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Best backpacks and bags for birding

Save your neck. Save your back. Bring your gear in a pack.

A man in a blue shirt pretends to be a dragon while wearing a dark blue backpack.
Zach does his best model impression while wearing his birding backpack.

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At Flocking Around, we provide PERSONAL advice on gear we use daily or have tested extensively. This is no clickbait site, we do not let AI drive the wheel, and we do not show products we do not believe in. ...Except for that one time. I promoted a hot sauce. I knew it was too strong, but I shared it anyway. Those poor toilets. RIP (rest in porcelain).

What to look for in a birdwatching backpack?

When purchasing a bag (for any reason), I consider the activity I am performing, the distance I will carry the pack (and myself), the equipment for all situations, and the potential obstacles I may face. Since almost all of my outdoor recreation consists of staring at birds for prolonged periods of time, I mainly consider the other main elements of my backpack needs. Below is how I view the needs of each topic.


Note: I over-consider and overpack. If my backpack recommendations break your back, send me a thank you email (and a future Valentine's Card) at info@flockingaround.com. I might even buy you dinner.


Distance carried

The distance I will likely cover most birding days is less than four miles. These are short, pre or post-work birdwatching excursions for some leisurely strolls to enjoy nature and some eBirding. I keep a small, light pack to carry only the essentials for these abbreviated trips to a local hotspot. I pack fewer emergency items, less water and food, and no backup batteries when I know I will have a quick turnaround from the field to home. Some of these short birdings will involve me bringing my camera. If that is the plan, I will upgrade from a light daypack to a camera bag with some daypack qualities. When I know I am about to hike to find more remote avian species (five miles or more), I carry a small, stiff-frame backpack that can comfortably hold much more weight. The distance and/or time planned for birding is the most critical factor I consider when making a backpack purchase. I keep a light pack (5-15L) or camera bag (20-30L) for a short birding stroll, and I will stuff my complete birding kit into a larger bag (35-45L) with more support and a hydration pack.


Note: If a bird makes me hike over eight miles to see it, it had better sing me one flocking good tune. Or I will leave a negative review! (See my bird reviews.)

 

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Type of gear

As you just read, longer trips for the Flocking Crew and I require a heftier backpack (35-45L). On these longer trips (those over 2.5 hours), the gear list involves a lot of bullet points. For such an extensive journey, you might see me pack the following:

Does this plethora of gear seem like overkill? You are correct. But the few times I needed one of these items, I was prepared. To hold my complete adventure kit, I use an Osprey 50L backpack that minimizes the weight and stress on my back and neck.


For quick trips, when I am carrying binoculars, bug spray, and water, and not much else, I can stick to lighter packs (8-26L) with a single or double pocket and two bottle pockets. Of course, when my gear has an upgrade of my camera and telephoto lens, I need more space. Just as necessary, I also need padding. Cameras are costly pieces of field gear, and I want to keep them wrapped up and safe!


Note: Yeah. I keep a lot of gear. I never want to be the headline "Body Belonging to Bad Boy Birder Found in Backwoods After Brief Brush with Bees, Bucks, and Bears." No self-respecting journalist would write that headline, but I do not want to be found in the woods and give a non-self-respecting journalist a chance to write it. (But if I do die that way, I sincerely hope someone writes my obituary with a headline like that.)


Obstacles

The obstacles I am referring to in this section are not from an exhaustive list of obstacles faced when birding. Instead, they are roadblocks or pitfalls that could befall your bag. These two potential issues are not preventable, but proper preparation can mitigate them!

Rainfall

When purchasing a backpack, confirm that your new bag comes with a custom-fitted rain cover or rain jacket to keep your belongings dry. This is especially important if your pack contains electronics like a camera and batteries. A bonus of having a backpack with a rain cover is the additional protection for phones and typical pocket items that can be quickly stashed away before a thorough soaking. All the bags I recommend in this article come with a water-resistant rain cover tucked into a pocket or are made with a rain-resistant material.


Theft

Perhaps the most significant consideration I have for a backpack is its ability to minimize the threat of theft. For this reason, all my bags have a third strap that I can clip across my chest. My camera bag holds the most valuable gear and is camouflaged quite well (against prying eyes). First, it is rather bland in appearance, almost appearing as if it is aged. Second, there is no indication that the bag is padded and has a compartment for a camera. The zipper for the camera is also lock-compatible. These three benefits encouraged me to purchase one for a Flocking Crew member! To anyone walking around us, the bags appear more likely to be filled with dirt than technical equipment.


Note: My best antitheft advice when carrying your birdwatching bag is to look as grumpy as an owl disturbed at noon. If you do not do a good grumpy face, look as creepy as possible. Either way works. Usually.


