As seen in:
SwissGear
Travel Gear ScanSmart Backpack
Under Armour
Storm Hustle II Backpack
5.11
Tactical Rush BackPack
JanSport
Right Pack Backpack
Outlander
Lightweight Travel Backpack
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Good

Lies flat for easier airport security processing. Accommodates up to 17" laptop. Generous supply of external pockets for paperwork and electronics.

Polyester/nylon outer shell very water-resistant. Holds up to 15" laptop. Two water bottle pockets easily accessible. Secure, waterproof valuables pocket in front.

Tactical design optimal for camping and hiking. Mesh pockets for maximum drainage. Draw cord allows for expansion when necessary.

Heavy duty leather and Cordura outer shell provides durability. Classic book bag design also accommodates laptops. Padded shoulder straps or handle grip.

Will fold into central compartment for easier storage. Surprisingly room and lightweight. Works equally well as a carry on, a book bag or travel bag.

Bad

Padding adds weight and bulkiness. Straps and zippers have durability issues. Side-opening pocket for laptop not ideal for safe handling.

Dimensions may be smaller than expected. Zippers have been known to fail prematurely. Many inferior knock-off models on the market.

Not ideal for transporting laptops or other electronic devices. Can form uncomfortable pressure points. Waist belt not included in design.

Zippers are plastic and hems are prone to fraying. Lower end models without leather bottoms can tear easily. Limited number of pockets.

Construction material may not hold up in hot weather. Limited capacity for larger laptops. Seams can fail under moderate stress.

Bottom Line

The SwissGear can perform equally well as a backpack or carry on bag. We like the number and size of its external pockets.Versatile enough to be a book bag during the week and a travel backpack on weekends.

This is a great choice as a school book bag or overnight backpack. Not quite as roomy as others on our list, but exceptionally comfortable and adjustable. Solid brand name, but watch for counterfeits.

The 5.11 Tactical Rush backpack is a true day pack or overnight bag for outdoor activities, not necessarily a practical book bag or carry on. Reinforced seams and zippers provide extra security.

JanSport backpacks have served students well as book bags for years, and the Right Pack model is worthy of the name. We recommend investing in one with a reinforced leather bottom for improved durability.

An attractive retail price point makes the Outland backpack a good choice for students and travelers on a budget. Durability is an issue, but many users only have short term needs for backpacks.

How we decide
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Products received from manufacturers
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Models Considered
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Hours Spent
1
Experts Interviewed
111
Consumers Consulted

Shopping Guide for the Best Backpacks

The versatile backpack serves a variety of people, including students, hikers, and business travelers. Its marketing space is crammed with models both simple and fancy, cheap and pricey.

With such an enormous range available, how do you choose a backpack that fits your use? We've narrowed the field considerably by researching the market's top contenders. We believe there's something for everyone in our product matrix above.

At BestReviews, we purchase products from stores, test and evaluate them, and gather information from other owners and experts who use them. It's our mission to arm you with accurate, reliable product information so you can invest your dollars wisely.

Our BestReviews team began by researching the following backpack characteristics, all of which impact consumer satisfaction:

  • Size & Versatility
  • Materials
  • Features
  • Comfort

After thorough research on these, using various models of backpacks ourselves, as well as taking feedback from others who use backpacks for a wide range of activities, we were able to draw a number of considerations that should be made before purchasing a backpack. We'd like to share our findings with you.

At BestReviews, we don't want you to modify your habits or settle for what's available. Rather, we want to help you find the perfect product.

Size And Versatility

Backpacks aren't just working gear anymore. Often, they serve as fashion accessories, too. A common mistake shoppers make is selecting a backpack with great style but limited practicality.

You want something that looks good but also accommodates your items with integrity and durability.

Palmer Batt is a former army officer who knows a thing or two about choosing the right backpack. He offers the following advice on choosing a size:

  • Think about what you carry on a day-to-day basis. Lay items out on a bed or table if it helps you visualize the volume.
  • Think about “extra-curricular” uses. Will you use your pack for college during the week but hiking on the weekends? If so, select a size that will serve both purposes.
  • Will you use your backpack as carry-on luggage? If so, find something that complies with airline size restrictions.

Size isn't everything; you must also consider versatility. Do you want an old-style rucksack in which you simply throw all your stuff inside? Or do you want a model that incorporates a protective area for your laptop, a pocket for your water bottle, and a slot for your cell phone?

With so many offerings in today's market, you should be able to find exactly what you want.

Materials

Not so long ago, backpacks were made of sackcloth or burlap and came in either brown or green. Now you have a mind-boggling array of designs and colors to choose from. Whatever your personal taste, there's a bag for you.

