The Best Backpacks for College That Suit a Range of Styles
By Crystal Lee
| Last Updated June 3, 2020
The best backpacks for college let you carry everything you need for class without straining your back. And you will likely need a different kind of bag than the one that got you through high school. After all, college students often have to carry more stuff and walk much farther than high schoolers do. The best college backpacks can handle a heavy load and last for years.
And you want to be careful about how you handle that heavy load. Big backpacks that overwhelm you can be a real hazard. Over 14,000 people in America seek medical treatment for backpack-related injuries each year. It's important to choose a backpack that fits you properly.
But a backpack can be more than a utilitarian accessory. It can also be a reflection of your personal style. To some people, the coolest backpacks are brightly colored and sporty-looking. Other people like a more timeless look and sophisticated feel. And some people just want heavy-duty backpacks that can haul everything but the kitchen sink. There are a range of options to suit every taste.
If you're looking at backpacks for school, you may want to check out our list of things you should think about when buying a pack, as well as our tips on what features you should look for in a bag. In the end, the best backpack for college is the one that suits your taste, needs, and budget. We have a few suggestions to get you started.
- 5 things to consider when buying a backpack
- 4 features to look for in a backpack
- 21 of the best backpacks for college students
This article contains affiliate links. We are compensated with a small commission, at no extra cost to you, for sales made through the links.
5 Things to Consider When Buying a Backpack
With all the options that are available, it can be tricky to come up with a shortlist of the best bags for college. Deciding on some basic criteria can help you narrow your search. The first thing you should do is ask yourself a few questions:
1. What do you need to carry?
Will you be carrying lots of heavy textbooks? Do you need to tote a laptop or tablet around with you? What about extras like art supplies or lab equipment? Will you need to fit a lunch or a change of clothes in your bag? Make sure you choose a pack that's large enough to carry all your gear, but not so large that it dwarfs you. You shouldn't carry more than 10 to 15 percent of your body weight; be sure to factor that in when choosing a bag.
2. How far do you need to go?
Consider the amount of time you'll spend with your bag on your back. If you're living off campus and biking in, a sturdy bag that's comfortable for long periods will be essential. But if you live in the dorm and your classes are a short stroll away, a lighter-duty bag might work, since you could drop off books and supplies between classes. Also think about your college layout and the location of your various classes—if your classrooms are clustered in a single area, you won't have as many portability concerns as someone who has to hike across campus.
3. What's your body type?
A backpack that doesn't provide the proper support can cause serious back problems down the road. To prevent back strain and muscle fatigue, a bag should fit your torso length. It should start at the base of your neck and end at the top of your hip bone—you don't want a bag that droops below your hips. Some companies make specific backpacks for girls that have smaller proportions, narrower shoulder straps, and wider hip belts in order to accommodate the female frame.
4. What kind of climate do you live in?
Do you live in an area that's perpetually sunny and hot? You'll need ventilation to keep your back from getting sweaty. Is there lots of rain where you are? A water-resistant exterior might be important. Will you be trudging through snow or resting your pack on the floor beside your boots? You may want to look for washable fabrics that will stand up to salt and dirt. The kind of weather you have to walk through will influence what kind of backpack you need.
5. What's your personal style?
Your bag can be a reflection of your fashion sense if you so choose. There are many types of backpacks. Do you like a big, flashy bag or a minimalist design? Do you like a sporty look, or do you want something more classic? What colors do you prefer? Some people want a bag that will accessorize with their outfits; others say the more outlandish the better. Decide what aesthetics matter most to you.
4 Features to Look For in a Backpack
Once you've decided what you need in a backpack, you need to assess the features of the various bags out there to see which ones will suit you best. This section can help you cut through the marketing hype and figure out what each bag really offers you.
This comes down to personal preference, but how a backpack is built will affect how comfortable it is to wear. Adjustable padded shoulder straps help distribute the weight properly and reduce the strain on your back—make sure the straps adjust easily but stay secure once you have them where you want them. Contoured and padded back panels can make a bag more comfortable, and breathable mesh vents on the back can help pull heat away from your body and keep you cool. Backpacks that have a waist strap or hip belt shift more of the weight from your shoulders to your hips, making it easier to carry heavier loads.
