What should I pack in my rucksack or backpack?
For those who hike, this is a question every time we plan a short day trip or walking vacation.
From the beginner to the seasoned hiker alike ,we all have different ideas and variations of what works best . It can be a short day walk, full days hiking in the high mountain ranges or a long-distance thru-hike along a low-level route. Whatever the plan,we all face the same question.What should I put in my rucksack?
This definitely changes depending on many factors ,see for example the great blog post that Lorraine wrote packing for the camino for all the ladies out there .This is specific obviously for women who are planning to walk on the Camino de Santiago. However,there are some guiding elements ,no matter what the occasion.
I want to share with you a little bit of what I’ve learned about lightweight backpacking over the years.
These are the things that live in my rucksack from one end of the year to the other.
I will change and adapt them depending on the season or the nature of the walk but there’s always a version of each somewhere in my backpack.
- A spare layer – a simple low weight, low volume, and easily packed microfleece,200 gsm or less. Best of all, these are easy to find and really cheap to buy. On this occasion the brand name means very little.
- A spare hat – a simple easily packed cap or beanie. We lose so much heat from our heads but equally when the temperature is rising on a tough uphill section taking the cap off and stuffing it into your pocket is one of the most effective and fastest ways to regulate and cool down.
- A spare pair of gloves – lightweight and easily packed.
- A spare pair of socks – these are essential if your feet get wet but also there’s no better feeling at the end of the day than putting a fresh pair of socks on.
Tip: A great tip is to pre-dust them inside with good foot powder.
- A lightweight pair of waterproof over-trousers – Many people hate carrying these for a number of reasons.They can be bulky and relatively heavy unless you part with a substantial wad of cash. Equally, unless it’s a really long wet day they’re not really needed because with occasional showers and quick drying trousers you’re dry in no time. Having said all of that ,when you need them, you really need them. Secondly, they are a fantastic layer of defense against the wind.Thirdly they are more functional than carrying an extra pair of regular trousers.
- A good quality waterproof, breathable coat – To cut through all of the marketing spin, the honest truth is that on a really wet day when it rains from start to finish then in my experience a £ 400 jacket will eventually have some moisture pass through. This may be at the points where the shoulder straps of the rucksack rub or other vulnerable areas. However, there is a big difference in this and a cheap supposedly waterproof /breathable jacket that leaves you soaked through in 15 minutes! This is one item where usually money spent equates with quality.Its not just about comfort,its essential.
- A buff -One of the most versatile, low-cost items you could possibly include in your pack. It’s a sweatband, a cap, a neck warmer, a balaclava, headband, a towel, and the list goes on!
Every Day Carry
- A Map and Compass – regardless of GPS and smartphone apps which absolutely have their place there is nothing to replace map and compass. More important is the knowledge and skills to use them. Skill is the operative word here and like any skill, you use it or lose it. Equally, everyone has to start somewhere so carry these from day one and practice when you get a chance.
A waterproof map case is also a must.
Tip: The cheaper and harder plastic cases may work perfectly well but I think that a good-quality, softer siliconized type map case is worth the extra cost. There are a few good options, I like ‘ortileb’ and ‘aquapac’.
- A Phone – A controversial one to list as essential that no doubt will spark debate. In my opinion,anyone who has ever seen the efforts of our hard-pressed Mountain Rescue Teams then I do think it’s a must if even for one reason alone. To explain,in emergency situations , many search teams have the technology to use your number as a locator.
Make sure to always carry it in a purpose made quality waterproof case. There are a few options, ‘aquapac ‘is a good one.
Tip: I learned this the hard way!
- A First Aid Kit – a simple one in a small lightweight pack. I think it’s a good idea to buy a ready-made kit but to customize and expand it yourself.For example, add items like sun cream, Vaseline, small scissors/ knife, midge spray ( or ‘skin so soft’ is a great alternative).
- A Small Headtorch – I would strongly recommend the ‘Petzl E-Lite’, as a backup, I haven’t found any better out there in terms of size /weight v price. I keep it in my small first aid kit or in the bag with my emergency bivvy. This is a backup and we should carry a more substantial headtorch also especially in the seasons with shorter days.
- Gaffer Tape
Tip: Wrapped around a walking pole or a metre or two taken from the roll and wrapped around a small chinagraph pencil ( will write when wet ).
- Shock chord and Para Chord – I find the shock chord extremely useful in so many ways and para chord /tent guy line a lot more versatile to have than a spare pair of bootlaces for example. A big part of lightweight packing is for items to have multi-purpose uses. You can buy a couple of metres cut from a roll in good outdoor shops.
