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Interested in hiking? Want to upgrade your current hiking pack? And what is a daypack?
A daypack can make the world of difference between falling out of love with the outdoors and feeling inspired everytime you get out for a hike.
Carrying a heavy pack (that isn’t designed for it) for a couple of hours can make hiking feel like not your thing. Nobody likes slogging away in the sun for hours with your right shoulder strap digging into your shoulder.
But having a pack designed for carrying heavy loads, that has a water bladder, and that has enough pockets (to access your snacks without taking off your pack) can make your experience in the outdoors a lot more memorable and inspiring.
What is the difference between backpacks and hiking daypacks?
The quick and easy answer is that daypacks are meant to hold enough supplies for a hike that will be completed within one day. While backpacking packs are meant for trips that involve spending nights in the wilderness while completing a hike.
There are a couple of major differentiating features between the two:
A hiking daypack is usually less than 30 liters, whereas a backpacking pack can be as large as 80+ liters.
There are packs that fall into sort of that “bridge” size of 30-38 liters. These could be used for either. (Usually as a daypack for multiple people or a backpack for short trips or ultralight backpacking)
My first daypack was an old Marmot brand daypack that was 20 liters, and it suited me great for solo day hikes. There is a general way of thinking that “more space is better”, but use caution with this because people tend to fill the space of their pack. This simply means, more space = more weight.
Depending on how much gear you are bringing on your hike (and for how many people or pets), you may end up with a relatively heavy pack. For most hikers, you want to avoid having your daypack weigh more than around 20 pounds.
Once you start getting above that, you would want to consider a backpacking pack as they are designed to better help distribute weight.
Water tends to sneakily be the heaviest item you pack, so remember to factor that into the equation while packing.
There are a couple of exceptions, but for the most part, daypacks are frameless packs, while backpacks have an internal frame.
An internal frame gives the backpack more structure and helps distribute the weight more evenly.
What are the features of a daypack?
With more and more pack companies entering the market, there are also unique features of daypacks out there.
Most daypacks have the same core features/characteristics:
10-30 liter capacity
Padded shoulder straps
Hydration bladder sleeve
Padded shoulder straps
Most daypacks nowadays have padded straps, designed for a comfortable experience. If you were just using the pack as a work bag or a gym bag, you could get away without padded straps. But since you will be hiking with more significant weight and potentially for hours at a time, padded shoulder straps are a must!
You can find daypacks with nicer hipbelts (padded + pockets), but many daypacks have a simple nylon strap as a hipbelt with no hipbelt pockets.
If you anticipate carrying a heavier load on a regular basis, I would splurge a little for a pack with a more substantial hipbelt and has two hipbelt pockets. They can help distribute some of the extra weight, plus it is nice to have a zippered pocket for snacks and one for your phone easily accessible!
Most daypacks and backpacks feature multiple exterior pockets. These could be zippered pockets or side/water bottle pockets.
External pockets are a great way to bring along extra gear without using up all of the space in the main compartment. I like to put water bottles, snacks, first aid equipment, maps, and any other item I don’t want to have to dig around for in external pockets.
Hydration bladder sleeve
More and more packs are coming with a hydration reservoir sleeve/pocket. These are sleeves/pockets that make the pack compatible with a hydration bladder. They are usually found on the interior of the back, along the back of the pack. (closest to you)
Some people love the convenience of using a hydration bladder (I have never been the biggest fan of them), so you will want to make sure your pack has one if use a bladder!
How big should my daypack be?
When deciding how big your pack should be, consider a couple of factors:
Carrying bulky items
If you are planning to regularly carry 15-20+ pounds, you will want to look at packs with more substantial shoulder straps and hipbelts. These will help ease the load a bit and make the pack more comfortable to carry.
You could also consider a smaller backpacking pack (35-42 liters) because they will often have more extensive suspension systems designed to better distribute heavier loads.
If you don’t anticipate carrying a lot of weight in your pack, something in the 20 liter range would work great!
Similarly, how you plan to use your pack will help guide you toward the right size of pack. If you will only be using it for hikes of less than a few hours, something in the 20 liter range would again make a lot of sense.
If you plan to use it for work and/or traveling, you could consider a travel pack or a packable pack. I like having a packable backpack because they can fold down to fit in your hand, making them easy to stow away when not using them while providing a basic pack for quick hikes or trips around town.
Carrying any bulky items
It is important to consider what items you will likely be carrying in your pack. For example, if you are taking extensive camera gear, you will likely need more space.
Or if you plan to take a puffy coat or winter coat while you hike in cooler conditions. These items don’t always pack down small, so you may want to consider getting something on the larger size (22-28 liters) to accommodate the extra layers/gear.
Do I need a daypack for hiking?
In my experience, not everyone needs a daypack for hiking. There are circumstances when a daypack is a must, and there are some when one is not needed.
Yes, you need a daypack
If you are a frequent hiker or do not already have some sort of backpack, you will want to invest in getting a daypack.
Daypacks have many features that a standard school backpack does not. Having a daypack designed for hiking that has the features and is the size that is right for you makes a huge difference in the hiking experience.
Getting a hiking daypack does not mean you have to spend tons of money either; there are plenty of quality daypacks out there for under $65.
No, you can consider not using one
If you are an infrequent hiker or someone who isn’t sure hiking is for them, I would caution against putting money into a quality pack right away.
Start with a cheap school backpack from Walmart or Target or one you have around the house. If you enjoy the experience of hiking, you can always upgrade later to a pack specifically designed for hiking.
Also, if you are never hiking for more than an hour or so, you can likely get away without a daypack. You would be fine with something like a fanny pack/hip pack to store your keys, phone, etc.
Can I use any regular backpacking for hiking?
There are no trail police that will stop you from using a regular old backpack. If you want to use your kid’s school pack to toss a couple of things in to have during your hike, go for it!
Hiking daypacks are designed with features in mind to make carrying weight more comfortable and provide adequate storage for whatever you may want to bring along with you on the trail.
But if you get along just fine without those features, there is no good reason to change!
If you are interested in hiking more, getting a designated hiking daypack is something you will want to explore.
There are a ton of hiking packs on the market, and it is easy to get overwhelmed by the number of options and daypack features.
Keep it simple and think about what features you need and maybe some that you would like to have. If you hate carrying around water bottles, look for hydration compatible packs. If you will be taking larger items, make sure you find one with a spacious main compartment.
More is not always better, but ensure you are getting everything you need. It will go a long way to making sure your outdoor adventures are enjoyable for years to come!