June 28, 2004

AMC Outdoors, July/August 2004

Thoreau and Muir would have loved the beauty of the modern daypack: a sack that rides comfortably on your back and fits everything you need for an entire day in the backcountry. Independent of the comforts and protective arms of civilization, you can head out on foot and hike 7, 10, maybe 15 miles or more. Who’d wrap his stuff in a wool blanket and throw it over his shoulder when there are so many excellent daypacks out there?

Of course, a couple of 19th-century ascetics like Thoreau and Muir might also have run off into the woods and hidden under their blankets at the sight of a store wall emblazoned with dozens of different packs. For today’s quasi-ascetic adventurers who prefer something a little more functional than a blanket, but aren’t sure what they need, here’s what to look for in a daypack.

Keep your eyes on the size
Capacity — how much the pack holds — breaks down into three general sizes. The one that’s right for you will depend on your needs and intended activity. Packs with up to 1,000 cubic inches provide enough space for the essentials but not much more. They cost up to about $50, generally weigh two pounds or less, and are designed to carry no more than 10 pounds. Basically, these are fine for short hikes, trail runs, or rides up to a few hours in mild weather, when you need little but the basics. Styles in this range include the smallest daypacks, as well as many lumbar and hydration packs.

A capacity range of 1,000 to 2,000 cubic inches is popular with hikers who need to carry food and extra layers for a full day in the mountains. Running roughly $60 to $150, these packs weigh two to four pounds; typically have a thin foam back pad, lightly padded shoulder straps, and a waistbelt; comfortably carry 15 to 20 pounds; and vary greatly in features (see below). They provide enough space for three-season day hikes, but generally won’t have enough volume for activities that require a lot of equipment like technical climbing, winter hiking, and backcountry snowsports.

Once you reach 2,000 to 3,000 cubic inches, you should have plenty of space for gear-intensive excursions, or enough room for three-season day-hiking when you have the privilege of carrying stuff for your kids or a partner. Sometimes referred to as “technical daypacks,” these run from $100 to upwards of $200, commonly weigh three or four pounds, and should carry 25 to 30 pounds without stressing the seams (or your body). Lighter models that weigh less than two pounds are available, but skimp on padding and frame stiffness. In this size range you’ll find many specialized models for specific uses like ice climbing and backcountry skiing, with features like ice tool tubes or snowboard-specific straps.

Get fit for adventure
After deciding on the capacity you need and what you’re willing to spend, make fit your top priority. This is the single most important feature of a daypack — don’t buy one if it’s uncomfortable. When trying on a pack, look for shoulder straps that wrap cleanly without gaps or bunching. The straps should cross the center of your shoulder without chafing your neck. They should not ride on the outside edge of your shoulders, where they can cause increased muscle fatigue and discomfort, and might slip off.

Most daypacks come with an unpadded nylon waist strap, which keeps the pack from bouncing around during vigorous activity but is too flimsy to effectively bear any of the weight. Some daypacks, especially those with larger capacities, feature a padded waistbelt that will transfer weight to the hips and lower body, a big advantage. To check these for fit, first loosen up the shoulder straps and position the pack so that the top of your hip — the bony knob of your iliac crest — is in the middle of the waistbelt. Cinch up the belt, and then tighten the shoulder straps and check where they connect to the pack. On a properly fitting pack, this point will be located at approximately the level of the top of your shoulders. Lower than this, and it will be difficult to keep weight off your upper body. Higher than this, and the pack may shift from side to side as you move.

Small- and medium-capacity daypacks are generally not adjustable for your torso length, and their size makes it nearly impossible to find one with a properly fitting waistbelt if you are taller than about six feet. Some larger volume, high-end models come in multiple harness sizes, however, and can be adjusted to fit a variety of torso lengths. Some models have a center channel down the back pad for ventilating air, which helps keep you cooler and more comfortable.

An increasing number of women’s daypacks are on the market these days. The principal difference between these and a traditional “unisex” (i.e., men’s) pack is in the positioning of the shoulder straps, which are typically placed much closer together to better fit the female physique.

Feature Fest: bottle pockets, ice ax loops, daisy chains, and more
If you put every possible available feature on one pack, your Franken-pack would weigh more than most multi-day backpacks. In short, look for a pack with the features you want, but don’t accept extra cost and weight for options you won’t use. Consider these factors:

  • Having water within reach ensures that you drink frequently, which doesn’t happen if you have to remove your pack every time you want a sip. Daypacks often have “hydration compatibility,” meaning they include an inside slot for a bladder (usually sold separately) and a hole for the drinking tube. Another option is side bottle pockets, which are most useful if positioned so that you can remove and replace a bottle while wearing the pack (try it in the store).
  • The more ways you can get to and sort your gear, the better. Pockets are great, and some packs have slots designed for specific equipment like shovels and avalanche probes. Top-loading packs come with lid pockets; their drawstring closures are more durable than the zippers on front-loading packs, but they often leave you digging from above to find that essential item which inevitably has burrowed its way to the bottom — a side access zipper helps alleviate this problem. Bear in mind, however, that accessibility and organization come with a price — pockets and zippers add cost, bulk, and weight.
  • A multitude of outside attachment points allows you to easily strap on ice axes, skis, snowshoes, and other over-sized gear. Compression straps on the sides of the pack are ideal for lashing on everything from trekking poles to picnic blankets. Daisy chains, the nylon loops on a pack’s front, can be used in combination with straps or carabiners to attach even more items. The stretchy bungee cords found on many packs are useful for securing a rain jacket or other lightweight item, but can be a nuisance and tend to be the first thing that breaks.

You get what you pay for
Daypacks can induce a case of sticker shock. Why pay more than a hundred bucks for a sack with straps on it? There are good reasons — and the more hiking or technical activities you do, the more reasons you have to shell out for a high-end pack — but there’s no need to buy more pack than you’ll use.

In general, more money buys you greater capacity, a better fit through adjustability or multiple sizes, a more substantial harness for carrying weight comfortably, specialized features for specific activities, and most important, superior construction and durability. Avoid cheapo book packs and no-name brands in big-box department stores — most simply aren’t made for the abuses and demands of hiking and will quickly fall apart. Shop instead at an outdoor retailer where the staff knows the gear and can fit you properly.

With so many daypacks on the market, there’s really no reason to settle for something that’s not quite what you want or need. Look around. Thoreau and Muir would be envious.

Related: Essentials for Your Hiking Daypack

Michael Lanza is the author of The Ultimate Guide to Backcountry Travel.

Search AMC Outdoors and Blogs

Search for:

Michael Lanza

AMC Outdoors, the magazine of the Appalachian Mountain Club, inspires readers to get outside and get engaged. Learn more.