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How to Choose a Daypack

The style statement, the gear hauler, or the bottomless pit of fun: Whatever you call it, the daypack carries all of your essentials, wherever you’re going and whatever you’re doing.

You may be wondering just what about a backpack makes it a “daypack.” Well, it comes down to the size. A daypack sits in the range from about 610 cubic inches (10L) to 2135 cubic inches (35L). For most people, packs in this size range do an excellent job at carrying a single day’s worth of gear, but needs do vary depending on the individual and activity.

When shopping for a new daypack, it’s easy to get blown away by the sheer number of options, all with seemingly identical features. It’s true; almost all daypacks share at least a few of the same features, but a closer look reveals small but very important differences in materials, configurations, and activity-specific features. Since packs are often built around these details, it’s best to sort daypacks by intended use. Before we do that, though, let’s take a look at basic daypack styles and the features you’ll most often see on a daypack.

Closure and Access Styles

panel-loader

Panel-Loading Packs

By far the most common daypack design, panel loader packs use U-shaped zippers that run from one side of the pack to the other. When unzipped, the panels can fold down and away, making it very easy to access the pack’s contents. These packs may have a simple single-compartment design, or may feature multiple zippered compartments for more sophisticated organization. While they do provide ease of access, panel loaders are also susceptible to zipper failures if the pack is overstuffed and excessive is exerted on the zippers.

Top-Loading Packs

Instead of opening wide like panel loaders, top-loader packs are primarily accessed through an opening in the top. Some top-loaders use a zippered flap to close the opening, but the two most common closure systems on top loading packs are roll-tops and cinch-tops.

top-loaders

Left to right: A roll-top closure. A cinch-top closure with a flap for additional protection.

Roll-Top Closure

Roll-top closures don’t use a zipper. Instead, the compartment’s opening is held together, then rolled until the compartment is sealed. Once rolled, it’s usually held in place by buckles or clips. Roll-top closures are nice because there’s no zipper to break, and they do an excellent job at keeping water out; in fact, most fully waterproof drybags use roll-top closures.

Cinch-Top Closure

The cinch-top is what you see on most stuff sacks: a length of cord is stitched around the circumference of the pack’s opening, and it can be pulled tight to close the system. Cinch closures very rarely close completely though, so they’re often combined with a flap that covers the opening to keep the elements out.

In general, it’s easier to stuff a top-loading backpack full of gear, since there often aren’t zippers that need to be closed. On the other hand, though, top loaders aren’t the best option for gear organization, since you’ll need to dig deep into the pack to access something at the bottom, or remove the contents altogether. Some companies do make top-loading packs that have an additional zippered access point on the side or bottom. These are a great option if you can find one in the right size; usually, you’ll only see this feature on larger backpacking packs.

Additional Features

Daypacks can be fairly minimalist or come packed with features; depending on what uses you’ll be putting your pack to, you may or may not need them. Here’s a rundown of some of the most common items you might find in or on a daypack:

Feature Purpose
Sternum Strap Keeps shoulder straps in position and reduces load on shoulders
Hip Belt Stops pack from shifting on back, distributes weight to the hips
Organizer Pocket Pocket with additional sleeves and smaller internal pockets for keeping small items organized
Laptop / Tablet Sleeve Padded sleeve that secures and protects a laptop or tablet
Hydration Pocket & Routing Dedicated pocket or sleeve for a hydration reservoir. Dedicated routing through the top of the pack and along the shoulder straps for a reservoir hose
Back Panel Ventilation Mesh or molded foam back panels that allow for air circulation between the pack and your back
Padded Back Panel Thick back panels padded with foam that help protect the contents of the pack (laptops) and make carrying them more comfortable
Exterior Pockets and Storage Hip belt pockets, stuff sleeve, water bottle holders, media pockets, etc. to organize your belongings and allow for easy access
Compression Straps Located on sides of pack, tighten around pack contents to prevent shifting
Daisy Chains Straps on the outside of the pack with many loops, used to attach additional gear to outside of pack
Tool Loops Used to secure ice axes, ice tools, or trekking poles to the pack’s exterior

What’s Your Intended Use?

When it comes to choosing the best daypack for your needs, it’s important to think about what you will be using the pack for. Obviously, the ideal daypack will work for a number of different situations, but when you have fairly specialized needs, you want to make sure you’re getting the right set of features. A mountaineer’s summit pack will differ greatly from a bike commuter’s bag.

Everyday Packs

Just about any backpack will serve for daily use; your choice will be dictated not only by size and functionality, but by your own personal style. From retro-styled rucksacks in leather and waxed canvas to sleek, functional packs for bike commuting to more traditional-style nylon panel-loading packs that work for both around-town and on-trail use, there’s a daypack out there to suit just about anyone.
laptop3.1
If you know you’ll always be carrying your computer around and want to keep it safe, a specially designed laptop pack is a safe bet. These feature a padded compartment designed to cradle your PC; designs range from a simple padded sleeve inside the main compartment to dedicated laptop compartments that can be accessed a number of different ways.

School packs often also feature laptop/tablet sleeves, although they may not be as burly as protective as those in laptop packs. They’ll usually include organizer pockets and media pockets, and often feature water bottle pockets.

If you’re a bike commuter, there are a few special features and designs that you should consider. First, take a look at the carrying and mounting options. Many bike commuters prefer to go with a shoulder or messenger bag that has a waist belt for added security. This keeps the pack off of your back, which greatly increases the breathability you need when grinding gears to the office. Additionally, there are many packs on the market that can double as panniers, mounting to a rack or bike frame and staying off your back entirely. Lastly, look for features like a bike lock storage loop or pocket, and reflective trim or clip for a bike reflect/light to increase your visibility while you’re riding.
bike commuting bags
Classic bike commuting bags, left to right: the waterproof pack, a messenger bag, and a convertible sling/pannier hybrid.

