Overnight backpacking... with a 20-litre pack

Heading for the hills for a wild camp typically involves rather more baggage than a small daysack. But what happens when it doesn’t...?


Twenty litres. That’s a lot of coffee. It’s also an irresponsible amount of beer, and nearly enough spray tan to grease up Joey Essex for the evening. But when we’re talking rucksack capacity, 20 litres isn’t actually that much. At all.

Or is it? Maybe that’s an old-fashioned take. But, you have to admit, rucksacks in general did seem a lot chunkier not that long ago. I seem to remember routinely loading up a 35 litre sack for a day’s walk, a teetering 70 litre one for an overnighter and a ridiculous 100 litre obelisk for anything longer than a week.

These days leaner kit, lighter materials and a more streamlined aesthetic mean these volumes have shifted down a notch. The biggest rucksack I now own is 65 litres – and I can confidently say I haven’t used it in about five years. Overnight wild camps generally now go into a 44 litre pack with space to spare, and day walks leave the 25 litre rucksack I have set aside for the purpose baggy and untaxed.

What’s on your back and how you carry it never for one moment escapes the hillwalker’s attention on the hill, and I – like most – am constantly looking for ways to make things not only lighter but also tighter and less fussy.   

So with this in mind I felt like kicking it down another gear to see how much I could get away with. Chiefly, I wanted to know if a 20 litre rucksack could see me right for two days’ walk with a night’s wild camping in between. Too extreme? There was only one way to find out. And as I left the village of Mungrisdale on the north-eastern fringes of the Lake District on this particular afternoon, I was about to.  

On Sharp Edge, Blencathra. Photo: Tom Bailey / Trail Magazine

First things first: any fool can suffer. We’re not talking about stripping everything back to the ascetic bone here. Hell, I could have wandered into the hills with a bin bag, a packet of Monster Munch in my pocket and no rucksack at all, and I dare say I would have lived – and in all likelihood would have come home with a tale of lightweight backpacking to raise hell and blisters. But would it be worth it? Of course it wouldn’t. It’d be awful.

But at 20 litres, obviously we’re not talking luxury living either. There may come a time when kit has evolved to such a polymer-pinching degree that you can fold a Z-bed into a bum bag; but my exhaustive research has told me that day is, sadly, some way off. So there’s going to have to be a compromise. I won’t be taking a two-person tent, pyjamas, a bottle of wine, or anything unnecessarily extreme for a plus-Celsius overnight wander in the high Lakes. But, that said, there are certain things I would never voluntarily do without – namely a good sleeping mat, a stove, a tent that keeps both rain and wind off (not one or the other), a warm jacket and a pillow. Yes, a pillow. Like I said, any fool can suffer.

In terms of the conveyance, I chose a light 20 litre climbing pack recently delivered to the Trail office. It looked like it would do a capital job. And that was my first mistake.

Loaded up, it weighed just shy of 6kg – neither particularly heavy nor obscenely light for an overnight pack. Ignoring a few minor comfort niggles when it came to testing the weight (second mistake) I set off into the sun-blushed Northern Fells with a 12 mile route on the map and a wild camp on my mind.

Everything went fine for the first few miles. The rucksack was packed into a fairly hard bundle, but not to the point of rupture. No, the problem – which gradually began to assert itself as I started to climb Blencathra by Sharp Edge – was, because it lacked a rigid back system, the sack was beginning to exhibit a phenomenon common to flimsy, overloaded backpacks, called ‘barrelling’. Barrelling is, like it sounds, what would happen if you lashed a large, heavy keg to your back and went for a walk: it rolls about, with uniformly irritating and potentially destabilising results. Getting to the steep stuff on Sharp Edge, this was becoming rather more than a nuisance, so I stopped and cinched up the straps as tight as I could. A few more minutes along the ridge my arms began to buzz and I had to loosen them again. And again, the pack began to roll.

