How to select a day pack?
March 23, 2015 2:53 PM   Subscribe

How should I select a day pack for hiking? What factors should I consider? What features should I think about?

I have never had a proper backpack for day hikes. I've recently started getting more into hiking, and I would like to have a backpack for this purpose. It would be a bonus if it was also good for taking on trips and carrying around while I see the sights. In case it matters: I'm a woman, in my 40s, plus-sized, about 5'5" tall and fairly new to hiking, but fit enough that I routinely walk medium distances (5-7 miles) on city streets.

I know I need to go to a store and try on day packs. I have easy access to a bunch of stores, like REI, Dick's Sporting Goods, Sports Authority, etc. and will be visiting however many it takes. But what features should I be looking for? I think I need a waist belt and a strap holster for my phone (so I can easily get it to take pictures, I promise I'm not texting from the trail). I probably need a hydration system (I drink a TON of water, even on cool days and short hikes, so even though I'm not climbing mountains, that feels like a feature I will regret not having).

What else should I look for and consider? I want this pack to last a long time, so I am not concerned about price. I'm more concerned that I'll see someone else on the trail with a feature I never thought of and feel regret. I would really appreciate links to specific bags with specific features -- seeing what you are talking about would help me understand.
posted by OrangeDisk to Sports, Hobbies, & Recreation (10 answers total) 10 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: Pretty much everything you'll see sold as a hiking day pack will have those features (if the hydration system's not included, it will have a slot in the back for it, and they're easy to buy separately.) The most important thing is whether you think it will fit you well and allow you to carry your gear comfortably. I know that REI keeps weighted sacks on hand that they'll fill the backpack with so that you can test it out in-store, and that's a really good way to try out packs. Wear a shirt similar to what you plan to while hiking, get the straps adjusted, jump up and down, keep it on for a while, and you'll have a good idea whether it's going to cause you problems . Practice reaching behind you to open the pockets, since that's probably the thing that will be most noticeable while hiking and what you'd envy about other hikers. The less often you've got to take your pack off to get at small items, the better.

Once you've got a good idea what brands/styles fit you, you can often find the previous year's bag available for a discount. The color's usually different, but otherwise it's the same, and that's a good way to get a known-good bag without paying a premium.
posted by asperity at 3:09 PM on March 23, 2015

Best answer: Yay hiking! A great daypack makes SO much of a difference. I used to go with my old Jansport backpack and it was fine, but once I got a legit daypack, day hikes became ridiculously simple.

This is pricey but I love the Osprey Women's Mira 26 Hydration Pack. You'll want to try on different packs for size -- they'll fit differently depending on the length of your spine and width of your shoulders. If you go to REI at a non-busy time, the salesperson (who does not work on commission, so pretty trustworthy IMO) will help you figure out the right fit.

Things I love about my Osprey pack:
- The back webbing. Normal backpacks have fabric right up against your back, which leads to a permanently wet, sweaty back. Not so with this pack which holds the fabric away from you.
- Hydration system. Plastic bladder FTW. Even though it's a pain to clean, it's so much more comfortable and convenient than lugging a water bottle(s) -- with the additional benefit of the water cooling your pack and your back.
- LOTS of pockets and tabs for storing stuff.
- It comes with a rain cover.

I actually snagged mine at an REI garage sale, where they unload returned items that they can't sell as new. If your REI does those sales, it's a great way to get cheap gear.

BTW, I usually stuff this REI Stuff Travel Pack into my larger daypack -- it's super lightweight and that way if you just want to toss your keys and a sandwich into a pack for a small walk, you can pull it out of your bag and go. #reijunkie
posted by rogerrogerwhatsyourrvectorvicto at 3:14 PM on March 23, 2015 [2 favorites]

Best answer: The last time I looked at day packs (8 years ago or so), they mostly seemed to have some kind of water bladder/tube accommoation. I like bottles, but my pack has a pouch to put a separately sold bladder in, and a hole to run the tube through at the top. So, don't assume you're going to need a camelback or something.

