Purchasing the right daypack for you is no easy feat. There are so many different options out there, of all shapes and sizes, and often from the same manufacturer. How are you supposed to know which is the right one for you? Well, we're here to help. We've put our decade's worth of outdoor gear knowledge to the page to help you get in the right bag for whatever type of hiking you like to do. We researched scores of models and tested dozens of the best using our side-by-side comparison process. We tried them on various ladies to see how well they adjusted to different body types and hiked in each for miles to gauge their comfort level. Below you'll find some key topics to consider before you buy your next pack. When you're ready check out our comprehensive testing review, where we explain how each bag fared in our tests and which ones are our favorites.
One of the first things to consider when making any outdoor purchase is how and where you intend to use it. This will affect a lot of your purchasing decisions, including capacity and what features you do or don't need. If you're looking for a daypack, that assumes that you need something for day-only excursions, but there is a big difference between the pack you'll need for a 2 mile hike in the desert and a 16 mile overnight trip up to a high summit with snowfields and variable weather.
Sometimes you're not looking for a technical pack to hike across that snowfield or to make that summit. Sometimes, you just need a versatile backpack that can be an airplane carry-on item as well as an international jungle exploration bag. You may also want to take a day hike in the middle of a longer backpacking trip without snagging a whole extra bag to drag with you. There are a growing number of less technical daypacks out there that can hold gear on your climbing approach one day and a laptop and notebook the next day. These packs often lack a rigid frame and weight-bearing hip belts; instead of focusing on lightweight maneuverability and versatile features. Some are also incredibly lightweight and can be stuffed easily into their own pocket and brought with you anywhere for any adventure.
Finding the right internal volume to fit your needs is an important decision. You can buy a pack in 5-liter increments all the way up to 80 liters and then some, but since most of us cannot afford nor need that many packs, narrowing down your desired capacity is key. You don't want to buy a bag only to find that it won't hold all of the gear you need for a full day on the trail. Serious hikers might indeed have three or four different sized bags in their garage. A large 60-liter or bigger pack for extended backpacking trips, a 30 to 45-liter bag for one to three-day trips, and one or two smaller bags. For this review, we choose packs that ranged from 15 to 30 liters.
A capacity of 15 to 30 liters is a standard and useful size for a daypack. Bags in this range can hold a rain jacket, an extra layer like a breathable fleece jacket, your food and water for the day, a small first aid kit, your navigational equipment, and sun protection, often with room to spare. However, if you only get out for an hour or two and don't want or need that much gear with you, a smaller hydration pack may be all you need. Conversely, if you take even more gear with you on your day hikes, say because you're hiking with children and need to carry their gear and water along with your own, you might want something larger, more in the 30 to 40-liter range. Luckily, most of the packs in this review come in several volumes, so if you see something you like but need a different size, you're likely to find it. Once you've settled on the size you need, then you need to get a good fit.
Sizing and Fit
While we appreciate that outdoor gear manufacturers are making products designed for women, the sad reality that we've discovered through the course of this review is that many seem to assume that all women have extremely narrow shoulders, are very short, and prefer bright colors (particularly pink and purple). Since we know that this is not the reality, either for women in general or for women who enjoy hiking, the lack of size options is more than a bit disappointing. While larger ladies still have the option to buy from the men's side of the store, we expect a little more in this day and age. We'll give you some details below on how to get a good fit in a daypack, but know that if you have your heart set on a purple or pink pack but are on the tall side or have a longer torso length than average, you might not have much luck.
The first thing you need to determine when sizing a pack is your torso length. This measurement runs from between your iliac crests (aka the bony part at the sides and tops of your hips) to your 7th cervical vertebrae (the large bump at the base of your neck that's obvious when you tilt your head down). It can be a little challenging to measure this yourself, so ask a friend for help! Find the top of your hipbones and run an imaginary line just below that level around to your back. The distance between that line and your lowest cervical vertebrae is your torso length. This measurement varies from person to person, even among people of identical heights. Daypacks come in one or two sizes, and manufacturers will offer a sizing range for each bag, though as we mentioned above, that sizing range often tends to fall on the small side. For example, Gregory offers two sizes for its Jade series, XS/S (16 to 18 inches) and S/M (18 to 20 inches). Our main tester has a 17 to 17.5-inch torso length, and even though the XS/S was "supposed" to fit her, it felt way too short. Impressively, a few daypacks now come with adjustable back panels that allow you to change their size and perfectly match your torso length. Be sure to read the fine print though, as many of these still fall within that same torso range as their non-adjustable cousins.