Waterproofing is also an important consideration for bike commuting bags—or for any bag, for that matter, if you expect to be traveling in the rain. Choose a pack made from water-resistant or waterproof materials like PU-coated nylon or waxed canvas, and sealed, water-resistant zippers or a roll-top design that keeps water completely out. If you find a pack you really like, but it doesn’t fit your waterproofing needs, don’t worry; you can always get a removable pack cover.

Day Hiking & Snowshoeing

Just about any pack can be used when you go out on a hike or a snowshoe, but if you’re going more than a few miles or carrying more than just a fleece, a more specialized hiking daypack will make the experience more comfortable. .

Ideally, you’ll want to look for a pack that is comes with a hydration system included or is “hydration compatible,” meaning that it has a sleeve and hose routing but you’ll have to purchase the reservoir separately. Note that an insulated system is recommended for winter use. Alternatively, easily accessible water bottle pockets can ensure you can carry the water you need for a hike on a hot day.

hiking packs
Hiking packs, left to right: A lightweight, minimalist hiking pack, one with more organization and padding, and a hydration pack.

Water resistance is especially valuable for snowshoeing, or hiking in damp climates. If you choose a regular non-water-resistant pack, be sure to purchase a separate, removable rain cover; even if you don’t get caught in a storm, your pack can absorb a lot of water if it’s left lying in the snow or on wet grass during a break. Additional features on a day hiking and snowshoeing pack include trekking pole loops, compression straps, and a padded hip belt with a pocket.

Streamlined, minimalist daypacks are nice when you’ve got a light load, but if you’re carrying lunch, a couple or layers, electronics, or other items, there are definitely better options out there. If you end up carrying quite a bit of weight on your hikes, look for a pack with a rigid back panel, either a plastic sheet or aluminum stays, and padded shoulder straps with load support adjustments.

Climbing

There are two main types of climbing daypacks: the gear hauler and the alpine pack. The gear hauler does just that: it carries all of your gear to the crag. An alpine pack, on the other hand, is often carried on the climb itself, and holds items like a pair of hiking shoes, a warm layer or shell, and water. Both of these packs need to be very durable, but the alpine pack also needs to be lightweight.

climbing-pack_approachApproach packs are usually made of very thick ripstop nylon, or heavy vinyl-laminated nylon, and range from about 30 to 45 liters. They are usually either top loaders or special panel loaders that zip completely open for access to gear. These packs will usually feature one or two internal pockets for small items, external daisy chains, and occasionally a special system for carrying a rope and helmet externally. It’s important to select an approach pack that has a well-padded suspension system. The weight of climbing gear can add up quickly, and you don’t want an uneven, uncomfortable pack load on a two-mile approach.
climbing-pack_summit
Alpine packs are built be to low-profile and lightweight, and are usually between 10 and 25 liters. They are typically made from lightweight ripstop nylon, PU-coated nylon, or extremely light and strong fibers like Dyneema. Most alpine packs will either have a cinch top or roll top, and are usually built to pack small when not in use. Many of these packs also have a slightly tapered shape so they do not restrict the climber’s range of motion.

Skiing & Snowboarding

As with hiking, if you are just looking for a pack to get your lunch to the mid-mountain lodge or smuggle some beers onto the lift, pretty much any nylon panel-loader will do. But if you’re’ heading out of bounds, hiking up to ridgelines in search of fresh snow, or are skiing hard all day with a pack on your back, you’re going to have some pretty specific needs. Daypacks for skiing and snowboarding are packed full of special features designed for snow sports. Expect to find them made out of heavyweight ripstop nylon with rubber or leather reinforcements in high-wear areas, with external straps for snowboard, A-frame, and diagonal ski carry, insulated hydration sleeves, and soft goggle pockets.

packs with ski and snowboard carry
Systems for carrying skis and/or snowboards are an integral part of serious snowsports packs.

Ski pack with dedicated pockets for avy gearIf you’re skiing or riding out of bounds, look for additional features like pockets designed to accommodate a shovel and probe (right), and an external lashing system to hold your helmet as you’re ascending the mountain. Many backcountry skiers and boarders also invest in packs with avalanche safety features like an Avalung or an airbag inflation system.

The size requirements vary greatly from user to user, but ski and snowboard daypacks usually fall in the 20 to 40 liter range. Additionally, many of these packs will have advanced suspension systems that are designed to evenly distribute weight without swinging around while you’re riding.

Mountain Biking

bike-pack
Mountain biking daypacks range from about 7 to 15 liters. They are designed to be extremely low profile, and are usually panel loaders.

Expect to find a dedicated pocket or sleeve for a hydration reservoir, and organization for things like a hand pump, multi tool and tire levers. These packs should come standard with a breathable back panel, sternum strap, and low-profile hip belt.

Running

Running packs are typically the smallest, most low-profile models available. They can be as small as about 3 liters, and usually feature a vest-like shoulder strap system that holds the pack close to the body to prevent chafing and bouncing around as you’re running.

running packs
Packs for running, left to right: a lightweight, low-profile pack, a body-hugging vest with multiple easy-access pockets, and a lumbar pack.

Most packs simply have room for a hydration bladder, an energy bar or two, and possibly a lightweight running jacket. Although running packs are quite breathable and typically constructed from very thin and lightweight ripstop nylon, many runners prefer to not use a backpack. Instead, they’ll either a hydration vest, lumbar pack, or belt, all of which are lighter and less obtrusive than packs.

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