TRIED & TESTED: THE PACKAGE DEAL

For trips to Tesco or Greenland, the panel wanted the same thing: a comfortable rucksack with bags of style that protected its contents
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The Independent Culture
NO LONGER the preserve of student holiday-makers and hearty ramblers, rucksacks have come into their own with advances in fabric and ergonomics and changes in fashion. Now they seem the best, hands-free carrying system for everyone, from chic townies to overburdened parents, and from serious mountaineers to occasional gym users.

THE PANEL

Judgement came from keen mountaineer Nigel Shepherd, president of the British Association of International Mountain Guides; Brian Molyneux of the outdoor equipment retail chain Ellis Brigham; Martin Wright, award-winning travel writer and editor of the environmental magazine, Green Futures; Nicholas Allen, frequent flyer, climber and walker; Melanie Rickey, style writer on the Independent; racing cyclist Phillip Yardman; PR and girl-about-town Anna Nicholas; and Sujata Bristow, a walking enthusiast who lives near Dartmoor.

THE TEST

We took into account the fact that most people want rucksacks for walking in the country or to the supermarket, not shinning up the Matterhorn, and looked not only for multi-use models. Comfort, sturdiness, style and wearability were all considered, and large, zipped pockets with easy access were deemed the most important feature.

****DEUTER SUPERBIKE RUCKSACK

pounds 39.95 including safety blink

Only a cyclist - and a German cyclist at that - could have thought up a rucksack which is so brilliant for anyone who rides a bike. While Melanie Rickey decided the Deuter rucksack's dark green and blue colours would make it "popular with urban soldiers who favour adventure gear", the bikers marvelled at the bag's multiple features. It has an airstripe system in its underside to allow for ventilation, instead of a sweaty back; it has side pockets for water bottles; velcro straps for pump, safety blink (flashing light) and crash helmet when not in use; a large front pocket with built-in tool organiser; waiststraps to spread the load with mesh wings for breathability; and a fluorescent cover for the whole rucksack to be pulled out of the bottom pocket when in the rain or at night. "Amazing," said Phillip Yardman, who took it racing and reported "it lives up to all its claims - except for the attached luminous tabard, which is supposed to be a windshield." Martin Wright, another keen cyclist, said he was pleased with it even though it proved too small for all his supermarket shopping.

***MAISON DE LA FAUSSE FOURRURE 'MINK' RUCKSACK

pounds 45

Thought by many to be the joker in our pack, this fake fur rucksack was adored by all the female panel members - and some of the men, even if Nick Allen's response was, "This isn't a rucksack. It's a hot-water- bottle cover." There are no compartments as such in the rucksack - just a money pocket in the satin lining (with branded paw-print embroidery) and you can't adjust the straps. "It's utterly delightful and completely impractical," said Martin Wright. "I'd like to take it to bed with me." Anna Nicholas noted that the fur looked slightly crushed after only a few days' wear, but said she would buy one anyway, and Melanie Rickey thought it was "more like a pet than a fashion accessory."

****LOWE ALPINE CONTOUR/CROSSBOW 50

pounds 110

The most obviously technical of all the rucksacks tested, Lowe Alpine's radical hoop system, mountaineering rucksack with external pockets for carrying snow shovels and wet gear, two ice-axe loops, ski slots and wand pockets, was acclaimed by all the keen climbers on the panel. It intimidated the ordinary hikers, including Martin Wright who dubbed it "death by straps". Even seasoned climber Nick Allen said: "This would only ever be at home in the Cairngorms, it's pointless for anything else. It's for a purist and the equivalent of a pounds 200 pair of Nike trainers." The 50-litre rucksack sits high on your back, but its complex strap system is what enables the wearer to cope with heavy loads while doing rugged sports. Nigel Shepherd had taken one on an expedition to Greenland and had nothing but praise for it. Brian Molyneux said simply, "They're brilliant rucksacks," explaining that although they feel heavier than other packs when empty, as soon as you load it up, the crossbow (or hoop) load control means the weight is much easier to carry. Airmesh in the rucksack's contoured back provides ventilation without the instability of many such similar systems. "The weight sits on your hips," explained Molyneux. "Then if your legs or hips are getting tired, you pull the straps up so it sits on your shoulders."

*****JANSPORT 41 LITRE TRADITIONALIST

pounds 70

Jansport is America's best selling daypack brand, and several testers already owned one. This model was also the winner of our rucksack survey - a technical pack for heavy outdoor use, with numerous pockets, it was the only one which easily doubled as a real mountain sack and casual town carry-all. It comes in green ("with natty red gussets to the pockets so you notice when you've left them open" - Martin Wright). Slits in several tan leather patches on the outside are for crampons, but there are no loops, so you only buy them if you need them. There are even compression straps for when the bag isn't fully loaded, and you could put ski poles through from top to bottom in the side compartments, or a tripod or walking stick. There's shaping in the back for ventilation, and the ultimate test - how cool it looks when it's on - was passed with flying colours after Sujata Bristow photographed herself on Dartmoor with the Jansport. "It looks and feels great, even when heavily loaded," she said. "It's not as serious as the Lowe Alpine, but it's adequate for the occasional winter hiker or climber and you can wear it around town without looking like a complete poseur."

