Over the years I’ve referenced what bags I carry when I am out and about with the kids, when they were in diapers I called this my diaper bag, and now that they are out of diapers, but still not self-sufficient, it’s my dad bag. (Some of the older posts: here, here, and here.) The biggest struggle is not which bag, but what size bag you want to use for this purpose, and as the kids get older, I’ve found the decision is not any easier.
(Yes you can get buy without a dad bag, but then you rob yourself of two things: fewer tears, and getting to carry a great bag. So that’s pure madness.)
For those on Reddit, you might find me lurking around many subs and commenting here and there on posts, and I recently have been seeing many posts on this very topic, and frequently still get emails about this. I thought it was about time to write this all down and codify it for more people. So here’s my thoughts on how to choose a good dad bag for yourself, as well as what I use.
This is the single hardest consideration for your bag choice and is going to come down to a few factors:
- How large of a bag are you willing to deal with
- What do you want to carry
- What do your kids need you to carry
- How long are you carrying it for (longer does not always mean bigger, but can)
I can’t answer those for you, and the best way to figure it out is to grab the biggest backpack you already have, which you are willing to carry (question 2) and start carrying it and see how much of it you use. Even now, after five years of doing this, I still don’t know what to tell you. I’ve been fine with something as small as 10 liters in capacity and something as large as 26 liters in capacity. Since most backpacks you can find, which I would recommend, are either small (10-15L) or big (21-28L) I am going to talk about both those sizes generally.
Quick reminder: there’s no universal standard for capacity measurements with bags. While “liters” or “cubic inches” is generally easily found, you will find that they are not a very accurate way to measure things. It’s best to look at the measurements of current bags you have, and compare those to anything you look at. Even then, one 26L can back like another 33L.
There are a ton of advantages right off the bat to smaller bags. They carry much easier, allowing more air to hit your back (less back sweat) and making it far less likely you overheat in the summer. They also get out of the way faster when you sit down to relax, get on an amusement park ride, or duck in to a place to eat. Even storing them in the car is easier.
This is what is so compelling about having a small bag. Kids are already a lot of work to contain, the last thing you want is a bag which is also a hassle to deal with.
The downside is that I find my smaller bags are nearly 100% full every time I use them. Which means that should you procure any items along the way, they typically will not fit. Sometimes this is goodies you buy, but more often than not it is simply kids jackets or sweaters that they no longer need or want to wear. This can be a real pain: the point of a bag is to hold the stuff for you, and there’s nothing more frustrating than having a small bag and it not fitting what you want to carry once you are out and about.
This is the size most people think of when they think of a typical backpack. The good thing here is that they completely solve the not enough room problem I talked about in the last section. You almost always have enough room for whatever the trip, and whatever you might need to add to the bag during the trip.
The downside to bags this size is that they are bulky, hot to carry, and are harder to maneuver through crowds. You’ll also see far fewer people carrying a bag of this size, which can make you stand out more. Ideally, if you choose a bag of this size, you should make sure it is well within a good scale on your back, so as to make it easier to maneuver with, as well as it make it look less bulky on your body. This is why I stay away from brands like Jansport, whose idea of making a bag bigger is to make it stick out from your back more.
There’s simply no one good choice you can make. So my best advice is to look at what you have already. If you are starting from scratch, get the bigger bag as you will be able to use it for far more things. If you already have something larger, get a small bag to add to your gear, and then you can choose between both based on circumstances.
Generally speaking, I’ve found that smaller bags work better for amusement park type of venues, while larger bags work better for outdoorsy type of venues, and jaunts around the city. I highly doubt you’ll find one bag which will be ideal in every scenario, so always optimize for what you are likely to do the most. If in doubt, shoot for 19-21L in size.
While I don’t generally like a lot of extra pouches in my gear when I travel, with kids the extra organization can help a lot. I typically use three methods for organizing a dad bag:
- Packing Cube: I typically use long and skinny packing cubes from Tom Bihn for storing clothing changes, or diapers themselves. I had a ton of luck carrying diapers, ziploc bags, and wipes all in one cube. Making less gear I have to lay out in changing areas, and keeping everything quickly accessible. Likewise this is a good way to make sure a change of clothes stays clean while kicking around the bag. I consider my diaper kit in a packing cube to be one of the best things I figured out early on.
- Stuff Sack: I use stuff sacks for snacks, or wet clothing (Matador makes a great one for that, which is light weight, small, and waterproof). I again use small Tom Bihn stuff sacks to store and organize these in the bag. A #proTip on this is to separate snacks. I keep a healthy one and a fun snack bag, that way the kids don’t eat all the candy type snacks right off the bat.
