Home Page
Expert Help

How to Choose a Daypack

Size, Fit & Features To Look For

Heading out for a day hiking means carrying some essentials with you. From extra layers to snacks and perhaps additional gear for mountain biking or skiing, the right daypack allows you to focus on the adventure rather than keeping track of gear. 

Hiking daypacks come equipped with any number of special features and range in size from around 10 liters to about 40 liters, depending on how much you need to carry along on the trail. We’ll cover how to choose a daypack by capacity, size and fit, and additional features.

How To Choose Hiking Pack Capacity

How much you’ll need to carry can vary by the day and the outing. The shorter the trip or the warmer the weather, the less capacity you’ll need. Conversely, the colder the weather or longer the journey, you’ll want room to bring more layers and fuel. While daypacks technically range from about 10 to 40 liters, most folks find the sweet spot to be about 20 liters capacity. This allows you room to carry extra clothes and snacks, without being tempted to overpack. If you have a dog or kiddo along for the hike, a larger pack provides room for all of their gear, too. 

Packs at the 10 liter end are slimmed down, generally have fewer external pockets or features. Larger daypacks go all out with organizational pockets, attachment loops and more that we’ll get into a bit later.


How To Size & Fit A Hiking Daypack

No matter how great a pack looks, it first must fit you comfortably. Torso length is the biggest determinant of backpack fit: this is the measurement from the iliac crest to the top of your C7 vertebrae. While more of a note with backpacking packs, any sized daypacks will also reference torso length. A properly sized pack means that the weight is distributed properly across your body and will be much more comfortable. 

Shoulder straps are the next part of the pack to look at for fit: from the shaping to the length, the straps will determine how the weight of the pack sits across your shoulders. If looking to fastpack or run with a pack, the more vest-style running packs fit closer to the body and are better for moving quickly. For hiking and walking, traditional backpack straps suit the needs well. 

The pack hip belt transfers the weight of your gear to larger muscles–your hips and glutes–from your shoulders, allowing you to carry more for longer without fatigue. Hip belts are great for heavier loads or if you’ll be moving across more challenging terrain–like scrambling–where having the pack close to your body makes it easier to maneuver.

Key Features Of Daypacks

Where you hike, how you pack, and what you do, all determine which features are important to a daypack. We’ll run through a few of the most common features to help you hone in on which packs will suit you best.

  • Hydration bladder pocket: most all daypacks have a hydration bladder sleeve, which situates a bladder in the weight center of the pack. Packs also have a hose-port to neatly route the bladder hose over one shoulder. 
  • Sternum strap: the sternum strap boosts stability when traveling over uneven terrain by keeping the pack’s shoulder straps more inline with one another and closer to your body.
  • Ventilation: Some packs–like Osprey–use a suspension mesh design to keep the back of a pack away from your body, this increases air flow along the pack panel. Others use a chimney design, where the material is shaped to allow air flow up the molded back panel. Both help regulate your temperature when on the move. 
  • Compression straps: located on the side of a pack, compression straps both help contents stay put and can help reign in the pack capacity if you’re carrying less than a full load (or after that last snack break). 
  • Top pocket/rain cover: Where you recreate may dictate how weatherproof a pack you need. An integrated rain cover, usually anchored into the bottom of a pack, adds a layer of protection to keep contents dry. A top lid to a pack can also serve as an additional barrier to your things getting wet from rain. 
  • Tool loops: If you’ll need to carry ice axes, trekking poles, or other rigid items, tool loops on the outside of the pack help you stay organized and safe while traveling by foot. Daisy chain webbing (the sewn loops on the front panel) help you attach tools in the best way for your adventure. 
  • Hip belt pockets: The chapstick and granola bar has to go somewhere, and hip belt pockets keep those essentials right within reach, so you can keep moving towards the scenic spot.

Closure & Access Style


Panel loader, top-loading, and roll-top packs offer different access to your pack’s contents. 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. 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-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. 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.

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.

Intended Use

While we’ve mostly focused on hiking packs, there are numerous daypacks built specifically for other sports. 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.

Climbing Daypacks

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.

Approach 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.

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 Daypacks

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.

If 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 Packs

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 Packs

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.

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.

For any other questions on choosing the right daypack for your next adventure, contact one of our Gearheads.