How to Choose a Rucksack for the Camino de Santiago

Best RucksackAfter choosing the best hiking boots or hiking shoes for your feet, a backpack is the second most important piece of equipment you need for walking any of the Camino routes (see Camino packing list).  Bear in mind this humble backpack is going to hold all your belonging for a month, sometime more.

Rucksacks come in many different shapes and sizes. Each rucksack is specific to a certain activity or pursuit. When looking for a rucksack there are four vital points to consider before you purchase:

1. You need to decide what activity you intend to use the backpack for. Are you going on an afternoon walk or an adventure holiday like the Camino? Make sure you have a comprehensive kit list typed out and if possible estimate the overall weight of your combined kit, and remember you do want to keep the weight as low as possible – buying a bigger backpack than necessary will often lead to taking more with you than you need. This may not seem very important at this stage, but when it comes to selecting how much capacity you need, kit weight comes into play. Different sized backpacks handle certain weights better.

2. Many outdoor enthusiasts claim that your most important piece of kit is your rucksack. Needless to say choosing a quality bag made by a reputable manufacturer like Osprey, Berghaus or Deuter is imperative. By doing so you are ensuring that you get a quality bag that isn’t going to rip or tear. Not to mention the significant difference in comfort between cheaper brands and trusted manufacturers.

backpack-fitting3. Fit. This is the most important aspect of selecting a rucksack. In simple terms, a bad fit results in a bad back. Rucksacks are designed so that the majority of its weight is lifted off your shoulders and carried on your hips. Positioning the straps to ensure a fit to your proportion is of utmost importance. This prevents overstraining the shoulders and back and avoids injury.

4. There are three main types of back systems incorporated in rucksacks. Generally the bigger the bag the more sophisticated the back system.

STANDARD. This type of back system is often found on smaller bags that don’t hold much weight. The straps and back paneling are foam padded for extra comfort. The body of the bag itself is held against the back.

AIR COOLED. This type of back system is often found on medium sized bags. It creates a cavity between the wearers back and the body of the bag. This allows air to circulate and cool.

ADJUSTABLE. Can be fitted specifically for the user. When a bag is fitted correctly most of the load will be transferred to the hips. Your posture will be better and the bag will feel more comfortable to carry.  This is the best type of rucksack for the Camino de Santiago.

Which Rucksack?


LIGHTWEIGHT HYDRATION PACKS. These packs are minimalist and contain a hydration reservoir and a small amount of space to store other necessities. They are commonly used by runners and bikers – not suitable for a long Camino journey.

DAY PACKS. Designed to allow the user to carry enough gear for a day without having to go for a multi-day bag, daypacks are utilized by bikers, runners, walkers and hikers alike. Climbers also use a more lightweight version of the daypack on their excursions. These bags are generally between 15 and 30 liters – these are often used by pilgrims that are having their main rucksack moved by a bag carrying company to carry their valuables.

MULTIDAY PACKS. Are used on trips lasting 2-4 days generally and are a popular choice. Their capacity ranges anywhere between 30 and 60 liters and quite often they feature extra storage compartments for specific pursuits, such as walking pole holders, tent carriers, etc. Their back support systems are of a much higher quality as heavier loads are carried. This is the most common rucksack used on the Camino – between 30 and 50 liters should be more than enough.

Some pilgrims turn up on the Camino as part of a trip around Europe or a year off around the world.  They often have one of the following rucksacks, none of them are suitable to walking the Camino.  Any excess weight you have at the start of the Camino can be packaged and sent to Santiago de Compostela to be collected there when you arrive.

ALPINE PACKS.  Are generally between 30 – 60 litres and feature minimalist design. They are slim and made from durable materials so they can be hauled up a climb after you have reached the top. They feature a large main compartment and lid pocket. Their foam back system fits close to the body for greater precision when climbing. Compression straps on the side and an expandable lid give you more options for carrying gear.

EXPEDITION PACKS. Are used on trips lasting over 5 days. Their capacity ranges between 70 litres and over 100 litres. These packs contain the latest rucksack technology and feature substantial back support and load suspensions. They also feature expansion panels which give you more space in your bag and also allow you to pack your gear more efficiently.

GAP YEAR / TRAVEL RUCKSACKS. Over the past few years, backpacking the world has become a national sport for many Irish travellers (primarily students). Travelling between many towns and countries on buses, trains and planes has brought about a new style of rucksack. This adventure travel sack has all of the usual qualities you would find in a conventional rucksack, combined with the ease of use of the suitcase. They:

  • Are airport and travel friendly.
  • Zip around the front panel for easy access similar to a suitcase.
  • Some larger models come with wheels.
  • All straps can be zipped away to ensure that none of your straps catch on the airport’s conveyor belts!

rucksack-fittingGet the rucksack fitting right.  This is the most important aspect of selecting a rucksack. In simple terms, a bad fit results in an uncomfortable carry. Rucksacks are designed so that the majority of its weight is lifted off your shoulders and carried on your hips. The best brands offer gender-specific fitting bags for the greatest degree of comfort.