A lot will probably have to do with how much you plan to carry. My daypack is just a couple steps from being an overnight backpack, but I'm a large person, tend to carry the 10 essentials (there's a lot more than 10 things), and used to go hiking in very dry places so I'd need a to carry a gallon of water or so. So, my pack has a functional hip belt and a small bit of framing along the spine.

Otherwise, pockets along the side of the pack that you can reach without taking the pack off are nice. Some kind of belt you can clip things to with a carabiner. Don't be afraid of a bunch of straps, but have a salesperson walk you through adjustments.
posted by LionIndex at 3:17 PM on March 23, 2015

I have a Camelbak bladder that I can move between my daypack and my overnighting internal frame backpack. It's great. I think it's 2 or 3 liters.
posted by amaire at 3:52 PM on March 23, 2015 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Definitely make sure your day pack has at least one pocket (two would be even better) on the hip belt. These are great for storing snacks, chapstick, or other things you want easy access to without stopping.

Do you use trekking poles? Some daypack will come with extra loops and/or straps for stowing them along the side. This is great for packing the night before and not forgetting to take them to the car the next morning, or for stowing them if your hike gets scrambly and you need both hands. I think the new line of Osprey packs has loops you can use while you're still moving if you need your hands free temporarily. I'm jealous of this feature, though I haven't had a chance to try it and see if it works or if it's just a gimmick.

Most packs will also have a sternum strap. I like to use a magnetic clip to hold my hydration tube to that strap, but that's an easy after-market add on ($6 on Amazon) if the brand you end up with doesn't have it by default. Do be careful with that though -- I have demagnetized my compass by hanging it around my neck when I was using a magnetic clip, and if you hold the compass too close to your chest, it'll throw off your reading. You may not be carrying a compass yet, but you'll want to eventually (it's one of the 10-15 essentials!)

When you get a hydration system (and do get a hydration system -- you'll have an easier time staying hydrated when it's easier to access your water), there are a few things you should add on if they're not included:
1) A shutoff valve. It's easy to throw your pack in the car and have it end up sitting on the bite valve. Then you're short all that water AND your gear is soaked.
2) A cover for the bite valve. This keeps the mouthpiece out of the dirt when you stop for a bathroom break or lunch. You'll want this to match whatever brand bite valve you end up with. I think the tubing's all the same size, so if you like the bite valve of one brand and the bladder of another, you can swap them out. I like the Osprey or Platypus valves better than the Camelback ones -- I think they tend to leak less.
3) I like having a quick disconnect between the tube and the bladder (see the link to my bladder below). It makes it very easy to feed the tube through all the various holes and straps on the backpack and THEN hook it up to the bladder.

Don't bother with the inline filtration (you're not going to need it for day hikes) or the Camelbak Flow Meters (nifty, but apparently very inaccurate).

I have a Playtpus Big Zip, which is way easier to fill and clean than the bladders with the smaller openings. It's slightly more likely to leak if you don't get it zipped up right however.

You should definitely look at packs designed specifically for women. Otherwise, the sternum strap will ride up and choke you, the shoulder straps will cut in under your arms, and the whole thing will be misproportioned.

I like the smaller packable packs (REI's Flash 18 for instance) for day hikes when I'm backpacking, but I prefer my structured heavy duty day pack for longer day hikes (I have a Deuter, which I like OK but don't love. I think it's about 26 liters?). It can carry more weight more comfortably and has better organization.

I'm torn on the lower side pockets that people typically keep Nalgenes in. For me, the Nalgenes tend to fall out of underpacked packs (so I have to clip the lid loops to something to keep them in), and if my pack is fuller, I feel like I'm going to strain my shoulder pulling it out. I always end up asking a hiking partner to pull it out and put it back for me.

