Daypacks: How to Choose a Quality Small Day Hiking Backpack

Hiking is a choose-your-own-adventure activity: camp for a week in the wilderness, try an overnight in a national park, or hike for the afternoon and be home in time for dinner.

If that last option sounds most appealing to you, it might be time for a day hike. Contrary to the name, a day hike can last an entire day, a few minutes, or any length of time in between. The distance, duration, and difficulty level are entirely up to you.

But no matter how or where you hike, there’s one piece of gear that can make any hike better: a daypack. If you plan on hitting the trails this season, here’s how to choose the right daypack for your next trek.

In a Hurry? Here’s our top picks…

Daypacks 101

There are two main categories of packs: backpacks and daypacks. Most people are familiar with backpacks, the large packs used for backcountry camping or international travel. But they’re not the only pack option on the market, and for shorter excursions, traditional backpacks are too heavy and unwieldy.

Daypacks are small, lightweight packs. Like backpacks, they have shoulder straps and often come with a hip belt too. Some daypacks are designed for a specific purpose such as running or climbing but most styles can be used for hiking too.

If you’re headed on a hike that will last a day or less, you likely won’t need much gear, but you may want to carry a few items like snacks, water, and a jacket. That’s why a daypack is the perfect solution. It holds just enough gear but not so much that it’ll weigh you down.

best small daypacks for hiking

When choosing a daypack, here’s what to consider:

Activity: You can buy daypacks that are designed for hiking but it’s worth checking out options that are designed for other activities too. Daypacks for running are especially lightweight and streamlined, while daypacks for climbing tend to be more narrow. If you have a small frame or tend to hike short distances, you may prefer daypack styles that are designed for running. They usually have a built-in hydration system and just enough extra room for a snack and a phone.

Size: Most backpacks, including daypacks, are typically measured in liters. This measurement refers to the backpack’s capacity. Most daypacks are between 10 to 35 liters (though sometimes even less). Figure out how much gear you’ll need for a typical hike and make sure the pack you choose is large enough to hold it all. If possible, look at daypacks in person—and try them on—so you can better judge their size.

Fit: Fit is one of the most important factors to consider when choosing any kind of pack. The best way to find the ideal fit is to measure your torso length and hip size (if the pack comes with a hip belt). Some daypack styles comes in multiples sizes and if they do, these measurements will help you choose the correct size for you. There are even some daypacks with adjustable torso options.

Features: Whether you want a minimalist daypack or one with all the bells and whistles, here are some features to consider.

  • Material: Durable material like ripstop nylon is best. Look for water-resistant or waterproof material too.
  • Frame or frameless: Daypacks are available with built-in frames for extra support or there are frameless options.
  • Access: Most packs are top-loading but you may want to consider styles that offer side-loading or front-loading access.
  • Hydration: One of the main reasons for using a daypack is hydration. Make sure the one you choose has a built-in hydration system, a water bottle holder, or enough interior storage space for a water bottle.
  • Exterior storage: While it’s not always necessary, having pockets, straps, or hooks on the outside of a daypack can help free up space inside the pack.

Our Daypack Picks

If you’ve decided that a daypack is right for you, here some options:

This streamlined daypack has a 13-liter capacity and an additional front-zippered pocket and key clip. Padded straps, a hip belt, and vented mesh back make a comfortable option for day-hikers and travelers. It’s also available in 7 colors.

It’s hard to beat the simplicity and utility of Osprey’s Ultralight Stuff Pack. It has an 18-liter capacity but conveniently folds up into its own built-in storage pocket when it’s not in use. It has one main storage pocket accessed by dual zippers and an exterior pocket that can easily hold a water bottle. Mesh straps add to the comfort of this pack.

With an insulated 2-liter hydration compartment and bite-valve, this lightweight pack from Water Buffalo is designed for hydration. Yet for runners, cyclists, and hikers, it also offers a bit more: there’s a roomy main compartment, exterior pocket, and bungee to hold gear. Padded straps and a ventilated back keep you comfortable even on long hikes.

CamelBak has made a name for itself in hydration gear and their Rogue Hydration Pack is just one of many great options they offer. The Rogue has a lot of great hydration features: a 2-liter water reservoir, a quick-release flap for easy refills, a leak-proof bite valve, and a magnetic tube trap to ensure that water is always accessible. There’s also a zippered storage compartment that’s large enough to stash a rain jacket or extra layer.

Gregory’s Nano 16 backpack is a great all-purpose daypack. Its low-profile design along with its breathable back panel and padded straps make it an ideal pack for day hikes. Its 16-liter capacity makes it just large enough for the few items you’ll need on the trail and exterior mesh pockets provide a place to stash a water bottle.

Once you have your daypack, it’s time to hit the trail. If you’re new to hiking, check out our complete beginner’s guide to hiking.

Have the know-how but not sure where to go next? Here are the 10 best long-distance hiking trails in the U.S. including the legendary Appalachian Trail and the rugged Superior Hiking Trail. Day hiking portions of these long-distance trails can be a great way to experience them without the commitment of a long multi-day (or multi-week!) adventure.