How to Choose a Daypack

Male hiker wearing daypack while walking on rocky shelf in Pennsylvania forest

The daypack is tasked with carrying all of the essential gear for a day outside, making it a smaller cousin to the classic backpacking pack. Whether you’re heading out for a quick hike, an all-day epic, or anything in between, the right daypack can mean the difference between having a good day and having a great day. However, with so many options, finding the right pack can be a struggle. Luckily, whittling down the selection is simple — keep reading to learn how to choose a daypack and find the perfect pack for you!

Some of the things to consider when choosing a daypack:

Size Matters

Daypacks cover a broad spectrum of sizes, encompassing everything from bitty bags with capacities below 10 liters to huge haulers capable of carrying up to 50 liters. A simple way to figure out what size pack will work is to collect your kit (layers, first aid kit, hydration bladder, snacks, etc.) and see how much space they take up. When in doubt about what size pack to buy, a good rule of thumb is to err on the side of too large. It’s much easier to make a pack smaller than it is to make one larger. In fact, most daypacks feature a compression system for handling loads under maximum capacity. 

While a good understanding of your capacity requirements is a great starting point for choosing the best backpack to meet your needs, there are also some general rules for determining what capacity daypack you need:

  • Packs 10 liters and under are built for light and fast activities—as they only have enough room for minimal gear—such as trail running and cycling. 
  • Packs between 10 and 20 liters are a good choice for long trail runs, summer hikes, mountain biking, and everyday travel (like to the office or school). 
  • In general, daypacks between 20 and 30 liters are the ideal choice for most people. Packs in this size range deliver enough space for most day trips without being too bulky.
  • The additional layers and equipment necessary for winter hiking or specialized gear needed for activities such as rock climbing are what push some users to larger daypacks between 30 and 50 liters. Packs in this size range are also a popular choice for ultralight overnights and with parents who are carrying additional layers and food for their children.

Closure Style

Daypacks come with two distinct closure styles: panel-loading and top-loading. On panel-loading packs, the main compartment is accessed via a large opening on the main body of the pack, often on the front while the main compartment of a top-loading pack is accessed through an opening on top of the pack — most commonly secured with a cinch lock (like a stuff sack) or a roll-top (like a dry bag). 

  • Why Choose a Panel-Loading Pack – The most notable advantage of panel-loaders is the easy accessibility that their large, zippered openings offer to their contents, typically making them easier to pack and keep organized than top-loaders. This advantage is further amplified on panel packs with additional organizational pockets and sleeves.
  • Why Choose a Top-Loading Pack – Top-loading daypacks are the preferred choice of people who literally pack (or overpack) their daypacks, as there are no zippers to contend with or strain. Because small and essential items can easily get buried at the bottom of a top-loader, many of them feature a top lid for keeping important items easily accessible. The lids of some top-loading packs can be used as separate packs. Also, layers or other items can be carried under lids.

Women-Specific Fit 

woman hiking in mountains

Women’s-specific packs are designed to accommodate the differences between men’s and women’s bodies. Because women are typically smaller than men, women’s-specific daypacks have a shorter torso range. Additionally, women’s-specific daypacks have narrower and shorter shoulder straps, as well as shorter, differently shaped hip belts. However, we’re all built differently, so just because a pack says it is women’s-specific, that doesn’t mean it’s right for all women, nor does it exclude men — for example, the smaller sizes and narrow shoulders often make these packs a great choice for younger male hikers.

Youth-Specific Fit 

Much like women’s-specific packs address the unique needs of women, youth-specific packs take into account the needs of children. Youth-specific daypacks feature shoulder straps and hip belts that are smaller and shorter than their adult-sized counterparts. Youth-sized packs are also often more adjustable than adult packs to accommodate for the growth seen in kids. 

Adjustable Torso Length

Torso length is an important measurement when considering backpack fit. This is the distance from your C7 neck vertebrae to an imaginary line on your lower back which runs along the top of your hips. For an easy demonstration of how to measure this, check out this video.

Some daypacks, especially larger capacity ones, feature adjustable torso lengths that allow users to further dial in the fit. Packs with adjustable torsos are great choices for people who find getting a good fit with factory-sized packs difficult or those who are buying a pack for someone who’s still growing.

Hydration Compatible

The majority of daypacks feature a sleeve and port designed for use with a hydration bladder, and some packs even include the bladder itself. Even though hydration-compatible packs are commonplace, it’s a good idea to double check if the use of a bladder is preferred to bottles.


If the pack will be used in wet and rainy weather (remember even fair-weather hikers can get caught in an occasional storm), an included rain cover is a nice feature to look for, as they help keep both the pack and its contents dry. If the pack you love doesn’t come with a rain cover, don’t worry — pack rain covers can be purchased separately.

Activity-Specific Features 

Many daypacks hint to their intended use or include features targeted at one specific user group. Below are a few of the common activity-specific features found on today’s daypacks. 

  • Fast and light overnight: Although most daypacks are designed for done-in-a-day adventures, some users will stretch their limit by using them for ultralight overnights. A separate sleeping bag compartment is a handy feature for blistering-fast backpackers as it keeps the sleeping bag out of the way and promotes the even distribution of weight inside the pack. 
  • Commuters and travelers: A laptop or tablet compartment—a protective pocket for safeguarding electronics—is an important feature for those looking for a daypack to use every day or as a carry-on piece of luggage. 
  • Traveling on the road: People using their daypack for cycling, running on the road, or commuting may be drawn to a pack with reflectivity for increasing their visibility and safety. 
  • Cycling: Daypacks designed for cycling are low-profile and built to not interfere with a cyclist’s pedaling or affect their balance. Many cycling-specific packs feature special pockets for carrying multi-tools, spare tubes, and pumps. 
  • Trail Running: Trail running daypacks are built to minimize bouncing. Many trail running daypacks feature vest-like construction to stabilize loads and reduce chafing, while also featuring pockets that are easily accessible when on the move.  
  • Climbers: It’s not uncommon that daypacks designed with climbers in mind feature a handful of special features for coping with climbing gear, such as special straps for carrying a rope and attachments for securing ice axes and crampons. 
  • Snow Sports: Daypacks designed for snow sports feature ski/snowboard carry options along with special pockets for helmets, goggles, and avalanche gear. Ski- and snowboard-specific daypacks also reinforce areas that may come into contact with sharp edges. Additionally, many snow-sport specific packs are built to handle frigid winter temps with insulation around the hydration bladder and tube to avoid freezing.



Questions? Talk to a gear specialist.