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, so before you choose one, you'll want to determine your primary use for a daypack and if you need a bag that can accommodate a variety of your activities.
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) while still maintaining a level of comfort and support. Typically, hiking packs will range in capacity of around 20 to 30-liters and come with with a few key features such as compartments for smaller items (phone, maps, compass), a hydration compartment, additional carry options for trekking-poles or ice axes, and possibly some small side pockets for water bottles or sunscreen. If you're set on having a pack that is super comfortable to wear, pay extra attention to cushioning and ventilation.
Depending on your style of climbing, you may look for 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 that has a more narrow profile to allow for greater range of motion for your arms and shoulders, and that pays special attention to comfort with 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. The Arc'teryx Cierzo 18 was the only pack in this review that was specifically designed for climbing, but we found the REI Co-op Flash 18 to be a great multi-pitch companion as well.
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 types of 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 pay close attention to the ability to attach your skis to the pack. None of the packs reviewed in this test were designed specifically for skiing, but we found the Deuter Speed Lite 20 to work for this purpose.
Trail Running and Adventure Racing
Typically, these types of packs run on the small side (25-liters or less) and are really for essentials only, such as the Flash 18.
Around Town, Commuting, and Travel
All of the daypacks we tested can fit into this category, adding versatility, however, some of them definitely work better than others for around town use. Ideally, an around town pack will have a compartment to fit a laptop, preferably padded, and a few other organizational compartments for writing utensils and other small electronic devices. A padded back panel is also a nice feature so book corners aren't poking through to your back. You may also 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.
Twenty to 30 liters is the ideal volume for a daypack. The smallest pack we tested was the Flash at 18-liters, while the largest was the Granite Gear Virga at 26 liters. Unless you have a specific use, like alpine summits or ski touring, anything over 30-liters begins to enter into the realm of multi-day backpacking and becomes excessively bulky for just day use. Yet, anything much smaller than 20-liters becomes difficult to fit the necessary essentials. While the REI Co-op Flash, Dueter Speed Lite, and Osprey Talon 22 are on the smaller end of this scale, they each held our hiking specific essentials with a little wiggle room.
Ventilated Back Panels
While Jansport invented the first daypack in 1967, technology has come a long way from those first packs that were used to haul books around in school. One of these awesome advancements is the implementation of ventilated and structured back panels. There's nothing worse than hiking on a bluebird day and feeling like you're wearing a warm sweater on your back that's just collecting sweat.
Many of the new packs are using a design system with a stiff mesh panel that sits against the back and a frame that pushes the load slightly away from the back, to leave airspace in between. The Gregory Salvo 24 that we tested is a good example of this type of design. The result is a steady flow of air behind you. However, because the weight is not situated close to your body, the trade-off is that the pack may begin to pull you backwards with heavier loads. Although with daypacks we found that this feature is fine since you are typically carrying much less weight than with a backpacking pack. We did find that the exaggerated nature of this design on the Osprey Stratos made it carry funny.
Weight vs. Features
Some daypacks approach the fast and light attitude and are simple, straight forward packs, while others come loaded with a full range of bells and whistles. Extra features can make your life easier, especially with organization within the pack however, it is a trade-off for added weight. The trick is figuring out what your specific needs are for your pack, and balancing the features you need versus how much weight you want to carry. No matter how much or how little you put in your load, just remember that you'll always have to carry the base weight of your pack.
Top-Loader vs. Panel-Loader
Packs typically come in two different loading styles: top-loaders and panel-loaders. Top-loading packs typically tend to be lighter and more simplified. The REI Co-op Flash 18, Arc'teryx Cierzo 18, and Granite Gear Virga 26 all employ this design. The top-loading design is more in-line with a backpacking pack where all of your gear fits into a single compartment from it's top access point. These types of daypacks are great for fast and light ascents.
Panel-loading packs usually have one or more compartments accessible through a u-shaped, or even d-shaped, zipper. 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 just hiking.
