After researching dozens of packable daypacks across a spectrum of portability, features, and prices, and then packing, unpacking, loading, wearing, and drenching the 10 top-rated finalists during two rounds of testing, we’re confident that the L.L.Bean Stowaway Day Pack is the best for most travelers. It matched or bested every other pack we tested in organization, ergonomics, design, and construction quality.
Among the backpacks in our test group, the L.L.Bean Stowaway Day Pack offers the most versatile combination of comfort and organizational features. Fully unpacked, the Stowaway Day Pack performs almost as well as a dedicated backpack thanks to its ventilated and comfy straps and back panel, yet it still compresses down to the size of a 99¢ chip bag. While it isn’t the smallest or lightest of the daypacks we picked, it is one of the few equipped with a waist belt and sternum strap—which help with heavier loads—and the only one to combine that design with an external kangaroo pouch that can accommodate a pair of shoes, rain gear, or anything else you wouldn’t want to muck up the inside of the bag. Its ripstop-nylon construction sheds rain and resists wear better than cheaper polyester, but should anything go wrong, it’s covered by L.L.Bean’s legendary lifetime satisfaction guarantee.
If our top pick is unavailable, or if you want something more affordable, the Eddie Bauer Stowaway 20L Packable Pack is a slightly smaller runner-up that’s comparable to our top pick in organization features, build quality, and weather resistance, yet costs just a few dollars more than the generic $20 backpacks that are so popular on Amazon. However, next to our top pick this Eddie Bauer model has less padding and less ventilation, as well as no waist or sternum straps, making it a poor choice for heavier loads. It also doesn’t look great on taller people due to its smaller size. Overall, though, we’re willing to overlook those shortcomings given its lower price, especially since Eddie Bauer provides a lifetime guarantee for all its products if anything goes wrong.
The Matador Freerain24 Backpack is a good option if lightness, waterproofing, and portability are more important to you than comfort and organization. Its 5.5-ounce body is made from lightweight, waterproof materials and compresses down to the most compact package of all the options we tested—barely bigger than an iPhone. Its rolltop closure ensures that no amount of rain penetrates its 24-liter main compartment (although the front, zippered compartment can leak a bit). You don’t get the organization features, accessory straps, and padding of our top pick, but the Freerain24 is still a great option for backpackers and other people for whom packability is more important than packing abilities. However, despite the Freerain24’s superior construction, Matador covers it with only a one-year warranty limited to materials and workmanship.
Table of contents
- Why you should trust us
- Who should get this
- How we picked
- How we tested
- Our pick: L.L.Bean Stowaway Day Pack
- Runner-up: Eddie Bauer Stowaway 20L Packable Pack
- Waterproof, ultralight upgrade: Matador Freerain24 Backpack
- The competition
Why you should trust us
As an avid traveler, frequent conference attendee, and lover of the outdoors, I’ve found that packable daypacks have become an integral part of my life. This is my second year reviewing packable backpacks for The Wirecutter, during which time I’ve visited 13 cities in three countries and eight states. And between my editors on this piece (Michael Zhao and Geoff Morrison) and myself, we’ve worked remotely from every continent except Antarctica. I also spoke to Sara Morrow, an archaeologist who spends summers working expeditions on a small island off the coast of Ireland; she uses an older version of our runner-up pick to transport her tools, notebooks, and personal items between the base camp and dig sites, and considers it a necessity in the field.
Who should get this
Whether you’re traveling between campsites or cultural capitals, a good packable daypack represents a small investment of luggage space in exchange for a high return of function and flexibility. Expanded, it allows you to carry just what you need for the day and leave your main luggage behind. Compressed, it slips unobtrusively into your main pack when you’re traveling between major stops. It functions as a bridge between the big trip that gets you where you want to be and the smaller experiences that make the trip worthwhile.
Having a packable daypack gives you a lot of additional flexibility in planning your itinerary, regardless of your destination or purpose for traveling. For the short conferences I attend, a stowable daypack becomes the bridge between my suitcase and the conference site. On a cycling tour of the Oregon coast last year, a daypack allowed me to carry my camera, food, insulation, and trail maps on hikes in between days of riding.
