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Over time, the terms “rucksack” and “backpack” have become interchangeable. So what is a rucksack bag? The term “rucksack” comes from the German “rucken” or back, so a rucksack is a sack you carry on your back.

A very interesting split in the interchanging use of rucksack and backpack is that the latter has been converted into a verb; to go backpacking is to engage in an outdoor activity during which you’ll use a rucksack. This activity can refer to a day’s hike or an overnight camping trip. A backpacker is the person who engages in this activity.

The term “rucker” has entered the vernacular and refers to those who enjoy fitness activities of “goruck” or races and obstacle courses that include a lot of fun and mud. Curiously enough, many of these activities don’t require a rucksack.


Military Connotations

There are strong military connotations in the term rucksack; in fact, many images of rucksacks feature a hearty military style bag made of heavy canvas camo fabric.

Early rucksack images depict a bag made of heavy canvas, sometimes waxed for water resistance. However, today’s rucksacks are made of a wide variety of materials and can tolerate rain.

Additionally, when working out what a rucksack bag is, size comes into the picture. While a child can use a backpack or bookbag to carry their books to school, a rucksack is relegated to camping and generally refers to a hearty bag built for heavy hauling.


Other Terms for Bags Carried on Backs

Bags for the back can also be referred to as knapsacks or haversacks. Technically, a haversack is only a one-shouldered bag, while the other three in this listing are designed for both shoulders.

Knapsacks are generally small day bags that can be made of almost any material and close either with a drawstring or a single snap. Again, as a rule, a knapsack is a bag to be carried by a child for school or outdoor fun.


Selecting Your Rucksack

Because bags given the name “rucksack” tend to be larger, look for a bag with a durable frame that will spread the weight of your gear and remain stable as you climb up or descend from rough terrain. If you’re boulder hopping, a bag that keeps hopping once you’ve reached your peak will likely cause you to wobble and may tip you over.

You’ll also want a bag with multiple straps for weight distribution and balance. Of course, there are the shoulders that fit over your shoulders. There may also be a chest strap, to tie the shoulder straps together for stability. Additionally, you may have a waist or hip strap that crosses the lower abdomen; again, this stabilizes the bag to your body.

Additionally, your rucksack will be much more versatile if you choose one with pockets and pouches where you can stow away the carrying straps. This functionally turns your rucksack into a versatile carry-on or suitcase and you can use it in multiple settings.

Because these bags are built to hold a heavier weight than smaller bags, your rucksack is a great tool for fitness training. Review the framing structure and make sure there’s padding between you and the rucksack. If this padding is breathable, so much the better. For fitness fans who like to train with weights, enough padding to keep the weight from striking your body as you move is critical.



Rucksacks are sized to hold more gear, so they’re often taller than a standard pack for your back. If you have a favorite sun hat, wear that while you test drive your rucksack to see if the brim of the sun hat will interfere with the rucksack. Your trek out to view nature will not be improved if, every time you turn your head, your hat is knocked off or sideways.



The word “rucksack” denotes a stout, hearty brick of a pack that fits well across the broad back of a soldier. However, if you’re not a very wide person, a wide rucksack can be an awkward burden. Remember, the point of carrying your stuff on your back is to free your hands. If your arms are constantly banging against a too-wide rucksack, your hands may be impeded or feel awkward.

There are many high quality framed rucksacks that offer a narrower profile. This is where your test drive becomes even more critical. Admittedly, the bag will be narrower when it’s empty, but if you feel the back of your arms rubbing against the empty pack while you walk around the store, you need a narrower rucksack.



A rucksack with only one opening is not a good purchase unless you enjoy unpacking pretty much everything every time you need something. Instead, look for a pack with multiple openings as well as exterior pockets. Mesh side pouches for water bottles (or wet socks) can protect your (still dry) clothes and other supplies.


Water Tolerance

Most outdoor gear is referred to as “water resistant”, so you know that the fabric itself sheds water. However, you’d be well served to invest in a waterproof cover for your rucksack to protect vital points like zippers from a torrential downpour. Invest in a ripstop waterproof cover so it will last, and consider getting one made of a light reflective material, so that when the skies grow dark, you’ll still be visible.

Finally, get a big waterproof cover with a drawstring so you can snug it down over the whole bag. Your next rucksack may be larger; why not plan to scale up?


Hooks and Hangers-On

A quality hiking rucksack will likely have exterior pouches for your water bottle, but you may also want to look for a pack for hooks for your hiking poles or a spot to hang climbing gear. Of course, every extra bit of gear will add weight, but if there are items you’ll need quickly, having them on a hook means you won’t need to unstrap, lower and dig through your bag.



A good hike in the mountains doesn’t necessarily call for a laptop or tablet, but if you plan on purchasing a bag you can use for multiple travel options, you’ll want to consider a rucksack with space for your electronics. Should you find a great bag that works well for everything but your laptop, invest in some padded shock-resistant sleeves so you can shield your computer from bumps and banging around.


Hiking Vs. Travel

A well-constructed rucksack can be used for more than camping. If you are planning a trip and need a good carry-on, consider purchasing a rucksack that will fit into overhead bins. Be sure to find a rucksack with either detachable or storable straps, so your bag doesn’t end up tangled with others in the overhead.

A larger rucksack can of course be checked, but you’ll need the same strap flexibility. This is crucial if you’re going to check your bag; straps can get tangled up in a conveyor belt mechanism, possibly damaging your bag and spreading your personal items all over the luggage carousel.


The Rucksack as Suitcase

Checking a rucksack does mean you won’t have the luxury of wheels when traveling through airports and train stations. However, once your rucksack is loaded and properly strapped on, you’ll save yourself no small amount of hassle and discomfort.

1) You know exactly where your stuff is.

2) You’ll take up less space on the walkways and escalators, so nobody will trip over your gear.

3) You won’t have to walk with one arm twisted behind you.

4) Elevators will be much easier to manage.

Wheeled bags are great but they promote an over-confidence in packing. When travelers hit that spot in the airport or train station where the bag has to be lifted up, a careful packer with a knapsack only has to climb the stairs. The over-packer with the wheeled bag has to lug and struggle.


So What Is A Rucksack Bag Again?

A rucksack is a large and heavy duty bag designed to be settled on your back and carried via straps that fit over your shoulders. There may also be straps that cross your chest or your hips for better balance and support. Your rucksack should be large enough to hold what you need but not so large that you overfill it.

No matter how much gear you need, make sure and dry fit your rucksack. If possible, strap it on in the store so you can truly get a feel for where the straps will lay against your frame and make sure you’re quite comfortable when the bag is empty.



All of the bags referred to in this article offer one great benefit: you can carry your gear in an even and balanced way while still keeping your hands free. No matter what you choose to call it, these bags are great for your mobility and your posture!