*TIMBERLAND BOUNDARY

pounds 39.99

With a label that proclaims, "All we make are boots", Timberland seemed to be asking, if not for trouble, then for criticism with this new rucksack range. Several panel members were fans of the brand, but complained that the dark blue and Day-Glo yellow rucksack was ill-conceived. "The outside pockets are too small," said Nick Allen. "When the rucksack is full, you can't get anything into them and the yellow flares aren't accessible from the narrow entrance. Like the silly bootlace which mimicks a rope carrier and the ice-axe loops, they're just empty style statements. There's plenty of adjustment in the shaped straps and good width in the neck for big men, but the little waistbelt is just silly - it ought to be cut off. After all, you can't get more than 5kg in here; a waistbelt is for 50kg." Martin Wright pointed out that: "The fluorescent yellow is a disaster. No one would take this up a mountain. It pollutes the landscape visually to see a lot of people with Day-Glo wear on their backs."

*EASTPAK SKY BLUE PADDED PAK

pounds 34.99

"This is a cute rucksack in a nice colour," was Melanie Rickey's assessment of Eastpak's sky blue, simple pack with one outside pocket and a nice, wide opening, "but it's not as nice as the ones you can get at Muji." Nick Allen dismissed it as "okay for taking your swimming things to the pool. But there are no double seams, just single seams, and no reinforced bottom. It's just not a serious rucksack and I wouldn't pay more than pounds 15 for it." Sujata Bristow agreed. "This is a cheap product. It makes your shoulders ache after a while and the sticky rubberised panel inside the straps rubs off like newsprint."

**PATAGONIA MLC BAG

pounds 169.95

The panel was divided over Patagonia's black, Maximum Legal Carry-on Bag, which converts expensively from shoulder bag to rucksack with shoulder straps and waistband concealed in an exterior pocket. While Melanie Rickey found this widely sought after bag "chic, multi-functional and clever", Nick Allen awarded it "zero marks for style", adding, "it looks like everyone else's boring computer bag. Worse, it's so big, it looks like you're carrying the original IBM PC in this." Like Sujata Bristow, he found the MLC's complete lack of small pockets a major drawback: "everything disappears into the guts of the bag and falls to the bottom". The Patagonia is certainly strong (note that the patented Ballistic nylon "will survive any air crash", so you should remember to include it in your will) and the Human Curve Shoulder Strap is comfortable. Pronounced Nick Allen: "If you carry your office to your home via the Himalyas on a regular basis, this is the rucksack for you. Otherwise forget dual purpose - a better strategy is to carry a nice, light rucksack inside your suitcase, then drop the case in left luggage at your destination."

*THOMAS BURBERRY SPORT RUCKSACK

pounds 55

"Horrible!" said Melanie Rickey of Burberry's college-style rucksack in cherry red satin, with separate base compartment in black latex for, well, a very slim pair of flip-flops, say. "No self-respecting British person would wear this. Leave it to the Italians and Japanese - they'll love it." Her prediction proved entirely true - the testers hated it. "The straps are not weight- carrying at all," complained Sujata Bristow, "and it sticks out on your back in an awkward way." "It's the colour of a naff pair of knickers," opined Martin Wright, "and only good value in comparison with Burberry's other rucksacks."

**JANSPORT 35 LITRE SOLE SURVIVOR

pounds 45

The panellists didn't take to the Jansport Sole Survivor, which has a patented, abrasion-resistant rubber bottom, presumably to stop the contents getting wet. "I don't like the rubber tyre," said Nick Allen, who echoed the others' complaint. "It digs into your back and it's too bulky to fit in a suitcase or sports locker. But the outside pocket is a good size and the air holes help your bathers to dry off." Martin Wright added: "The straps are a bit naff - there's no shaping, no non-slip coating, and there's just a little padding on the back of the sack. In fact, it's not a great improvement on the old Jansport rucksacks, which had a leather bottom."

STOCKISTS

Lowe Alpine, 01539 740840; Patagonia Mail Order, 0171 458 6004; Timberland and Eastpak, 0800 317466; Thomas Burberry, 0171 734 4060; Jansport, 0181 877 9907; Maison de la Fausse Fourrure, 0171 629 9161; Deuter from Blacks Camping, 0191 417 0414.

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