How we picked
The number of packable daypacks has greatly expanded and diversified over the past year. In particular, we’ve seen hordes of cheap packs showing up on Amazon with just slight variations in design, specs, and brand names. On the opposite end, however, is a bumper crop of new technical packs geared toward ultralight hikers, climbers, and runners.
Depending on whether you plan to scale cliffs or tour museums, different features and functionalities become more or less important when you’re choosing a daypack. To help make sense of what to prioritize among the dozens of available options, we decided on common criteria through research and our own experiences. We pored over articles across the outdoors blogosphere, including other comparative reviews and advice from sources such as REI and OutdoorGearLab regarding what to look for in a daypack. We also spoke with a field archaeologist who uses our runner-up pick to transport her tools and personal items between digs.
- Weight, size, and capacity: The whole point of a stowable daypack is, well, its stowability, so its weight and its compressed size are important factors. This is arguably more the case for backpackers and less so for city travelers, but all owners need enough space to carry a decent and variable load. Weight, size, and carrying capacity generally correlate, except in more explicitly technical packs, which often cut down on weight and size for an increase in price.
- Ergonomic features: Stowable daypacks can look and feel like stuff sacks with straps, or they can be full, ergonomically shaped backpacks. The wearability of a bag usually comes down to its load distribution and support system. The best ones go beyond the minimally adjustable shoulder strap by adding adjustable sternum straps, a waist belt, and ventilated back panels that make long periods of wear much more comfortable. Missing a few of these features is fine if the price is right (less than $30), but they add a lot of versatility.
- Organization: Most stowable daypacks come with at least two compartments—the largest or main compartment and the (usually attached) pouch into which the whole pack stows away. Beyond those, internal dividers to organize cargo and external pockets that can keep small, frequent-use items in reach are both useful.
- Quality materials: Because a stowable daypack needs to take on so much when in use and to fold up discreetly to be put away, materials make the difference between a lightweight pack that feels cheap and flimsy versus one that you feel confident loading up with stuff. Higher-quality packs are usually made from lighter, stronger, and more water-resistant fabrics.
- Durable construction methods: The better packs also often feature more careful construction, visible in details such as tighter stitching, bar tacking at the seams, YKK zippers, and reinforced bottoms.
- External side pockets: Side pockets add relatively little bulk in exchange for so much convenience that we consider them essential. Plus, we figure that no matter what kind of traveling you’re doing, quick access to hydration or frequently used items (such as an umbrella or map) is important.
- A 20- to 25-liter capacity: This seems to be the ideal range for a pack that can hold a full day’s worth of stuff while remaining reasonably lightweight and portable. It’s enough to accommodate a MacBook or a 13-inch ultrabook, along with some rain protection, a camera, an extra layer, and whatever else you might need for a day about town. You can find larger, 30 L packable daypacks, but we skipped them because they aren’t padded sufficiently to carry that much stuff comfortably.
- Weather resistance: While total waterproofing is a lot to ask of a lightweight bag, you don’t want to risk losing an expensive camera whenever it rains a little. A pack should provide enough protection to get you out of the street and into shelter within a few minutes. As such, we chose packs whose water resistance was explicitly mentioned in the specs, and we looked for additional features such as lining, taped seams, and waterproof zippers.
We researched a couple dozen daypacks that ranged in design, functionality, features, and purpose—from rucksacks to panel-loaders, from ultra-lightweight to super-substantial, from city-sleek designs to technical bags equipped with pockets, clips, and other features for serious outdoor trekkers. Applying the above criteria left us with seven finalists of prices ranging from $15 to $80, which we then used ourselves over the course of several weeks.
How we tested
The only way to truly get a sense of what a backpack is like is to wear it with all the stuff you’d want to use packed inside. With that in mind, I packed each daypack with all the things one might typically carry for a day of travel: camera, phone, charger, wallet, keys, notebook, pens, energy bars, water bottle, sunglasses, sunscreen, and an extra layer. This combination of items weighed just shy of 11 pounds.
