(Note: Our reviewers field test everything that we feature, and we never get paid to endorse any product.)
When you're out in the field, your focus should be on the birds, not on the gear you're lugging around. A good backpack can make for a more comfortable, enjoyable outing, and extend the time you spend in search of your target species.
Our reviewers tested daypacks in a variety of settings, from local parks to rugged mountains to exotic beaches. Our youngest reviewer, age 11, is a budding birder, and the adults include experienced birders and professional photographers.
Most of these bags comes in a range of colors, including muted hues that allow you to better blend in with your surroundings and avoid startling or scaring off your quarry.
This versatile bag performed well in a variety of settings. “It fits all my mountain layers, snacks, and field guides during long hikes as well as my 15-inch MacBook Pro, books, and my multiple baggies of toiletries when traveling,” said our reviewer. “This pack can be used for the smallest or biggest day adventure.” A front zipper allows easy access to items at the middle of the pack, and she appreciated the two roomy side pockets that kept her “giant fat Nalgene” securely in place; a 3-liter bladder also fits nicely into the dedicated compartment. The padded shoulder straps and grooves in the hip belt made the pack comfortable to wear for hours, even when fully loaded. The back panel can be configured in two ways, either in full contact with the back for a maximum ergonomic fit or with a space to allow for ventilation. A rain cover is included. More: from $129; 15- or 25-liter capacity; exped.com
The overall lightness and sturdiness of this female-specific bag, combined with the cushy shoulder support and moisture-wicking back panel, made it an ideal accessory for chasing birds across Anza-Borrego Desert State Park. Our reviewer found it roomy enough for field equipment—including binoculars, a small scope, and a variety of field notebooks and guides—and snacks, even with hydration bag (included with the pack) at full capacity, and noted the plethora of clips and mesh pockets were useful for stowing even odd-shaped objects. While the dual mesh side pockets were great for quick storage, our reviewer doesn’t recommend storing valuables in them: “Somewhere in the badlands there’s a trail of flavor-changing Tic Tacs.” The men’s version is the Citro. More: from $120; 20, 25, or 30 liters; gregorypacks.com
Patagonia Lightweight Blackhole Cinch Pack
Our reviewer found himself reaching for this bag again and again—on hours-long excursions in the Alps, urban hikes, and when commuting via bicycle to work. “It’s surprisingly comfortable for having so little structure,” he said. The lightweight, roomy pack fits easily into larger travel luggage, and the durable nylon ripstop fabric stood up to being tossed down on rocky and muddy ground. The cinch-top makes for easy access to the main compartment, and the exterior zippered pocket is conveniently located. The padded straps and back panel provide a nice amount of cushioning, but heavy perspirers will find that the foam absorbs moisture (it didn’t didn’t bother our sweaty reviewer, but he thought you should know). The pack does not have hip belt, but our reviewer found that the sternum strap provided plenty of extra support when the bag was stuffed with field guides, water, and extra layers. More: $79; 20 liters; patagonia.com
Eagle Creek Mission Control
The Mission Control bag is the 1975 Coupe Deville of backpacks: It’s roomy inside and smooth outside, and you can move around in cushioned, vented comfort all day and well into the night. “You can fit an insane amount of stuff in its various compartments,” said our reviewer, noting that an expansion zipper increases the pack’s storage capacity from 38 to 42 liters. “On a reporting trip to Belize I easily crammed in bins, field guides, two audio recorders, full-size headphones, a camera, a computer, a Kindle, industrial-size bottles of insect repellent and sunscreen, sunglasses, and 15 things I cannot even recall right now.” While all that space allowed her to carry a single bag, she found that the pack doesn’t compress well when it isn’t stuffed. It also made for a heavy load, which the padded hip belt and sternum strap helped to offset; use the straps when the bag is full, she urges, “otherwise you’ll end up with a tired back, or the slightest lack of balance will send you toppling over like a fire-gutted giant sequoia.” The Mission Control is made with durable, water-resistant material, features a padded electronics compartment, and comes with a rain cover. More: $179; 38 liters; eaglecreek.com
REI Co-Op Tarn 18
A Jansport bag is perfectly fine for carrying schoolbooks, but just as you wouldn’t bird with a briefcase, your young birder will appreciate the support of backpack designed for hiking provides on the trail. Our 11-year-old reviewer used this durable, adjustable pack throughout her science summer camp. She found that the padded shoulder straps, hip belt, and back made the bag “super comfortable for hiking and birding.” She liked the multiple interior compartments, in which she stashed sunscreen, bug spray, sunglasses, birding notebook, and other gear. The main downside for the reviewer, who is 5’2”, is that she’ll likely outgrow the backpack soon. The Tarn is compatible with a hydration reservoir, boasts three exterior mesh pockets, and its side compression straps make for a more secure fit and balanced load. More: $40; 18 liters; ages 8-12; rei.com
Manfrotto Pro Light Bumblebee-230
This easy-to-carry bag is spacious enough to fit all your camera gear in the dedicated compartment with flexible dividers, as well as extra clothing, sunscreen, and anything else you might need for a full day in the field. The water-repellant coating kept our reviewer’s contents dry on the wet, sandy beaches of the Bahamas where she photographed Piping Plovers, and the bag also comes with a two-sided cover: one side serves as a rain protector, while the other silver-colored side deflects sunlight to help protect gear from overheating. Our reviewer praised the back zipper that allowed easy access directly to the camera equipment, without having to dig through the clothes and snacks she stashed in the top pouch. While the pockets on the hip belt were a little smaller than she’d have liked, the external straps on the back made it simple to add a tripod or spotting scope to the load. The Bumblebee weighs nearly six pounds and fits a pro model DSLR or video camera, up to 11 lenses, laptop, accessories, and a tripod on an external strap. More: $280, 20.87 x 12.6 x 10.24 inches; manfotto.us
LowePro Dry Zone 200
It was raining steadily when a helicopter dropped off our reviewer at a weather station on top of the Hawaiian island Kaua’i. His Dry Zone bag, containing all of his camera gear, sat in the drizzle for several minutes while the helicopter took off, but none of the contents got wet. Beyond being waterproof, he found that inside of the soft-sided pack was well divided and comfortably fit everything he needed for a rigorous outing in the field. The adjustable padded camera compartment allowed for a custom arrangement of his equipment, and the plush shoulder strap and hip belt made for comfortable hiking even with the pack filled to capacity. While getting in and out of the bag was a bit difficult when he was in a hurry, our reviewer notes that the comfort, and most importantly protection of his equipment, was undisputed: “When it comes to rain, travel involving rivers, lakes, or oceans, this is the pack I will use to transport my camera gear.” The Dry Zone weighs nearly seven pounds and fits a pro model DSLR or video camera, four to five extra lenses (up to 300mm f/2.8 with hood reversed), accessories, and a tripod on an external strap. More info: $360; 14.57 x 11.42 x 19.09 inches; lowepro.com