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How to Choose the Best Daypack for Hiking

The 2017 Award Winners
By Jediah Porter ⋅ Review Editor
Friday December 22, 2017

You're standing at your local outdoor retailer, staring at the multitude of backpack options. Do you need a pack made of ripstop nylon? What capacity do you need? And what about all those features? We've all been there, trying to select the perfect bag for our needs. We are here to offer some tips.

Consider Your Activities Before Purchasing a Pack


No matter what activities you enjoy, a daypack is an essential piece of gear. However, some are tailor-made for specific uses. Before you choose one, you'll want to determine your primary purpose for a daypack. If you need a bag that can accommodate a variety of your activities, note that too.

Enjoying a gorgeous spring hike in Colorado with the Dueter Speed Lite 20.
Enjoying a gorgeous spring hike in Colorado with the Dueter Speed Lite 20.

Hiking


With a hiking specific pack, you're looking for one that can carry everything you need for a day hike (water, extra layers of clothing, first aid kit, etc.). It also must have a decent level of comfort and support. Typically, hiking packs range in capacity from around 15 to 30-liters and come with a few key features. Look for compartments for smaller items (phone, maps, compass), a hydration compartment, carry options for trekking poles or ice axes, and some side pockets for water bottles or sunscreen. If your biggest concern is comfort, pay extra attention to cushioning and ventilation.

Climbing


Depending on your climbing style, you may look for a smaller pack, around 12 to 20-liters, that would be great to carry up with you on multi-pitch routes. Or you may be looking for a slightly larger pack that will cart all of your gear to the base of a crag. Either way, you'll probably want to look for a pack with a narrow profile. This allows for greater range of motion for your arms and shoulders. Also, pay special attention to comfort and consider plenty of structure to handle heavier loads. Climbing packs may also have additional features such as daisy chain attachments on the outside for clipping gear. We found the REI Co-op Flash 18 to be a great multi-pitch climbing companion.

A climbing specific pack should be your first choice for extensive use in this genre. However  for occasional forays  vertically  a standard day pack should suffice. In that case  choose one that is durable and simple.
A climbing specific pack should be your first choice for extensive use in this genre. However, for occasional forays, vertically, a standard day pack should suffice. In that case, choose one that is durable and simple.

Alpine and Ski Touring


Packs for skiing tend to be on the larger side, 20 to 40-liters, and favor the fast and light attitude over flashy features. For these bags, a smooth and narrow profile is a plus, and a sternum strap and hip belt are essential. Most of these packs will have a place to stow your ice axe, and sometimes bonus feature compartments for crampons, a shovel, and a probe. If you are specifically looking for a ski touring pack, you'll also want to make sure there are attachment points for your skis. We didn't review any skiing specific daypacks, but the Deuter Speed Lite 20 works well for this purpose.

Though on the smaller side  the Deuter Speed Lite comfortably held skis either on the back or in A-Frame configuration.
Though on the smaller side, the Deuter Speed Lite comfortably held skis either on the back or in A-Frame configuration.

Trail Running and Adventure Racing


Typically, minimalistic running packs run on the small side (25-liters or less) and are really for essentials only, like the Flash 18.

Around Town, Commuting, and Travel


All of the daypacks we tested can fit into this category. But some of them work better than others for around town use. Ideally, an around town pack will have a compartment to fit a laptop. Look for a few other organizational compartments for writing utensils etc. A padded back panel is also helpful in keeping stuff from poking your back. You may even want some cycling specific features, such as a bungee helmet clip and blinker attachment.

How to Choose a Daypack


Here are the main factors to consider when selecting your pack.

Capacity


Twenty to 30 liters is the ideal volume for a daypack. The smallest pack we tested was the Fjallraven Kanken 16. The largest was the Granite Gear Virga at 26 liters. Unless you need more space for a specific purpose, like alpine summits or ski touring, anything over 30-liters is too big. That much space enters the realm of multi-day backpacking and becomes excessively bulky for daily use.

On the other hand, anything much smaller than 20-liters makes it difficult to fit the essentials. Packs on the smaller end of this scale like the Osprey Talon 22 still held our hiking specific essentials.

The versatile straps can either compress the sides of the pack or connect across the front. This system lets you carry pretty much anything from snow shoes to skis.
The versatile straps can either compress the sides of the pack or connect across the front. This system lets you carry pretty much anything from snow shoes to skis.

Ventilated Back Panels


While Jansport invented the first daypack in 1967, technology has come a long way. Those first daypacks were adapted from those used to haul books around in school. An awesome advancement is the addition of ventilated and structured back panels. There's little worse than hiking on a bluebird day and feeling like you're wearing a warm, wet sweater on your back.

