Why trust BestReviews?
BestReviews spends thousands of hours researching, analyzing, and testing products to recommend the best picks for most consumers. We buy all products with our own funds, and we never accept free products from manufacturers.
We may earn a commission if you purchase a product through our links.
BestReviews spends thousands of hours researching, analyzing, and testing products to recommend the best picks for most consumers. We may earn a commission if you purchase a product through our links.
BestReviews spends thousands of hours researching, analyzing, and testing products to recommend the best picks for most consumers. We buy all products with our own funds, and we never accept free products from manufacturers.
We may earn a commission if you purchase a product through our links.
Bottom Line
Pros
Cons
How we decided

We purchase every product we review with our own funds — we never accept anything from product manufacturers.

36 Models Considered
7 Hours Researched
1 Experts Interviewed
419 Consumers Consulted
Zero products received from manufacturers.

We purchase every product we review with our own funds — we never accept anything from product manufacturers.

Why trust BestReviews?
BestReviews spends thousands of hours researching, analyzing, and testing products to recommend the best picks for most consumers. We buy all products with our own funds, and we never accept free products from manufacturers.
We may earn a commission if you purchase a product through our links.
BestReviews spends thousands of hours researching, analyzing, and testing products to recommend the best picks for most consumers. We may earn a commission if you purchase a product through our links.
BestReviews spends thousands of hours researching, analyzing, and testing products to recommend the best picks for most consumers. We buy all products with our own funds, and we never accept free products from manufacturers.
We may earn a commission if you purchase a product through our links.

Buying guide for best backpacks for college students

Last Updated June 2019

A day in class or studying in the library wouldn’t be complete without a backpack. Backpacks are not only a portable storage unit but also an extension of your personal style. Designs range from a basic bag with straps to teched-out models with built-in USB ports and anti-theft devices.

If you’re on the hunt for the perfect backpack but unsure where to start or what you need, you’ve come to the right place!

Our shopping guide covers what to consider and the features you might want. We’ve also included some recommendations of backpacks we think look great while keeping your gear safe.

Many backpacks are water resistant on the outside, but it’s not a bad idea to choose one that’s water resistant on the inside, too. A leaky water bottle or lunch that gets one compartment wet won’t spread to everything in your backpack.

Key considerations

Size

Backpacks come in a broad range of sizes. Some are designed to hold little more than an 11-inch Chromebook and cell phone, while others can hold a 17-inch laptop and three full-size textbooks, as well as notebooks and writing supplies. Many manufacturers include a chart or otherwise indicate the laptop dimensions a bag will hold to help you decide on a size.

You should also base the backpack size on your size. A full backpack shouldn’t sag past your waist or hit your head. At the same time, the shoulder straps should sit comfortably between the center and outside of your shoulders.

Capacity

How much does the backpack hold? That’s an important question. Backpacks with a large capacity might hold everything but the kitchen sink. Capacity is often given in liters (L). If you need to pack a day’s worth of books, food, and supplies, you might need one that holds up to 64L, which is about as big as you’ll find before you head into the realm of hiking backpacks.

Length

Backpack length varies by manufacturer and model. The key is to find a length that fits your torso. A backpack that’s too short isn’t as much of a problem as one that’s too long. One that’s too long creates a gap between the backpack and your back, putting the center of gravity lower and farther away from your body.

The “what” and “how”

We’ve briefly touched on this, but it’s worth repeating. Before you buy a backpack, you need to know what you’ll be carrying and how far you’ll have to carry it. The more you carry and the longer you carry it, the more padding and support you’ll need. If you live in a hot climate, you’ll also want a backpack with features that improve breathability and ventilation.

DID YOU KNOW?

Is it dark by the time you get home? Some backpacks have reflective panels to increase nighttime visibility. These panels could be a lifesaver If you walk or ride the bus to college when it’s even a little dark out.

Backpack features

Pockets

Pockets help organize the essentials, and you can find backpacks with hidden pockets everywhere. At the same time, if you like to keep things simple, there are many backpacks that are little more than two compartments with straps. The choice is yours, but you might want to keep an eye out for these specialty pockets:

  • Padded laptop sleeve/pocket: This padded pocket offers all-day laptop protection. It’s usually the compartment that’s closest to the back, making it the most stable and protected.