- Small Pouch: I use a bunch of smaller pouches to keep smaller kits: things like small first aid kits, and anything else I might want quicker access to, but which isn’t well organized elsewhere. And also things I know I need to pull out before I travel. I can travel with my first aid kit and get through TSA, but I pull the survival kit so I know I got all the non-TSA approved shit out of my bag.
The key for me was always two things when setting up a dad bag:
- Making sure nothing falls out if I have to pick the bag up quickly and it isn’t secured.
- Making sure I can find what I need without rummaging around.
This is amplified with kids around as they are impatient and thus a little extra preparation and organization goes a long way to reducing stress all around.
There’s only a fraction of a second when the kids get out of the bath that they have clean hands. From there on out, stuff is going to get on the bag. Cotton, leather, or canvas, is a bad choice. It’s hard to clean and slow to dry. Be sure to keep that in mind when you are selecting your bag — it’s going to be in contact with sticky, slimy, grossness all day long. It should be able to be wiped clean and dry fast.
Expandable Space Options
No matter what size bag you choose, there will be times when you simply do not have enough room. There’s a few options I’ve found to deal with this: clip it on, tie it on, or make a way to expand the bag.
If the bag has exterior MOLLE style webbing, items like Triple Aught Design’s RDDP pouches offer a fast way to add a stuff sack which attaches to the outside of the pack. A great option for kids jackets.
Something like the Tom Bihn Smart Alec has elastic shock cord around the the outside which can easily accommodate a wide variety of items on a temporary basis. Lastly, if you noticed that GORUCK often shows their bags with a carabiner on the outside MOLLE, this is another solid option. I’ve slipped jackets through it, or clipped on shopping bags/backpacks which the kids might have wanted to carry. While this is a less than ideal way, it does free up your hands.
What I Carry
I still don’t have a solid solution for most of my day to day usage but there are a lot of options. Here’s what I am using right now:
- Outdoors: when out and about hiking or at the beach, I’m back to the GR1. It’s a well rounded bag for this this setup and isn’t going to be damaged in any conditions. It is also so comfortable that it’s worth the size.
- Around Town: Right now I am carrying the Triple Aught Design Azimuth. It’s a bit too large, but otherwise a great pack for its versatility, light weight and largely non-tactical look. This is still a bit in flux for me, ideally I would like a slimmer version of Outlier’s Quadzip (and cheaper). This bag is still in flux and likely to change.
Inside the bags, here’s what I carry generally:
- tissues, lots of tissues
- glasses cleaning cloth
- small first aid kit in Z-Packs pouch (band aids, triple antibiotic ointment, after bite, Advil for me and the kids, stuff like that)
- Matador picnic blanket (great for sitting on if the area you want to sit is gross)
- 3-5 1 gallon size freezer grade ziploc bags (so fucking handy)
- various snacks for kids and me (don’t forget snacks for yourself)
- Shemag (works well as a towel, or to wrap around them should they require a change of pants in public)
- Triple Aught Design Admin Organizer
- Two glow sticks (want to know how to calm your kids down when you stayed out a little too late and they are losing their shit? Give them these. I don’t carry them for any other reason.)
- 3/32” Nylon Cord
- Flashlight (Olight S15)
- lip balm
- Xtra-Small packtowel, for cleaning hands.
- Field Notes
- Space Pen Bullet
- Water bottle
- Matador Rain Drop Stuff sack
- When hiking, I add:
- Lightweight gloves (to protect my hands, not for warmth)
- Small survival kit in Z-packs pouch
- duct tape
- Nanostriker XL
- Knife Sharpener
- BIC Lighter
- I keep a permanent change of clothes for the kids in the car, but if I know we won’t be around the car at all for the day, I drop them in my bag inside a packing cube.
I change up the kit fairly often depending on the situation. Sometimes I add jackets, or layers, for the kids. Other times I jam in more snacks. All based on where, what, who, when, and experience. Always trust your gut. I’d rather come back with stuff not being used, than not having it. Once you decide to carry a backpack and extra couple pounds of shit you are not sure of really doesn’t make much of a difference in a good bag.
My list above is what works for my family. I know families who get by just fine and take nothing, and I know families who take far more. While I travel light personally, I travel luxuriously with my kids. One thing I learned far too late was that taking more with you has a real benefit on how much fun your kids, and ultimately you, have when out and about. It wasn’t that we didn’t have fun when I didn’t carry a bag, it’s that me carrying a bag relieves a lot of little stresses on everyone. Even just having a water bottle is quite stress relieving at times.
