Day hikes don’t call for a lot of gear. The shortest jaunts require a water bottle and a sturdy pair of shoes — in some cases, even everyday sneakers will do. More ambitious endeavors should be tackled with a more considered packing list: hiking boots, technical apparel, snacks, sunscreen, extra layers for the summit, a headlamp just in case. You’ll also want a backpack for lugging most of that gear.
As such, daypacks exist on a spectrum. Some everyday backpacks, like the ones you may have brought to school or carry to work, will do the trick, but there is a full range of very technical options explicitly designed for out-and-back hiking.
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What Should You Look for in a Daypack?
Picking the perfect pack — utilitarian or not — means you'll need to consider a few variables: fit, function, features. Most daypacks with their salt will have a fit meant to prevent jostling and movement, so you're not constantly adjusting your pack on the trail. When you're shopping, consider how padded you want your straps, if you require a hip belt or if you're looking for something ultra light.
No matter what type of climate you’re in, a hydration reservoir is an easy way to carry liters of water without taking up too much space in your pack. Unless you’re totally dedicated to your water bottle, you’ll want to shop for a daypack that has water reservoir compatibility: it will have internal straps, hooks and pockets dedicated to keeping your reservoir upright and unencumbered.
Construction and Volume
Daypacks aren’t meant to hold 2-3 days’ worth of outdoor gear: they’re compact and are constructed with the intent of supporting the wearer through a day of hiking, biking or exploring. Most daypacks will have a volume between three and 30 liters — any smaller than that won’t hold enough gear or water for a full day outside, and anything bigger than that is verging into backpacking territory.
The pack you pick will also depend largely on what you'll be using it for — if you expect to be gone all day on rougher trails, look for a pack that has lumbar support, room for ample water and snacks and possibly a rain cover, if you live in wet climates. If you're going for an overnighter, go with an option that prioritizes organization; having a designated place for everything will cut down on searching and potential stress. If you're only going to be out for a few hours, a simple (but underrated) hip pack will do the job nicely. Daypacks come in all shapes and sizes, so pick with function at the top of mind.
The daypack’s charm is the convenience of having all your essentials at your fingertips. What’s not charming is having to dig through what feels like an endless pit to locate your headlamp, knife or multitool (especially in an emergency situation). Many daypacks have one large internal compartment for you to stuff your jacket, snacks and supplies in, but the best packs also have at least three pockets, daisy chain loops for attaching accessories or designated water bottle sleeves, should you choose to bring some extra hydration on your trek.
These daypacks aren’t as sizeable as the 60-liter-plus bags used for long-distance trekking, but they come with many of the same features that make walking in the wilderness with essential gear a more enjoyable experience. Here are our favorites.
We wore these packs in all sorts of conditions: 10+ mile hikes in the Eastern Sierras, trekking around on islands in the Pacific Ocean and taking short trips to our favorite local trails.. Throughout all of it we focused on fabrics, function, fit and feel. Each tester focused on utility, as well as price and availability. At the end of the day, these 14 packs made the cut.