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Choosing a Daypack for Travel and Hiking

by Grant
Choosing a Daypack for Hiking and Traveling

Like every traveler, I am constantly looking for better bags, better gear. When I find something I like which works for me, I stick with it for years. A daypack is no different.

Finding a good daypack is all about what you are going to use it for. For me, I use one for both hiking trails in national parks and for touring cities on foot all day. Finding a daypack which meets all of those demands is pretty tough.

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What I Look for in a Travel Daypack

I want my daypack to be all things. It should be good for hiking a nine-mile trail in the backcountry of Yellowstone National Park. I want it to be something I can easily toss a change of clothes in and go up to my folks’ place in Dahlonega for the night. It should pack down to nothing and stuff in my pack for a month overseas.

Hiking Requirements

My main requirement for hiking is a hydration bladder sleeve. Bonnie and I both have a three-liter CamelBak which we take to make sure we have plenty of water for a day of hiking. This is essential.

The next requirement is the ability to take rain gear, cold weather gear, food, a camera, small tripod, first aid kit, map and compass, plus some basic emergency gear.

Lastly, the pack must be comfortable and easy to carry.

Travel Requirements

Walking around a city does not require everything needed for a good day hike, but a lot of the requirements are the same.

We need to be able to carry water. Whether that is a full CamelBak or a water bottle depends greatly on where we are going and how long we plan to stay out.

Rain gear is a must. Unless you are traveling to the desert, having basic rain gear handy is essential for spending the day exploring a city. For some folks, that is a good packable raincoat. For others, an umbrella will do. Both are useful and we are looking for a good travel umbrella to add to our gear.

An additional layer is always a good idea. Even in the summer, it can get cool at night very easily. Bonnie sometimes likes to carry a scarf. I prefer a pullover or long sleeve thermal shirt.

I also want the pack to handle my bridge camera, a small tripod and selfie stick.

The daypack should pack into my large backpack easily.

Finding what I want in one bag is hard and Bonnie and I have looked at several different packs along the way.

REI Flash 18

We bought our first Flash 18s back in 2012 and they have served us well for many years. They are light packs with a hydration sleeve and have held up over many uses. The packs have gone through a few design changes over the years, but you can basically count on the bag to be an 18-liter, lightweight pack.

It loads from the top, has a hydration sleeve, has a couple of mesh interior pockets and some very thin padding on the back. The chest and waist straps are removable, but we keep the buckle of the chest strap… it’s a whistle.

The current model weighs about 10 ounces and is designed to easily carry about 10 pounds of gear. We generally like how easy it is to open the pack and reach in to grab something; but, if what you need is at the bottom of the pack, it will take some digging.

For hiking, this pack is excellent. The addition of a zippered pocket on the outside makes for a great place to stuff a map or guidebook for easy access. Unfortunately, our packs don’t have this new feature. Bonnie still uses hers as her hiking daypack.

For traveling, the pack folds down reasonably well and holds everything you could want… Except for a water bottle. If you want to carry a bottle of water, you have to just stuff it in the back. Not very convenient and you have to worry about the bottle leaking on your gear.

We have hiked all over the place with this pack and taken it with us on our month-long trips to Italy and Eastern Europe.

REI Flash 22

The next step up is the Flash 22. I bought this to take on our trip to Italy last spring and it impressed me. 

Like the Flash 18, the pack is lightweight and designed for small loads and use on the trail. It is a 22-liter pack, so it adds some additional capacity, but also adds some additional weight (14.5 ounces vs. 10 ounces).

So, what do you get for nearly 50% more weight? The pack has a hydration sleeve, just like the Flash 18, but also has two mesh water bottle pockets on the side. The pockets are designed for a Nalagene-style bottle, so were a tad loose when I used my Kleen Kanteen. It wasn’t bad, but you do need to be mindful when setting the bag down.

The pack has a pair of mesh pockets inside which are perfect for a first aid kit or a compass.

The pack also has a “lid” which covers the main compartment. The lid has a zippered pocket for essentials and there is a large second zippered pocket which is perfect for snacks on the trail or a guidebook in a city.

The pack’s chest and waist straps are removable and the buckle for the chest strap is a whistle, just like the Flash 18. The padding on the back is more robust and has air channels, unlike the Flash 18.

My one grumble with the straps is moving the retention loop for the hydration bladder tube higher on the pack and placing it at an angle. It is not any easier to get the tube through the loop and makes it useless for attaching important gear to it. I typically would attach my knife to the strap on my Flash 18 when hiking. Now, a knife will fall off easily, so it must be stored inside the pack.

For hiking, this pack is just about perfect. While it does weigh more, the additional features, including loops for trekking poles, more than makeup for the weight.

For travel, it does not fold down quite as well as the Flash 18, but the flexibility of using either a water bottle or a hydration bladder makes it a solid choice. Additionally, the exterior pockets are a welcome improvement over having to dig in the pack for little essentials.

I broke in this pack on a weeklong trip to Italy followed up by hiking all over the American West this summer.

New Outlander 20L Daypack

For our 2017 trip to Italy, Bonnie picked up the New Outlander 20 liter daypack. The daypack packs down to next to nothing. That said, it does not have a hydration sleeve and the mesh pockets on the sides are just “ok” for holding a water bottle.

Because it is so collapsible, the pack itself does not have much form to it when not fully packed. As a result, a full water bottle can easily fall out. In terms of capacity, at 20 liters, it is solidly in between the Flash 18 and Flash 22. In terms of weight, it is the lightest of our daypacks at 7.4 ounces.

The pack has a main compartment and two exterior zippered pockets. The two exterior pockets are well-designed and provide good access to essentials.

In terms of hiking, this pack is not well-suited at all. There is no padding or venting on either the straps or back. While you can hike with a couple of water bottles, you would need to be conscious of how you set the pack down every-time to ensure the bottles don’t fall out.

In terms of travel, the pack’s packability makes up for a lot of the other shortcomings. Bonnie liked the pack well enough on our trip to Italy, but my Flash 22 impressed her as well.

Final Thoughts

If all you are doing is walking around in a city, the New Outlander daypack is easily the best choice. It packs down to nothing and weighs half of the Flash 22’s weight, plus it costs a lot less.

The Flash 18 pack is an excellent daypack and a good compromise between weight and features. We have really enjoyed our packs for years and they have traveled with us extensively.

In terms of versatility, your best bet is probably the REI Flash 22. It has the most features and still weighs less than a pound. I feel the Flash 22 adds so many other useful features it is worth the additional weight and it packs down to almost the same size.

The Flash 22 is easily my choice going forward.

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