Many of the new packs use a tensioned back panel design system. This pairs a rigid mesh panel that sits against the back with a frame that pushes the load slightly away from the back, leaving airspace between. This helps keep your back cool.

These photos show ventilated back panels. On both the ventilation takes space from the pack's internal volume. But can make the pack more comfortable.
These photos show ventilated back panels. On both the ventilation takes space from the pack's internal volume. But can make the pack more comfortable.

Weight vs. Features


Some daypacks have a fast and light attitude and are simple and straightforward. Others come loaded with a full range of bells and whistles. Extra features can make your life easier, especially when it comes to organizing your pack. But you trade convenience for added weight. The trick is figuring out your specific needs and balancing the features you need with how much weight you want to carry. No matter how much or little you put in your bag, remember that you'll always have to carry its base weight.

The front bottom  and side view of this pack. Notice the vertical daisy chain that terminates in an ice axe loop. The daisy can be used to secure a blinker light or you can rig straps  bungees  or cordage to the four perimeter loops as seen in the right photo.
The front bottom, and side view of this pack. Notice the vertical daisy chain that terminates in an ice axe loop. The daisy can be used to secure a blinker light or you can rig straps, bungees, or cordage to the four perimeter loops as seen in the right photo.

Top-Loader vs. Panel-Loader


Packs come in two different loading styles — top-loaders and panel-loaders. Top-loading packs tend to be lighter and more simplistic. A top-loading design is more in-line with a backpacking pack. All of your gear goes into a single compartment from the top. These daypacks are great for fast and light ascents. Top loaded closures are also more durable than zippers.

On the left is a top loader. The blue one is a panel loading pack.
On the left is a top loader. The blue one is a panel loading pack.

Panel-loading packs usually have one or more compartments accessible through curving zippers. These bags tend to have more organizational features and are easier to rifle through once loaded. Panel-loading packs also tend to be more versatile for activities other than hiking.

Rain Cover


While only one pack we tested included a rain cover, most companies also sell them separately. If you're planning on hiking in high humidity or rainy weather, consider purchasing one. These will cover the pack body, helping ensure that its contents will remain dry. Also, they look nicer than a garbage bag.

The Osprey Stratos includes an integrated and removable rain cover to keep your things dry when the rain falls.
The Osprey Stratos includes an integrated and removable rain cover to keep your things dry when the rain falls.

How to Size and Fit a Pack


Once you've chosen your must-have attributes and figure out what activities you'll pursue, the last and most important step is fit. Ideally, you want most of your weight sitting on or close to your hips. Therefore, it is imperative that the pack you buy fits your torso. Most daypacks come in only a single size. Choosing the correct size is not as important as with a backpacking pack, but it is still a factor to consider. Make sure it will be comfortable.

Measuring Your Torso Length


You'll want to measure the length of your torso to makes sure the pack will fit on your back. To measure your torso, use a flexible tape measure. Stiff construction measuring tapes tend to complicate this task but can get you close. Grab a friend for this measurement, and have them locate the largest bony bump at the base of your neck. This is your C7 vertebra. The C7 is easiest to locate if you tilt your head forward, and will be the top of your torso measurement.

One size does not fit all. But close.
One size does not fit all. But close.

Then, locate your iliac crest, which is where your pack will hold the brunt of the load weight. With hands on top of your hips, fingers wrapping around your pointy pelvic bones, point your thumbs to your spine. This marks the iliac crest and the base of your torso measurement. Have your friend measure between your C7 and the spot between your thumbs. Compare this measurement with the size range of the pack you are eyeing.

Note that you can adjust the harness of the Osprey Talon 22, Editors' Choice winner, to fit different torso lengths. This makes this pack even more versatile for many users.

Hip Sizing


Though hip sizing is less important, it may be helpful when looking at packs with interchangeable hip belts. A properly fitting hip belt will sit about an inch above your latitude line, which runs across the high points of your hip bones.

Measure around this latitude line, slightly lower than your waistline. (Your hip belt size will differ from your pant size.) To figure out this measurement, wrap your tape around your hips, making sure that it sits on top of your hip bones.

If you are struggling or are unsure about any of this, your local outdoor retailers will have staff prepared to assist you. A professional measurement will ensure that you will get a well-sized pack.

Also, if you're looking at an Osprey pack, they have a comprehensive guide that may help you take this measurement on your own.

