The best school backpacks of 2017

By Julia MacDougall

Ah, late summer—the time of year when parents start counting down the days until school starts, and students avoid looking at calendars altogether in denial.

One of the most essential (and often overlooked) parts of back-to-school shopping is the humble backpack. There are so many brands, styles, and price points; what’s a parent to do? To try to make your shopping easier, we tested 11 backpacks to see which ones we liked best in terms of comfort, looks, and storage.

Our favorite backpack is the L. L. Bean Quad Pack(available at L.L. Bean for $79.95), which combines rugged durability, plenty of storage options, and a cushy carrying experience with a reasonable price.

Updated August 23, 2017

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llbean Best Overall
Credit: Reviewed.com / Jackson Ruckar

Ll bean quad pack
  • Editors' Choice

L. L. Bean Quad Pack

Best Overall Best for Everyday Use

Bottom line: If you need a backpack that can carry large and small objects, ranging from books and a laptop to gym clothes and spare change, this is the backpack for you. The reasonable price point and L. L. Bean’s 100% satisfaction guarantee makes this a great buy any way you look at it.

Who it’s for: Those carrying more than just books and electronics around

Comfort: The squishy back pads made for a comfortable wearing experience, even after walking around for 45 minutes outside. While the experience was a slightly sweaty one on a hot summer day (all backpacks are), the back of the backpack allows for enough airflow so that the backpack rested gently against our tester's back instead of adhering to it. The numerous adjustable straps and clips allow it to comfortably fit a variety of body types and accommodate many possible backpack loads.

Storage: With so many pockets and pouches, it’s easy for someone to safely store both flat electronics (a laptop, tablet, etc.) and bulkier items, like chargers, clothes, or lunch bags. There are two possible places to store a laptop: the discreet side pouch on the back can store most smaller laptops, and the laptop pouch on the interior of the backpack is padded without being bulky.

Only the back part of the backpack is rigid, so the other compartments can expand as needed to store more items. There are also multiple options for storing smaller items, like change, writing utensils, or USB drives.

Also, the two side pouches can hold a large water bottle without a problem, and the mesh/elastic combination is strong enough to secure the water bottle, but loose enough to provide easy access.

Looks: While it's not the most beautiful backpack on the planet, its looks hint at L. L. Bean’s hiking and backpacking heritage.

What owners think: The online reviews for this backpack are overwhelmingly positive. Many praise its ability to both comfortably store many heavy textbooks and protect delicate electronics. The few negative reviews mention the carrying handle ripping or failing, but these seem to be older reviews (prior to 2014), which hopefully means that this problem has been addressed in the mean time.

Icon2 Best for Electronics
Credit: Reviewed.com / Jackson Ruckar

Incase icon

Incase ICON laptop backpack

Best for Electronics

Bottom line: Whether you’re carrying your electronics to class or on a plane across the world, this is the best choice to get them safely from point A to point B. The higher price point reflects its professional looks and high build quality.

Who it’s for: Those carrying around primarily electronics and books

Comfort: With a squishy, padded back, the ICON backpack is easy to carry over both short and long distances. The gaps on the back allow for some airflow, meaning that while wearing it for extended periods of time will result in some sweat, the ventilation is sufficient to prevent the wearer from feeling like he or she is swimming in sweat.

The straps are also cushioned, and can be adjusted for a secure fit both on the bottom and the top of the wearer’s back. A clip across the middle helps with weight distribution.

The ICON is the heaviest back we tested, coming in at 2.4 lbs. Over time, that extra weight becomes noticeable and uncomfortable, but on the other hand, that stiff, heavy frame helps to prevent damage to the electronics inside.

Storage: The ICON is a heavily padded backpack that is meant to keep your laptops and tablets safe. The fabric-lined compartments are soft to the touch, and the pad on the bottom means that your laptop won’t be colliding regularly with whatever surface the bag lies on.

There are multiple storage options for laptops – like the L. L. Bean Quad Pack, it has a zippered side pocket that can hold smaller laptops, and an interior section for larger laptops. Other, smaller pouches easily hold granola bars, pens, and USB drives without getting lost amid the larger items. However, this bag, with its rigid frame and tall, skinny compartments, has trouble holding bulkier items like clothes or larger cameras.

