The Best Rucksack for Running and Trekking
It’s time for a nice new rucksack. OK, I’ll admit it, I’m living something of a consumerist lifestyle. Yes, I’ve got more ‘toys’ than is absolutely necessary and I do sometimes live by the adage of ‘He who dies with the most toys, wins.‘ It may not quite fit quite with the ‘Simple Life of Luxury’ moniker of this blog but I derive some pleasure from owning and using the right tool for the job and in some respects that’s what ‘luxury’ is. Be it bikes, boats, boots or in this case bags, it’s a luxury to have several to choose from and to be able to choose the one that fits the task at hand perfectly. With a new adventure in the offing I was in need of a new rucksack to be used as a daypack on a multi-day trek. So, strap in for a deep dive into the wonderful world of rucksacks!
The right rucksack for the job – Size Matters
There are loads of things to consider when choosing a new rucksack. Comfort is of course top of the list, there are features galore to choose from and most important as a starting point is the size and load carrying capacity of the rucksack. In fact, size is probably the main reason why there isn’t one rucksack for all applications.
If I’m off for a short run that will be less than a few hours in length, isn’t taking me too far from civilisation and isn’t likely to see too many changes in the weather then I’ll want to be covering the ground farily quickly and will probably take nothing with me. If it rains, I just get wet and put up with it and I’m not too far from where I started anyway. Longer runs and days out in the hills in good weather will see the need for a small 10-20 ltr rucksack, I’ll need food and water and some extra layers at a minimum but won’t want anything too big that will hinder my progress.
If I’m heading higher into the hills where the weather might be more changeable or venturing further from home then I might need a few more things with me. More clothes, waterproofs, more food and water along with extras such as a camera, battery packs, maps, compass, hat, gloves, gaiters, more food and water, first aid kit, repair kit, walking poles, ice axe and such like. The list can go on and on and a larger 25-35ltr pack is probably required.
If I’m off for a few days then an even larger pack will be needed for extras such as tent, sleeping bag, cooking equipment and of course more of everything else above.
One rucksack is clearly not enough for all types of activity and there is always a compromise to be made between packing light, taking enough essentials with you, having a bag that will accommodate what you need and being able to carry it all in comfort.
Rucksack for Running – 10-20 ltrs
I don’t usually wear a rucksack for most runs. usually it’s just me, my running shoes, my shorts and a t-shirt. Maybe a light jacket in the winter. If I’m going a little further I tend to take a small 15 litre rucksack with me. This allows me to carry some water, some snacks and a few extra layers in case the weather changes. I’ll also usually pop in a thin hat, some thin gloves and a buff. The hat, gloves and buff weigh next to nothing take up hardly any room but can make the world of difference when things get chilly – or more often when I’ve stopped at the far end and have to hang around for hours waiting for a bus or train back to where I started.
If I’m going to be quite a way out in the sticks, higher in the hills or on challenging terrain then I’ll also add a few emergency essentials to the bag such as a map and compass, survival blanket, waterproofs and some means of communication such as my phone and a whistle. There’ll be some cash for a bus / taxi home if needed and my car keys.
This might sound like quite a lot to carry on a run but it really isn’t. I’ve been using a Karrimor X-Lite 15ltr running pack for these situations and have come to love it. Even with all of this in it there is still plenty of room and I pretty much forget about it once it’s on my back. It’s the perfect size for days out on the trail but small enough that I’m still able to cover ground quickly and run without any interference. As far as features go then it has everything I need from such a pack and I can’t rate it highly enough.
- It carries a hydration bladder and has an outlet and fixing point for the hose.
- It has one main large compartment and a smaller compartment for extra items
- It is slightly water-resistant
- It has a ventilated back and ventilated shoulder straps to keep sweat levels down
- It has a comfortable hip belt to stabilise the pack
- It has comfortable shoulder belts
- The hip belts have easy access pockets for gels and my phone
- There is a key clip to keep my car keys safe
- It is comfortable, lightweight and fairly strong
- It has a super reflective coating which helps me be seen
In fact, it’s so perfect that I’m onto my 3rd one now. As such a lightweight pack it is slightly less robust than a full-on rucksack but that’s fine as it isn’t designed for multi-day adventures. I managed to rip the first one I had on some barbed wire. It continued to work well for months after that and the rip-stop material did it’s job but eventually I bought myself a new one. This one was fine until the zips started to become a little unreliable so I’m now onto my third. The design has changed a touch over the years but it still suits me perfectly and is my rucksack of choice for most days. The ventilated back and shoulder straps do reduce sweat build up a little but not as well a framed pack might. But framed packs are nowhere near as comfortable when running and a little bit of sweat is to be expected when working hard.
As well as using it for running, I use it on walks in the hills, scrambling and just day trips out with the family. If I could get away with it for more adventurous trips then I would. If you want a small, lightweight pack the you can’t go far wrong with the Karrimor X-Lite.