My favorite birding backpacks

I have already hinted at the types of bags I use when birding. While it may seem like three backpacks are excessive, I find them all extremely useful for everything from fieldwork to birding classes to casual bird walks. If I were to recommend a single overall backpack, it would be my day-use camera backpack. It is large enough for a camera, binoculars, tripod, extra gear, and water. BUT it is also very unassuming. Nobody would look twice at it, thinking it is full of pixel-packing treasures. For those looking for a variety of pack options, here is the rest of my list:


Favorite Day-Use Birding Pack

My everyday backpack when birding, going on short hikes, or if I just need to carry some extra gear with me is the Patagonia Refugio 26L backpack. It does not have a water bladder, but it does have two large side pockets that will hold 1L+ water bottles. It has multiple clip loops for attaching a GPS, bear spray, emergency whistle, compass, etc. The internal components of this pack include an extensive general rear pocket with a removable laptop sleeve closed by a single zipper, a medium pocket closed by a double zipper, and a shallow front pocket with quick access via a front-facing zipper.

This pack is light and fits almost everyone that wears it, which is why I love it so much! Full disclosure, this is a pricier bag. I received one for free through my day job at a conservation group. I was not paid or offered this bag as part of my recommendation. Instead, I was fortunate to receive it and fell in adoration with it quickly (not love, but definitely adoration)!


Favorite Day-Use Camera Birding Bag

There are two versions or types of this camera bag that I have purchased for day use: the single strap and the double strap. We use the gray single strap for the Flocking Crew, and the double strap I snagged to use for myself came in khaki. I wanted to feel like the Indiana Jones of birds, carrying a pack, so I went with the khaki bag. I like the quicker access from the single strap. Still, both camera packs have provided a safe and reliable space for cameras and other optics.

The packs have a padded back sleeve for the laptop, a large top pocket with a drawstring, a bottom padded pocket that is accessible from the front, and on the front of the camera pocket is a small pocket for quick access to smaller items. I keep my waterproof pens and Write-in-Rain notebooks here. There are smaller subpockets littered throughout these bags that help to organize cables and other small items. There are two side pockets for carrying up to 1L bottles of water.


The bag can weigh quite a bit while carrying a larger camera and lens set. Luckily, the double strap pack has hip straps to disperse the weight burden from your gear. There is a strap to hold a smaller tripod, and each bag comes with a rain cover for those torrential downpours.


Favorite Birding Hike Pack

Hikers probably hate hiking with me. I wear THE hiking boots, carry THE hiking bag, and eat THE hiking food, but I stop EVERY 3 minutes to identify birds, beasts, and blooms. I am not a hiker to hike. I am a hiker to see more birds and other unique natural wonders. Because of this annoying habit (to hikers), my hiking bag is full of all the gear I need to properly enjoy birds! I use the Osprey Stratos 36L bag for myself, and Osprey makes the Osprey Sirrus 36L bag for women. I carry my camera, binoculars, and tripod for the birds in this bag. Additionally, I pack water, food, and the rest of the extensive list of emergency items listed above.

The bag is organized with a single, large main pocket that I manage with specialized inserts for what I carry. There is a front pocket that I pack in items that I will need quick access to (keys, pen, notebook, phone, etc). There is a medium-sized pocket on top, where I keep an emergency first aid kit and toilet paper. There are two tiny pockets on the hip belt where I keep a knife, lens wipes, chapstick, matches, and a compass. The shoulder straps have multiple clip loops, and I attach my bear spray and GPS to these.


This bag shows off with a chest strap that includes an emergency whistle, a hip belt to redistribute weight, and a built-in rain jacket for the bag. There is a sleeve for a hydration reservoir in the main pocket of the bag, and a hose port allows the hose to be placed conveniently for drinking while moving.


Note: I feel like I look cool when wearing this bag. Then I look down and see my baked goods spilling over the hip belt. Then I deflate like a wacky-wavy-inflatable-arm-flailing-tubeman.


Favorite Camera Travel Bag

When traveling with a camera, I only think about the camera's safety and security. I want great padding, straps, a padded organizer, and some hard case element for the most fragile parts and pieces. Is this bag comfortable? Flock no. But I carry it as little as possible. Instead, it gets my camera from Point A to Point B, then I keep a smaller day bag to switch to when I'm away from home (and had to fly to get there). It has a multitude of pockets for every size and type of gear. There is a hip belt, chest strap, and tripod holder. It can hold a full-size camera and a myriad of lenses. The pack comes with organizers and a rain cover. Honestly, it is too much bag, but it does not have a stiff frame to help reduce the weight on my back.

Note: Trying to take these photos was more ridiculous than the edited versions you have seen. I looked ridiculous.


Packing all these thoughts up... into a backpack

This article was written with a heavy personal skew. I spent HOURS upon HOURS testing packs, buying the wrong pack, hating the pack, packing the pack up, sending the pack back, and becoming a bird super PAC. Okay, the last one is not true (yet). I just wanted to make an additional pack joke. The point is, I own too many birding bags, and my mistakes and successes can possibly help guide YOU to the correct bag without all the awful steps in between. If you have a favorite birding backpack, let me know in the comments below!


 

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Zach is showing off gear and encouraging visitors to check out his favorite gear on his Amazon Associate page.

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