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 return trip up to a high summit with snowfields and variable weather.
Finding the right internal volume to fit your needs is an important decision. You can buy a pack in 5L increments all the way up to 80L and then some, but since most of us cannot afford nor need that many packs, narrowing down your 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 their garage. A large 60L or bigger pack for extended backpacking trips, a 30-40L bag for one to three-day trips, and one or two smaller bags. For this review, we choose packs that ranged from 15-25L.
A capacity of 15-25L 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'll probably need something larger in the 30-40L range. Luckily, most of the packs in this review come in different 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 women max out in size at 5'5 and 120 pounds. 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 to your 7th cervical vertebrae. 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 at that level around to your back. Then drop your chin to your chest and measure the distance between your hipline and the most prominent vertebra above your shoulders. This is your torso length! This measurement varies from person to person, even if you're the same height. Daypacks are often sold in only one or two sizes, and manufacturers will offer a sizing range for each bag, though as we mentioned above, that sizing range does tend to fall on the small side. For example, Osprey offers two sizes for its Tempest series, XS/S (13-17") and S/M (16-20"). Our main tester has a 19" torso length, and even though the S/M was "supposed" to fit her, it felt way too short.
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. Here's also where we felt like manufacturers were using the wrong fit models for their women's daypacks, as so many of the hipbelts barely covered our hipbones (34" circumference, size 2 pant). Knowing that the "average" woman's hips have several inches on ours, we feel for anyone who is not teeny tiny and yet wants to buy a women's model. Of course, it can be annoying to have a hip belt that's too long, as you start to feel constricted and/or can have padding digging into your belly. But not one model that we tested was anywhere close to that. So, this is a call out to all the pack designers that might be reading this article — please make longer hip belts for the ladies and different size options so that we can all get a good fit.
With fit being such a big determiner of your comfort level and overall hiking enjoyment, this is one of the key things you need to dial in. 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.
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 great feature. 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 CamelBak Sequoia 22 but need a rain cover, they sell one for an additional $14-16 depending on the size of your bag.
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 one extra loop of webbing at the bottom and a strap at the top, and this way it's always available if you do need it. But, not all ice axe holders are well-made, and if you plan on carrying one a lot then pay close attention to this area. The ice axe holder on The North Face Aleia 22 is only a thin bungee cord held on by a stopper knot. One side of the knot untied on us during testing, and it doesn't seem built for actual use. On the other hand, the Motane Habu 22 has two holders that are reinforced with plastic for extra durability.
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 every last bit of 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 even better a spot to secure the tips. What we didn't like so much was the "Stow on the Go" method on the Osprey models. The poles sit under your armpit, which is comfortable for all of two minutes. If you only ever stash your poles if you need your hands free for a short section of scrambling, then this is okay, but for someone who only likes to use poles on the downhill and wants them stashed for the uphills, this is not a great method.
Suspended mesh back
This newer type of pack construction has made its way into the daypack market. This type of back keeps the main bag and its contents off of your back, providing an open mesh layer instead that improves airflow. We liked this feature for hot weather hiking, and also when carrying bulky items in our pack, as it prevented them from digging into us. Bags with this technology do tend to be more expensive though, so if it's not something you feel you need, then you might save some money by sticking with a more traditional back design.
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 further than you need them to go. 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 onto your waist.
Your pack may or may not have load-lifting straps on the shoulders. Those help bring the weight up off your lower back and distribute it across your mid-back. 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 extend much higher than the shoulder straps, and we found these straps to be somewhat ineffective with a smaller bag. This also goes for the stabilizer straps on either side of the hip belt, which are designed to bring the load closer to your body and make you more stable on the trail. These are great for large backpacking packs, but not very useful on a small bag with little gear in it.
What does tend to 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 nor smashing down your breasts. Find a happy place between the two for this strap, then tighten it enough so that you feel the shoulder straps 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.
We hope this article helped you nail down what to look for in your next daypack, and have a happy and safe time hiking out on the trails.