After choosing the best 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, sometimes more. (Read my reviews of the best backpacks)
Backpacks 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.
3. 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. It 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.
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. They are generally between 30 – 60 liters and feature a 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 liters and over 100 liters. 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 travelers (primarily students). Traveling between many towns and countries on buses, trains, and planes have 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. 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!
Get the rucksack fitting right. This is the most important aspect of selecting a backpack. 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. (Read my reviews on the best backpacking backpacks)
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 pack’s 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 as 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 back 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 or waterproof poncho to keep all your gear dry, and to protect your rucksack is advisable.
I love hiking. From the Camino de Santiago to the West Highland Way in Scotland or simply a great day hike on the weekend. Hiking refreshes me, my mind, and keeps my body reasonably fit. So far I have walked three Camino routes and many other long distance hikes in the UK, Canada, and around the rest of Europe. One of the best was my hike up Ben Nevis.