2. Pockets and compartments
Look for useful, sensibly organized pockets. Depending on what you need to carry around, you might want a spot for pens, books, a cell phone, or a water bottle. Laptop backpacks should have sleeves or compartments with a snug fit and lots of padding to keep your machine secure. Some backpacks have a front bungee system that can be good for toting an extra sweater or a pair of shoes.
Good backpacks will last and can handle heavy loads without falling to pieces. Some backpack brands, such as JanSport and The North Face, are known for their durable bags and even offer a lifetime warranty on them. Choose a bag with high-quality stitching (particularly on the shoulder straps) and securely attached handles. Backpacks made of nylon are more durable than those made of polyester; heavier fabrics like canvas will also last well.
Different materials will affect the weight, durability, and look of a backpack. For example, cotton is cheap and lightweight, but it won't stand up to water, scuffs, or tears.
The most commonly used materials are nylon and polyester. These are both lightweight synthetic fabrics. Polyester repels water and retains its color well; it costs less than nylon, but it isn't quite as durable. You may also see bags made of Cordura and ballistic nylon; these are heavier, more durable variations of nylon.
Denier (D) is a measure of fiber firmness. As a general rule, the higher the number, the stronger (and heavier) the backpack will be. But be sure to consider the material: Since nylon is more durable than polyester, a bag made of 420D nylon will be stronger than a bag made of 600D polyester.
21 of the Best Backpacks for College Students
We've assembled a list of some of the best backpacks for college students with laptops, textbooks, and other assorted gear that needs to get carried around. Depending on your needs, your preferences, and your budget, you have a wide variety of options.
With a 28-liter capacity, the Refugio can carry everything you'd need for a day on campus. Its padded laptop sleeve can accommodate a 15-inch machine; the sleeve is raised up a few inches to keep your computer from bumping the ground when you set the bag down. It's made of durable water-resistant nylon, and the mesh on both the shoulder straps and the back panel help air circulate. Feature-wise, it's similar to The North Face Recon, though the Refugio lacks a waist belt.
If you're looking for a waterproof laptop backpack, the Borealis is a solid choice. Its durable water-resistant coating helps keep the stuff inside dry. It features a separate fleece-lined compartment that fits a 15-inch laptop snugly, plus a smaller padded fleece-lined pocket in the second compartment that's great for a tablet. It also comes with both a sternum and waist strap to help you balance your load.
The Odyssey has an enormous 39-liter capacity, so it can hold a ton of stuff. It includes a padded laptop sleeve for a 15-inch computer and a dedicated padded tablet pocket. Raised foam panels on the back allow for breathability and comfort, while the adjustable padded ergonomic S-curve shoulder straps have mesh vents that allow the heat from your shoulders to escape. The padded hip belt will help you stabilize a heavier load; you can stash it away in the included slot if you don't need it.
Solidly constructed of durable nylon, the Surge has a large 31-liter capacity and a padded handle at both the top and front of the bag, so you can easily heft it around. It features a dedicated fleece-lined laptop compartment that can hold a 15-inch machine along with a separate tablet sleeve. The women's Surge is available in a wide range of colors and comes with shoulder straps and a back panel that are specially contoured for female frames.
The Recon for women is contoured to match the shorter spinal curve of the female body, allowing the bottom of the backpack to rest just above the hips. It's made of durable nylon and has fleece-lined sleeves for both laptops (up to 15 inches) and tablets, as well as a comfortable padded back panel and injection-molded shoulder straps. It also offers good protection against water.
The women's version of the Borealis has the same top-notch water-resistant coating, fleece-lined compartments for laptops and tablets, and handy sternum strap and waist belt as the unisex version. The main difference is in the shoulder straps. They are specifically contoured to fit a woman's smaller frame, making it more comfortable for extended wear.
This is an excellent tech backpack with a padded pocket that lets you slide a 17-inch laptop in and secure it with an adjustable strap. Ergonomically designed shoulder straps are padded for comfort, and the back is designed to allow air to circulate and not leave you sweaty. It also includes a top carry handle that is made of durable heavy-duty plastic.
Like the Patagonia Refugio, the Recon features a padded raised laptop sleeve that fits a 15-inch computer and keeps the machine from taking a hit when the bag is put on the ground. The Recon also offers very comfortable shoulder straps and comes with a sternum strap and waist strap, though not a full hip belt. This pack performs well in the rain; it has a durable water-resistant coating, and the main compartment zippers have well-designed flaps to prevent leakage.