Tip: Remember to seal the cut ends with a flame.
- Emergency Bivvy –this gives me a great sense of security, lightweight, reusable and a lifesaver for very little expense . There was a time not too long ago when a large bulky plastic bag was the only option but check out the ‘sol emergency bivvy ’ .It only weighs 99 grams and fits in the palm of your hand.
- Toilet Paper/ Hand-Sanitizer– Nobody likes to be caught short, but nature can call in a way that we don’t expect. Tip: Carried in a small strong plastic zip-lock bag, toilet paper wrapped around a collapsed roll or wet wipes pack.
- Bottle of Water – this may seem out of place on the list, but I always have a cheap disposable bottle in my bag. Its ultralight, costs pennies and is re-uasable.I don’t want to get into the dangers of drinking water from untreated sources because this is another blog.
We have sheep grazing on our highest mountain tops in Ireland, so care is needed. Fast flowing mountain streams, waterfalls, and springs naturally filtered through rock have always tasted sweet to me. This is by no means what I’m telling you or recommending you do, I’m just sharing my experience.
- When camping I do carry a water filtration system. I’ve used several methods over the years but my current method of choice f is the ‘Sawyer mini water filter’.
- A Bar of Chocolate or two :When those blood sugars drop because I’ve forgotten my lunch or on the day that you are caught out a little longer on the mountain than expected.
Tip: I carry this out of sight either in my first aid kit or the bag carrying the emergency bivvy. That way I know when I need it then it’ll be there. Otherwise, if I see it, I’ll eat it!
- A Packet of Sweets – There’s no better way to lift the spirits with a quick tasty sugar rush and there’s nothing friendlier to do than share them on the trail. I’m partial to Jelly Babies,the black ones ?
- Lunch and drink for the day.
This may seem like a very long list but honestly, it can all be packed into a small waterproof roll top bag. It shouldn’t take up any more than 1 or 2 litres of space. I find that a couple of small colour coded bags for organisation is better than one larger one.
Winter / Summer
The bag contents and size will change significantly with the seasons as will the actual backpack itself. You cut your cloth to suit. Really the key thing is that items will become more substantial in the Winter but the essentials remain.
- Waterproof thermal mitts supplement –Light Gloves
- Raincoat – I have a range of these and on a warm summers day I’ll carry a minimal but quality breathable waterproof (montane minimus).However, for the other 3 seasons I’ll normally carry my Gore-Tex-Pro Shell mountain coat.
- Choice and size of the rucksack – This is a whole blog in its own right and one that I’ll come back to at a future date. Extra gear is required in the winter so a bigger pack is needed. This pack below in the photo on the right was during a winter skills course in Scotland. We spent the night in a snow-hole !The smaller pack on the left was for an Autumn climb, leading a group to the summit of Irelands highest peak, Carrauntoohil.
My pack is smaller again for a day walk on my own or with a group of peers.
Leading a Walk
As a mountain leader with the added responsibility to the group then my bag changes considerably.
I’ll carry a lot of extra items, some of which I’ll briefly list.
- Extra clothing -hats and gloves for the group
- A group shelter minimum 8-10 man size.
- A bedroll type insulation layer to keep a casualty warm while lying or sitting on the bare earth. There are several lightweight options, but the bulk is the issue.
- Depending on the route and group I’ll maybe carry a confidence rope.
- A more comprehensive first aid kit including the ever-versatile Sam splint.
Don’t take the Kitchen Sink!
This is by no means an exhaustive list and no doubt I’ve forgotten items here. The longer you spend time in the outdoors the more you realise that the real skill is learning what not to include while still carrying enough to keep things safe.
Make a list
I’m a big believer in lists and keep spreadsheets of gear with individual weights ( sad I know ). This way I can choose different combinations to carry depending on conditions. The ‘lean weight’ of my bag is ever evolving and I tweak things all of the time.
One of the things that I’ve been using alongside the rucksack in the last few years is a lightweight bum bag. The trick is to manouvre it around to the front, otherwise it interferes with the rucksack. Its very useful and accessible.When used alongside side pockets on the waist strap of the backpack, I find the combination great. It’s a good spot for the jelly babies 😉
Water Carrying systems
My water carrying system has evolved and has come full circle over the years. I’ve experimented with many ways including bladder systems and now I’m back with bottles but with a twist. I carry one on each shoulder strap, with adapted holders for easy access.
Note: I’m not sponsored by any of the brands that I’ve listed, chance would be a fine thing. This is just an honest assessment of what has worked for me.
Escape – Embrace -Enjoy !
By Brian Hoey