If you think of backpacking the first thing that comes to mind is probably carrying a big rucksack and walking a long distance trail, or maybe exploring a new country while being as self-sufficient as possible. In Scotland, although we’re not the biggest plot of land around, both still apply. We have an expanding network of long distance paths, and hostels are still busy with explorers from near and far.
To many though, backpacking at home has become something else, an activity with a shorter scope but with perhaps a bigger prize which is getting the most out of our time in the hills. I’ll take any hill day as an excuse to camp out, I can be on an Arrochar Alp before the coffee in my travel mug is cool enough to drink, but I’ll still spend the night on one of the tops if I can.
The harder to reach peaks make the most of a backpacking approach. Would you rather march into Seana Bhraigh with one eye on your watch all day or stroll in for a camp by Loch a Choire Mhoir for a fresh start the next morning? If the second sounds better, one of the rucksacks in this review might be for you.
The style of rucksack to go for will depend on many different factors, the most important of which is the fit. The lightest or best featured pack will feel like a full bag of coal with rope shoulder straps if it isn’t right on your body. You have to try them out, get into a shop, get a 3kg tent and a couple of climbing ropes inside the rucksack and wander around. Adjust the weight, pull the tensioning straps in and out, does the weight sit on your shoulders or hips? Get into the changing room and look in the mirror, see if the pack and straps follow the curve of your back and shoulders, use any back length adjustments to get it right if you can. Are the shoulder straps rubbing at your collar bones? Does your head hit the lid when you look up?
I’m lucky, I seem to have a generic one-size-fits all back length so most fixed length packs fit me okay. However on the adjustable packs you can usually feel the difference when you pull the back length into the sweet spot and you have a load in there.
On a bigger pack having the weight on your hips works well to spread the load, especially on long trails and you’ll find bigger and fancier hipbelts designed to do this. But when actually climbing the hills with your kit I find it can be a little restrictive, especially if you’re going to be on steeper ground or scrambling for much of the day.
To generalise, on long Cairngorm paths I’d maybe go for the load on my hips but on west coast ridges I’d take a simpler pack.
Other features are down to taste as well as practicality. I like to access kit on the move, I like hip fin pockets and bottle pockets. I like external storage because I’m too lazy to keep opening buckles and I like a pocket where I can put my wallet, car keys and phone and zip it for the duration of the trip without worrying about them.
I’ve taken photos of both the front and back of each pack to show the various features. I took the weights measurements myself so these figures not the official ones, the price is the RRP, you may be able to find them cheaper.
The Trailhead sits in the middle of the review both weight-wise and with its 50 litre capacity. The main compartment is tall and slim which works well in the hills, it feels compact and stable and doesn’t snag on rocks as you clamber through them. Simplicity is employed all over the pack. Inside the drawcord-closed main compartment has a bladder sleeve and hose exit, on the outside there are two lycra edged side pockets which will take a smaller bottle. There are two axe loops with some additional webbing to attach bungee cords or other straps, so it is possible to make some extra outside storage. There are two compression straps on either side.
The lid has a double buckle fastening and one good sized external pocket. There’s a large carry handle on the lid as well as two extra buckles to attach the top tensioning strap further up if you need to re-position these straps to suit the back length you’re using.
The Biofit adjustable back system works well and is quite simple to use. Adjust it to be a little bit too big, sling the loaded pack on your back and pull the adjustment strap the shorten the length. As well as dialling in the pack to your size and shape it’s really easy to do small adjustments to get the best fit if you’re going from wearing just a base layer to carrying the pack over all your layers. The shoulder straps aren’t overly padded but fit well and are comfy enough.
There’s a big lumbar pad and stiff padded hip fins which take a big load very well, the hip belt is big but it doesn’t really get in the way. However it’s a shame that big hip fin surface area doesn’t have any pockets on it, that would have been ideal. There are webbing loops though, so you can easily attach accessory pouches or camera cases. The waist adjustment is the reverse pull type which is hard to go back from once you get used to it.
A rain cover is included which can be a great accessory, but I still use waterproof stuff sacks so tend to leave these at home.
The Kaipak is unusual in that it’s made from a heavy duty polyester/cotton fabric. We’ve gotten so used to everything we use being synthetic but I’ve got a Whillan’s Alpiniste pack from the 1960s that’s still going strong and it’s made from cotton and leather, so don’t worry about the fabric.
The 58 litre size swallows my overnight gear and the Kaipak has one of my favourite features on an overnight pack, a zip-open base. It probably looks a bit old fashioned now as the brands want us to look like we’re alpine climbers all the time, but the old-school zip open base is perfect when you’re making camp and the weather is against you. Pack your tent at the bottom, sleeping bag next and cooking gear next. This way in rain or snow you can set up camp without unpacking everything, your rucksack stays closed until you’re inside the tent.
The main compartment is hydration compatible, there are two drawcorded external side pockets that’ll suit smaller bottles, there are compression straps and a large zipped front pocket with zipped access.
The lid is removable, something I’ll never understand unless it’s designed to be a bumbag, but here it’s to increase capacity, all the webbing straps are long enough so that the lid can raise right up and you’ll get a roll mat or tent under it. The lid also has a big external and small internal zipped pocket.
The back length is fixed so it’ll work or it won’t, like I said I’m average from head to toe so it suits me fine. The shoulder straps are quite flexible and well-padded as is the hip belt which is a little stiffer letting it take a full load very well. The hip fins have zipped pockets and reverse pull adjustment.
The Kaipak is the most expensive pack in the review and at the heavy end at over 2kg. However it does carry very well and I’ve enjoyed using it for that reason as well as its user-friendliness in general. Its slightly fatter shape feels better on long trails or over-nighters on hills without scrambling and that fabric is aging well – a pack for the long term I think. It also comes with a rain cover.
