Updated August 2022
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Buying guide for Best hardshell backpacks

Backpacks are as American as apple pie. Most of us grew up carrying a backpack to school or packing a backpack for hiking adventures. Today, backpacks have transitioned from being a simple way of carrying items to an essential daily fashion accessory.

Over time, backpacks have changed through experiments in innovation. In 1877, to develop a better knapsack, Henry Miriam used sheet metal to reduce the weight of military packs carried on long, arduous missions. Miriam's innovative design marks the origin of the traditional hardshell backpack.

Hardshell backpacks are desirable because they protect fragile items in transport. Designed to meet the specific needs of motorcyclists, photographers, emergency medical service providers, and daily commuters, hardshell backpacks may appear stiff and cumbersome. However, the best ones feature a flexible and curved back panel for a soft and comfortable fit.

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Hardshell backpacks trace their origin back to World War I, which brought about a requirement for improved military backpacks to carry canteens, ammo, and equipment.

Key considerations

Hardshell backpack materials

Because they are designed to be carried on your back, it's wise to carry the lightest hardshell backpack possible. Lightweight, water-resistant, abrasion-resistant materials used in the construction of hardshell backpacks included ABS (acrylonitrile butadiene styrene), polycarbonate, plastic, aluminum, Kevlar, PVC fabric, cotton canvas, and ripstop nylon.

Polycarbonate ABS hardshell backpacks are lighter than backpacks of the same size constructed from aluminum or hard plastic and are less likely to scratch or crack during travel.

ABS alone is lighter than polycarbonate, but it’s not as light as polypropylene. Less-expensive hardshell backpacks manufactured from polypropylene are considerably lighter than the pricey backpacks made from polycarbonate (PC).

Other materials used in the construction of hardshell packs include Cordura fabric, polyethylene vinyl foam for pocket padding and straps, aluminum or stainless steel for buckles and reinforcement grommets, leather or suede for liners, and nylon thread.

If you are looking for the strongest and most durable hardshell backpack material, ABS (acrylonitrile butadiene styrene) polycarbonate or aluminum are more durable than plain polycarbonate or plastic. However, aluminum is quite a bit more costly and up to five times heavier than ABS polycarbonate, often making polycarbonate or polypropylene the more budget-friendly choice.

Benefits and drawbacks

There are many reasons why you might want a hardshell backpack. Despite outward appearances, they are lightweight and easy to carry. Because they are waterproof (or at least water-resistant), they are easy to clean. And hardshell backpacks can’t be overstuffed the way softshell backpacks can. This is helpful when you’re trying to adhere to a carry-on travel limit

Notably, there are a few drawbacks to hardshell backpacks. In the case of extremely rough handling in transit or shipping, hardshell backpacks are more likely to split open or crack than their soft-sided counterparts. And, once packed, hardshell backpacks do not have the flexibility or “give” that might encourage you to add just a few more items. However, this may actually be viewed as a perk by some travelers.


Hardshell backpacks are sized for the wearer’s height. Standard sizes are available for people who stand between 5’1” and 6’2”. When shopping for a hardshell backpack, there are some comfort, convenience, and security factors to look for. Here is a partial list of some features that you might find desirable.

  • A scratch-resistant, waterproof, durable shell
  • Reinforced seams
  • A sternum strap for stability, padded shoulder straps, and a removable waist strap
  • Dual chest straps and air mesh back pads for breathability
  • Waterproof interior compartments
  • Organizer pockets, including an internal padded laptop sleeve
  • Quick-access side pockets
  • Built-in USB port with charging cable
  • Hydration compatibility
  • Retractable wheels
  • Reflectors for safe carrying in the dark
  • A TSA-approved locking system
  • A luggage ID tag and rain cover
"Today’s version of the hardshell backpack, also known as a packsack, knapsack, or pack, was first invented in 1952 by Dick Kelty while he was searching for an easier way to transport heavy loads. "

Hardshell backpack prices

When shopping for a hardshell backpack, you will find a wide range of features and prices to consider. The cost of a hardshell pack depends on the manufacturer, the brand, the merchandiser, the country of origin, availability, and the quality of the product.


Hardshell backpacks in the lower price range sell for $29 to $59. While hardshell backpacks in this price range are great for carrying books and other gear, they are not shatterproof and cannot be relied upon to protect fragile electronics. They are generally not tough enough to stand up to the rigors of airline travel.


In the mid-price range, consumers can expect to pay from $60 to $120 for a durable and well-constructed hardshell backpack. Hardshell backpacks in this price range are perfect for protecting and carrying laptops and other breakable electronic gear to class or the office. These bags are lightweight, durable, waterproof, and designed for comfort when wearing.


Hardshell backpacks that are specifically designed to carry and protect expensive cameras, computers, drones, medical instruments, and other delicate equipment can cost from $120 to $500+. Packs in this price range may feature hydration compartments, outer rain bags, and padded pockets to safely transport delicate gear in extreme weather conditions and uncompromising environments.


  • Some hardshell backpacks come with exterior cargo netting. The nets are ideal for stashing small items such as sunglasses, a water bottle, gloves, a charger, or a windbreaker.
  • To speed up the process of clearing security at airports, border crossings, or other checkpoints, choose a hardshell backpack with a TSA-approved locking system and TSA-approved padlock. For backpackers who routinely carry a laptop, a center interior compartment containing only your laptop makes for easy removal of the device for inspection.
  • If you plan to use your hardshell backpack for transporting a drone to remote locations accessible only by an arduous hike, it is crucial to stay hydrated. Make sure the pack you carry has a waterproof, leakproof hydration compartment or an easily accessible exterior pocket or net to hold your water bottle.
  • When packing a hardshell backpack for air travel, place liquids or any other small items that must be removed and inspected at security checkpoints in an exterior pocket or readily accessible interior compartment. 
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Hardshell backpacks protect breakable contents even during active movement. They are perfect for local or long distance travel.


Q. Can I use my hardshell backpack as carry-on luggage when traveling by air?

A. You can, but you’ll want to make sure you have the right size. Hardshell backpacks are available in several different sizes. When purchasing a backpack for travel, check the dimensions. The airline you fly with will have specific limits to bag height, width, and depth. If in doubt, check with your airline carrier.

Q. Is a hardshell backpack a good way to transport my expensive drone?

A. Yes, providing you purchase a pack designed to accommodate the size and configuration of the drone. Many drone manufacturers include or separately sell hardshell backpacks designed to fit their particular drone model.

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