  • Accessories pocket: Pen holders, smartphone pockets, and key straps are a few of the features you might find in an accessory pocket. Some even include a student ID holder and a change pocket.

  • Multimedia pocket: An MP3 player, smartphone, or other personal electronic device fits in this pocket that usually has a water-resistant opening for earbuds.

  • Side mesh pockets: These pockets keep your water bottle, or just about anything, within reach at all times.
     

Water resistance

If you’re commuting in rain, sleet, or snow, you’re going to need a backpack with some dependable water resistance, and some fabrics are far better at keeping water out than others. Nylon and polyester, in particular, repel water, especially if they’ve been treated with a waterproof spray or coating. Cotton, on the other hand, soaks up water and works best in a dry climate. If you love the look and texture of cotton, opt for duck cotton or canvas.

Straps

  • Shoulder straps: The design of these straps can make or break your comfort. (Keep in mind that straps that are comfortable for one person may not comfortable for another based on their height, weight, and shoulder width.) Here are the shoulder strap features to watch for:

    • Width: Wide straps more evenly distribute the weight of the backpack over the shoulders.

    • Padding: Built-in or adjustable shoulder strap padding can also help redistribute backpack weight for better comfort.

    • Adjustment: Most shoulder straps are adjustable so you can keep the backpack’s center of gravity as close to your body as possible. However, some models are less adjustable than others. If you’re unusually small or big, you’ll need to look for a backpack with a longer strap for increased adjustability.

  • Hip and chest straps: Hip and chest straps are more common on hiking backpacks, but if you have a long walk across campus and will be carrying a heavy load, hip and chest straps will help. Hip straps take the weight off the shoulders and put it on the hips. Chest straps hold the shoulder straps in place and keep the weight of the backpack evenly distributed.

  • Compression straps: Compression straps help keep the weight of your backpack close to your body, which makes it easier to carry. These straps may be bungee cords or straps with buckles. No matter the weight and size of your load, compression straps will keep everything close and comfortable.
     

Back padding and support

No one wants the corner of a book or binder digging into their back. Back padding not only protects you from the backpack contents but also adds stability to the backpack so it’s more comfortable to wear for long periods of time.

Back ventilation

If you’re in a warm climate, you’ll want a little less backpack padding. Fabrics like cotton offer better breathability than nylon or polyester. But if you’re living in a region that has both warm and cool weather, look for a backpack that has back padding as well as ventilation features like  holes or a mesh layer that creates a breathable barrier between your back and backpack.

Materials

The durability of the backpack depends on the quality of the fabric and materials. A few of the fabrics and materials you’ll find include the following:

  • Cotton: Cotton comes in fun prints and colors and has an earthy feel, but it’s less durable than synthetics like nylon and polyester. You may also run across duck cotton or canvas, which are more durable and water resistant than plain cotton.

  • Wool: This fabric is naturally water resistant, and backpacks made of it have a vintage feel. Wool is more durable than cotton but less durable than synthetics.

  • Nylon: Versions of this lightweight synthetic material may be called Cordura or ballistic, both of which are incredibly durable. Nylon is naturally water resistant, too. If you’re looking for a backpack that will last for years, look for one made of some kind of nylon.

  • Polyester: Polyester is another lightweight synthetic material that’s naturally water resistant. However, it’s not quite as durable as nylon.

  • Rubber: Rubber won’t make up an entire backpack, but you may find some with rubber-reinforced corners or bottom for enhanced durability.

  • Leather: Leather looks luxurious, but backpacks made entirely of leather may not be the best choice in wet conditions. However, zipper pulls and corners accented or reinforced with thick leather can boost the appearance and durability of a backpack.
     

Extra features

  • Built-in charging port: Keeping your devices charged while away from home can be a challenge. Backpacks with a built-in charging port let you keep everything ready to go no matter where you are.

  • Anti-theft features: Backpacks often contain valuables like laptops, tablets, and mobile phones. Anti-theft features usually include some kind of lock mechanism on the main compartment, and you might need a combination or key to access the compartment. While some locks are built in, other manufacturers provide a traditional lock and key to secure zippers.