While only one pack we tested included a rain cover, most companies also sell them separately. If you're planning on hiking or participating in other activities where there is high humidity or rainy weather, you may consider purchasing one. These will cover the pack entirely, ensuring that it's contents will remain dry. Also, they look nicer than a garbage bag.
How to Size and Fit a Pack
Once you've chosen your must-have aspects for a pack and figure out what activities you're needing it to fit specifically, 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 purchase fits your torso precisely. Most daypacks come in only a single size, so choosing the correct size is not as important as will a backpacking pack, but it is still a factor to consider in order to make sure it will be comfortable.
Measuring Your Torso Length
Since many of the daypacks available only come in one size, you'll want to measure the length of your torso to makes sure the pack will properly fit on your back. To measure your torso, you'll want to use a flexible tape measurer. Stiff measuring tapes designed for industrial use tend to complicate this task but can give you an estimate. You'll want to 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 slightly forward, and will be the top of your torso measurement.
Then, locate your iliac crest, which is where your pack will hold the brunt of the load weight. Place your hands on top of your hips, fingers wrapping around your pointy pelvic bones with your thumbs resting on your back; this is the iliac crest, and the base of your torso measurement. Have your friend measure between your C7 and in the middle of your thumbs to figure out the length of your torso. Then, compare this measurement with the size range for the pack you are eyeing.
Note that with the Osprey Talon 22, our Editors' Choice winning daypack, you can adjust the harness to fit different torso lengths, which makes this pack even more versatile for many users.
The Adjustable Harness on the Osprey Talon
Though the sizing in your hips is a little less imperative, it may be helpful when looking at packs with interchangeable hip belts. A properly fitted hip belt will sit about an inch above your latitude line, which runs out from the high points of your hip bones.
You're looking to measure around this latitude line; which is slightly lower than your waist line, so your hip belt size will most likely differ from your pant size. To figure out this measurement, wrap your tape measurer around your hips, making sure that it is situated at the top of your hip bones.
If you are struggling, or are unsure with any of your measurements, any of your local outdoor retailers will have staff prepared to assist you. A professional measurement will ensure that you will get a properly sized pack for your torso.
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 the adjustability features of a backpacking pack, some, like the Osprey Talon 22, will, and others will have varying degrees of adjustability. According to the Gregory fit guide, "a pack is not carried, but worn;" thus, it is important to adjust your pack every time you throw it on your back to double check that the load is situated properly and comfortably on your body.
You'll want to start by loosening all of your straps, including the hip belt, and place the pack on your back before following these steps.
First, you'll buckle the hip belt and tighten it. Make sure it is properly straddling your hips, and that the padded sections, if you have any, are situated comfortably.
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 and suck the pack into your back. The straps are located near your collarbones and should angle back toward the pack at a 45 degree angle. They are designed 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.
Most daypacks come with an adjustable the sternum strap, which can be easily slid up or down on your shoulder straps to find a comfortable height on your chest. These straps are designed to 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 just to make sure your load is equalized and your body is happy with a pack on your back. Your daypack may be equipped with stabilizer straps on either side of the hip belt, which allows you to bring the pack 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 the majority of the weight is carried by your hips.
Other Uses For Daypacks
The primary appeal lies in the fact that they are so versatile. Few other backpacks can transition from the outdoors to office so beautifully. 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. While we primarily evaluated these packs for their usefulness on day hikes, there are several other reasons you may want to consider a daypack.
Backpacking gear is becoming increasingly lightweight and compact, and 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 ultralight backpacking and use as a daypack.
With checked baggage fees rising, many are looking to pack for trips using only carry-on luggage when possible. One great way to accomplish this is with a large "personal item" in combination with your carry-on bag. The Osprey Daylite was one of our favorites for this. Many of the small packs reviewed meet airline requirements for a personal item, but we advise double checking guidelines before you buy.
While a carry-on bag beats checking luggage, one step above 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 generally 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. We used a hybrid between a laptop backpack and a daypack, the Patagonia Arbor for OutdoorGearLab founder Chris McNamara's 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.