The sky is blue, sleeves are short, and we’re enjoying a lunchbreak atop a sun-soaked Lakeland fell, admiring the views and appreciating the weather. I look over to Trail photographer Tom Bailey who is delving into the depths of his cavernous rucksack for his sarnies. I glance at the svelte, compact pack I’ve been carrying, then back to Tom’s burly gear-hauler, adorned with extra pouches for cameras and lenses, and with a weighty looking tripod strapped to the side. “Don’t you ever wish you could get away with a lighter pack?” I ask. Tom looks up from his rummaging with a look of utter contempt on his face, his eyes burning the words ‘What the hell do you think?’ into my soul.
It was a stupid question. We’d all prefer to be carrying a smaller lighter pack, but it’s not always possible. In winter, the extra equipment, warm layers and food means that most of us need a large capacity rucksack for all our kit, while Tom Bailey would be better served by a yak. But come the summer months, on days when the lack of poor weather is more or less guaranteed even if the presence of great weather isn’t, we can get away with less gear, and that which we carry is lighter and more compact. These circumstances call for an equally lightweight and compact rucksack, enabling us to carry the limited kit we need while moving freely and easily through the hills, unencumbered by heavy luggage.
With these idyllic summer adventures in mind, we took a look at a range of rucksacks with capacities of 20-30 litres and tested them to find which are best. After all, while making a small light pack might be easy, ensuring that it’s still comfortable, functional, and up to the demands of the mountains is trickier. Here are those that made the cut…
What to look for in a 20-30 litre daypack
Frame: The frame provides rigidity and stability. Ultralight packs may be completely frameless, but other daypacks have an internal frame made from spring steel or aluminium. To save weight, others use a high-density plastic framesheet or a stiffened foam back panel. With lighter loads for summer day hikes, the importance of a strong, load-bearing back system is lessened.
Pockets: Zippered hipbelt pockets are handy for stashing gear you’ll need on-the-go. Internal zippered pockets are great for car keys or a wallet, and elasticated side pockets are perfect for water bottles. Some packs also feature large pockets made from stretchy mesh and a pocket (or sleeve) for a hydration bladder, as well as an outlet for the drinking hose.
Lid: The lid covers the main opening. Some are fixed to the pack, while others are detachable with a ‘floating’ design. A current trend is towards lidless packs.
Straps: External compression straps, webbing loops, toggles and bungee cords can be used for attaching items such as trekking poles and camping gear to the outside of your pack
Sizing: It’s vital to pick a backpack with a size appropriate for your torso length. Trying on a loaded pack is the easiest way to do this. Some backpacks come in various length options, some are adjustable via webbing straps or Velcro, and some come in only one size.
Back systems: Back panels made from perforated foam or padding carry the load directly next to the body. This approach is comfy and stable, with a close-to-the-body feel. Suspended mesh back panels, conversely, hold the pack’s bulk away from your back, which some hikers prefer, but can feel like the load is levering away from you. It’s all down to personal preference.
The best 20-30 litre summer daypacks
Deuter AC Lite 23
Verdict: A well-priced backpack with first-rate ventilation and a striking central zipper – but it might polarise opinion.
Feature 4/5 | Fit 4/5 | Comfort 5/5 | In Use 5/5 | Value 5/5
Overall score: 92%
Pros: Good ventilation, innovative central zip, comfort, price, women’s versions, sizes
Cons: Only one side drinks pocket, curved frame makes packing awkward
This pack strikes a nice balance between simplicity and innovation, and delivers a comfortable carrying experience at an excellent price. Particularly striking is the central zipper, which is a double-edged sword – it makes finding kit easy, but it sometimes feels like your stuff will fall out when you unzip it.
The other standout feature is the trampoline-style Aircomfort suspended mesh back panel. This provides first-rate ventilation, with an air gap between your back and the pack. But the load still feels relatively close to the body, and doesn’t give a sensation of levering you backwards like some packs do.
The frame (two thin and curved rods of spring steel in an X-shape) provides rigidity and stability, but the curve makes the interior awkwardly shaped for packing. The shoulder straps and hipbelt are vented and not particularly thickly padded, but the carrying experience is comfy nonetheless.
You also get a waterproof cover, hydration bladder sleeve, top zippered pocket, side zippered pocket and one side water bottle pocket. That’s a lot of bang for your buck.
Weight 936g | Volume 23 litres | Back sizes Regular, SL (slimline/women’s), EL (extra long) | Versions AC Lite 15 SL, AC Lite 17, AC Lite 22 SL, AC Lite 23, AC Lite 25 EL | Main fabrics 130D/210D high tenacity polyamide, 600D PU-coated polyester
Decathlon Quechua Mountain Hiking Backpack 20L – MH100
Verdict: A basic yet competent backpack at a bargain basement price – but it’s not the comfiest carry.
Features 4/5 | Fit 4/5 | Comfort 3/5 | In Use 3/5 | Value 5/5
Overall score: 76%
Pros: Incredible price, ample features, good hipbelt
Cons: Cheap materials, not the comfiest, short back length
The price is utterly bonkers, yet this pack is surprisingly competent and comfy. Of course, it’s far from the most premium product out there, but it does the basics well. For bargain hunters or new hillwalkers, it’s a money-saving revelation.