One neat part is the two side pockets that extend around back – these pockets can’t comfortably hold a water bottle (in fact, there is no place to store a water bottle on the outside of the backpack), but it’s a really convenient place to store things you need easy access to, like a phone, wallet, or keys.

Looks: The Incase ICON comes in four different colors, and has a minimalist, streamlined design that is meant to convey a more professional appearance.

What owners think: While there are not many online reviews of this product, all of the reviews that do exist are extremely positive. It is described as a safe haven for laptops and tablets alike, with plenty of room for other flat objects. People also loved the side pouches mentioned above, and thought that they were a great place to store chargers. On the other hand, at least one review bemoaned the lack of a water bottle holder.

fjallraven2 Best for Casual Use
Credit: Reviewed.com/ Jackson Ruckar
Fjallraven kanken 15 in laptop

Fjallraven Kanken 15" laptop backpack

Best for Casual Use

Bottom line: For occasional use around town, this fun and durable vinyl bag is the right choice. It can safely store smaller electronics, but also has room for some irregularly sized things people like to carry around, like snacks or gym clothes. If you have broad shoulders, though, this bag may not be the right fit for you.

Who it’s for: Casual use for students carrying around mostly bulky, irregular items and a few books

Comfort: Weighing under a pound, it’s easy to carry this bag around. However, the lack of padding on the back makes it uncomfortable to wear for more than 15-20 minutes. Sweat accumulates quickly and, without mesh pads or other venting, it makes for a sticky, unpleasant experience.

The Kånken is a backpack that was originally designed with Swedish schoolchildren in mind—the adjustable, padded straps are close together, and work best on young people and adults with narrow shoulders and body profiles. The twin carrying handles on top of the bag make it easy to transition from wearing it as a backpack to carrying it around.

Storage: The Kånken has two padded spaces for laptops and other flat, skinny objects. The rest of the backpack is largely undivided, making it easy to store larger items like clothing, a bagged lunch, and smaller sports equipment. The small pouch in the front accommodates smaller items like USB drives and spare change.

If something is too big to fit in the smaller pouch in the front, then it must go into the main part of the backpack, which could be problematic if it gets lost among other, bulkier items. The two side pouches are tall and skinny; too skinny for a standard water bottle, but ideal for a pair of glasses or an umbrella.

The backpack’s stiff vinyl material is strong and resistant to whatever damage kids can dish out; however, it also means that the Kånken’s storage ability is limited to the footprint of the vinyl material.

Looks: There is something very appealing about simplistic design that comes in a wide variety of eye-catching colors.

What owners think: Fans of the Kånken love the vibrant backpack colors and the durable (and easy to hand-wash) vinyl material. Some users reports that the colors fade with time and use, but that may be intentionally done by Fjällräven to produce a more rustic look. A few commenters say that the laptop compartment is too small for larger laptops, but perfect for those just under 15”. Reviewers mentioned that it was extremely comfortable for shorter people and children; for those with taller or wider body profiles, they preferred the larger Kånken 17” backpack.

Testing

What better way to test backpacks than to actually use them? We packed each backpack full of a wide variety of differently sized items—a laptop, a laptop charger, an umbrella, a wrist brace, granola bars, a pack of tissues, a water bottle, pens, USB drives, a phone, keys, and some spare change, to name a few.

testing2
Credit: Reviewed.com / Jackson Ruckar

After packing up the bag, our tester walked for 45-50 minutes (about three miles) in bright sunlight in the peak of a New England summer.

testing3
Credit: Reviewed.com / Jackson Ruckar

At the end of the walk, the tester answered questions like this:

Comfort: How comfortable was the backpack initially? How comfortable was it at the end of the walk? How sweaty were you at the end of the journey?

Storage: Could you fit everything in the bag? How useful was each compartment? How did the build quality of the backpack affect its storage?

Looks: Do you like how it looks?

Other guinea pigs (AKA Reviewed.com staffers) also tested each backpack on a more casual basis, and reported their likes and dislikes about each bag.