The correct way to fit a rucksack is a process that initially takes time to get right but once you’ve used the bag enough you’ll know exactly how loose or tight each strap should be.

1. To start off, loosen every strap.

2. Lift the bag onto your knee using its haul strap.

3. Correct your stance and ensure that your back is straight.

4. Haul the bag steadily from your knee onto your shoulders.

5. Place the hip belt over your hip bones making sure that it’s not on top of or underneath them. And then tighten it.

6. Adjust the shoulder straps so that they fit closely and wrap over and around your shoulder. If it feels like your shoulders are taking more than 15% of the packs weight, adjust them until you re-distribute more of the weight to the hips

7. Depending on the bag, you should have adjustable load lifters which allow you to bring the bag close to your head or further away. Experiment with these to find the setting that suits you.

8. The chest strap seems to be a weak, pointless buckle. However, when adjusted properly it can pull the shoulder straps together which allows your arms to move more freely and brings the weight closer to your body.

9. Ensure that you are comfortable and as you walk try to pinpoint areas that might cause pain and adjust them.

It’s very important that you distribute the weight evenly inside the bag so not to throw off your balance. There is no point in putting unnecessary strain on your lower or upper back.

Keep your rucksack close to your body.  Try to keep the heaviest items close to your back near your hips as opposed to hanging loosely off the bag which can act to drag you backward into a negative stance.

You won’t know what suits you best until you get out there and do it, so keep a mental note when you’re wearing your backpack of places that strain, etc, so that you can adjust them later.

Color CODE. Another handy trick when packing your bag is to keep similar items grouped together in different colored dry bags. This allows you to easily locate items.

Most rucksacks are made with water-resistant fabrics, however, very few backpacks are completely waterproof investing in a rain cover to keep all your gear dry and to protect your rucksack is advisable.

Maybe you will also like our article on how to choose the best walking boots.

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  1. Patrycja on June 26, 2012 at 12:59 pm

    Hi, I am wondering what size of the bag I should buy to walk Camino.
    I am considering deuter 45 litres plus 10. Would it be okay for me?
    I am a woman, height 166 cm.
    Please advice.

    Thank you
    Patrycja Krynicka

    • Leslie on July 4, 2012 at 5:35 pm

      If you are careful with 45L you will be okay – but it can get tight if your gear is not small – even if it is still light. For example I just finished walking in Conques France – I had taken a type of felt jacket for nights – it is very light, but it takes up a lot of space – whereas my other half had an jacket for the evening that rolled up into nothing almost.

  2. gary on March 29, 2015 at 2:23 pm

    Hi Leslie,

    great article. I am 58 year old male, in good shape, and am walking the camino this summer. Exactly what size backpack would you recommend if you were me.


    • Leslie on March 29, 2015 at 3:03 pm

      The last time I walked I used a 35 litre bag, however because I had a sleeping bag it was too tight and I ended up buying another smaller bag for the last few days – really not a good way to do it.

      If you are only using a silk liner, during the summer this is enough, then 35 would likely be okay otherwise I would suggest 40l.

  3. Don on April 5, 2015 at 7:22 pm

    Hi Gary:

    My wife and I walked the Camino during late March, April, and early May 2014. We are in our early 60s and slow walkers.

    I used a North Face Solaris 40L. It has an upper and lower compartment. The lower compartment provides an easy, out of the way storage for a sleeping bag liner. We did not carry any sleeping bags: didn’t need them! Nor did we carry any padding. Unless you are camping, this is dead weight. I carried everything else in the upper compartment.

    My wife used a North Face Recon 29L. She is 5’5″ tall. I thought it would be too small, but she carried everything including a sleeping bag liner in that backpack.

    Since you are going in the summer, I wouldn’t carry anything bigger than a 40L.

  4. gary on April 7, 2015 at 2:11 am

    Hi Don,

    Thank you for the response. I ended up buying an Osprey 50L, Maybe a little too large, but I feel good about it. I have a couple of questions for you: why no sleeping bag? Don’t the hostels require them? Also, what did you wear for boots?

  5. David on February 15, 2016 at 4:03 pm

    Can anyone expand on the sleeping bag/no sleeping bag philosophy? I am going in mid-September. Would a liner be beneficial?

  6. Ana Ormonde on March 11, 2016 at 10:19 am

    I’m going to do the Camino Frances walk. Im 4’10 what size of backpack or what kind should I buy. Also what store/outfitter do you recommend? I would appreciate a response thank you.

    • Leslie on March 14, 2016 at 7:15 am

      I don’t recommend any one store, there are many great stores for outdoor gear. It is best to find a stone who will fit a pack that suits your body size and type.

  7. Clare Taylor on March 7, 2018 at 9:03 am

    Do be aware that getting a back pack fitted is essential. There are male fittings and female fittings!!! It was news to me and my Berghaus female fit bag, (reduced because it was previous year colour way) was perfect. DO NOT FEEL THAT YOU HAVE TO FILL IT. Be as minimalist as you can.

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