keep water out.

My experience is that no reasonable weight rucksack can keep heavy rain out. This must be achieved by using a rucksack cover and by waterproofing the contents individually. Therefore, like my boots, I do not look for heavy materials or such as goretex, but for :

  • appropriate capacity,
  • lightness,
  • comfort,
  • accessibility, and most importantly,
  • reliability.

Capacity, like everything else, is highly individual, but I find a 65 litre rucksack adequate, with everything being stowed within the pack. This includes full camping gear, clothes, maps, food and containers for 2 litres of water. This is suitable for a hard walk of three weeks or more.

I set weight limits to cover three kinds of walks. (2 litres of water (2 kilos) to be included)

  1. Where I can rely on B&B, hotels or hostels with sheets etc - 13 kilosv
  2. Where I need a small sleeping bag, some food, but will use mainly B&B, hotels or hostels with sheets etc - 15 kilos
  3. Where I need full camping gear - 18 kilos.

When son John and I walked the John Muir Trail through the Californian Rockies, we carried 21 days food and fuel for our stove when we set out from Yosemite, and we kept our rucksacks under 20 kilos, with water.

Nedra carries between 8 and 9 kilos. When this is required, she always carries her own survival gear in case we get separated, and we both keep our whistles handy.

We think it is important, if possible, to have everything inside the rucksack to prevent damage to things on the outside and to stop being caught as you get under logs, through thickets or between rocks. I have frequently followed remnants of a foam mat through thickets that have been ripped off. Keeping everything inside also helps to keep the rucksack cover on tightly and to keep out the rain.

Lightness. I am currently using a lightweight version of the Karrimoor 65 litre Jaguar that is just 1 kilo as against the heavier cloth version weighing nearly twice as much. It has fewer straps to save weight but the number is adequate. The saving is about the weight of a kilo of water.

Comfort and accessibilty. This is particularly individual, so, when trying on a new one, put weight into it such as a few sleeping bags, and walk around for a bit. Time spent getting the feel of it is time well spent and will pay off later. Carefully read the instructions and get assistance from the salesperson to have it adjusted correctly.

Some tips I find useful:

  • When packing, more items can be included if they are in small packages rather than a few large ones. The tent I make into three packages - the tent, the fly, and the poles & pegs..
  • Distribute the weight equally on both sides of the pack, putting the heavier items into the top half..
  • Pack the same way each day to maintain the balance. You will also be more likely to note missing items..
  • Place the rarely used items in the bottom compartment and the base of the upper compartment. .
  • Put camping and wet items in the bottom compartment. Wet weather gear at the front of the bottom compartment makes it quickly accessible, and avoids the need to open the top in wet weather to get to rain gear and tent..
  • Put the medical kit where it is quickly available..
  • I like to sew the side straps together at a point to stop one sliding and lengthening more than the other side. Unequal side straps quickly cause back pain. Similarly sew the straps for the back harness together if the rucksack has them for the same reason. (Some people like to adjust straps while walking to change the position on their back or while climbing which means it is impossible to sew the straps together.) .
  • I sew thumb loops on to the upper strap at a comfortable height. Swinging the arms for long periods leads to puffy hands, and putting your thumbs up for periods helps the fluid drain..
  • When lifting a heavy rucksack, lift it by the centre top grip and then swing it smoothly onto the shoulder. Taking the weight with a shoulder strap puts a greater strain on your back..

Reliability. Manufacturers increasingly seem to stress the guarantees to fix defects rather than the initial quality of the item. Breakdowns during a walk can mean the end of that walk.

During our first long walk (ten months) the struts in my rucksack, (not Karrimoor), snapped while walking through Britain due to bad design in the size of the strut and the drill hole at their junction. When I rang for a repair or a new pack they insisted I would have to post it to them and there was a three week delay before they could look at it. After irate discussions up the line of authority they authorised their Glasgow agent to inspect it and replace it if faulty which he did. In the Vosges the same thing happened, but a welder and I fixed it with raucous laughter at my German.

Inspect carefully the design and finishes, and speak to other users of the rucksack or any other item you are considering.

Wet Weather As stated above, we rely primarily on using a good pack cover, and place each vulnerable package in a strong lightweight plastic supermarket bag. One large internal plastic bag, while effective, is heavy if it is to work, and I find, makes packing more difficult.

Even then, driving rain gets into the sides of the cover and into the rucksack. It then pools in the bottom of both the rucksack and cover. I make a small hole in the bottom of the rucksack cover to let the water drain out.

When fording or swimming rivers and inlets I put the rucksack cover on the rucksack, turn it upside down to make a coracle and pull it by the top grip. It floats easily and I tie my boots and clothing on top. Carry a piece of bluetac (putty) to block the hole at the bottom of the cover!

Finally I carry a small, lightweight umbrella on top of my rucksack which I put up as soon as it starts raining. It is easy to wait hoping it will go away before going through the tedious business of getting your gear on, by which time you and your rucksack are soaked. If the rain stops, put the umbrella down. If the rain continues, then use it to keep most things dry as you put on your gear. When Nedra said she was taking a small umbrella to walk down the French Alps I thought she was mad: now it is an essential item! It has the added advantage that it allows better vision than a jacket hood and visor, and keeps rain off you glasses.

This article was written by Bill Orme, Walking Volunteers, and first appeared in Strider.
Anyone is free to copy it with this acknowledgement.

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