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What to carry in a mountain rucksack by Dan Aspel

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What to carry in a mountain rucksack by Dan Aspel

Knowing what to take with you into the wild places is an important skill, and one that will change and grow noticeably with every adventure you have. For most of us it’s a case of learning what we don’t need, rather than what we do. So what starts out as a “kitchen-sink” rucksack, filled with gear to cover every eventuality, in time evolves into something leaner, filled with pleasing multi-function items that stack together nicely and barely trouble your back, neck and legs when you’re roaming around the hills, valleys, cliffs and trails. The complexion of your rucksack will change with every specific adventure you have, so in this blog I’m not going to talk about overnight or winter or scrambling gear, but just the standard equipment I would carry if I were going out for a normal hill day. That means a mountain environment of changeable weather where I could expect anything from sleet and hail to bright sunshine and strong winds (ie. a typical day above 500m). Here comes the kit shot...

No, I’m not going to apologise for how colourful everything is.

So, we’re assuming that I’m already wearing my base layers, trousers, footwear, fleece or thermal layer. We’re also not taking with us a confidence rope, spare warm layers or anything else a working mountain leader or guide would be expected to bring when managing clients. This is just to go out and enjoy a fun day in the mountains with a wide margin of safety for peace of mind.

What’s interesting is that I, and (I’m hoping) most other British hill-goers would look at this selection and feel happy that it’s pretty trim. Most alpinists and trail runners would likely feel the opposite. But they live different adventures, and wouldn’t dream of wandering along the Carneddau in 50mph winds or attempting the Lochaber traverse in a hail storm. Whereas hillwalkers and mountaineers tend to enjoy that kind of thing. And we carry the kit to make it perfectly bearable. Go us.

Let’s have a closer look at each section individually.

Rucksack capacity is key, and is usually indicated on the outside of the fabric (or in the product name). I find 38 litres to be ample, allowing plenty of extra room for colder or more technical pursuits while not being too billowy when half empty.

Shells are essential. This lightweight, breathable and waterproof jacket from Montane and the equally sturdy overtrousers from Mountain Hardwear will keep off wind chill and rainfall as well as anything. Fabrics vary in abilities, but all perform essentially the same task. You’ll be amazed what you can survive while wearing such garments.

Gloves are part of your shells. The larger pair will keep your digits safe from the cold and wet, while the smaller pair allow for better dexterity in more benign conditions. A third pair in case of loss would not be overkill. Your hands are important.

A pair of sturdy gaiters makes bog trotting, river crossing and the maintenance of dry socks a reality. They’re unnecessary on most walks, but in rougher or wilder terrain (as well as in snow and on ice) they are an essential tool.

A pair of trekking poles are useful when carrying heavy loads (such as when wild camping), but for general walks and hikes one is sufficient. It can be used to help negotiate steeper ground, and really comes into its own when crossing streams and rivers.

Warm layers! A down or synthetic jacket (the former is lighter but more susceptible to moisture) makes summit or lunch stops far more enjoyable at higher altitudes, ditto the hat. Also bear in mind that an injury might see you waiting for help for many hours in a cold or windy situation. This can be just as true in June as in January. The emergency shelter (bottom of image) is ideal for this purpose too. It will keep you warm, dry and safe in case of disaster.

Yes, I’m a stylish chap. But even if you find the design garish, a neck tube such as this Buff is a great purchase (and there are loads of colour options). Good for keeping your neck warm or the sun off. It can be adapted to be worn as a hat, beanie or bandana. A superb piece of multi-function gear.

A map and compass go without saying (almost). They should be kept to hand and consulted often if you’re in unfamiliar terrain. The grid reference tool at the top left is extremely handy if you need to give your specific location to anybody, and the well-sized Lifeventure map case keeps everything tidy, dry and safe.

A headtorch is an important emergency tool, in case you become lost or even benighted in fading light. The small blue item is a Go Travel powerpack which carries 2300mAh of charge - a wise thing to carry if you rely on a smartphone for navigation or communications. The UV-rated lip balm is an indulgence. But nobody likes having chapped lips. They’re all stored together in a Lifeventure dry bag for convenience.

A first aid kit is a very wise thing to carry with you. With it you can give immediate relief to cuts, pains, stomach problems and other injuries. The Lifesystems Mountain Leader edition is large, but absolutely comprehensive.

Dry bags are the greatest things ever created by human hand. Honestly. They will divide and protect all of your equipment within your rucksack, making access simple and guaranteeing that nothing inside will be spoiled by rainfall. I love them. Almost too much. The colourful four pictured are Lifeventure DriStore roll top bags, available in versions from 2litres up to 100litre rucksack liners.

An outdoor timepiece is handy. Advanced GPS units such as this Garmin Fenix can give you 10-figure grid references of your location, a digital compass readout and a whole host of other interesting figures. Without adding much weight to your wrist it provides an excellent backup in case of emergency.

A mildly controversial topic, but if I’m also carrying a map and compass I’m very happy to rely on my smartphone and the excellent Viewranger app for easy navigation around the mountains. It can give you a location fix in seconds and the OS Landranger and Explorer maps can be purchased by the National Park or by the tile (I’m a big fan). If you fear that you may run out of battery or that your phone may be damaged in some other way, or nobody else in the group is carrying one, then consider bringing a spare non-smart phone. This is your lifeline to contacting mountain rescue in case of emergency.

And if you’re going to carry a smartphone, you’d better keep the vulnerable little thing safe. This waterproof case is slightly broken, but still functions. You can work the phone’s touch screen through the material and if you were to drop the whole thing in a river it would float and not let a drop of moisture in. A great buy for less than £20.

Lastly, water is vital. I have typically carried a litre with me at all times (or more in a hydration bladder on hot summer days) but recent years have seen a boom in bottles with in-built filters. This one from Water-to-Go is excellent. Simply scoop up river, stream or tarn water, affix the lid and drink through the straw. It will pull the fluid through a complex filter and remove 99.9% of bacteria and viruses. This means that if you can guarantee water sources along your route you can reduce your pack weight dramatically but never carrying more than half a litre or less. Food is not pictured here (see this blog for some thoughts on the subject), but can be stored in a small-capacity dry bag.

So that’s a basic run-down of what I carry on a typical trip. What do you think? Is there anything missing? Anything I shouldn’t be carrying at all? Let me know via the Lifesystems Facebook page and Twitter feed. And here’s to some great adventures this spring!


Dan Aspel is a journalist and Mountain Leader. You can find him at

Visit to find a host of kit and equipment for your next outdoor adventure.

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