The other size aspect of a pack to consider is the hip belt. While not quite as crucial a feature on a daypack vs. a large backpacking pack (some daypacks don't even have hip belts), a properly fitting hip belt can still mean the difference between an enjoyable day out and sore shoulders from carrying all of the weight on them. For decent comfort, a hip belt should be a) padded, and b) cover your iliac crests.
With fit being such a massive determiner of your comfort level and overall hiking enjoyment, it's hard to overstate how important it is to find the right size and shape of daypack that works for you. If you like everything else about a pack besides the way it fits your torso or hips, find another one.
Daypacks have all types of integrated features these days, which you may or may not need, but which will drive up the price. We'll explain some of the common ones out there and discuss whether they're useful or not.Rain Cover
Live in the Pacific Northwest and like to hike in the wet months? This feature is a must-have. Usually housed in a small pocket at the bottom of the pack, an included rain cover is a nice touch. They tend to be lightweight and take up little room, so we'd recommend not taking them out of your pack on sunny days just in case the weather turns, or you forget to put it back in the next time you go out and then actually need it. Many companies sell aftermarket rain covers as well, so if you like the looks and comfort of the one but need a rain cover, you can usually get one for an additional cost.
Ice Axe and Trekking Pole Holders
While we'd guess that only a fraction of hikers out there ever actually use an ice axe, the majority of packs have at least one ice axe holder on the back. Why? It's typically only a single extra loop of webbing at the bottom, and this way it's always available if you do need it (and counts as an extra feature when advertising).
As for trekking poles, not everyone uses them either, but for anyone trying to save their knees or support themselves after decades on the trail has worn away too much cartilage, they are a great hiking tool. However, it's nice to be able to stow them away at times, so if you do use them, look for a model that has at least two compression straps on one side, or a dedicated loop and cord system for stowing poles away. A few models also have quick-stow options right on the shoulder strap, allowing you to free up your hands during short sections of trail and then easily grab your poles again, all without ever having to remove your pack.
Suspended Mesh Back
This style of backing helps to keep the main bag and its contents off of your back, providing an open mesh layer instead that improves airflow. We like this feature for hot weather hiking, and also when carrying bulky items in our pack, as it prevents them from digging into us. However, not all bags with mesh backs provide adequate airflow. Many mesh-lined daypacks we tested look promising but quickly smash against your back when fully loaded with gear and tightened appropriately. If airflow across your back is important to you, look for a mesh back paired with padded sections and/or a curved, structured back that maintains its shape when strapped tightly to your body.
Adjusting Your Daypack
Once you have the right size pack, it can still feel uncomfortable if you don't adjust it properly. You should take the time to adjust it each time you put it on, and even once or twice during your hike as straps can loosen.
First, you want to extend the shoulder straps and hip belt larger than you need them to be. Put the pack on and tighten the hip belt until you can feel the weight transfer onto your hips but not so tight as to be uncomfortable. It needs to be a snug fit though for proper weight transfer to occur. Then tighten the shoulder straps down until you use up any excess webbing, but not so tight as to pull the hip belt up off of your hips.
Daypacks may or may not have load-lifting straps on the shoulders. Those straps help bring the weight closer to your body where it's better balanced and not pulling you backward. However, for them to work well, you need a good angle between the shoulder straps and the top of the back. Most daypacks don't have a large gap between the tops of the shoulder straps and the main body of the bag, and therefore don't need load-lifters. This is similar to load stabilizers sometimes found connecting the sides of the bag to the hip belt. Unless either of these straps is well-anchored and actually pulling the main body of the bag closer to your back, they're just for looks, without being very functional.
What does still work well on a daypack is the sternum strap. The sternum strap is usually on a small slider on either side so that you can adjust the height of it so that it's not choking your neck or smashing your breasts. Find a happy place between the two for this strap, then tighten it enough so that you feel the shoulder straps just barely start to move together. This helps keep the outside edge of the shoulder strap out of your armpits so that your arms aren't rubbing against them all the time.
As for the rest of the possible features, from numbers and orientations of pockets, styles of lid openings, and organizational options, all that is a very personal choice. If this is your first foray into purchasing a daypack, it helps to go to a store that offers many models, so you can put your hands on them and see what you like. Try to base your ideal pocket arrangement on what you already enjoy about other — even non-technical — bags you own, rather than reinventing the wheel and forcing yourself to create an entirely new system of organization and habits you don't already have. There are lots of excellent packs out there, well-suited to all kinds of uses, from very specific sports to more versatile, general activities. As long as it fits and you like using it, it's hard to go wrong.