Adjusting Your Pack


While some daypacks may not have as much adjustability as a backpacking pack, some do. The Osprey Talon 22 is very adjustable. Others adjust to various degrees. According to the Gregory fit guide, "a pack is not carried, but worn". It is important to adjust your pack every time you throw it on your back. Double check that the load is situated and comfortable on your body.

You'll want to start by loosening all the straps, including the hip belt. Then place the pack on your back and follow these steps:

Hip Belt


First, you'll buckle the hip belt and tighten it. Make sure it straddles your hips, and that the padded sections, if any, wrap centered over your iliac crest.

Shoulder Straps


Next, you'll batten down the hatches with your shoulder straps. By doing so, your straps should hold the pack close to your body, but not carry the weight. The anchor points should sit one to two inches below the top of your shoulders.

Load Lifters (if applicable)


Many daypacks have "load lifters" that help take pressure off your shoulders. They suck the pack into your back. The straps are near your collarbones and should angle back and up toward the pack at a 45-degree angle. They work to pull weight off of your shoulders. Gently tighten these straps, but take note that over tightening them will create a gap between your shoulders and the shoulder straps.

Sternum Strap


Most daypacks come with an adjustable sternum strap. Slide this up or down on the shoulder straps to find a comfortable height on your chest. These straps pull the shoulder straps inward to a pleasant position on your shoulders. Buckle and tighten this strap, but make sure your arms are still able to move freely.

Last but not least, you may want to tweak a few things to make sure your load is equalized. Your body is rarely happy with a pack on your back, but it shouldn't be screaming. Your daypack may be equipped with stabilizer straps on either side of the hip belt. These allow you to bring the pack even closer to your body, creating greater stability for the load. You can also loosen the tension in your shoulder straps just a smidgen to ensure that your hips carry the majority of the weight.

Other Uses For Daypacks


The primary appeal of daypacks lies in the fact that they are so versatile. Few other products can transition smoothly from the outdoors to the office. These are the types of packs that can go with you anywhere, from a short shady hike to an afternoon reading a book on the beach, to a stroll to the grocery store. We evaluated these packs for their usefulness on day hikes. There are several other reasons you may want to consider a daypack.

The Speed accompanied us on an early morning Dawn Patrol. Of all the packs in this review  it is the only one that functions decently for skiing.
The Speed accompanied us on an early morning Dawn Patrol. Of all the packs in this review, it is the only one that functions decently for skiing.

Ultralight Backpacking


Backpacking gear is getting lighter and more compact. The trend is to take less and lighter gear. If you are the type of backpacker who carries ultralight sleeping bags and ultralight tents, you may find that you no longer need a standard backpacking backpack. When your entire pack (without food and water) weighs less than 12 pounds, often a day-specific pack will work, or you should consider an ultralight backpacking pack. Most diehard ultralight backpackers will want a pack minimally designed. The Granite Gear Virga 26 is an excellent pack for this use and is the only pack reviewed that was well suited to both ultralight backpacking and day hiking.

The Granite Gear Verga 26 has the largest capacity of the daypacks we reviewed. The extensive collar can be overstuffed if necessary. If you want a daypack that you can use for short overnight trips  this is a serious contender.
The Granite Gear Verga 26 has the largest capacity of the daypacks we reviewed. The extensive collar can be overstuffed if necessary. If you want a daypack that you can use for short overnight trips, this is a serious contender.

Personal Item


With checked baggage fees rising, many are looking to pack for trips using only carry-on luggage. One great way to accomplish this is to use a large "personal item" in combination with your carry-on bag. The Osprey Daylite Plus is one of our favorites for this use. Many of the small packs reviewed meet airline requirements for a personal item. We advise double checking guidelines before you buy.

The Osprey Daylite's small size mades it ideal for traveling. The hydration pouch on the back panel was an excellent place to keep travel documents and money safe while navigating through the airport.
The Osprey Daylite's small size mades it ideal for traveling. The hydration pouch on the back panel was an excellent place to keep travel documents and money safe while navigating through the airport.

Carry-On Bag


While a carry-on bag beats checking luggage, one step above it is a bag that fits under the seat in front of you. The larger packs reviewed can substitute for your carry-on luggage and can be compressed enough to slide under a seat. That said, we prefer to bring a laptop backpack because they are more stylish and better equipped to protect your computer. For example, our founder, Chris McNamara used a hybrid between a laptop backpack and a daypack, the Patagonia Arbor for his trip to see the New 7 Wonders of The World in 13 days. With so many tight flights, the trip was only possible because he used a day-specific pack instead of a carry-on.

Page loved wearing the REI Flash 18. This small daypack is ideal for having around while backpacking.
Page loved wearing the REI Flash 18. This small daypack is ideal for having around while backpacking.


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