Rucksacks are load carriers, so must be selected based on the weight and volume of said load. Lightweight loads can be accommodated in a simple frameless rucksack – perhaps with a stiffened backpad and simple hipbelt – but once weight reaches about 10kg some kind of frame will be appreciated. This frame should transfer the weight of the load from the weak muscles in the shoulders to the waist to take advantage of those large leg muscles which are also closer to an adult’s centre of gravity. External frames have been largely superseded by internal frames, usually of flat aluminium bar but occasionally a curved plastic sheet or semi-rigid nylon rod. Exercise caution when buying a rucksack with a frame – sizing of both the back length and hipbelt are critical for comfort, and packs are often sold with a level of adjustment to accommodate a range of body sizes. If in doubt, fill up a rucksack with an appropriate load (best to ask the staff first) and do a few laps of the shop.
A frame adds weight, complexity and cost and can affect the natural movement of the body, but when carrying a fully-loaded rucksack at the beginning of a multi-day wild camping expedition most would consider it a price worth paying. In this review I’ll be looking at a selection of rucksacks that are ideal for such a trip.
Bergans of Norway Birkebeiner 65lRRP £160
The original military ‘bergen’ was made by, you guessed it, Bergans of Norway, so there’s no doubt that they know a thing or two about load carrying. It seems they have also applied the same squaddie-proofing to the Birkebeiner, which feels practically bulletproof. The adjustable back system has thick padding at the waist and upper back and thick aluminium stays transfer load effectively to the large hipbelt. It’s extremely comfortable and even when fully loaded remains stable when crossing rough ground. I like the bellows pockets on either side which retain the low-profile appearance of the pack when not in use, but can expand to accommodate large objects, aided by stretchy panels. The zipped bottom compartment may be useful for keeping wet kit separate from the main body of the pack but releasing a drawcord forms one large compartment. The small lashing loops are discrete and well positioned to allow spiky or bulky items to be attached to the outside of the pack with ease. The comfort and robustness comes at a price, and the Birkebeiner had the lowest volume to weight ratio in the review as well as the joint highest RRP, though the weight can be quickly and easily reduced by removing the included raincover from a zipped pocket under the lid.
Capacity: 65 litres Weight: 2.1kg Volume to weight ratio: 12.4l per 500g
Deuter Act Lite 50+10RRP £125
With a classic shape and stripped-down design the Act Lite 50+10 is a firm favourite. The ripstop body fabric is lightweight yet durable with reinforced panels at areas subject to increased wear. The 50 litre main body is divided into two sections with a removable panel allowing for a degree of load organisation, but I’d prefer this feature was dispensed with to save weight and remove the possibility of the external zip failing. The +10 litre capacity is achieved by a floating lid and extension collar which allows the pack to be loaded beyond the ‘normal’ pack closure – ideal for the first few days of a long trip without resupply. The back length is easily adjustable via a Velcro and webbing loop system, though there is only one hipbelt size available and trimming of excess strap length may be required. I like the X-shaped frame which offers a little movement whilst still transferring weight to the good hipbelt fins. A channel between the back padding encourages an airflow to reduce the chance of a sweaty back. I’m a big fan of large, stretchy mesh front pockets to accommodate wet equipment and whilst I’d prefer it to be full-length the Act Lite 50+10 obliges.
