A day pack (or daypack if you prefer) is a soft frameless pack that attaches to your shoulders and usually includes a hip band or waist belt for support. A good, small hiking backpack will last a lifetime.
High-quality day packs are made specifically for hiking so there’s no need to settle for a bike-bag, school backpack, laptop computer backpack or a pack fashioned for another sport. It’s best to purchase a hiking backpack at a specialty outdoors store.
Padding is crucial to a comfortable day pack. Padded shoulder pads are an absolute must, and go a long way in keeping the spring in your step. A good day pack has a padded back, as well. A wide, padded lumbar belt is important, too, because you want to try and put the weight on your hips and take it away from your neck and shoulder muscles.
Ten Features of a Good Day Pack
- Durable weather-proof fabric
- One-piece body construction
- Padded shoulder straps
- Padded back
- Wide, padded lumbar belt
- Sufficient pockets and compartments to suit your needs
- Side pouch for water bottle
- Strong buckles and straps
- Storm flap-covered zippers
- Strong top grab handle
Before you purchase a small backpack for hiking, put a little weight inside it and walk around the store. Check to be sure it really fits your frame. We hikers come in all shapes and sizes (and there’s major body differences between the sexes) so be assured that there’s no such thing as a one-size-fits-all day pack.
A modest-sized day pack measures about 16 inches high, 12 inches wide and about 6 inches deep. A larger day pack can be as 18 inches or more in length, 14 inches wide and more than 6 inches deep.
Day pack capacity is measured in cubic inches, with 1,000 to 1,500 cubic inches sufficient for most all-day adventures. If you’re the designated donkey in your hiking group or a parent toting gear for several kids, consider investing in a “weekend” day pack, a larger hiking backpack with a capacity of 2,000 to 3,000 cubic inches. (Europeans and other hikers around the world measure day pack capacity in liters. A typical day pack has between 15 and 30 liters of cargo room.)
With the Ten Essentials for Hikers, extra clothing, food, water, and a camera, figure that you’ll be toting 10 to 15 pounds of gear on a day hike. Sure you and your day pack can carry more weight, but remember you’re going day hiking not backpacking. Remember that the suspension systems of most small hiking backpack backs are not designed to support heavy loads so if you put too much weight in a day pack, that load will pull on your neck and shoulders and stress your frame.
As a general rule, you can comfortably carry 10 percent of your body weight in a well-designed small hiking backpack. Consider 15 percent of your body weight or 25 pounds as an absolute maximum load, even with a superior day pack.
Some day hikers, particularly those who hike in warm weather, prefer packs with a built-in hydration system. Remember that you’ll be giving up some storage capacity and have to pack around the pack’s built-in bladder sleeve. Some hydration backpacks are all bladder and no backpack—with minimal carrying capacity for anything but fluids. Other hydration backpacks are a better balance between water and cargo toting capacities.
Fanny packs have their fans among day hikers. Buy a good one with ample padding and storage. Look for rugged, covered zippers and easy access to pouches. Be sure the pack you choose comfortably carries water bottles.