But before you leap for the one with the most visual appeal, spend a moment thinking about materials.

The right material of backpack will ensure your things remain safe from natural elements, while the wrong material will get them soaked in rain or dusty from travel.

The Cheapest Backpack Materials

Cheap backpacks are often made of thin nylon or polyester. They're lightweight but prone to tearing. They're not breathable and can grow hot against your body, even during mild exercise.

Tougher Textiles

Not all nylon and polyester is cheap. Pay a little more, and you can get a backpack made of a tough modern textile that's both light and strong. A denier rating of 1,200D or above signifies durability.

Leather

Leather looks great, but not all leather is made of cowhide. Manufacturers sometimes use goat or sheepskin, which is thinner and more prone to damage.

Many leather backpacks are pre-treated, but you’ll still benefit from occasional maintenance. Damaged leather allows moisture in, and moisture causes leather to grow heavy and smelly.

Hard Shells

Hard-shell ABS offers excellent content protection (ABS is the same material that motorcycle crash helmets are made of). There's no great weight penalty, and many hard-shell backpacks incorporate foam panels that cushion your back.

Properly closed, hard-shell packs offer unbeatable protection against the elements. They cost comparatively more than their softer competitors, however, and some people dislike the rigidity of the shell.

Recycled Materials

Several backpack makers offer a green alternative to standard materials. During the course of our research, we discovered that some backpacks are made from recycled soda bottles. One manufacturer even makes backpacks out of old tire inner tubes!

Features

Perhaps all you want is a simple, cheap backpack. Or perhaps you want something with a variety of features that enhance security or durability. Palmer prefers backpacks with these features:

  • Twin zippers. Palmer likes to lock his zips together. He also favors TSA-friendly locks while traveling.
  • Metal zippers. Palmer finds that metal zippers tend to last much longer than plastic ones.
  • Double, multiple, or zigzag stitching at stress points. This type of stitching adds valuable security to seams, handles, and straps.
  • Additional top handle. Palmer appreciates the convenience of this helpful extra.

A Note About Zippers and Stitching

Here at BestReviews, we don't test to destruction because we donate our products to charity when we're finished with them. We do test rigorously, though, and zippers and stitching are often the first features to fail on cheap backpacks.

Load your backpack evenly to maximize comfort. Heaviest items should go in the middle rather than the bottom.

Backpack makers add numerous other features you may also wish to consider:

  • Internal pockets for smaller items.
  • External tool loops or "daisy chains” for additional attachment points.
  • Elasticized outside pockets. These lie flat when not in use but can accommodate items as large as a basketball.
  • Built-in rain covers.
  • Padded areas to protect laptops or other gadgets.
  • Truly watertight sections (check for IP67 standard).
  • Straps or clips that permit attachment to other luggage.
  • Pockets for hydration packs.

All of these are additional traits that can make a backpack go from good to awesome, depending on what you want out of your pack, and how much you are willing to shell for it.

Comfort

Wearer comfort is arguably the most important element of a good backpack, and comfort begins with a proper fit.

Serious hikers who carry heavy gear for days on end carefully measure their torso length to achieve the right backpack fit. While that's not entirely necessary for everyday backpack wear, the principle is worth bearing in mind. And it's easy to measure (with the help of a friend), so we've included directions here.

You may notice that some backpacks designed exclusively for females are more expensive. These packs sport constructional differences that allow them to fit the female form better.

Finding the Right Fit

Measure the distance between your C7 vertebra (the knobbly protrusion at the base of your neck) and your iliac crest (in the middle of your back, level with the top of your pelvic bone). This distance is your torso length. Make sure to buy a backpack that fits your torso length properly; the store guide will be able to help you with this.

Mind you, this type of measurement pertains more to hiking backpacks than everyday packs. But those who are particularly tall or short may want to try on an everyday backpack before making a purchase.

Finding the Right Straps

Padded straps are great, but how well do they support you? Sagging straps pull weight down your back, leading to incorrect posture and a backache. Make sure you can adjust your straps and still enjoy freedom of movement.

You may also wish to consider a backpack with a hip belt, which redistributes weight away from the shoulders, and a sternum strap, which adds stability by spreading the weight across the chest.

Finding the Right Airflow

A snug backpack quickly grows uncomfortable if you get too hot. Manufacturers combat this problem with two approaches:

  • The use of breathable fabrics/foam padding. These elements are found frequently on less-expensive packs. They help the pack retain structural flexibility.
  • The use of contoured back panels. These elements are often found on pricier backpacks. They keep the pack rigid and help it hold its shape.
The team that worked on this review
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    Content
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    Bob
    Writer