20 litre packs can work for backpacking. Provided they're designed for it. Photo: Tom Bailey / Trail Magazine

20 litre packs can work for backpacking. Provided they're designed for it. Photo: Tom Bailey / Trail Magazine

Once the steep stuff was over and a lack of stability was less of an issue, I could slacken the sack off and things became bearable again, if now rocking on rather achier foundations. Wandering beyond the summit ring of Blencathra and continuing into the grassy area between it and Skiddaw in the gorgeous evening light, things were all well in the world once more. This is a fantastic place, incidentally; the views into the innards of the Lake District, from here a horizon-straddling, bumpy stripe – are probably the best you’ll find, making you feel like you’re looking in on it from a kind of elevated hinterland. For a moment – for a brief moment – everything felt how I hoped it would. Light, streamlined, wandering high and wild with little in the way of encumbrance – the antithesis to the stereotypical, weight-laden backpacker. This was how it was supposed to be. Upon that happy chime I’d love to say matters concluded, but there was still the small matter of camp.

Climbing onto the shoulder of Skiddaw, I found a relatively sheltered spot out of the cooling evening breeze to settle down. After noting some superficial damage to the rucksack (an ice axe loop had disappeared and some of the stitching was coming away at a tension point) out came my sleeping gear: a hooped bivvy, a blow-up mat and a minimalist-spec sleeping bag that crushed down to the size of a bag of sugar. After heating up some rehydrated noodles in a Jetboil, restocking water from a stream nearby and taking the nip out of the evening with an insulated jacket and a cheeky little measure of red (hey, any fool can suffer), drizzle signalled it was time for bed.

Here’s where things broke down somewhat. I had brought a hooped bivvy bag to sleep in for the sake of saving space, and an inflatable sleeping mat and pillow to stave off discomfort. Sadly I hadn’t considered this would perhaps be a mismatched concept, and it was with dismay that I realised a lean bivvy bag filled with a relatively sumptuous mat and pillow left a tunnel of about six inches diameter into which to insert myself. It was like sleeping in a drain. What was of more concern was the sleeping bag I had brought. Being a mountain marathon-spec bag, it lacked a temperature rating but had looked reasonably insulated. But while impressed by its lean dimensions in the office, now – as the wind began to chop the foot end of the bivvy and the tendrils of draught began to wisp through its breathable fabric – I began to shiver. I’m confident the bag did keep the cold’s worst at bay, but comfort and warmth? Not a bit. I ‘awoke’ to a morning drizzle with chilled bones.

Over Skiddaw and into the Caldbeck Fells I went, and so did the integrity of my little rucksack. A jump over a ditch prompted a loud rip from my left shoulder, which upon examination revealed a widening torpedo hole on the side of the sack. With hope and no more jumps, the rucksack remained together all the way back to Mungrisdale, wherein – with a groan from me and I like to think a little scream of relief from the rucksack – I hurled it into the car boot.  

Skeleton pack – but still a comfy camp. Ish. Photo: Tom Bailey / Trail Magazine

Skeleton pack – but still a comfy camp. Ish. Photo: Tom Bailey / Trail Magazine

So to summarise, yes: essentially, you can backpack with a 20 litre rucksack. Provided you can put up with a bit of discomfort, aren’t expecting a frost and don’t own prehistoric kit, you can find your own streamlined sweet spot without too much trouble. But for goodness’ sake, if you do go down this route, make sure it’s a 20 litre pack that’s built for the job. Of the many small but collectively disabling mistakes I made, the unsuitable sack was the worst – going as I had on the principle that the smaller the rucksack, the lighter your carry and the less padded comfort matters. In hindsight, this is not so: the weight you carry simply becomes harder and focused on a smaller surface area. It’s like the difference between someone massaging your back with their palms, and someone massaging your back with their knuckles.

Alas, my misappropriated rucksack will never recover. This trip left it looking like a piece of roadkill.

So here’s a challenge to gear makers looking for a new market: make a genuinely good 20 litre backpacking sack. C’mon, we could start a new movement here. And if you make me a monogrammed one in a nice fetching orange, I might even let you use the bruises on my back as a blueprint. 


This feature originally appeared in Trail Magazine.