The Strive is the lightest pack in the test, something that’s always a good thing when you sling your overnight kit onto your shoulders, but are they missing anything out to hit those numbers? LIM stands for Less Is More but there are plenty of features here. Inside the main compartment is the bladder sleeve and access to the two removable aluminium stays that give the pack its stiffness. The back does have a foam insert that keeps the general form as well as protecting your back from badly packed contents but I’m happy enough to leave the stays in, there’s plenty of flexibility and the pack carries very well with a load. The main compartment zips down the middle with a double ended zip, great for quick access and also for cleaning it out – there’s nothing more unhygienic than the years of fusty crumbs and fluff you find stuck to the bottom of your pack. I was worried that the zip would be under a lot of strain, but the bungee mesh that covers the front of the pack takes some of the pressure as well as giving extra external storage. Also I don’t over stuff the pack, it’s a sure way to misery as any well-fitting pack can be deformed and turned into a dead weight on your back by cramming too much gear into it. There’s axe and pole loops as well as webbing to attach more cord or bungees.
The double buckle lid is removable and has one big zipped pocket. The attachment buckles are too far up the main body of the pack making it difficult to really tighten down the lid unless you have a full load. Not a show stopper, but it’s still a niggle. There are also side compression straps. The two side mesh pockets can take a large bottle and there are two excellent zipped “wing” pockets which stretch from the hip fin to the side of the pack. The back length is fixed and the harness is very simple, flexible and lightly padded which works well with the capacity, I haven’t been able to load it enough to need a more substantial harness.
The light fabric is more vulnerable when scrambling than the other packs here but the only time that’s been an issue was on a bivi trip to Skye, the rough Cuillin ridge eats lightweight packs.
The Alpamayo is the biggest capacity pack in the test with a hefty empty weight to match. The weight feels like it’s mostly located in the adjustable back system. This has external cords which release or lock the mechanism and slide the straps in the channels you can see in the photo. It does work, but if I’d trying to adjust it while wearing it I always wonder if I’m pulling the right cord and if I’m going to break it. I haven’t broken it of course, the internal workings are beefy enough, you can see them behind an internal zipped flap. The hip belt has a swivel to it, so you still have a lot of natural movement despite the size of the pack. The hip fins are big and solid, made to take the load and have handy zipped pockets on them with reverse pull waist adjustment.
The shoulder straps are equally beefy and solid and were pretty unforgiving the first couple of trips – it really is a pack you have to break in over time. I wouldn’t take this on the West Highland Way straight from the shop, the harness has to settle to your shape first, after that it might be a good choice for The Way. Storage is excellent, with huge stretch side pockets and zipped front panel pocket. There are webbing loops to add bungees or cords, the yellow one in the photo is my own which I’d added and forgot to take off before I took the shot.
The bottom zips open to give you access to your kit without opening the pack fully. My love for this feature was reinforced the first time I had this out and was pitching in the dark at 1000m in winter conditions. The double buckle lid had two large zipped pockets, the pack is hydration compatible, there are axe loops, every zip and buckle is useable with gloves and comes in a chunky reliable size. There’s even a rain cover in its own hidden zipped compartment.
This is a pack built for taking the biggest loads and to do that its own weight has been pushed up. On long distance paths this isn’t so much of a problem, but on steep ascents to a summit camp I can feel the difference. No fault of the pack though, it does the job it’s been set just fine.
The Torong is an oddball. When it came in for review I thought it was a mountaineering and climbing pack but a closer look tells a different story. The hipbelt is designed to take a load and has a swivel central fixing which gives great natural movement. The shoulder straps have an unusual shape which is very comfortable despite only light padding and they’re also very stable, that harness clings to me on the roughest of ground. The right side strap has a zipped pocket which is perfect for my glasses. Handy when I need to look at the map.
The back is fixed length and has an internal stiffener which supports a load but works well with the hipbelt and harness so that you still have free movement. There are two good sized side stretch pockets and stuff pocket on the front panel. On the base there are two straps which you can use to attach a tent or a sleepmat. There is an excellent ice axe stowing system and side compression straps. The lid is designed the wrong way round, it buckles at your neck. I really like this, it makes access into the pack and the two big lid pockets easier on the hill when the pack is full. The two lid buckles are small and rigidly fixed to the lid making them a little hard to operate with gloves. The lid has webbing to allow extra straps if you want to carry your crampons in the old traditional position.
The 42L capacity is a good size for winter days and for overnighters the rest of the year round.
The Last Word
I felt this was a good cross section of styles for heading into the hills for a couple of days now that the snows are receding a wee bit. Capacity will be dictated by the load you will be carrying – are you a lightweight or a luxury camper, and also by your destination – are you spending the night on the tops or in the glen?
I’d always go lighter if I can, but I like a few luxuries at camp so all the packs here will take everything I need, including some pastries and wee bottle of red if the occasion calls for it.
My personal choice for the mountain tops is between the Haglofs Strive and the Millet Torong. I like the features and the carry of both but Haglofs might just edge it with those handy wing pockets.
I like pockets I can get to on the move for snacks, a bottle, gloves etc and I like somewhere to stuff a wet waterproof between showers, it’s these things that remove faff and time spent playing with gear on the hill. I love my gear, but I want to look at the view not undo buckles.
The Berghaus Trailhead is just as good as the previous two for the mountains or the trail, it feels most like a traditional mountain pack in fact. I just missed those extra pockets. Fjallraven and Lowe Alpine both have big trail-walking load carriers and both do their job well at the cost of additional weight.