Lastly, just because I list specific bags here, doesn’t mean they are the only options. Really any bag works, it’s what is in them that counts, but for the bag nerds out there, I have a list below with my thoughts on each.
Backpacks to look at
- TAD Fast Pack Litespeed: It looks great, but is easily the most tactical looking of the bunch. The upside of that is the sheer amount of items you can quickly attach to the bag. It’s also a nice sized bag, take a look at the video to really get a sense of what I mean.
- TAD Spectre 22L: if you like the Litespeed, but want something less tactical, this is a good bet. It has many of the same features, with far less webbing that screams tactical. The one disadvantage is that the pack material will sound crunchy. I’ve not tried this bag, nor do I have much interest in it.
- TAD Azimuth Pack: Among the cheaper options, this is a really neat bag. It packs into its own pocket, making it a great bag to stowaway until you need it. It’s crunchy sounding, but light. The biggest downside is that it has no frame sheet, so it’s floppy and you are at the mercy of what and how you pack for comfort on your back. My advice here is to only get this if you know what I meant about the lack of frame sheet, and how to deal with it, when talking about packing this bag correctly. This is more of an advanced super light pack.
- Aer Fit Pack 2: I’ve already reviewed this, but if your budget is tight and you need one bag to handle work and play, I would put this near the top of the list. Great for office, and tons of space for other bulky things. It’s a solid bag, made even better by the price point.
- Tom Bihn Luminary: if you are looking to go small, this is a great option. It’s one of the few bags I’ve yet to try from Tom Bihn, but looks great. I think it will be a little small on most people over 6 feet tall, but that’s my only complaint.
- Tom Bihn Daylight Backpack: one of the best bags Tom Bihn makes, it has no structure and holds very little. But it also maintains such a low profile on your back that you hardly notice it. If a jacket, small first aid kit, and a water bottle is all you want to carry, this is what you want. But beware, it’s very small.
- Tom Bihn Synapse: if your budget is higher, but you want just one bag and nothing which looks tactical, here you go. I’ve only handled the bag, and not used it for extended time, but it’s a good bag and well regarded. It has a ton of built in storage, so if you like lots of pockets then here you go. They offer both a 19 and 25L bag, go 19L unless you are over 6’1” tall.
- Tom Bihn Smart Alec: this was my daily and everything bag for a very long time and I still love it. But packing it, as it is a top loaded bag, can be tricky so you need to be aware of that. The upside is that nothing is falling out of this bag. The elastic shock cord both keeps the pack size down when it’s not full and holds jackets when it is full. Love this bag. The newer versions they sell have attachment points of optional storage expansion, which is nice addition to the bag.
- GORUCK Bullet Ruck: I have tons of love for the Bullet, and at 10l it is one of the smallest. It’s built to last forever and set at a good price. It won’t hold tech well, but if you want a mild tactical look and primarily will use it for small goods, this is the best you can get.
- GORUCK GR1: if you want one bag to rule them all, this is it. Plain and simple. Best backpack money can buy. You could literally use this for anything. They sell both 21L and 26L models, if you are shorter, get the smaller bag. If you are bigger: good luck deciding.
- GORUCK Rucker: this is the GR1 without the laptop compartment. If you plan only to use this with out a laptop, this is the model to get as you save money and weight. The biggest downside is that they stitch the GORUCK spear logo on to the bag.
- Recycled Firefighter 12HR Backpack: this bag reminds me a lot of the GORUCK styling, but in a less tactical looking package. I’ve never tried, seen, or handled these bags so I can’t comment further. But it’s on my list of interest.
- Outlier Quadzip: among one of the best backpacks you can get, it’s light and amazing looking. Perhaps one of the best looking bags you can buy, but it’s also fucking expensive. It is also barebones as you get with just 3 pockets for the entire bag and one of those is a laptop sleeve. The zip system is clever and it won’t fail on you. Really good bag if you want to optimize for style, and weight. I do find it to be a bit loud, and not as good for heavier loads.
- Outlier Ultrahigh Rolltop: like the above. Only bigger and more expensive, I’ve never used it. Looks cool, and that’s really all I can say.
- Flowfold 10l Mini: this is the most inexpensive option and looks like a marriage between a Tom Bihn and GORUCK bag. It’s light, subtle in styling and yet looks solid. I’m being sent one (I think) for review, and I look forward to checking it out more. To me it looks like a bullet ruck without tactical styling and heavy materials, which seems like a winning combination.
Right now I am very happy with my GR1 as always, so finding a good bag for trips around the city where I want something a tad smaller is my top priority. The Azimuth is nice, but I am still torn on it.