The contents of your rucksack

“Hats, gloves, and waterproofs?” I asked, trying to sound commanding.

“In our rucksacks!” came the reply, in near unison from the six walkers, who were standing like soldiers in front of me.

“Brilliant,” I nodded. “Let’s go!”

With that, and me leading, we headed upwards towards the Brecha de Rolando. I could see it clearly on the skyline, 2804 metres above the sea, a gap in the Pyrenean frontier between Spain and France. It was August, blue sky and baking sun, and I was looking forward to an evening beer at the tiny refuge, where we were booked to spend the night.

Brecha de Rolando - where trouble can happen (Lukasz Janyst) As we walked, I noticed an occasional wisp of cloud appear above the Brecha. Wisp became mist, mist became fog, the temperature dropped, and next came snow, thunder, and lightning. Within 90 minutes of clear sky and sun, we were in a white-out with drama unfolding.

“Time for hats, gloves and waterproofs. Make it snappy!”  I instructed. Yet the group did not respond.

It was then I noticed that each walker was alarmed. I could see bowed heads whispering, but could not make out the words. One looked up and spoke.

“We didn’t bring them,” she said, as I pulled on my own protective clothing.

“But…” I protested.

“I know,” she replied. “We were fibbing. The weather looked marvellous when we left.”

Packed, neat and ready but prepare for the worst It took me an hour to lead my unprotected group to safety. Sixty minutes of wind, subzero temperatures, and limited visibility. We avoided catastrophe by a whisker. Once in the warmth of refuge safety, and given time to reflect, it was clear my fellow walkers had learned a lesson. Much of what lies inside your rucksack is there in case of an event that may never happen, but you must always prepare for the worst, however good the weather when you set out.

When loading a rucksack, the end result should be a pack that looks neat, without dent or dimple, and that does not topple over when stood by itself on the ground. When carried, the pack should stay silent if you jump up and down. No rattles, sloshes, or clicks. Keep as little as possible on the outside of a rucksack, ideally just walking poles, ice axe, or both. Poles go on the side of a rucksack, an ice axe on the front. A rucksack’s front is actually what I call the back, the bit you show to the world.

Avoid being a dangler, those who feel they must hang water bottles, karabiners, climbing slings, maps, tents, jackets, umbrellas, and mugs, from their rucksack. The items swing as a walker walks, look untidy, become caught on trees and bushes, and occasionally drop to the ground unnoticed. To me, dangler spells amateur.

Have as little on the outside of your pack as possible - here you only have camera, GPS and poles The rules for packing rucksacks declare that the heaviest items go in the middle, as near your back as possible. For example, a tent or cooking equipment. The items least needed go at the bottom, like a sleeping bag, or spare clothes. Things you want most go at the top. For me that is food but for others it is different. I once spent a day asking any walker I passed what was at the top of their rucksack. I was sure they would answer waterproofs or food. I was wrong. I heard passport, chocolate, medicines, money, camera, guidebook, or cigarettes, while one thrust her hand straight into the pack and retrieved a lime-green bra. So much for disaster preparedness.

The lid, the top pocket, of my rucksack is where I keep items I wish to be instantly available. Inside are lots of things – penknife, headtorch, first aid kit, spare reading glasses, and plenty more besides. My favourite is the champagne cork, which has no useful function, but has been there for a decade as a good luck mascot.

This rucksack was all that was needed for six weeks crossing The Alps (courtesy M Stankovic) No rucksack is fully waterproof, even those that have a roll-top seal and see water as a challenge. Waterproofing every item is critical, even if the pack has a cover. I use dry bags of various sizes for this, and like them to be clear, so I can see what lies within. I can never have enough dry bags.

And the final weight of rucksack? I am hopeless at keeping light, long a source of amusement to my mountaineering colleagues. But there is a simple rule that even I follow. Your pack should never be more than 25% of your own weight. Work on that number and stay there.

Remember, what lies inside your rucksack may one day save you. You simply cannot trust a mountain.

If you want to pack your rucksack

Contents of the rucksack for six weeks crossing The Alps (courtesy M Stankovic) There are few things more personal than the contents of a rucksack, yet there are also basic necessities.

For a day on the hills, inside my Deuter Guide Lite 32+ rucksack you will find:

Top pocket (lid)

  • Silva compass
  • Sunglasses in case
  • Spork
  • Pexel head torch
  • First aid kit (in plastic container)
  • Packet (10) wet wipes
  • Spare reading glasses
  • Swiss Army penknife on lanyard
  • Bootlace (1)
  • Sunscreen
  • Small magnifying glass (easier than using reading glasses for maps)
  • Small rubbish bag
  • Waterproof matches
  • Emergency medicines (wrapped in plastic)
  • Loo paper (wrapped in plastic)
  • Champagne cork (no useful function, other than good luck)

Inside main pack

Bottom
  • Waterproof overtrousers
  • Powerpack and mobile telephone charging cable (in dry bag)

Survival kit (in dry bag), comprising:

  • Midge net
  • Spare laces (2)
  • First aid kit
  • Spare batteries – CR2032 (2), AA (4), AAA (3)
  • Spare glasses
  • Firelighting kit (flint)
  • Paracord (10 metres)
  • Whistle
  • Plastic survival bag
  • Gaffer tape
  • Headtorch

Middle

  • Nalgene water bottle (1 litre) – I am not a sucky-tube enthusiast
  • Vacuum flask (700mls)
  • Food (in dry bag)

Spare clothing (in dry bag), comprising:

  • Cold-weather facemask
  • Gore-Tex, leather-reinforced gloves
  • Glove thermal liners
  • Fleece

Top

  • Gore-Tex jacket – hat and buff in its right pocket, gloves in its left pocket
  • Wallet and car keys (in dry bag)
  • Attached to hip belt: Camera (with waterproof cover) on lanyard
  • Attached to side of pack: Walking poles held together by a single elastic bungee
  • Attached to shoulder strap: GPS device (Oregon 650)

More information

How to pack a rucksack

What’s in my backpack?

How to pack your DofE rucksack

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Richard Villar

Travel writer, doctor & international mountain leader

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