Capacity: 60 litres Weight: 1.58kg Volume to weight ratio: 18.9l per 500g
Osprey Exos 58RRP £140
For such a low volume to weight ratio the Exos 58 offers a lot of features, which will appeal to many users but also means a lot of straps whipping around in the wind if you’re not careful to trim or secure them. The back system is the star here – consisting of fabric stretched tightly over a tubular aluminium frame with a trampoline-like mesh panel forming an air gap against the back for ventilation. It works very well. The shoulder straps and hipbelt wings are thin high density foam with slots that offer some ‘give’ as well as ventilation, but start to become uncomfortable under very heavy loads. As well as a single main compartment there are two large zipped side pockets which are only of limited use when the main compartment is packed tightly, but the stretch mesh front pouch is excellent for storing wet items. The side compression straps and buckles are thin to save weight but remain effective. Mesh pockets on the hipbelt fins are useful for the storage of quick-access items, but I’ve not managed to find a use for the small pocket on the shoulder strap yet. An excellent lightweight pack, particularly after the judicious application of a pair of scissors…
Capacity: 58 litres (size M) Weight: 1.14kg (size M) Volume to weight ratio: 25.4l per 500g
Gregory Z55RRP £160
The Z55 has a lot going for it – a choice of back lengths to avoid the complexity and weight of adjustable back systems, a single main compartment and full length front pocket with mesh drains. This all makes me happy, but the stiff curved back panel – designed to hold the pack away from the back to allow air flow – makes packing more awkward and contributes to the overall high weight. The long side zip offers direct access to the main compartment and help to counteract this problem a little. Despite my dislike of the curved panel it does perform its primary function of weight transfer very well, and the high density foam used throughout the suspension system is comfortable without introducing bulk. The front pouch pocket is cavernous thanks to the adjustable webbing compression straps with snap buckles that allow a wet tent to be carried with ease, and also includes a further vertical zipped pocket to secure smaller items. A floating lid permits a degree of ‘overloading’ or it can be removed altogether to really save some weight.
Capacity: 61 litres (size L) Weight: 1.9kg (size L) Volume to weight ratio: 16.0l per 500g
Fjällräven Friluft 55RRP £140
Swedish brand Fjällräven have some terrifyingly heavy rucksacks in their range, but the Friluft 55 isn’t one of them, offering one of the best volume to weight ratios in this review. Again, a curved sprung frame makes packing more complicated but achievable thanks to wide, squat dimensions rather than a tall and thin alpine shape. Weight is saved by the use of thin rigid aluminium rods in the suspension system and minimalist padding at the hips and shoulder straps – this makes particularly heavy loads uncomfortable, but sensible backpackers shouldn’t have a problem. The body of the pack has a large mesh front pocket and deep stretch wand pockets with a V-configuration compression strap, plus volume-reducing straps on the base which could also be used to lash on a sleeping mat or similar. The 95g rain cover housed in a pocket in the base can (an probably should) be removed if not required.
Capacity: 55 litres Weight: 1.42kg (excl. raincover) Volume to weight ratio: 19.3l per 500g
Karrimor Panther 55-65 RRP £110
This is a very traditional rucksack – tall, narrow with a fixed hood and a profusion of loops and straps for external lashing. The side pockets are accessed by vertical zips beneath a series of bellows which offer room to store large items without affecting the shape of the pack when not in use – a nice system. Karrimor’s famous SA adjustable back system is very easy to use thanks to unobtrusive ladderlock buckles, and the substantial aluminium stays transfer weight effectively to the large padded hipbelt. As the shoulder straps are free to slide down the stays (but not up) there is increased freedom of movement when traversing rough ground. The main compartment is split into two giving a separate base compartment if desired, but the divider can be unzipped if not required. Two side compression straps and mesh wand pockets are useful for securing long items (aided by the low profile side pockets) and there is the usual ice axe/walking pole loop and bungee located centrally. A nice, basic pack, but it’s certainly not lightweight.
Capacity: 65 litres Weight: 1.8kg Volume to weight ratio: 18.0l per 500g
Vango Explorer 60+10RRP £60
There’s very little to distinguish this pack from those costing twice as much – all stitching is neat and whilst the fabrics are chunky they should offer excellent durability. There is no adjustable back system and no choice of sizes – though Vango claim the Explorer has a ‘Size Tolerant Back’. Twin aluminium struts transfer weight to the thickly padded hipbelt and can be easily removed if desired. The usual adjustment straps are present, including load lifters, sternum strap with whistle and twin compressions traps over bellows side pockets. The daisy chain is of limited use to backpackers and I suspect is more an aesthetic choice than a practical fitting. The base compartment can be integrated into the main body of the pack by releasing a drawcord, and there are twowebbing loops with bungee cords to secure ice axes and the like. A well-priced option for D of E participants or those about to embark on their first backpacking trip.
Capacity: 70 litres Weight: 1.98kg Volume to weight ratio: 17.6l per 500g