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We travel with just one carry-on backpack each without an additional smaller bag. We find it easier to only have to worry about one bag and not all airlines allow a personal item along with your main piece of luggage. But what do we do about a daypack when we’re out exploring?
Sometimes I empty out my backpack (packing cubes make this easy) and we use that for long hikes, taking our laptops to a cafe, or a major supermarket shop. Simon’s Tortuga Outbreaker is a little too big to use as a daypack, but my Osprey Farpoint 40 works well when we have a lot to carry.
Often my main backpack is overkill, though, and we want something smaller for a day sightseeing. The solution is a packable daypack that fits inside your main luggage on travel days.
For the first six years of our nomadic life, we shared a lightweight, cotton shoulder bag that packed inside Simon’s backpack (or was used on long bus journeys to store snacks and water). It had a zippered opening and a long strap so I could wear it across my body for security, and unlike a backpack, it was easy to carry along with my main backpack when needed. These kinds of bags are available inexpensively in many countries. I like taking advantage of beautiful local textiles—I’ve bought them in India, Thailand, Guatemala, and Indonesia.
We also travel with a packable shopping/tote bag that weighs almost nothing and packs into a tiny pouch. It’s useful for shopping, beach trips, and carrying water and food when needed on travel days.
Simon is our main daypack carrier (I carry my camera bag which packs inside my backpack on travel days) and he was finding that the shoulder bag strained his back and shoulders. He wanted to try a packable backpack instead.
Packable backpacks are ultralight backpacks that compress into a small pouch and can easily fit inside your luggage. They come in a range of sizes, some very small and light with one compartment, others bulkier with many of the pockets and features you’d expect in a regular backpack.
There are a ton of options so we bought three models from Amazon to see which worked best for us. Our priority was something compact and light as we don’t want to add much extra weight to Simon’s backpack (our cotton shoulder bag only weighed 80g/2.8oz). We don’t need many features, although a zipped pocket for small items would be useful.
Here are the packable daypacks we tried out.
I really wanted to like the Sea to Summit daypack as it’s the lightest model available—just 68g/2.4oz—and folds down into a tiny pouch despite its 20-litre capacity. Unfortunately, we didn’t like how it looked. It’s made from a wrinkly fabric that rustles and feels flimsy but is actually very strong. It has no pockets or any shape or structure, so when it’s not completely full it sags and looks unattractive. It was the least comfortable of the backpacks we tried, the most expensive at $36/£25, and the bright colours stood out more than we wanted.
The Sea to Summit is a great option if weight and size are an absolute priority or you’ll only be using it occasionally, but it wasn’t the backpack for us.
The Friendly Swede was the largest and heaviest of the daypacks we tried at 221g/7.8oz with a 25-litre capacity. It has a zipped front pocket, two mesh water bottle pockets on the side, and a zipped inside pocket that doubles as the storage pouch it folds into. As with most packable daypacks, there’s no hip belt. We chose the simple black, but it also comes in bright blue.
The straps are fairly flimsy but it felt more robust and comfortable to carry that the Sea to Summit. The folded down size is much larger though.
The Friendly Swede is a very decent daypack and good value at $18/£16. It could have worked well for us, but it was slightly larger than we wanted.
The Gonex is very similar to The Friendly Swede with a black design (other colours are available), a zipped front pocket, two water bottle pockets, and an inside pocket that is also the storage pouch. It is a little smaller at 20 litres, lighter at 171g/6oz, and packs down to a slimmer package that is easier to pack. It’s excellent value at $13/£9.
Although The Friendly Swede was marginally more comfortable to carry, we chose the Gonex to save space and weight.
We’ve been using the Gonex for over eight months now and it has worked perfectly. It’s lightweight and packs in Simon’s backpack easily, but it fits a surprising amount of stuff—we can fit Simon’s 15-inch MacBook Pro in it along with my 11-inch laptop and 12-inch iPad Pro (all in cases). There’s no padding so it’s not the best option for electronics but we do use it for them occasionally.
The Gonex is comfortable to carry despite the minimal padding on the shoulder straps, although for long hikes with a heavy load my main backpack, the Osprey Farpoint 40, is a better option. The various pockets are convenient and it does everything we need it to.
Despite the lightweight fabric, it seems to be strong (it’s made from water and tear resistant nylon) and has stood up well to lots of use.
Which Packable Daypack is Best for You?
If you want the lightest possible backpack and don’t care what it looks like, go for the Sea to Summit.
If you need something more fully featured for frequent use, consider the REI Co-op Flash 18 Pack, which has a hip belt and space for a hydration reservoir, or the Outbreaker Daypack, which has padded straps and a laptop sleeve. Both of these are heavier than the bags reviewed above and don’t fold up into a pouch.
For us the Gonex ultralight travel backpack is ideal—it’s small, light, has a few pockets, and is remarkably good value.
Which packable daypack do you use?
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