Guide To Buying A Daypacks For Your Next Adventure

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Daypacks | Buyer’s Guide

Everything you need to know to help you decide on which hill and mountain walking pack will suit your needs.

Ventilated backs like this Lowe Alpine Air Zone create an air gap to improve cooling in hot conditions.

In a nutshell, daypacks are simply a glorified bag with shoulder straps large enough to carry everything you need for a day out on the hill. There’s a bewildering variety of them out there with different back systems, capacities, opening and pocket options and lots more.

Waling packs, climbing packs, ventilated packs, all-mountain packs. How do you choose? Our buyers’ guide will help you work out which features matter to you.

If you’re looking for reviews of specific 2016 daypacks, check out our Best Mountain Daypacks 2016 Review article.

Meanwhile many climbing packs use thermo-moulded foam to stop snow sticking.

How Much Capacity Do You Need?

Most daypacks are somewhere between 25 litres and 35 litres, but it all depends on what you carry for a typical day out, how light and compact your other kit is – modern waterproofs can be a fraction of the size of traditional mountain shells from ten years ago – and whether it’s winter or summer.

There’s no ‘right’ answer, but for most people with modern kit, a 30-litre pack should be ample for year-round use. If you fancy some lightweight backpacking too, a 35-litre pack might just about be large enough if you go lightweight.

Bottom Line: Try an existing bag for size and don’t forget that some packs include additional outside stash pockets and storage.

Some use a bit of both…

Back Systems

Arguably the key to how any pack carries is the back system. Ideally you want something that’s comfortable and supportive, not too hot in summer, but with foam that doesn’t soak up sweat and rain for instant discomfort once you put it back on after a stop. For winter use, a smooth, foam pad that snow doesn’t stick to and doesn’t absorb moisture is a good call.

Ventilated Backs

There are two main types of vented systems, those that use a suspended, trampoline-type tensioned mesh to create an air gap, which can work well, but may compromise the shape of the main pack compartment and can lever away from the back with heavier loads.

Foam Backs

Others try to create air channels close to the back, by using either blocks of foam or ridged foam incorporating air channels – less effective, but with less of an impact on carrying efficiency and arguably better for year-round use. Beware of spongey-feeling foam which may be comfortable, but also tends to soak up moisture.

Thermo Moulded Packs

Often used on technical mountain packs, thermo moulded backs use a smooth foam surface which won’t absorb water or allow snow to stick to it. They can feel sweaty in summer, but the pay off is lack of sogginess and a firm but usually supportive padding.


Finally, all but the most minimalist packs will include some sort of supportive stiffener or frame which not only provides more support, but will stop the contents of the pack sticking uncomfortably into your back.

Conventional lid access is slower in use, but provides a lid pocket and protection.


Few daypacks are adjustable for back length, but some – Osprey for example – come in several back lengths and a few can be adjusted if you are unusually tall or short. Short men should also consider women’s packs as an alternative option. Osprey has a smartphone app that will recommend the correct size for you base on images you take.

Bottom Line Whatever back type you go for, try the pack with a load similar to your normal carry before buying and make sure it feels comfortable and supportive. You may need to adjust tensioners and straps for best fit.


Modern walking packs in particular, tend to be multi-pocketed marvels with plenty of scope for stashing loose kit on the move and keeping items like cameras close to hand. Again it’s a personal call, but at the very least a zipped lid pocket to hold frequently used bits is dead handy.

We’re also big fans of hip-belt pockets for rapid access and at least one largish pocket where you can store, say, wet shell clothing or anything else you want quick access to without having to open the main pack.

Bottom Line Most walking packs have pockets, climbing packs tend to be more streamlined to avoid catching on rock, but usually have at least a lid pocket or similar.

Simple zipped-top access is light and quick as used by Force Ten

Main Openings

Conventional lids are still the most common access system, but there are plenty of alternatives including simple zip panels and fold-over and strap down flaps. Some packs even have additional side openings for ease of access. The one plus of the conventional lid system is that it tends to be quite weather resistant and, in some cases, allows for overloading of the pack.

Bottom Line It’s personal preference again, both lids and zips have pros and cons – lids are slower to use, heavier and bulkier, zips are quicker to use, but mean there’s no lid-pocket by definition.


Although most pack fabric is waterproof, generally seams aren’t taped or proofed, so in heavy rain they will leak and anything inside your pack will get wet. There are a few exceptions, Mountain Hardwear has a range of OutDry-proofed packs for example – see our Rainshadow 26 review – and Force Ten’s alpine packs have taped seams, but mostly you need an alternative solution.

Waxed cotton packs were once, you could even say historically, the main choice for wet weather use, and these seem to be making a comeback these days on the back of the current popularity of gear with a heritage-look. For examples of this, check out Fjällraven’s Kaipack and the Millican Fraser.

Bottom Line Most packs simply aren’t waterproof, so don’t expect them to be. Rain covers work, but can flap in windy conditions.

Gregory even offers a side access zip for faster access.


If you use a hydration system, make sure the pack has a sleeve and opening for the tube ideally making it possible to put the tube on the side you prefer along with some sort of retaining loop or clip on the shoulder strap. A few packs use a separate sleeve allowing you to refill the reservoir more easily on the move.

If you prefer bottles, a side stash pocket will give you the option of easy access, beware though, many are hard to reach without partially removing the pack and some are insecure. Try before buying.

Bottom Line We reckon hydration system compatibility is pretty much a must have for a modern mountain pack.


Some sort of compression system designed to cinch the pack down when it’s part loaded and stop things moving about is another feature we’d say is pretty much a must-have feature. Most are simple side-straps that are designed to pull the front panel in towards the back.

Bottom Line The faster you move, the more you need a compression system. Vital for running packs for example.

Elasticated mesh pockets work well for water bottles.

Pole And Axe Stowage

Loops for carrying trekking poles and/or ice axes are another default feature. Our favourite pole system is Osprey’s Stow-on-the-Go set-uo which lets you stash poles without removing your pack. On the ice axe front, simple shock cords and some sort of webbing loop work well and don’t ice up as easily as buckles.

Bottom Line Simple can be best, but for poles, Osprey has it nailed.

Walking Or Climbing Pack?

We’re going to look at this in more detail shortly, but stripped-down climbing packs can still be used for all-round mountain walking and scrambling, however most technical packs are stripped down and have minimal pockets and fairly basic back systems, so if you are mostly a walker, you’re probably better off with either a dedicated walking pack or a cross-over mountain all-rounder like the Montane Medusa or Boreas Muir Woods.

Bottom Line Climbing packs work best for climbing, but can also be used for walking, but walking packs with their bulkier pockets and larger waist-belts don’t work well for climbing or scrambling use.

Or use an oversized front pocket to store wet shell gear.


It’s worth spending some time and effort choosing a pack that works for you, not least because an uncomfortable pack will spoil your day and be a constant irritation. A good outdoor shop will let you load the pack up and try it for fit and comfort before buying.  That’s more important for larger packs, but it’s still worth doing with daypacks.

For individual reviews see our Best Mountain Daypacks 2016 Review article.

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