Like the women's version, the unisex Surge is made of durable nylon and sports a padded handle at both the top and front of the bag for easy portability. With a 31-liter capacity, it has plenty of space for binders and books, and it features a dedicated fleece-lined laptop compartment that can hold a 15-inch machine along with a separate tablet sleeve.
The Parkside is one sleek laptop backpack. It's made of water-resistant polyester and is lightweight and comfortable. It offers three interior pockets and an elasticized water bottle side pocket; its dedicated laptop compartment is well padded and fits most machines up to 15 inches. It also has adjustable padded shoulder straps and a ventilated back panel that should help keep you cool.
Available in a large variety of prints and patterns, the Vera Bradley Campus is a comfortable backpack that makes a fashion statement. It has a soft feel, with reinforced handles and adjustable straps for comfort. The roomy main compartment includes pockets for pens and cell phones, and there are two more zippered pockets on the outside (there is no dedicated laptop compartment, however).
If the sporty look is your thing, you may want to look at the Storm Hustle II. Made of a polyester-nylon blend, it features a water-repellent front pocket (an ideal place to store valuables like your wallet) and an abrasion-resistant bottom panel, and its padded laptop sleeve can hold up to a 15-inch machine. With a 31-liter capacity, this bag is large enough to hold anything you might need to get you through the day.
Made of resilient polyester, the Haystack comes with injection-molded shoulder straps and a reinforced top carry handle. It offers generous interior space with a laptop sleeve that can fit a 15-inch device, plus two exterior side mesh pockets for water bottles or other items.
Made of high-grade durable nylon, this bag is tough, lightweight, and water resistant (though not waterproof, so be careful in a heavy rain). It has a padded sleeve for a 16-inch laptop and plenty of space for all your other gear, along with padded adjustable shoulder straps for a comfortable fit. You also have your choice of 10 different colors to match your personal style.
Here's a solid choice for those who spend time in the classroom and the gym. This 25L bag has multiple pockets to organize your gear, including dedicated compartments for a laptop and tablet as well as a vented slot for dirty clothes and an expandable area for shoes.
With adjustable cushioned shoulder straps, a top carry handle, and padded tablet and laptop compartments, the Originals Create may be just the bag you need to carry all your gear to class. It also features two zippered side pockets and two zippered interior pockets to help keep you organized. This bag is made of 100-percent polyester and comes with a lifetime warranty.
If you need an ultra-durable bag with multiple pockets for stashing your stuff, you might want to look at the High Sierra Swerve. It's made of rugged Duralite and can take some serious punishment without wearing out. It also has large capacity, with no less than five zippered compartments (the padded laptop sleeve can hold a 17-inch device) and adjustable side compression straps.
Made of thick cotton canvas, this rucksack has a soft feel and a vintage look. It features a roomy main compartment with a drawstring closure and three additional pockets with button closures. The main compartment can fit a 17-inch laptop, but there is no dedicated padded area for electronic devices. The shoulder straps are padded and can be adjusted for different statures.
At 34 liters, the Big Student has a big capacity, with two large compartments, an organizer pocket with phone holder, and a front pouch that can expand to fit larger items. This backpack has a fully padded back panel and adjustable ergonomic S-curve shoulder straps. It could be a good option for those students who carry large loads (though there is no laptop sleeve).
This pack offers multiple organizational compartments for everything from pens and cell phones to chargers and tablets. It has a padded compartment for a 17-inch laptop, though the bottom of the bag is not especially well padded; you'll want to be careful when setting it down. Other features include padded shoulder straps and side mesh water bottle pockets.
Weighing in at only 12 ounces, the JanSport SuperBreak is lightweight, but built to last. It features a large main compartment for books and binders, as well as a front utility pocket for smaller items. It comes in over 30 different colors and patterns, so you should be able to find something that suits your style. This bag lacks a laptop compartment, however.
Gear Up for Your Future
The best backpacks for college are the ones that will carry your stuff without breaking your back. There's certainly a lot to consider (not just about backpacks). Maybe you have most of the gear you need, but you're still deciding on your educational path. Why not explore vocational schools in your area that offer job-focused training? Just enter your zip code into the search tool below to find convenient programs near you!