For any outdoor activity that involves more gear than you can carry in your pockets for one day, you need a daypack. At first glance, all daypacks may look similar, but they have many functional differences. To figure out which daypack is best for you, consider these four things:
- Activity: How you’ll use the daypack can determine what features you need.
- Capacity: The size pack you need also depends on how much gear you plan to carry.
- Parts: Things like frame type and pack access affect how the group works for you.
- Fit: Torso length and hip size are the most critical fit factors.
Choosing a Daypack by Activity
A quick way to narrow your search for a daypack is to look for one designed for the activity you want to use it for. Here are the main activities that daypacks are built for and some of the features you’ll find on them:
- Nearly all are compatible with hydration reservoirs and have water bottle pockets on each side
- Lots of torso size options and different suspension designs help you choose a pack that fits your body
- A narrow profile allows you to move well while climbing with the pack on
- Most include a padded back or a frame sheet for comfort with heavier loads; they usually have a frame that helps center weight on the hips
- Include specialized features such as an ice ax loop, crampon patches, and daisy chain for lashing gear
- Reinforcements and heavier fabrics help minimize damage from abrasion
- Some climbing packs work for backcountry skiing/snowboarding
- A waist pack, water-bottle group, running vest, or small technical daypack are all excellent choices
- These packs are designed to limit jostling while you run
- Pockets are positioned for easy access to snacks
- Most vests and bags are compatible with hydration reservoirs
Travel, School, Commuting:
- Many have organization features, such as a laptop sleeve, dividers, separate compartments, and an organizer panel to hold small items
- Many travel bags have a front opening (panel opening) rather than a top opening
- Some have dual zippers with space for travel locks
- Some allow you to tuck straps away to keep them from getting caught in conveyor belts at the airport or train station
- Most are sized to meet carry-on luggage guidelines
- While designed for travel, many are ideal for getting to school or work
Road Cycling and Mountain Biking:
- Road cycling packs have a compact, low-profile design that keeps them light and stable on your back without creating a lot of wind resistance
- Mountain-biking bags are often a bit larger to accommodate extra gear, clothing, and bike tools
- Some are designed for commuting and include features such as a laptop sleeve and organization panel
- Most have low-profile waistbelts that won’t interfere with your pedaling
- Many are compatible with hydration reservoirs
- Many have a narrow profile to allow you to move around unhindered
- A sternum strap and hip belt are essential for keeping the pack from swinging around
- All but the most miniature packs let you attach skis, snowboards, and snowshoes to the pack
- Strong fabrics are reinforced where ski edges and crampons rub
- Most have a secure place to keep your snow shovel and probe handy
- Many are compatible with hydration reservoirs and provide insulation to help prevent water from freezing
- Suppose you have a minimalist mentality and the gear to match it. In that case, a technical daypack can handle an overnight load for ultralight backpacking or hut-to-hut treks.
- Padded back and hip belt for comfort
- An internal frame with one or two aluminum stays to accommodate a heavier load.
Daypack capacities vary greatly. When pondering what size you need, run through a mental inventory of the gear you carry. Can the pack accommodate your favorite jacket? Does it provide enough snack space for the lengths of trips you take? And, is it big enough to fit the Ten Essentials?
Here are some considerations for pack capacity:
Ten liters or less: Most of these small packs are built for lightweight pursuits like running, road biking, and very short hikes. Their compact, low-profile design provides room for only a handful of essentials, like an ultralight jacket, some energy bars, and your keys.
11–20 liters: These compact packs are often built for hiking, mountain biking, running, or travel. Some feature extra pockets for staying organized. Their capacity lets you carry an extra layer of food and gear for day trips.
21–35 liters: This is the sweet spot for most hiking and travel daypacks. There’s enough capacity to hold food, clothing and some extras, like a camera and a book.
36–50 liters: These larger packs are ideal for trips that require additional clothing and gear, such as climbing, mountaineering, or non-summer hiking. Parents who need to carry clothing and equipment for their kids will often choose one of these packs. Some can be used for overnights if you’ve invested in ultralight, compact gear.
Daypack Frame Type
Internal frame: Many daypacks have an inner edge that helps support your weight. Some packs include plastic frame sheets that add lightweight structures. Others have aluminum rods to support the load. The more substantial the frame, the more weight the box can typically handle.
Frameless: Frameless packs tend to be lightweight and compact, and they do an excellent job adapting to the shape of your back. However, their suppleness typically doesn’t support weight as well as an internal frame, making frameless packs best for lighter loads.
Top: The majority of daypacks are a top-loading design. The items you don’t need until the end of the day go deep inside. Some top-loaders offer a “floating” (extendable) top lid that allows you to overstuff the pack a bit.
Front: Packs with front access (called panel access) offer the main storage compartment that is accessed via a U-shaped zipper. Fully opened, one panel falls away like a flap. This makes it easy to load and rummage through when searching for something. They’re suitable for light hiking and travel.
Bottom: Some daypacks include bottom access to the interior and a top or front opening. This can be handy for accessing gear or clothing at the bottom of your pack without taking everything out first.
Side: A side access point to the interior is available on a handful of daypacks. This is typically in addition to the top or front access. Like bottom access, you get to gear and clothing inside your pack more efficiently.
Nearly all daypacks have an internal sleeve into which you can slip a hydration reservoir (reservoirs are often sold separately). Daypacks that include a pool will typically be labeled as a “hydration pack.”