Let’s start with the negatives. The materials and components are on the cheaper end of the scale, there are no load-lifter straps, the short 44cm back length won’t suit taller hikers, ventilation isn’t the best, and the thick padding in the back panel’s corners give an odd carrying experience.
But there are loads of positives. The padded hipbelt is chunky and comfy with a good zippered pocket, the shoulder straps work fine, and the main compartment is spacious with a zippered valuables pocket and hydration bladder sleeve. The back system has good rigidity thanks to a central metal rod in the frame, and we got used to the back-panel and soon found it comfy. You also get an external lid pocket, webbing straps, and a zipper for quick access to the bottom of the pack.
Weight 814g | Volume 20 litres | Back sizes One size | Versions n/a | Main fabric 100% polyester with PU coating
Salewa MTN Trainer 28
Verdict: A good-sized, comfy, versatile, well-ventilated but expensive technical pack.
Features 5/5 | Fit 4/5 | Comfort 4/5 | In Use 5/5 | Value 4/5
Overall score: 88%
Pros: Good volume, ventilation, innovative, fully-featured, comfy carry
Cons: Expensive, flimsy(ish) plastic hardwear, slightly heavy
Starting with the negatives, this pack is expensive and there’s no front stash pocket or under-the-lid pocket, nor are there load lifter straps for stabilisation, while the plastic hardwear components (buckles and drawcords) don’t feel up to the price-point.
But that’s probably being fussy, because in testing we loved this pack. It felt highly technical, like a ‘real’ mountaineering daypack with a close-to-the-body fit, and the load-hauling comfort levels were top-notch, partly thanks to the frame’s centrally-positioned alloy stiffening bar. All-round ventilation is good too. The Dry Back Contact panel of EVA foam has 3D air channels to increase breathability, while the split shoulder straps are airier than all others here
Other features include a clever twin compression system, raincover, stretch side pockets, single hipbelt pocket and roomy lid pocket, in addition to a spacious main compartment. Best of all is the 28L volume: it hits a sweet spot, meaning you can use this pack all year long.
A second generation version – the MTN Trainer 2 28 – will be released later this year, with recycled fabrics, an upgraded back panel and 45g reduction in weight.
Weight 945g | Volume 28 litres | Back sizes One size | Versions MTN Trainer 22 WS (women’s), MTN Trainer 25, MTN Trainer 28 | Main fabric 100D and 280D nylon twill
Osprey Sportlite 25
Verdict: A fully-featured, sporty daypack featuring Osprey’s AirScape system – but not as advanced as the brand’s premium offerings.
Features 5/5 | Fit 4/5 | Comfort 4/5 | In Use 4/5 | Value 4/5
Overall score: 84%
Pros: Affordable price, fully-featured, comfy carry, lightweight
Cons: No raincover, not much rigidity
Osprey has a stellar reputation and its long-standing ranges – Talon/Tempest and Stratos/Sirrus – are award-winning. But if you’re after something different, the unisex Osprey Sportlite 25 is new for 2022. It’s a sporty-looking, minimalist 25-litre pack at an affordable price (£50 less than the Talon 26).
The AirScape back system – a tight mesh web atop two diagonally-ridged foam panels – delivers a comfortable carry. The mesh provides ventilation, yet you still get a stable feel, ideal for balance and freedom of movement. The frame is flexible, so will lack the stability and rigidity some hikers desire, but for light summer loads it’s fine.
The main selling point is the quantity of features: external hydration bladder sleeve, sternum strap whistle, hipbelt pockets, front stash pocket, ample straps and toggles, two bottle pockets, and three compartments. Some walkers will prefer the added tech and premium construction of more expensive Ospreys, and AirScape can still get sweaty. But ultimately this pack gives you Osprey’s long-standing expertise in a well-priced, sporty design.
Weight 810g | Volume 25 litres | Back sizes Small/medium, medium/ large | Versions Sportlite 15, Sportlite 20, Sportlite 25, Sportlite 30 | Main fabric 100D high-tenacity recycled nylon
Black Diamond Nitro 26
Verdict: A technical, well-made, spacious daypack with good features, but the back length will be too long for some.
Features 5/5 | Fit 4/5 | Comfort 4/5 | In Use 4/5 | Value 4/5
Overall score: 84%
Pros: Technical design, fully-featured, sturdy, spacious
Cons: Positioning of compression straps, back length too long for some, no raincover, slightly heavy
With a tall, streamlined design reminiscent of mountaineering and climbing packs, the Nitro 26 is unapologetically technical. It is a nice size, potentially suitable as a year-round pack, and feels comfy, balanced and durable.
The back system is perhaps a little simplistic, but it strikes a fine balance between comfort, ventilation and stability, making use of a ridged and perforated foam back panel with a breathable mesh. Internally, a spring steel frame provides good rigidity for load-carrying. During our tests in the Lake District, we were impressed by the close-to-the-body fit, but did notice slight lateral movement of the pack.
