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Daypacks: How to Choose

Day hiking

For any activity that involves more gear than you can carry in your pockets—hiking, climbing, travel, a full day at school—you need a daypack.

Daypacks may look similar at first glance but have lots of functional differences. This article is designed to give you some helpful tips on finding the right one.

Shop REI's section of daypacks.

Video: How to Choose a Day Hiking Pack

Panel Loader or Top Loader?

Panel-loading daypacks offer a main storage compartment that is accessed via a U-shaped zipper. Fully opened, one panel falls away like a flap.

Such a wide opening makes these easy to load and rummage through when you're searching for something—ideal for students, parents or trip leaders. If organization is important to you, consider a panel loader.

Panel vs top loading daypack

Top-loading daypacks generally are simpler in design and a little lighter than panel loaders of a comparable size. They usually close with a drawstring and are easier to overstuff when needed.

Some top-loaders offer a "floating" (extendable) top lid that allows you to exceed the pack's stated capacity. This is valuable to climbers who carry a lot of gear during the approach but don't want to climb with a larger pack once most of the contents (rope, rack, shoes, helmet) are in use.

Top loaders with side compression straps also do a nice job of stabilizing a load, making them appealing to climbers, scramblers and skiers. The downside? Organizing and locating gear in a top loader can be a challenge.

A few daypacks offer dual access points—top and panel. That's a handy option.

What's the Best Size?

The sweet spot for most hiking and multisport daypacks is 30 liters (around 1,830 cubic inches). That's enough capacity to hold the Ten Essentials (for the list, see the REI Expert Advice article, the Ten Essentials) plus some extras.

Sizes vary by intended use. A trail-running pack may be designed to hold as little as 10 liters (610 cu. in.). A climbing pack may hold 40 to 50 liters (around 2,440 to 3,050 cu. in.).

Are you often a trip leader? Someone who carries extra gear for other members of your family such as small children? Look for a pack in the 40-liter range—perhaps even larger.

Match Your Pack with Your Activity

If you enjoy multiple outdoor pursuits, you may want more than one daypack. Here are the features that are best suited for each activity:

Day hiking:

  • Deuter trail pack

    An adequate capacity, typically 30 liters.
  • Side pockets (usually elasticized mesh slots that lie flat against the pack until you wedge an item into place).
  • Compartments (slots or pockets) for organizing small items and loose gear.
  • Hydration-system compatibility.


  • A capacity of 40 liters (about 2,400 cubic inches) or so to hold climbing gear (ropes, carabiners, etc.) or extra clothing.
  • A narrow-profile pack for rough terrain.
  • Padded back or a framesheet for more comfort with heavier loads.
  • Specialized features such as an ice axe loop, crampon patches and daisy chain for lashing gear.

A variety of load-stabilizing compression straps and a sternum strap are also valuable. Ask your climbing companions what features work best for them.

Ski touring:

  • A smooth, narrow profile is a plus.
  • Sternum strap and hipbelt are essential.
  • Ability to attach your skis to the pack
  • A secure place to keep your shovel and probe handy. 

Climbing packs often work very well for backcountry touring. Your range of travel (and extra clothing needed) will determine your capacity needs.

Trail running/adventure racing:

  • A lumbar pack, water-bottle pack or small technical daypack (at 25 liters or less) are all good choices.
  • Lumbar packs (also called waistpacks) are less inclined to shift while you run, and it's nice to keep your back clear so perspiration can escape.

Overnight backpacking:

If you have a minimalist's mentality and the gear to match it, a technical daypack can handle an overnight load. This is typically for an elite few.

  • The North Face school pack

    Padded back (or some type of framesheet) to help support a load
  • Modest lumbar pad and padded (though not necessarily beefy) hipbelt.
  • 1 or 2 aluminum stays to accommodate a heavier load.


  • Look for at least 1 divider, 2 or more compartments, a slot for stashing notebooks, space for your electronics and an organizer panel to hold small items.
  • A padded back panel will prevent corners of books from gouging your back.

Shop REI's section of daypacks.

Specialized Daypacks

Women-specific packs: The chief advantage here is improved fit for women, accomplished through contoured shoulder straps and, on some packs, a narrower design.

Camelbak hydration pack

Hydration packs: Most daypacks sold at REI are compatible with common hydration reservoir systems ranging from 1 to 3 liters. (Often the reservoir with sip tube are sold separately.) Packs labeled "hydration packs" come equipped with reservoirs and hose systems and thus likely cost a bit more than "hydration-compatible" packs.

