Reprinted from the August 2021, edition of HIKE ROCKY online magazine:

Story and photos by Murray Selleck, HIKE ROCKY’s equipment specialist

Day hiking is one of the great pleasures available for those of us living in the mountains and even for those just visiting. Equipment requirements are minimal. The hikes don't require long time commitments and they do offer the complete joy of being in the high country while - best of all - you're able to sleep at home in your own bed that same night! Day hikes can be a leisurely 1 or 2 hour affair or a dawn-to-dark mission with the goal of a long distance destination in mind.

The challenge with day hiking is pack size and how well your daypack carries the weight.

It is very a realistic situation to see someone out for an hour or two carry a large pack with a harness system designed to carry more weight. It is also very possible to see a day hiker using every bit of daylight on their hike to carry a pack that is incredibly lightweight with hardly a harness system to it all. There is a big difference between these two styles of hikers, and the duration of the hike can have little bearing on the size of the packs they carry.

How a pack carries the weight of the items you choose to take is an often overlooked aspect of purchasing a daypack. This is true whether you're looking to buy a day pack, or a pack that handles several days and nights out.

Practically every day, I have virtually the same conversation with customers in the mountain shop where I work about the volume of the pack they are considering purchasing. I advise not to fixate on that;

11 liters, 20 liters, 36 liters, 44 liters... day pack options are vast and the volume of the pack always depends on what a hiker likes to take with them.


One hiker may take everything under the sun as a “just in case” precaution. Don't get me wrong, This is very prudent, and Murphy’s Law says: if you don't have it you'll need it and if you do have it, you won't! And on the flip side, there’s is a hiker who practically takes nothing with them figuring it's “just a day hike.”

Who is right? Well, maybe they both are and maybe not. Human nature is a tough subject to get a handle on and every individual has their own distinct preferences

I often bring up the subject of weight with any customer looking to purchase a pack. The volume of a pack is certainly an important consideration, but the total weight of what is going into that pack should also play into their decision.

Simple packs that are designed to not carry much weight have thin, flat webbing for a hipbelt and narrow shoulder straps. As you go up the price and performance ladder of selection, packs have wider, more padded waist belts and shoulder straps. You gain comfort with these packs but you may not necessarily gain weight-carrying performance.

A key to how well a day pack carries weight is to look at its back panel, or frame sheet. How firm is it? A non-existent frame sheet will have all the weight of what you are carrying on your shoulders. A frame sheet with some structure will help spread that weight out and by transferring weight onto the hipbelt, giving your shoulders some relief. Some of the very best day packs that carry weight most effectively offer some kind of light-alloy wire or re-enforced frame sheet that will actually help lift the weight of your load onto your hips where weight is carried most effectively.

day pack lightThese two packs have little to no back panels. All the weight of what is inside the pack will be on the hikers shoulders. The pack on the left doesn’t even have a hip belt. The pack on the right has a very thin flat webbing hip belt with zero padding.  

day packThese two packs have better weight distribution and weight transfer to the hips. The pack on the left does have a pretty strong back panel to help support the load but the main weight will still be on the hikers shoulders. The pack on the right has a better harness system including two thin metal rods that help lift the weight from a hiker’s shoulders to the hips. The rods connect the hip belt to the lifter straps on top of the shoulder straps. By pulling in the lifter straps you are effectively lifting the weight from your shoulders onto your hips.  

day pack heavyThis pack has the best weight transfer of all the packs shown. While its hip belt is not substantial and has minimal padding the metal rods connecting the hip belt to the top of the shoulder straps have a larger diameter. They are stronger and the result is this pack can carry the most weight very comfortably.

When I day hike I do tend to carry a bit with me. Sometimes I carry two camera bodies, an extra camera lens, binoculars, rain gear, an extra layer of clothing, first aid kit, map and compass, lunch and snacks, bug juice and sunscreen, water, maybe a field guide or two, and depending on the weather maybe my camp stove! Yikes! The weight can add up!

So the next time you are looking to purchase a day pack don't just consider the volume of the pack but think about the pack's harness system and how well the pack will carry the weight of what you're taking.

You'll be a happy hiker if you do.

Day Pack Tip

I find myself helping pack-buying customers navigate all the suspension straps of their day packs. Way too often the first thing a person reaches for when they first put on a pack is to buckle the sternum strap. Stop!

Here is your pack-strap sequence for every pack you put on your back:

1. Start with the Hipbelt. Buckle the hipbelt first and snug it to the position you like on your hips.

2. Snug down the shoulder strap sliders to the hipbelt position.

3. Sternum strap. The sternum strap should sit center chest. Not too low. Not too high.

4. If your pack has lifter straps (the straps that connect the top of the pack to your shoulder straps) do these last.

Be cautious with the sternum and lifter straps. There is no reason to reef hard on either of these straps. Stop tightening these straps as soon as you feel a bit of tension or resistance.

If you tighten the sternum strap too much you'll constrict your lungs and make it hard to breathe!

If you tighten the lifter straps too much you'll contort the shoulder straps and pinch your shoulders causing discomfort. Shoulder straps should wrap comfortably around your shoulder from front to back.

Happy Hiking!


Read more like this on the HIKE ROCKY online magazine. Or: go to Rocky Mountain Day Hikes for detailed guides to trails that will soon become your favorite.