The hipbelt hugs your figure, providing good load transfer to the hips, and the shoulder straps are comfy and well-shaped. All-round features are impressive too, including two side bottle pockets, one hipbelt zippered pocket, a fleece-lined valuables pocket and a sturdy front stash pocket.
Minor gripes include the way the compression straps run across the main zipper and get in the way, plus the absence of a raincover, while the torso length (we measured 54cm) won’t suit shorter hikers.
Weight 947g | Volume 26 litres | Back sizes One size | Versions Nitro 22 | Main fabric 210D ripstop nylon
Inov-8 VentureLite 25
Verdict: A comfortable, light, minimalist, daypack with a unique approach, but this design won’t suit everyone.
Features 4/5 | Fit 4/5 | Comfort 4/5 | in Use 5/5 | Value 3/5
Overall score 80%
Pros: Very comfy, minimalist, lightest on test, unique approach
Cons: Over-priced, minimal ventilation, lacks some features
You get something totally different to the competition with this new-for-2022 pack. It has a trail running inspired design, with a lightweight construction (at 635g it’s easily the lightest pack on test) and a pared-back approach ideal for fast-hiking. Comfort levels are high, with a close-to-the-body fit and figure-hugging hipbelt, while the all-round performance is great. It feels like a larger version of a trail running vest, and will suit athletic hillwalkers moving dynamically through the mountains.
Features include two bottle pockets, compression straps, detachable hip fins (one with zippered pocket, one with mesh stash pocket), sternum strap, shoulder strap pockets, YKK Natulon recycled zippers, and internal hydration sleeve.
The back panel is simplistic – a moulded, ridged foam panel with mesh covering – and provides a tiny bit of ventilation but not much. There is little to no rigidity, but it’s not made for heavy loads. For light trips it delivers a comfy carrying experience.
The price, however, seems too high, particularly as you don’t get a raincover, lid pockets or a front stash pocket.
Weight 635g | Volume 25 litres | Back sizes One size (adjustable via Velcro) | Versions VentureLite 8, VentureLite 18, VentureLite 25 | Main fabric 210D 100% recycled nylon
Exped Impulse 20
Verdict: A minimalist, well-designed pack with a smaller volume – but poor ventilation.
Features 4/5 | Fit 4/5 | Comfort 4/5 | In Use 4/5 | Value 4/5
Overall score: 80%
Pros: Beautifully minimalist, good features, compact size
Cons: No ventilation, no raincover, simplistic back panel, fiddly compression system
Sometimes in summer you really don’t need to carry much in the mountains, and a 25- 30L pack can seem overkill – it’ll probably end up under-filled and thus droopy and misshaped. Conversely for many hillwalkers the 20L capacity of the Exped Impulse will hit a nice summer sweet spot, with just enough room for all you need.
The minimalist design is slick and stylish, with good features including a stretch-mesh front panel, hip pockets on either side of the waistbelt, two exterior side pockets (which take a 1L Nalgene bottle fine), internal mesh pouches for water bottles, wide zippered opening for easy access, reinforced base, and roll-away hydration sleeve. You also get daisy chain webbing, compression cord lacing, bungee cord trekking pole holders, and internal and external top pockets.
The back panel is a thin, flat and soft yet rather simplistic sheet of foam, which may polarise opinion. Some will find it very sweaty with inadequate ventilation and a lack of contouring to match the shape of your spine. Others will find the straight-backed design comfy and fuss-free, with a stable and close fit. The internal segment of the foam sheet can be removed and used as a sit-mat.
Weight 905g | Volume 20 litres | Back sizes One size | Versions Impulse 15, Impulse 20, Impulse 30 | Main fabric 210D Robic HD ripstop nylon
Lowe Alpine AirZone Active 22
Verdict: A lightweight, streamlined daypack with a suspended back system – but a shorter back length.
Features 4/5 | Fit 4/5 | Comfort 4/5 | In Use 4/5 | Value 4/5
Overall score: 80%
Pros: Good ventilation, comfy carry, fully-featured
Cons: Poor hipbelt, sits high on back, won’t suit all body shapes
There is a lot to like here. It’s lightweight, streamlined and well-ventilated, with a high-tech back system. Like the Deuter Aircomfort system, Lowe Alpine’s AirZone back panel – a trampoline-style sheet of suspended mesh paired with a gently-curved spring steel frame – creates an air gap between your body and the pack.
The perforated shoulder straps feel comfy, without being overly padded, but the hipbelt is a little disappointing – the minimalist fins are very small and only just grip the hips. In truth, it feels like a pack with just a waist strap rather than a full hipbelt.
All the other features you’d expect are here: raincover, two water bottle pockets, zippered valuables pocket, hydration bladder compatibility, quick-stash mesh pouch, sternum strap whistle, compression straps, key clip and trekking pole attachments. The lidless backpack is made from 210-denier robust ripstop nylon with a HydroShield weatherproof coating, providing a balance between weight and durability.
At 780g, it’s the second lightest on test. One drawback is the 46cm back length, which will sit high on taller hikers.
Weight 780g | Volume 22 litres | Back sizes One size | Versions AirZone Active 18, AirZone Active 22, AirZone Active 26 | Main fabric 210D ripstop nylon