I distributed items among the extra compartments of each pack as seemed logical, and I adjusted any shoulder, sternum, and waist straps as needed to fit the packs close to my back. I then took a short hike with each. Afterward I added another 6 pounds of weight to see how the bags fit and felt with heavier loads—you wouldn’t want to go much heavier than that with one of these bags unless you really had to.
I also used each bag for a day in lieu of my commuter messenger bag, to see how each pack fared over a day of extended wear, unpacking, and repacking.
To test whether and how our selections lived up to their stowability claims, I unfolded and refolded each pack a number of times, observing the time and effort I had to put in to take it from its compressed form to its expanded form and back. While I was eventually able to fold all of them rapidly and easily, some models required more forethought, tricks, or brute force.
For water-resistance tests, I packed the main and exterior zip pockets with towels and subjected each pack to intervals under a showerhead to simulate the worst-case scenario of a torrential downpour.
Finally, since every person’s body is different and I am on the shorter side, Wirecutter outdoors staff writer Kit Dillon tried on all our picks during the photoshoot to confirm that they were comfortable for taller people as well.
Our pick: L.L.Bean Stowaway Day Pack
The L.L.Bean Stowaway Day Pack is the most versatile bag we tested, because it doesn’t compromise on features to attain packability. Despite weighing less than a pound (14 ounces), it has a full complement of pockets and ergonomic features, and it can fit up to 22 liters’ worth of stuff when fully unpacked. It leans outdoorsy in aesthetic, though our test unit’s black and gray colors would easily blend into any street scene. It’s also available in five other colors.
The Stowaway Day Pack had the most pockets of the packs in our test group. Most notably, it includes a clip-closed “kangaroo”-style external pocket that’s perfect for stashing a jacket or other bulky items that are good to have close at hand (or that you want to keep out of the main compartment, such as a used umbrella). Its side pockets are fashioned from a sturdy thick mesh that’s reinforced at the edges with nylon. They’re roomy enough to fit 32-ounce Nalgene water bottles and can also cinch down to keep narrower bottles from sliding around and falling out—a common issue with other daypacks we tested. Other little details, such as YKK zippers, a loop for attaching visibility lights, and elastic draw cords on the side pockets, all speak to its utility-maximizing design.
In addition to its excellent storage options, the Stowaway Day Pack stands out for its comfortable, padded, ventilated back panel and straps. Both the back panel and the wide, ergonomically curved shoulder straps are trimmed with ripstop nylon, filled with a lightweight layer of foam padding, and faced with breathable mesh. A waist belt helps take some of the weight off your shoulders when you really load it up. The only other bag we tested with this feature was the Patagonia Lightweight Travel Tote Pack, which costs twice as much and lacks the Stowaway Day Pack’s mesh back panel. We also appreciate that this L.L.Bean model’s waist straps and sternum straps adjust easily both horizontally and vertically to fit a wide variety of body types. This flexibility makes the Stowaway Day Pack a viable option for carrying heavier loads, whereas most other options strained our backs and shoulders.
The Stowaway Day Pack also held up well in our water-resistance testing. Its lightweight ripstop-nylon exterior shed water quickly and felt damp to the touch only after prolonged drenching. Most of the interior is lined with another layer of nylon; in our tests, that layer kept everything dry except for items pressed against or just underneath the zippers. (All of the zippered packs we tested leaked similarly, leading us to wonder: Is the waterproof zipper a unicorn?) We think this degree of water resistance will work well in all but the most torrential conditions. Overall, we wouldn’t knowingly take this L.L.Bean pack out into a storm (if that’s your intention, the Matador Freerain24 is a better option), but it will provide plenty of protection if you get caught in a sudden downpour.
The only inconvenience we found was that this pack was the most challenging to expand and to stow away. Given all of its padding and features—which we love—folding the Stowaway Day Pack back into its stowable form required more strategic folding and forceful stuffing compared with the less-padded models we tested. This process became easier with practice, however, and we believe that the superior strengths of the L.L.Bean model in every other respect make it the best stowable daypack overall.