Other backpacks we tested

Arcteryx arro 22

Arcteryx Arro 22

Bottom line: A unique backpack that can carry smaller electronics, bulky items, and can take a beating in the elements, the Arc’teryx Arro 22 is a solid pick.

Who it’s for: Casual use for those carrying around mostly bulky, irregular items and a few books

Comfort: The thick and stiff padding on both the back and the straps of the Arro 22 make it really comfortable to wear to school or on day hikes. Unfortunately, the fact that the back is curved at the bottom did not provide enough airflow; it’s easy to work up a sweat and have a sticky back. The straps, like the Incase ICON, can be adjusted both at the top, bottom, and across the middle for a very secure fit.

The versatility of the straps means that it fits well on a variety of body sizes. However, it is quite tall, and may seem too big for those with shorter torsos.

Storage: There are only two major storage compartments on the Arro 22. The main compartment is mostly for flat things, containing a very tight zippered pouch that is backed by a rigid plastic material. While you can’t fit a laptop in that space, papers or folders that you don’t want to bend would be perfect in this spot. Laptops and books can fit in the main part of that container.

The second container is an unusual one; it zips vertically and is made of a durable plastic material. This is a great place to store bulkier items, like a pair of sneakers or a change of clothes.

One side pouch is perfect for a water bottle, and the other side pouch has Velcro on top, making it a good spot to secure smaller, more delicate items you don’t want to throw in the bigger compartments, like USB drives or keys. However, if you have a smaller item that you don't want to store on a pouch on the bag's exterior, the only other option is for it to get lost among larger things in the bigger compartments.

Looks: The Arro 22 is not a style piece; however, the colored accent on the vertical zipper on the front compartment is eye-catching.

What owners think: Owners of the Arro 22 love the easy accessibility of the two big compartments. The straps keep most of the backpack’s weight high up on a person’s back, and make it nice and comfortable to wear around. Users are also a fan of the company’s solid warranty and return policy. Some reviewers lamented the lack of laptop sleeve and smaller compartments, but this backpack is more of a casual use backpack, and not meant for carrying many electronics.

Timbuk2 command backpack

Timbuk2 Command laptop backpack

Bottom line: If you want to safely carry your devices and look stylish while doing it, the Timbuk2 Command backpack is the one for you.

Who it’s for: Those carrying around primarily electronics and books

Comfort: The squishy, vented padding on the back of the Command makes it comfortable to carry over short or long distances. The venting helped to minimize sweat that could build up during a longer walk. The clip across the middle also helps to even out the weight distribution.

With its tall profile and wide straps, it seemed enormous to the testers with smaller frames, but fit perfectly on those with longer torsos.

Storage: The padded laptop compartment on the back gives laptops a first-class ticket to comfort in the Command backpack. Books and other devices are easily stored in the other compartments. These spacious compartments can also accommodate less bulky items, like as a professional camera. Discreet straps at the bottom of the bag allow the user to adjust the expansion depth of the compartments. There’s also plenty of compartments that are perfect for loose change and chapstick. A mesh pouch on the side can hold any standard water bottle.

The large size of the main compartments has a down side, however. With zippers going almost the entire length of the bag, testers felt that it would be easy for items to fall out of the bag, for tall items in the open bag to tip over, or for pickpockets to have easy access to the goodies inside.

Looks: The subtle coloring and clean lines of the Command all but scream “grown-up professional”.

What owners think: The biggest bragging point with the Command is the amount of storage; its deceptively thin profile belies massive amounts of space. Additionally, the compact profile of the Command makes it easy to store when not in use. The main complaints owners have of the Command is that the straps are awkward and can make it uncomfortable to wear. Also, the cushy laptop pouch can be difficult to access because it zippers under the straps.

The north face jester

The North Face Jester backpack

Bottom line: The North Face Jester is a good backpack for those on the go who want to store everything in one place. Sizing is dicey, though, so try one on in a store before you buy it.

Who it's for: Those carrying more than just books and electronics around

Comfort: The back of the Jester backpack has great mesh-covered padding and nice airflow, which cuts down on gross back sweat. A clip across the middle of the straps evened out the weight distribution.

While the straps are nicely adjustable, some testers found the straps to be too close together, which caused the straps to rub on the back of the neck. Other testers found the straps irritating on bare skin.