Lumbar packs: These are waistpacks that ride on the small of your back as well as your waist. Their snug, stable design is very popular with trail runners.

Sling bags/courier bags: Designed to be worn over one shoulder, these "messenger bags" are popular among cyclists. People like their easy access.

Ventilated Back Panels

Some packs use lightweight framing (or other engineering techniques) to suspend the load away from your back. The result: A steady flow of air can reach your back. This delivers a big bonus in comfort on warm days.

These packs may not be your best choice for heavy loads—a heavy load suspended away from your body could affect your balance. If you are shopping for such a pack at an REI store, try loading it with some weight and take a test-stroll around the store.

What Makes a Quality Daypack?

Parts of a pack front

Many stores sell daypacks. So which is a better value: A bargain pack from a big-box store or a more technical pack? How different can they be?"

While you'll initially save money with a bargain pack, you're likely to miss out on design refinements found in top-brand packs that deliver better performance, convenience and comfort. Such as:

Parts of a pack back

  • Padding, support and shaping: Shoulder straps and, on some models, scapula pads, offer plusher padding and great longevity in comfort; some packs include shaped bottoms or structured back panels to prevent loads from sagging, keeping items closer to your back.
  • Women-specific designs: Shoulder straps are contoured to comfortably conform to the female form; some offer narrower profiles.
  • Tougher fabrics at lighter weights: Discount packs commonly use weightier fabrics purchased in bulk to cut costs; more sophisticated packs may use a rugged 630-denier nylon that offers superb durability at a noticeable weight savings.
  • Ventilated back panels: Mentioned previously, these keep air flowing to your back to reduce the amount of sweat.
  • Sustainable fabrics and materials: An emerging trend already seen in packs from several leading brands.
  • Water-resistant zippers: Eliminates storm flaps, saving weight and creating a cleaner look.
  • Waistbelt pockets: Handy for keeping small items (energy gel packs, for instance) within easy but unobtrusive reach.
  • Hydration system compatibility: Some packs include sleeves for a hydration reservoir; most offer ports for a hydration hose.
  • Tool loops and daisy chains: External attachment points for your ice axe, crampons, climbing gear or trekking poles.
  • Gear-lashing systems: Some packs use bungee systems or straps and flaps to allow bulkier gear to be lashed to the outside of the pack.
  • Small but useful nuances, including:
    • Padded back panels
    • Media pockets, even earbud holders
    • Laptop slots or sleeves in school, commuter or travel packs
    • Organizers and keyholders

Fabrics and Coatings

Another differentiator of a quality daypack can be found in the materials used. Here is a quick fabric overview:

Nylon is frequently used because it withstands abrasion and tearing. Nylon twill, which features a sturdy diagonal weave, is also commonly used.

Ripstop fabrics (nylon or polyester) are woven in a manner that creates box- or diamond-shaped patterns, creating a reinforced grid. Such "ripstop" fabric inhibits a tear from expanding beyond its point of origin.

Kodra fabrics (usually nylon) use high-tenacity fibers to enhance resistance to abrasion and tears. Their downside: The burly fibers tend to be heavy. Kodra is a generic name for such fabrics; the brand-name variation is Cordura.

Nylon oxford is a light, smooth fabric (characterized by a plain weave) that has been used in pack construction for decades.

Nylon/polyester blends are principally used to provide different colors within a single fabric. It's a fashion thing.

Hypalon is flexible synthetic rubber used to reinforce areas of high abrasion, often the edges or key touch points of packs. It is sometimes used to create patches. It is used sparingly on packs due to its weight.

Just as significant as the type of fabric is the fabric's denier. Denier is a unit of fineness for the yarn of a fabric. As it relates to a pack, denier influences its abrasion resistance and, subsequently, its weight. Higher abrasion resistance comes with a higher denier fabric, which includes a corresponding higher weight. Packs made for the minimalist or ultralight explorer may use fabrics as light as 70 denier. Rough, tough ballistic nylon, meanwhile, is often rated 1,600 denier or higher.

Fabrics often feature 1 of 2 coatings:

Polyurethane (PU) is the standard coating applied to the interior walls of packs. It provides significant water resistance (though not waterproofness—so if you dunk your pack in a lake, its contents will eventually get wet).

Silicone is a coating (or impregnation) used on lightweight, low-denier fabrics to minimize weight. It provides very high tear strength, though silicone can break down faster than a PU coating. PU coatings may also provide better water resistance.

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