Runner-up: Eddie Bauer Stowaway 20L Packable Pack
If the L.L.Bean Stowaway Day Pack is sold out, the Eddie Bauer Stowaway 20L Packable Pack is similar in design, functionality, and even name. Its cheaper ripstop-polyester exterior and basic design make this Eddie Bauer daypack feel a little rougher in the hand than the nylon L.L.Bean, but this bag’s careful construction, excellent weather resistance, and lifetime warranty make it a solid runner-up. However, it omits some of the ergonomic niceties of the L.L.Bean pack—most noticeably in the straps and back panel—and although it weighs less, it also carries slightly less.
The Stowaway 20L Packable Pack represents a clear step above the cheaper, sub-$20 bags we tested, such as the Hikpro, AmazonBasics, and New Outlander models. Despite costing just a few dollars more than those cheaper bags, the Eddie Bauer pack is made of noticeably higher-quality materials and built much more sturdily. Little details such as bar tacking, double stitching at the main opening, and YKK zippers speak to its superior build quality. It also feels better to wear than the cheaper options, and its paneled and shaped design just looks better.
Organizationally, the Eddie Bauer is very similar to the L.L.Bean, but there are a few slight differences, for better or worse. Both bags have large main compartments, but the Eddie Bauer has an additional interior Velcro divider against the back panel, which can be handy for keeping snacks separate from books, for example. In our tests, the exterior, top-zippered pocket was roomy enough to carry a wallet, phone, and keys. However, the vertical-zip, “shove-it” pocket is curiously designed—too large and awkwardly placed to hold the aforementioned essentials securely, and too small to hold an extra layer of clothing. It seems intended primarily for tall and thin items like a map or a tube of sunscreen. The side water-bottle pockets are a tad less roomy than the L.L.Bean’s, but they’re securely reinforced with ripstop nylon at the bottom, a thoughtful touch. Curiously, the Eddie Bauer website mentions an additional interior zip compartment inside the main compartment, but we didn’t see one.
Sara Morrow, the field archaeologist we spoke with, has used the Eddie Bauer Stowaway 20L Packable Pack in the field, and she told us her favorite feature was the set of four D-rings fastened to the outside of the backpack, which, when threaded with a bungee cord (not included), allowed her to transport a tarp. The L.L.Bean Stowaway Day Pack accomplishes a similar end by way of its kangaroo pouch, which we preferred since it could also fit a jacket, whereas a bungee is just another thing to carry when not in use.
Where the Eddie Bauer pack truly excelled, even beyond the L.L.Bean, was in our water-repellency tests: Its StormRepel-treated ripstop-polyester exterior shed water like a duck. The only issue, as with all of the other zippered packs we tested, was the material just under the zipper, which got damp during our prolonged shower tests.
If extended-term wearability is important to you, we recommend springing for the L.L.Bean pack. The Eddie Bauer model’s shoulder straps are wide and comfortable enough, and both the back panel and straps are faced with mesh, but overall we found it a less comfortable carrying experience. The lack of sternum and waist straps was especially uncomfortable when we were dealing with heavier loads.
Overall, the Eddie Bauer Stowaway 20L Packable Pack is a capable bag and tends to be a bit more affordable—but almost everything it does, the L.L.Bean Stowaway Day Pack does a little better.
Waterproof, ultralight upgrade: Matador Freerain24 Backpack
If you’re a minimalist traveler by preference or necessity and you don’t need as many bells, whistles, straps, or pockets, the Matador Freerain24 Backpack is a good choice if lightness and water resistance are your top priorities. It’s not as padded or comfortable as our other picks, but it weighs just 5.5 ounces, about a third as heavy as our top pick—it’s the lightest pack we tested. Fully compressed, it fits into an attached pouch about the size of a smartphone, whereas our other picks, once stowed, are more comparable in size to a 99¢ chip bag. Expanded, the Freerain24 carries up to 24 liters and 30 pounds of stuff, making it one of the most capacious bags we tested, as well. With its lack of sternum and waist straps, however, you probably won’t want to carry much more than 15 pounds.