Keep an eye on REI -- they should be having their big spring sale within the next month or so. 20% off one item, and don't forget to sign up for a membership!
posted by natabat at 4:02 PM on March 23, 2015 [1 favorite]

Best answer: I would suggest you start (and end) at REI - they will have the widest selection and you'll almost certainly find someone knowledgable about hiking to help you select a pack. Don't get hung up on the features; there is a lot of specialization here. REI's catalog selection of day packs has 230 different models; many of these are specialized to be ultralight or for climbing or skiing or biking; those packs will end up having features you may never use. Within a given category, all of the packs are approximately equal with respect to features. There are packs that are proportioned to women. Biggest (perceived) decision point is probably whether to get one that comes bundled with a hydration system already or buy an after market bladder. There will be more packs without bladders than with, and bladders can be replaced, so I wouldn't worry too much about that. With a large selection, they'll come in gradual size increments, with more features showing up on the larger packs. Resist the temptation to get a larger one. 40 liters is 2,500 cubic inches - that would be an upper limit. Expect to pay somewhere between $70 and $120 depending on size and brand. So in summary: walk into REI, tell the person in the packs section that you are looking for a day pack, he or she will come up with several suggestions, try them all out by walking around the store with a sandbag or two in them, pick the one that feels most comfortable. Try to go on a day when they won't be busy, like a weekday evening early in the week, so you can get more attention.
posted by kovacs at 4:13 PM on March 23, 2015

Best answer: First, I highly recommend Outdoor Gear Lab for this sort of gear question, since they review a whole bunch of items and describe the pluses and minuses of each item. Here's their page for day backpacks and here's their page for hydration packs.

Second, I'd strongly recommend looking at the larger hydration packs, rather than a full day pack. I've had the CamelBak MULE (which I purchased before stumbling on Outdoor Gear Lab) for at least four years, and I have never wanted a larger pack when out for a day's adventure (mostly hiking or skiing). Maybe you need more space, but think pretty hard about what sort of things you'll be packing, and buy as small a pack as you can to keep the weight down.

For me, the day hike essentials are:
1) water (my pack carries three liters)
2) my small hiking kit, which includes a first aid kit (adjusted depending on the terrain - e.g. if I'm hiking where rattlesnakes live, I carry a bite kit), a head lamp, a small knife, a lighter, and a teeny roll of toilet paper)
4) at least one extra warm and/or waterproof layer - typically a thin wool pullover in the summer/puffy jacket in the winter, a waterproof shell if it could rain, and an extra pair of socks if I'm doing river crossings
5) food (lunch + an extra bar or two, just in case)
6) phone & keys
7) map/compass
8) small thing of sunscreen if I'm going to be out all day
9) bug spray if I'm hiking in an area where they live
10) collapsible dog bowl if my dogs are coming + treats/dog bars for them if we're out all day
11) steripen and small sport water bottle (with a carabiner to clip to my pack) if I'm going to be out for a long time in sunny weather and think I'll need more than 3 liters of water.

All of this fits easily enough into my pack, and the small pack size keeps me from overpacking with stuff I don't really need.

As long as you aren't (a) going off-trail in a remote area where you could get lost or (b) hiking in a situation where no one would realize you're missing for a day (like if you break an ankle on the trail and can't get back to the trailhead), you don't really need any more stuff. It's really common for folks to carry a ton of stuff when hiking, especially when you're just starting out, but it's much more enjoyable to go lightweight! Less weight on your back, less stuff when you're there to escape all the "stuff" of regular life.
posted by Jaclyn at 4:20 PM on March 23, 2015 [3 favorites]

Best answer: The back webbing. Normal backpacks have fabric right up against your back, which leads to a permanently wet, sweaty back. Not so with this pack which holds the fabric away from you.

Seconding this. I have a daypack with this feature and it's great. No sweaty back feeling!
posted by Blue Jello Elf at 5:03 PM on March 23, 2015 [1 favorite]

Personally I dislike wearing anything over my shoulders at all. I prefer a hip pack. I have a smaller one for day hikes and a bigger one for hike in/camp/hike out type hikes. Something kind of like this (the one I have is no longer available) works for me. It's FAR more comfortable far LESS restrictive to hike with the weight balanced on your hips rather than pulling at your back.
posted by WalkerWestridge at 8:25 PM on March 23, 2015 [1 favorite]

TNF Surge II is what you should be looking for.
posted by buzzman at 8:25 PM on March 23, 2015

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