After an extensive hunt (have you looked at the price of even small backpacks lately?), we finally found backpacks that met most of the criteria on our list and was also affordable.
Besides needing to look good (what?), we also wanted the packs to have a separate water bladder compartment, a top lid compartment, mesh side pockets, and personally, I like to have a waist strap on my pack to keep it from moving around too much on my back while scrambling up a mountainside. We also didn't want them to be too big, because bigger means heavier.
We searched for hours. Days. WEEKS, even. It's actually really hard to find a pack that hits all the points on your list and also doesn't cost $100 or more. Finally, we came across one that stood up to scrutiny.
Enter the Marmot Kompressor Plus 20L day pack.
Referring back to our list of must-haves:
1.) A water bladder compartment. This pack separates the water bladder compartment from the rest of the pack with a removable foam pad, and has a small velcro strap that fits through the top of the bladder to hold it upright and keep it from sinking down into the bottom of your pack. It also has a small drainage hole toward the bottom in the back, just in case your water bladder happens to leak or sweat. The drinking tube then fits through a small hole at the top of the pack and you can run it either left or right, depending on which side you like to drink from.
2.) A top lid pocket. Not only does this backpack have the top lid with a zip pocket, the whole thing can actually be stuffed into the lid itself, which makes it ultra packable and small for traveling. At first, I wished the top lid had a little bit more structure to it, since it tends to slide down a bit if you put anything remotely heavy in it (I have my headlamp, sunscreen, bug spray and band-aids/moleskin in there), but I've gotten used to it and it's really not that big of a deal.
3.) Mesh side pockets. There are actually two of these, one on each side of the pack. They're perfect for anything you like to keep handy on the outside of your pack - energy bars, an extra water bottle, a multi-tool/knife, a cell phone or small camera, etc. Isaiah has even been carrying a compact pair of binoculars while we hike and the side pocket works perfectly for those.
4.) Waist strap. This backpack does have a simple, unpadded adjustable waist strap, and it also has a sternum strap. I don't typically use sternum straps because they cut right across the center of my chest - and as a woman, that doesn't work so well - but Marmot actually did something pretty cool with this backpack. They made the sternum strap adjustable vertically, not just horizontally, so I can slide the strap higher up toward my collarbone if I do want to use it.
Front of the backpack. Yes, that is a Smokey the Bear keychain!
Internal water bladder pocket. This pack does not come with a water
bladder but we have these 2-liter Platypus bladders and they work great!
This pack also has a few little extra features that we weren't necessarily expecting but are definitely handy anyway.
1.) Built-in emergency whistle. It's built into the clip that attaches the sternum strap, and while it's probably not the best emergency whistle out there, it's certainly handy to have ready and available just in case.
2.) Trekking pole attachments. We don't usually carry trekking poles on our day hikes, just because we are rarely out for more than 4-5 hours, but the loop attachments are still a nice feature for a small day pack. I currently have a multi-tool clipped to one of mine but will definitely use it for trekking poles next time we go on a longer hike.
Adjustable sternum strap with built-in emergency whistle and waist strap.
Carabiners are mine - they're not included with the pack.
Top bungee loop to strap down trekking poles (I use mine to clip a multi-tool to
my pack if I'm not carrying trekking poles)
Lower loop also for helping to attach trekking poles. This loop could also
be used for an ice axe, small shovel, or any other larger tools you might
want to carry.
Now, for a few of my not-so-favorite things about this backpack. None of them are deal-breakers, obviously, but they're definitely things to consider if you're shopping for a backpack too.
1.) Lack of mesh padding (or any padding) on the back panel. One thing I do wish that Marmot had designed a little differently on this pack is the addition of at least a little bit of padding, preferably with a mesh covering, on the back panel. If you don't have a water bladder inside, the removable foam sheet helps a little bit, but if you do have the bladder inside it lays directly against your back. It's not uncomfortable necessarily, but you can feel it - and since there is no mesh, either, my back tends to get a little bit more sweaty than it normally would if there were any kind of airflow. Instead, it's just rip-stop nylon laying directly on your back, which isn't exactly breathable. The pack description says it's an "airmesh" back panel, but it doesn't really feel a whole lot different than the material that the rest of the pack is made from. It could be better.
2.) Lack of any internal pockets. I love the pockets that this backpack already has - the two mesh side pockets, a small mesh zip pocket on the front of the bag, and the top lid compartment - but I would really appreciate the addition of at least one small internal pocket, either open or zipped. Instead, there's just one big giant compartment inside, which means you can't separate smaller items from bigger ones. I usually carry my coat, a rain shell, an empty dry bag, my backpack rain cover, bear protection (a gun), and a few other smaller items. Because it's just one big compartment on the inside, all those items get mixed up together. Again, not the end of the world, just something to be aware of. I've considered stitching my own pocket onto the inside and if I end up doing that, I'll update this post.
3.) No included rain cover. With more expensive backpacks, a lot of times the manufacturer will include a rain cover that fits the pack perfectly and usually stashes away in its own little pocket on the bag somewhere. We've used these backpacks in light/medium rain before and they seemed to do okay. They weren't soaking wet inside, but in heavy rain for an extended period of time, since they're just nylon, I can't see them being very waterproof. We ended up buying our own rain covers (these, size small) separately. Another option would be to buy a bag liner (or just use a trash compactor bag like we do in our 75L backpacks).
Overall, though, these backpacks are pretty darn good. And, bonus - I was able to hunt one down online that was in a color I actually liked! So many backpacks are just black or gray, or very stereotypical "girl" colors like purple and hot pink.
One word of advice: Definitely shop around if you're considering buying this backpack. On the Marmot website, they're $59.00 but I was able to find ours on Moosejaw for $47.00 (at the time). I don't see my aqua colored one anymore, but Isaiah bought the gray/red one and it's really nice too.
Let me know if I can answer any more questions about the backpack for you! I'm hoping to do periodic reviews of our favorite (or not-so-favorite) hiking and backpacking/camping gear. I know when we're shopping around for gear it's nice to find extensive reviews that consist of more than just "It's great!" or "It's terrible!", so I'm hoping to help contribute a little bit myself.