Choosing a good backpack to bring with you each day during nature adventures is crucial—maybe one of the most important bits of gear we can bring while on adventures. It should be just as good for travel day as it is for the actual expedition, so we are asking a lot from this little stitched up piece of fabric.
I’ve seen lots of folks come with “the wrong” bag for travel, and I’ve of course had my fair share of bags in all shapes and sizes, ranging from proper hiking daypacks, to compartmentalized camera bags, to over-the-shoulder slings, to, well, just about anything you can think of. So, without sounding too high and mighty, I consider myself a bit of the expert in the matter.
Today I’m going to dive into all of the things to consider in choosing the best daypack for any adventure, and I might even name a few specific brands and makes and models. After all, my goal is to be helpful and get more people to travel better to explore our wild world and appreciate all of the beauty out there. Let’s dive in.
The very first thing to think about is overall size of the bag. This is something that I’ve obsessed with for many years.
On one hand it needs to be big enough to store all the stuff you plan on bringing from day to day, but on the other you need to make sure it’s small enough to allow for easy travel and moving about.
Sure, if you wanted to play it safe you could just get a suitcase-sized duffel and bring it everywhere, but then you’d just be apologizing to everyone you knock over on your way down the airplane aisle, or through hotel lobbies. And we know you want to be nicer than that.
So, most bags are measured in liters these days. You’ll usually see something printed on the outside of the bag like 18, 20, or 28. This denotes how much volume the bag actually holds. If you ever see a “+” symbol like a 24+2, that means that it’s 24 liters by default, but there is some expanded mode that adds another two liters. It might refer to a generous outside pocket, or maybe an expansion zipper. Either way, it can “become” a 26 liter bag.
To me, I like the bigger bags, as I’m often toting around a medical kit, camera, an extra lens, rain gear, water bottle, and even things like a laptop on air travel days. Thus, a 28, 30, or 32 liter bag is right for me.
However, again, you want the size to be pretty specific to your own needs, as a smaller bag is more nimble during travel. But one thing to keep on mind on this front is that an over-packed small bag is going to be less comfortable than an under-packed large bag. Smaller bags won’t have the structure and bracing that allow you to carry heavier loads comfortably, whereas bigger bags anticipate the weight and volume to fill the bag.
When thinking of what size bag to buy or bring on a trip, start really diving into what you think you’ll bring with you from day-to-day. For instance, are you definitely going to have extra layers or rain gear each and every day? Do you think you’ll carry your camera plus one or two extra lenses? Or, do you have far less and just mainly need something to carry a light jacket for cooler weather throughout the day.
Again, buying slightly bigger than you think you need is wise, as it’ll be more comfortable, not to mention more versatile if you plan to use it for multiple different adventures in various places around the world.
You’ll find that daypacks are split into two camps…those that have just one big pouch that is intended to fit everything, or multiple pockets so that you can organize your stuff. Look at it like a “school bag” vs. a “trekking bag.” School bags have little zippers to stash things like colored pencils and notecards, whereas big ol’ trekking bags are just meant to stuff all your junk into before you head out into the woods.
I personally like a balance between the two. One large “tube” for storage is just too messy and unorganized for travel, but having too many compartments just means I’m going to forget which one I put my passport or chapstick into (yes, I’m addicted to chapstick…Burt’s Bees to be exact).
On this front, many bags now feature a separate “laptop sleeve” area for safely storing an iPad or laptop in a nice little padded part of the bag. This is critical for me, as I do travel with my laptop. In addition, these areas can often double as a place to put a hydration bladder if you are indeed doing any big hiking where a hydration bladder is important.
In parallel with the above section, you’ll often find that some bags have big burley straps for your shoulders, lots of tension tighteners and maybe even a padded hip belt. These things are really great for heavy loads, but they can get in the way if you aren’t absolutely in need of them. That is, if you aren’t hiking for the majority of every day, carrying food, extra clothing, in addition to water and gear, you probably won’t want a beefy, padded hip belt.
But shoulder straps are another thing…these you’ll definitely want to inspect a bit. The things I’m looking for are ergonomics in the shape, the quality of the padding, and whether they can be customized at all with something called “load lifters.” Load lifter straps are located at the top of each shoulder strap that pull the entire top of the strap closer or further from the bag itself. It’s not a deal breaker to have these, but they really help in distributing the weight if you plan on weighing the bag down with lots of camera gear, etc.
Backpacks are getting more and more durable and water resistant, so it’s nice to “future proof” your bag investment by getting a newer material. If you can get something water resistant, that’s fantastic, but generally the best you’re going to get is a lightweight canvas material, plus an additional “rain cover” usually sold as an accessory. If you are physically going to a store to pick out a daypack, I recommend buying a rain cover at the same time so that you know you have the right size for the bag.
Outside gear storage
Not all bags will have outside pockets, loops, or hooks, but it’s something to indeed look out for. I’m not one to clip on a water bottle or hand sani gel, as they usually get caught on plane stairwells or seatbelts in cars. However, side pockets for water bottles/coffee mugs are super helpful. In addition, some bags will have a breathable mesh pouch on the outside face of the bag making it ideal for wet rain gear storage, or quick access to cold weather gear. I view this as an important bonus when choosing a bag.
Trying it on
If you are going to a proper outdoor store to pick out a great daypack, many stores will have weighted sandbags or similar that you can stuff in your bag to try it out. It’s obviously great to try the bag on without weight, but to really know what you’re getting into, I recommend loading it down with 10-25 pounds. That’s the only wait to really understand the features and comfort you’re buying.
Naming anything as perfect is a pretty big gamble, especially since I personally own several different backpacks. Each has a specific purpose and might be best for a certain kind of trip or adventure. However, if you can check all of the above boxes, you are indeed getting close to perfection, even if you yourself have several bags.
To name a few companies that are doing it right, I really like Osprey, as they have so, so many options to choose from and they are equally good with travel bags as they are proper hiking backpacks. Many of their makes and models combine both in just one model, like the Nebula 32 that I’m currently using (remember, 32 signifies that it’s a 32 liter bag).
I also really like Peak Design (pictured above), which is extremely customizable and is modular to hold lots of camera gear, in addition to all the normal outdoor gear you might bring with you on a nature adventure.
And there you go! I hope this helps a little in your quest to either pick out a new bag, or decide which one is right for your next adventure.