Trekking Rucksack 25-35 ltr
As I said above, I can get away with the 15 ltr pack in many situations. It’s big enough for days out in the hills but sometimes a little more carrying capacity is required. With a multi-day trek on the cards I was thinking of using my Karrimor X-Lite. I tried it out and did manage to easily get the essentials into it. Even with a 2 ltr hydration bladder, plenty of trail snacks, proper waterproof trousers and waterproof jacket, a down jacket, hat, gloves, buff, compass, survival blanket, phone, battery pack, chlorine tablets and first aid kit there was still some room to spare. I had to pack everything into dry-bags first as the pack itself isn’t very waterproof but that just helped me compress things down a little. It was OK but there wasn’t huge amounts of room for anything else and it had to be packed carefully to accommodate everything and to still feel comfortable whilst on my back. Coupled with the fact that it isn’t as robust as a heavier, larger rucksack would be, I decided it wasn’t worth risking it. I wouldn’t want it ripping or a zip to fail whilst on a multi-day hike so it was time to buy something more suitable – yeah, more toys!
As I was buying it for a specific purpose I had a number of specifics on my wish list. The size was a given – somewhere in the 25-35 ltr range so that I could accommodate all of the above along with extras should I wish to add them. It would also be good to have a little bit of extra room to spare for future trips that might need it.
The next priority was comfort. A larger pack would be more comfortable as I wouldn’t have to over-fill it. The pack had to be comfortable for wearing day in day out for hours on end when loaded up with quite a lot of gear. In some respects this is a personal thing as some packs fit some people better than others, but the features can help with this too. Things such as adjustable back length, and plenty of adjustment on the straps can help you get a pack to fit just the way you want it to. Adjustability also helps you achieve comfort with varying loads, varying terrain or just by changing the position of the pack somewhat on long days. Having load adjustment straps at the top of the shoulder straps can aid comfort and of course a good, padded hip belt was essential. A sternum strap was a must as well. Ventilation across the back and elsewhere was needed to a certain extent to aid comfort and the quality of the materials can help things feel more comfortable too.
I would be using this new rucksack as hand luggage on a flight so it had to have a high ‘squishability’ factor so that it could fit under the seat of a plane. I think the manufacturers actually refer to a rucksack as being packable if they squash down completely but my ‘squishability index’ is more of a scale. Whilst a framed rucksack may provide better ventilation and may even support a load better they are very low on the ‘squishability scale’.
Many medium sized day packs in the 25-35 ltr range have a rigid frame, others have semi rigid frames that vary widely on the squishability index and yet others are completely packable and therefore sit at the top of the squishability index. A framed sack was out of the question, I don’t find them comfortable anyway and they failed in the squishability test. Even some of the more rigid squishable rucksacks weren’t going to cut it so I ruled out a few potential options out at this stage.
A larger rucksack would allow me to go up a level on the robustness factor in comparison to my lightweight 15ltr pack. It would therefore be a rucksack that I could rely on when days from civilisation. Stronger fabrics, better construction and more reinforcement would all be a good thing.
As something of a gadget hound the perfect rucksack for running and trekking would need to have plenty of features. You won’t believe the number of features that a rucksack could, or the names that manufacturers come up for them. I had a few essential features that I wanted along with a number of other desirable features. Very few rucksacks have everything but the better rucksacks do have most. High on my list of features were:
- Hip belt pockets – I love having easy access to as much as I can without having to take the rucksack off my back and hip pockets help with this.
- Additional side and front pockets – I’m a little OCD and like to have a place for everything and everything in its place. Extra pockets help with this and help me keep things organised
- One large main compartment – In contrast to the previous bullet point I like the main compartment on a rucksack of this size to be one large compartment. Dividing this up only tends to limit what you can get in it. If you do want to organise things inside the main compartments then packing things into individual dry-bags allows you to do so and helps keep things dry as well.
- Hydration bladder compatible – It had to have somewhere to attach the bladder and fixtures and fittings for the hose.
- Waterproof cover – Whilst most rucksacks in this size category have fairly good waterproofing, the more waterproofing the better. Some are of course fully sealed dry bag style rucksacks but most aren’t. The ones that aren’t tend to have an integrated rain cover. As mentioned above I still recommend packing things inside dry bags as well.
- Integrated whistle – Many rucksacks have a nifty little whistle integrated into the buckle of the sternum strap. It’s a nice little touch and I think all rucksacks should follow suit. I have to admit that I have never had to use the whistle or any whistle for that matter but I’m sure it costs the manufacturers nothing to add it. They have to add some sort of buckle to the strap so why not one with a whistle on it. You never know, it could one day save your life.
- Trekking Pole / Ice Axe Attachments – I don’t always need trekking poles or ice axes, but having somewhere to carry them when I do need them is always a good thing.