Suspended mesh back panel: Some packs have a ventilated back panel made of constructed mesh, so the group rides along a few inches away from your back. This allows a steady flow of air to combat the sweaty-back syndrome you tend to get when a pack rides directly against your back.
Raincover: This is an excellent item to carry if you expect rain on your trip. Some packs include them in a small dedicated pocket.
Sleeping bag compartment: A handful of larger daypacks have zippered access to a sleeping bag compartment at the bottom of the pack. Ultralight backpackers may fill this spot with a sleeping bag. Still, it can hold other light, the compressible gear you’d like to reach for daily use quickly.
The right daypack fit offers:
- Size appropriate for your torso length (not your overall height)
- A comfortably snug grip on your hips
Torso length: Some packs are available in multiple sizes, from extra small to large, which fit a range of torso lengths. The contents vary by manufacturer and by gender.
While trying packs on, position the hipbelt, so the top edge is about one finger width above the top of your hips, then look at how the shoulder straps land on your back and shoulders. If there is a gap at the top of your shoulders, the pack is likely too long for your torso. If the straps wrap more than a few inches down your back before connecting to the collection, the group might be too short.
Some packs feature an adjustable torso that lets you fine-tune the fit. If you’ve struggled to find the right fit with other clubs, consider one with an adjustable torso. This is also a good idea if you’ll be sharing the pack with someone or buying a group for your child who isn’t done growing.
Waist size: Hipbelts on daypacks usually accommodate a wide range of hip sizes, from the mid-20 inches to the mid-40 inches. When trying a daypack on, ensure you can get the hipbelt loose enough or snug enough to fit comfortably around your hips.
Women-specific backpacks: Torso dimensions are generally shorter on these packs than on men’s or unisex packs. The hip belt and shoulder straps are contoured with the female form in mind. Because women’s groups have smaller frame sizes, they often work well for young hikers.
Additional Backpack Fit Adjustments
Load Lifter Straps: Some larger daypacks include load lifter straps. These are stitched into the top of the shoulder straps and connect to the top of the pack frame. Ideally, they will form a 45° angle between your shoulder straps and the pack. When kept snug (but not too tight), they can help prevent the upper portion of the group from pulling away from your body, which would cause the pack to sag on your lumbar region.
Sternum Strap: This mid-chest strap found on most packs allows you to connect your shoulder straps, which can boost your stability. It can be helpful when traveling on uneven terrain where an awkward move could cause your pack to shift to one side and throw you off balance.
Weight vs. Features
Some daypacks have a fast and light attitude and are simple. Others come loaded with a full range of bells and whistles. Extra features can make your life easier, especially when organizing your pack. But you trade convenience and sometimes comfort 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 take its base weight. A comfortable suspension system is a heavy feature often worth its weight, mainly when the pack is usually used for heavy loads.
Top-Loader vs. Panel-Loader
Packs come in two different loading styles — top-loaders and panel-loaders. Top-loading bags 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. Top-loaded closures are more durable than zippers. They tend to be compatible with more outside-carry options and leave long items like camera tripods sticking out of the top of the 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 once loaded. Panel-loading backpacks can be less durable than top-loaders, especially in sandy environments like the Southwest United States, where silt and sand can wreak havoc on zippers. However, they allow a level of organization and access to your gear that beats most top-loaders.
Only a few of the packs we tested included rain covers. 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. However, if you plan on strapping lots of gear to the outside of your pack, like ice axes or snowshoes, remember that a pack cover will not fit over odd-shaped objects. For those times, a thick garbage bag or pack-lining dry bag works well to keep your gear dry.
How to Size and Fit a Pack
Once you’ve chosen your must-have attributes and figured out what activities you’ll pursue, the last and most crucial step is fit. Ideally, you want most of your weight sitting on or close to your hips. Therefore, the pack you buy must fit your torso. Most daypacks come in one or two sizes. Choosing the correct size is not as crucial 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 ensure the pack will fit on your back. To measure your torso, use a flexible tape measure. Stiff construction measuring tapes complicate this task but can get you close. Grab a friend for this measurement, and have them locate the first large bony bump at the base of your neck. This is your C7 vertebra. The C7 is easiest to find if you tilt your head forward and will be at the top of your torso measurement.
Then, locate your iliac crest, where your pack will hold the brunt of the load weight. With your 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.
Sizing between different brands is not always the same. Size small in one brand isn’t the same as in another. Some daypacks are also slightly adjustable and can accommodate a range of torso lengths rather than only one size. This makes these packs even more versatile and comfortable for many users.
Hip belt sizing is surprisingly crucial for pack fitting. A properly fitting hip belt will sit squarely on the top of your hip bones and keep a backpack from pressing in on your butt. Padded hip belts should wrap around at least just in front of the midpoint of your latitude line, and the pads should not touch when the hip belt is fully cinched down on your waist.
Measure around your hips at the top of your iliac crest. (Your hip belt size will differ from your pant size.) To figure out this measurement, wrap your tape around your hips, ensuring that it sits on top of your hip bones.
Most hip belts on daypacks are thin straps or webbing-like materials. Some of which are removable, and most are not padded. These serve more to help secure the load from moving instead of helping to carry the load.
If you are struggling or are unsure about any of this, your local outdoor retailers should have staff prepared to assist you. A professional measurement will ensure that you will get a well-sized pack.