For the Freerain24’s premium price, you get a bevy of brand-name, patented materials and components. The 30D siliconized nylon Cordura that makes up the body of the pack is ultralight but very densely woven, and everything from the fine fabric mesh of the bag’s surprisingly roomy side pockets to the YKK zipper to the taped interior seams should hold up to repeated use and occasional abuse.
As a result, the Freerain24 held up very well in our shower tests. The main compartment of the bag, with the aforementioned siliconized material, taped seams, and rolltop closure, essentially functions like a dry bag except under the most torrential exposure. (Matador recommends double-wrapping sensitive items such as electronics in their own plastic bags or other dry bags.) However, the zippered pocket on the front lets water in through the zipper, so you should avoid putting notebooks or electronics in there.
The Matador pack forgoes the extra compartments and structure of our other picks in favor of lightness and portability. As a result, it’s less ergonomic, and it can be a chore to wear for extended periods of time with heavy loads. Additionally, packing the bag efficiently and comfortably requires more forethought, since oddly shaped items can poke through the unpadded back panel. Without additional sternum and waist straps to supplement its minimally padded shoulder straps, carrying the full 30 pounds of the Matador’s capacity seems a bit ambitious. But it does have load-lifter straps on top of the shoulder straps that help to balance the weight and make things more bearable.
The Freerain24’s carrying pouch, separate from the body of the bag, works as a separate stuff sack, which makes expanding and compressing the pack especially simple (unless you were to lose the pouch).
In short, the Matador Freerain24 Backpack distinguished itself in our tests as an excellent minimalist option for anyone who needs the best bare-bones bag.
The Patagonia Lightweight Travel Tote Pack is a former top pick from our guide to the best travel gear. This model still holds up as a well-made, roomy pack with distinctive styling and versatility as either a backpack or a tote bag, and it performed well in most of our tests. Our new picks simply cost about half as much on most days. If the Patagonia’s appearance or its ability to convert into a tote is important to you, and if the price tag isn’t an issue, it’s still a fine choice. You can read more about it in our guide to our favorite tote bags.
We found the three sub-$20 daypacks we tested this year to be remarkably similar in design, functionality, and price, and all three performed similarly in our tests. Among them, the Hikpro Packable Backpack distinguished itself somewhat with its finer construction details, including shaped shoulder straps, relatively tighter stitching, and bar-tacking reinforcements at the seams. It was also the only one of the three with a reinforced bottom. If you absolutely refuse to spend more than $20, this is the model we suggest.
The AmazonBasics Ultralight Packable Day Pack was our least favorite, constructed from cheap-feeling materials and offering the fewest organization options—namely, just one zippered pocket apart from the main compartment. Its water-bottle pockets were too tight to fit our larger bottles, and its straight, minimally padded straps offered little support for our heavier loads.
The New Outlander 20L Packable Backpack is essentially the same bag as the AmazonBasics but features an additional external zip pocket and an interior coating that might help with weather resistance. We found its side pockets to be smaller, however, and its overall carrying capacity to be less.
The ChicoBag Travel Pack rePETe was our second choice last year. Its lightweight construction, compact size, comfortable straps, and environmentally friendly materials made it a lightweight and relatively budget-friendly alternative to our top pick at the time, but we chose not to test it this year because of its low capacity (15 liters) in light of its price ($30, same as the price of this year’s runner-up).
We also tested the REI Stuff Travel Daypack last year. Styled like a backpacking model, it features a top-flap zippered compartment that clips over a rucksack-style, draw-cord-closed main compartment. This arrangement proved unwieldy to pack and unpack quickly. Although we liked the look of the pack and its lighter weight relative to carrying capacity, its lack of structure and awkward design prompted us to cut it from our testing this year.
The Tortuga 20L Travel Daypack is similar in concept to our top pick from L.L.Bean. It has a plenitude of organization features, plus full back-panel and shoulder-strap padding and ventilation, but we didn’t like its lower build quality (flimsy external pockets; rough, cheap-feeling materials) and comparatively high price.