- Shockcords on the front – Always handy to stuff discarded layers into.
- Key Clip – Essential as keys are far too easily lost if floating freely inside a rucksack, especially on multi-day trips where they aren’t needed and are forgotten about until you return. It’s much better to avoid that lost key panic by having them securely attached to a clip.
- Adjustability – A good level of adjustability is a comfort feature and is essential for a pack of this size.
If a rucksack could tick all of these boxes and boasted all of these features then I’d probably be happy.
And finally it had to look good. Whilst I wouldn’t condone choosing a rucksack on looks alone, we all want to look good and if you look good you feel good so aesthetics do play a role.
Actually, there are two more factors that had to be taken into consideration as well. Price and availability.
The size helped me to narrow things down straight away to a few likely candidates. I then researched these online, read some reviews and narrowed things down even further. I did visit a few outdoor shops in Aberystwyth but with limited choices there I waited until I was in Shrewsbury competing in the Shrewsbury Quadrathlon where I visited a few more shops to actually get a hands on with the rucksacks. This then had me down to a choice between two or three.
In the running were the Osprey Talon 22, the Montane Trailblazer 30 and a last minute entry the Technicals Aqua II 25. The latter I hadn’t seen before but spotted it in the shop and it ticked all of the boxes. It was the right size, it was comfortable, it had the correct amount of squishability, it had all of the features that I wanted and some extras and looked to be more waterproof than the others. It looked good and what’s more it was less than half the price of the other two. However, once I picked it up and played with it, it just felt a little bit too cheap. The low price was reflected somewhat in the quality of the materials used and it felt a little too plasticky for me. I’m sure it would have worked perfectly well and would have suited my just fine, but today it wasn’t for me as it just didn’t feel nice enough.
The Osprey Talon and the Montane Trailblazer also ticked the size, comfort and squishability boxes and both felt durable, robust and high quality. As far as features went the Osprey probably had the edge. The Montane Trailblazer on the other hand did have a few of the essential features missing. There was no integrated rain cover, no sternum strap whistle and no shock-cord system on the front of the pack. The list prices were about the same, but there was more chance of a discount on the Osprey and some stores already had it at a little cheaper than the Montane. The Montane Trailblazer did however slightly win out in the looks department as far as I was concerned and it just seemed to ooze quality.
In the end I decided that it was the Montane Trailblazer 30 that suited me best. Yes, it was a little more expensive but it just felt and looked a little better. Some of the features that it did have were executed in a slightly more refined manner than those of the Osprey and as as far as the features that it was lacking were concerned these were easily fixed. The trekking pole attachment points were well engineered and had the added benefit of stowing discreetly away when not in use – something that appealed to my inner OCD. The overall load carrying capacity and comfort was just a little better. The hip pockets were huge and it had the added feature of large pockets on the shoulder straps too which are easily accessible and fit an iPhone or camera perfectly.
Although it lacked a shockcord system across the front of the pack it had a stretchy mesh pocket instead. This actually works better in many instances. It has the same carrying capacity of a shock-cord and still allows wet items to be stowed where they can both dry out and be kept away from the dry items in the pack. But, as it’s a pocket rather than a series of bungees, items are held more securely and things can’t fall out of it. It also allows you to store smaller items in it should you wish. On top of that there are daisy chain attachment points for a shock-cord system anyway. I had plenty of 3mm bungee in the shed so adding some to it didn’t cost a thing and gave me the best of both worlds. You may wonder why I need a stretchy mesh pocket and a shock-cord system on the front of my ruck sack. The reason is that I have a solar powered battery pack that I attach to my rucksack on multi-day adventures. This charges up during the day when exposed to sunlight and then I’m able to recharge my phone, camera, watch, GPS etc overnight with it. It wouldn’t work too well if hidden from the sun inside a mesh pocket so the shockcord system is better for this.
It was also lacking a whistle on the sternum strap buckle. Not a huge deal but not one I can excuse really as it wouldn’t cost Montane anything to add one. Similarly though it didn’t cost me anything to attach a safety whistle that I had lying around to the key clip either. It’s always there, I know where it is and it’ll work just as well as one on the sternum strap should I ever need it. Talking of the Sternum strap, the Montane Trailblazer 30 has two elasticated straps with a clever little clip and go feature. They work well and help keep the pack stable once in place.
Finally, it was also missing a rain cover. Again, it’s something that could and probably should be included on a rucksack of this price but a separate rain cover cost less than £3 from Amazon so it was an oversight that was easily rectified.
All in all, it is a lovely piece of kit and should serve me well. I’ve used it a few times in the local hills and it is as comfortable as can be. I pretty much forget it’s there even when fully laden. It looks good, it works well and I’m enjoying using it. What more could a consumerist living a Simple life of Luxury want from a rucksack?