Backpacks with wheels aren’t just for the airport. Models that have wheels and a handle save your back and shoulders, though they might weigh more than regular backpacks.

Staff
BestReviews

Backpack prices

Inexpensive

Backpacks large enough for college use start out in the $20 to $25 range. At this lower price point, they have fewer pockets and compartments but still include accessory and side pockets for items like water bottles.

Mid-range

As you move into the $25 to $40 range, the backpacks get larger with padded laptop sleeves, multi-media pockets, and built-in USB ports. A few of these models may also have anti-theft features. The quality of the material and water resistance tend to be better at this higher price point, too.

Expensive

For over $40, you’ll find the largest-capacity backpacks with compression straps, USB ports, specialized pockets, and anti-theft features. These backpacks may also be made of highly water-resistant materials. However, there are also vintage-inspired all-leather backpacks at this price point. They don’t have all the bells and whistles, but they look and feel sophisticated and luxurious.

EXPERT TIP

Some shoulder straps may slip off narrow shoulders, but a chest strap can keep shoulder straps in place. Some chest straps can be moved higher or lower on the shoulder straps so you can adjust where and how it crosses your chest.


Staff  | BestReviews

Tips

  • Wear both straps. You might be tempted to throw one strap over your shoulder and go, but wearing your backpack incorrectly can injure your shoulders and back. For the best and most even weight distribution, wear both straps at all times.

  • Pick a backpack that fits your personal style. The backpack will be your constant companion while you’re in college, so it should have features you like and be functional for your lifestyle, whether that’s bright and sporty or sleek and sophisticated.

  • Choose a backpack that’s as comfortable as possible. It needs to fit your body type. The width of your shoulders, length of your torso, plus the weight of the laptop, books, and other items you carry will come into play as you adjust for comfort.

  • Look for a backpack with compression straps. This is especially important if you buy a high-capacity backpack. You want to keep the load as close to your body as possible.

Other products we considered

While we love our top picks, there are enough backpacks on the market that we couldn’t include all of our favorites on our list. For example, the Modoker Vintage Laptop Backpack has a retro vibe with the latest in technology, including a roomy but organized interior and nylon fabric. We like the well-padded and ventilated shoulder straps. Another backpack we had a hard time passing was the Winblo Laptop Backpack. Its simple, clean lines may look basic, but it’s anything but. Padded, ventilated straps and pockets designed to store and organize a few writing supplies make it a great choice for the sophisticated college student.

Pack your backpack right. Put the largest, heaviest items closest to your back to keep the center of gravity near your body where it’s easier to carry. Pack items from heaviest to lightest, and tighten any compression straps once you’re done.

FAQ

Q. Rain and bad weather are a problem for me. Are there features that provide extra protection from the elements?

A. First and foremost, the fabric that makes up the main body of the backpack should be made of high-quality nylon. To withstand downpours, you may want to treat the fabric with a water-repellent coating, too. As far as extra features, some backpacks have a rubberized bottom that won’t get wet if you set it on a damp surface. Reinforced corners and zippers are also a plus in wet weather because they also keep out water.

Q. Do backpacks with built-in charging ports come with a cord?

A. Most do not. You’ll have to provide your own USB cord. We suggest keeping a cord in your backpack at all times so you’re never stuck without the power to recharge.

Q. Why do some manufacturers advertise the denier of the fabric?

A. “Denier” is a term used to describe the thickness of the fiber used to make the fabric. A higher denier number indicates thicker, more durable fabric.

The team that worked on this review
  • Alvina
    Alvina
    Photographer
  • Amos
    Amos
    Director of Photography
  • Austin
    Austin
    Writer
  • Branson
    Branson
    Videographer
  • Bronwyn
    Bronwyn
    Editor
  • Ciera
    Ciera
    Production Assistant
  • Devangana
    Devangana
    Web Producer
  • Eliza
    Eliza
    Production Manager
  • Enid
    Enid
    Editor
  • Melinda
    Melinda
    Web Producer
  • Stacey
    Stacey
    Writer
  • Vukan
    Vukan
    Post Production Editor

BestReviews wants to be better. Please take our 3-minute survey,
and give us feedback about your visit today.

Take Survey