Updated: Feb 26, 2021
On any long-distance trail, your rucksack will be your constant companion. It’s never going to be easy carrying all the extra weight, but here are my tips to make it as comfortable as possible.
Some I learnt as I walked the 630-mile-long South West Coast Path, and some from other people far more experienced than me – thank you to Arthur, Hazel, Ian & Maggie, Jim, Mike and others I met on the trail.
Use a rucksack that fits
Until I was preparing to walk the South West Coast Path, I had no idea that rucksacks came in different sizes (except for volume), that lots of rucksacks have adjustments for your back length, or what a difference it can make having the straps adjusted differently.
I first tried to use an old rucksack that had been fine when I was carrying 10kg, but was agony with the additional 2.5kg I needed to carry now that I was taking camping kit with me.
Our local outdoor shop does rucksack fittings; I recommend that you use a similar service when choosing a rucksack. For me, getting the hip strap in just the right place (I have bony hips that have been terribly bruised by rucksacks in the past) and feeling how the pivot point works was invaluable.
Whether you are using a new or old rucksack, the basic principle is that you want to stack your skeleton, with most of the weight on the hips, not the shoulders, and the rucksack as upright as possible, not pulling your body backwards.
Lightweight vs greater functionality
Before choosing a rucksack, I borrowed a friend’s super-lightweight pack for a couple of days. By lightweighting, you can lose some of the functionality of the rucksack, eg back-length adjustment or the number of pockets. I have found that I prefer to have a bottom pocket in the main body of the rucksack, and would rather carry slightly more weight and have a sturdier fabric. You might feel differently.
Adjust the rucksack as you walk
Once you have your rucksack perfectly fitted, it may be tempting never to touch the straps again! However, straps slip and circumstances change, so you will need to make adjustments as you walk.
I have found that just a small adjustment can make a big difference to how the pack is sitting – a few millimetres is often enough to shift the weight.
By their very nature, rucksacks heighten your centre of gravity, which can have an impact on balance. When it is windy, they also act like a sail on your back. On the South West Coast Path, I walked through Storm Alex and lots of high winds. I found that it helped to tighten the straps well when it was windy, to bring the rucksack in as close to my body as possible. If your rucksack is loose, a gust of wind could blow it to one side, where it will stop suddenly when the straps tighten, and pull you off balance. Walking in the wind with a loosely attached rucksack is a bit like trying to cycle with shopping bags on the ends of your handlebars. You get a similar effect when clambering over rocks and boulders – another good time to tighten the straps.
I also found that the wind was sometimes strong enough to pull the straps loose between the shoulder straps and the top of the rucksack. One day, I thought that I had packed my rucksack badly because it felt wonky on my back all day. In fact, it was one of these straps that had come loose.
If your shoulder straps are digging in
Two experienced long-distance walkers gave me advice on this. One suggested using an old pair of socks around the straps to provide additional padding, and one used foam insulation.
If possible, I would avoid either of these options and adjust the rucksack so that there is more weight around the hips – and therefore less on the shoulders.
Women may suffer from welts around their bra straps. I found that my sports bras have quite raised seams. This caused quite a lot of discomfort when I was wearing my loaded pack, so I switched to bras with a lower-profile strap. That worked better, but some days I still moved my bra strap to one side to improve my comfort.
Watch your weight
Some people go to extreme lengths to keep the weight of their rucksacks down, even chopping off half of their toothbrush handles and drilling what is left to save a gram or two. I don’t go to those extremes, but I have seen how important it is to keep the weight of your pack down.
One of the people who walked with me for a few days on the South West Coast Path really struggled with the weight of his pack and sore shoulders. After a couple of days, although he prides himself on his resilience and was determined to continue, he really wasn’t enjoying it. His pack didn’t fit him well, but there was nothing we could do about that. Instead, I asked him what he had in it that he could take out. That night, he removed a bag of apples, some clothes, a pair of binoculars and some other bits and pieces – maybe weighing 3kg in total. For the remaining couple of days, he was far more comfortable, and visibly enjoyed the walk more.
Simple things you can do to keep the weight of your pack down include:
Only carry what you need.
Weighing each item and swapping for a more lightweight version if you have one.
Keep everything dry – water is heavy!
And on that note, only carry as much water as you’re going to need. This is something that I didn’t master at all well, and often ended the day at a campsite or B&B with almost a litre of water left. That’s an extra kilo of weight I was carrying all day! If nothing else, I could have poured it away for the last mile or two of walking.
Plan your food purchases. I always carried a couple of dehydrated meals and a Kendal Mint Cake for emergencies, but apart from that, I only bought as much as I needed before passing another shop. Food and water are the two heaviest items I carried.
Totally empty your rucksack from time to time and re-pack it. It’s amazing what you manage to accumulate that you don’t need.
If you have any other strategies to share, please add them to the comments below.