Getting the Right Kit: Rucksacks


The two main items of kit to get right are boots and rucksacks. Why is this? Because if these are uncomfortable then you’re going to know about it every step of your expedition, as will everyone else in your group! Rucksacks take some time to fit correctly, but when they do the weight is often taken off your shoulders.


Steps to getting the right fit:

Many larger rucksacks are adjustable in their back length. How this is done varies by manufacturer, some have Velcro holding them in place, some use clips, while others have a ‘parachute’ pull-cord. If you’re unsure then ask! Many outdoor shops will help you get the right fit. There are differences between narrow dimension packs (sometimes called “women’s fit”), mostly in the amount of cushioning in the hip pads, the shape of the arm straps, and the length of the back.

To make sure you get a good fit follow these steps:

      1. Start with an empty rucksack on your back. Getting the rucksack to fit starts from the bottom of the back upwards. Clip the hip belt together first, ensuring that it is clamped around your hip belt and is pulled tight. This ensures that the majority of the rucksacks weight is transferred through the hips to the legs. If the hip belt sits above the hips then little if any weight is transferred to the legs, and the rucksack tends to create hotspots as it moves around. If you can’t get this tight enough on your own then ask a friend to help. They just need to slowly pull the strap while pushing against you with the other hand.

      2. Once the hip belt is in place slowly pull in the main arm straps, ensuring that the hip-belt isn’t pulled up from its location on the hip. As a general rule of thumb the arm strap adjustor clip should be tucked under the armpit on each arm.

      3. The third step is to connect the chest strap. This should be across the widest part of the chest but can be adjusted for individual comfort, and should hold the arm straps in place but not so tight that it restricts your breathing. When you stand sideways to a mirror you should see that the shoulder strap follows the shape of the shoulder. If there is a large gap between the shoulder strap and your shoulder then it’s likely that the back is too long. Take the pack off, shorten the back length, and start again. If the shoulder strap appears to attach to the back of the rucksack half-way down your back then it’s likely that the back length is too short for you. Again take the bag off and lengthen the back before you start readjusting the straps again. It can take a few attempts to get this right but once it’s in place you shouldn’t really have to change it unless you suddenly grow or lend it to a friend who is a different height. 



From here there are several smaller straps that can be adjusted, but it’s better to try this with a weighted bag to really notice the effect. It’s best to ask a member of shop staff before continuing this.

      4. Remove the rucksack and fill it with a couple of 2- 3 person tents (assuming these fit!) Once these are in place then pick up the rucksack slowly and put it on your back. The next stage is to reattach the straps – again working from the bottom up. You might need to adjust the hip-belt, arm straps, or chest strap to ensure it’s comfortable again. Once this is all done then there are usually a set of straps on the top of the shoulder that can be pulled tight to pull in the weight of the bag towards you.

      5. Once this is done take a walk around the shop. Make sure it’s still comfortable after 10 – 15 minutes. If you find it’s loosened off or rubbing on the hips or shoulders then make sure that they are in the right place!

      6. It may seem like a pain, but readjusting these straps everytime you put the rucksack on will make it more comfortable throughout your expedition as there will be slight differences in the weight of the bag, or in how it was packed that can change how the rucksack fits.


What to look for in a rucksack:

Size: Possibly the most important aspect after the fit. The DofE list recommends about 65 liters. In reality too much bigger than this and you will fill it with too much kit and struggle to carry it – making your expedition miserable from the start of day 1. Too much smaller and you wouldn’t be able to fit in all the essential kit list which could mean you get deferred! With any rucksack it is worth asking the shop if you can take it home to try packing your stuff into it. If they say yes then do just this. Make sure you’re happy you can get everything into the pack easily. Remember you are unlikely to fold your t-shirts as neatly on the last day as you are before you head out so a little more space is essential. Also remember you might need space to take off a layer your wearing along the way - It’s much safer to pack everything into the pack than have it dangling off the outside where it’s likely to get snagged on something, or fall in a puddle or stream!

Take a look at the pockets: Many expedition rucksacks have a similar design, with access to the main pocket via a lid on the top as well as a zip at the bottom, two side pockets, and one more in the lid too. This isn’t always the case though and some might have some super funky access points which work really well for you. Or not. Again it’s a case of trying out your own kit in the rucksack to see if you like how it works. Remember something that looks really technical can actually be really fiddly when you’re trying to get to your stove to cook your evening meal at camp, or if your waterproofs are in a pocket you can’t remember how to access while the rain starts to fall. Personally I’m a big fan of the pockets on the hip belt. Really useful for holding snacks in one and a compass in the other. Nom Nom Nom.

Very few rucksacks are waterproof: The material may be water-resistant however all of the seams and zips are full of tiny holes that let in water. It’s as simple as that! Many packs will come with a waterproof cover, but remember when it’s raining, it’s often windy which means it could get blown off. As well as this water can seep into the rucksack through the back where you wear it (this bit isn’t covered by the waterproof cover). It’s much easier and safer to get a dedicated drybag that fits inside the rucksack. Put your kit inside it, then roll up at the top to create a seal, and as they go inside the rucksack they don’t wear easily, however it does mean you only have one access to get to the equipment unless you’re sensible. Please note that these are not submersible, so don’t drop it in a stream and expect it to stay dry! If you don’t want to splash out on a drybag or two (you’ll need one for every pocket to make this work well) then heavy-duty rubble sacks are often a cheaper alternative – though these don’t seal at the top, they can be folded into place instead. A standard rubbish bag isn’t robust enough, and will fall apart once you’ve taken a few items in and out.


If you are based in Edinburgh or the surrounding area and you don’t want to buy a rucksack for your DofE expedition then you can hire them from . We have a selection of designs and sizes from Vango and can help you get the best fit if you come in when it’s quiet!

Like this article? We'll be putting up similar posts about other key expedition kit, as well as about how best to care for your boots. Watch this space!