Choosing the Right Day Pack

August 25, 2017
day pack
Comfortable shoulder straps and easily-accessible pockets are two key features of a great day pack.

Whether you’re hiking, climbing, biking, skiing, or just living in the modern world, you need a way to carry your supplies for the day. The concept is simple, and yet day packs come in multitudinous forms, with bewildering arrays of features to match. Here are the most important elements to consider.

Most day packs feature roughly 1,200 to 2,400 cubic inches of volume (or between 20 and 40 liters). How much space you need depends on your intended activity. On cold-weather outings, when leading trips, or when serving as chief pack mule for the family, you’ll want a pack on the larger end to fit plenty of snacks, drinks, and extra clothing layers. For summer day hikes and general around-town use, something smaller generally suffices.

Unlike larger backpacks, which transfer weight to the lower body via a padded waist belt, most day packs rely only on your shoulders. Check to see whether a pack’s shoulder straps are wide and padded; thin and lightweight straps can dig into your shoulders, especially if you’re carrying a heavier load.

Next try on the pack and assess where the shoulder straps land. For maximum comfort and support, they should sit midway between your neck and the edge of your shoulders. Note that on women’s models, straps are placed closer together to accommodate narrower shoulders. Many day packs also feature a simple waist strap, not for carrying weight but to hold the pack close to your body. Some larger day packs do have a lightly padded waist belt; fit these versions like you would a backpacking pack.

Closely evaluate the portion of the pack that lies against your back. For longer outings and more substantial loads, you want two things. First, the back panel should lie flush against your back; full loads should not create back-grinding lumps. Second, look for ventilation features, such as mesh panels or other air channels.

Day packs generally feature a large primary compartment plus one or more additional pockets. While more pockets are nice for sorting gear, external pockets deserve particular scrutiny. These should provide secure and ready access to a water bottle (look for large and deep side pockets) and a rain jacket or extra layer (bonus points for large, open “kangaroo pockets” on the back of the pack). These days, most day packs designed for outdoor activities also feature a smaller internal pocket or sleeve for a hydration system.

Finally, consider the closure and attachment systems. Frontloading packs often use zippers to provide better access. Be aware, though, that the zipper may be the least durable element on your pack. Look for beefier zippers with larger teeth, which tend to hold up better than thinner versions. Drawstring closures are common on top-loading models and can be replaced if they break. Lastly, take a close look at the buckles. Try to avoid specialized versions that are unique to the manufacturer and buckles stitched directly into the pack fabric; both make replacement much more difficult.

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Matt Heid

Equipped blogger Matt Heid is AMC's gear guru: He loves gear and he loves using it in the field. While researching several guidebooks, including AMC's Best Backpacking in New England, he has hiked thousands of miles across New England, California, and Alaska, among other wilderness destinations. He also cycles, climbs, and surfs.