Storage: The main storage compartment has a padded laptop sleeve, and also plenty of room to store bigger, non-flat items, like a sweatshirt. A smaller pouch in the front is ideal for medium-sized items like chargers and an umbrella. In this same area, small items like batteries, Tic-Tacs, and paper clips can be stored in the organized pouches.

Two pouches on the side hold standard water bottles, and the strap across the front makes it easy to strap a sleeping bag to the front of the backpack.

Looks: The Jester comes in a wide variety of colors and styles, and looks like a typical school backpack.

What owners think: Owners praise the durability, large storage capacity, and long lifetime of the Jester backpack. Others reported that the bag was smaller than it looked in the picture, and that the stiff plate that forms the backbone of the backpack actually wore through either the back or the inside of the backpack.

Incase icon lite

Incase ICON Lite

Bottom line: For a compact backpack that still gets your devices to your destination in one piece, check out the Incase ICON Lite.

Who it's for: Those carrying around primarily electronics and books

Comfort: The well-cushioned back of the Incase ICON Lite make it easy to carry from place to place. The venting also reduces sweat, so you can still wear this backpack and look presentable at a meeting later on.

Like its big brother, the Incase ICON, it is heavy and stiff, which means it is great at protecting your devices, but not very comfortable to wear over longer time spans.

Storage: As implied by its name, the ICON Lite has less storage space than the ICON. Despite the loss of space, however, the laptop sleeve is still padded and covered in a very soft fabric, and there are still many places where smaller items like pens and batteries can be safely separated from larger items.

This backpack was not designed with bigger items in mind, though. The handy side pouches, which were great on the ICON, do not exist on the ICON Lite. The stiff framework of the backpack means that it cannot expand very much, so leave the gym shoes and clothes at home when using the ICON Lite.

Looks: It comes in a few different colors, but like the ICON, its sober styling is meant to convey the professional nature of the person wearing it.

What owners think: Owners who do not carry much are very happy with the ICON Lite. They also like the professional styling of the backpack. Other owners bemoaned the lack of more interior storage pockets.

Herschel supply co little america backpack

Hershel Supply Co. Little America backpack

Bottom line: The storage compartments in the Hershel Little America backpack are large but limited. If you want to look really cool, however, this is the backpack for you.

Who it's for: Casual use for those carrying around mostly bulky, irregular items and a few books

Comfort: The Little America has mesh-covered pads on its back that make it comfortable to carry around town, without getting too sweaty in the process.

The adjustable straps are wide, which can be a blessing or a curse, depending on your body type and shoulder width.

Storage: The Little America's main compartment has a nicely padded laptop sleeve. The rest of the main compartment is pretty big, and closes with a drawstring. You could definitely pile many things in this main compartment; a trip to a water park, with a towel, extra clothes, and sneakers, would be easy.

Other than the main pouch, there's only one other container, and that's where all the smaller stuff, like writing utensils and forensic evidence lives. Unfortunately, items that are too large to fit in the smaller pouch will doubtlessly get lost in the vast cavern of the main compartment.

The straps actually shut with magnetic snaps, which can make it confusing and non-intuitive to open the bag. Also, there is no place to store a water bottle on the exterior of the bag.

Looks: This bag is easily the coolest-looking bag of the bunch. It says "Follow me to an upscale coffee shop where we can talk about literature and drink things out of Mason jars."

What owners think: Those who bought this bag loved how it looked, but disliked the lack of additional pockets and pouches; to find a smaller item in the main compartment, they had to dig around a lot. There are also reports of frayed stitching along the straps. For lighter use, owners were very happy with its performance.

Amazonbasics backpack for laptops up to 17 inches

Where To Buy

$29.99 Amazon Buy

Amazon Basics laptop backpack

Bottom line: The Amazon Basics laptop back has a ton of neat storage compartments and a low price tag, but it wasn't the most comfortable backpack.

Who it's for: Those carrying more than just books and electronics around

Comfort: The Amazon Basics laptop backpack has well-padded cushions on both the back and the straps. However, that doesn't stop the sweat from building up.

The straps may be too far apart and too long for those of slighter builds. One tester wanted to be able to tighten the straps further for an optimal fit, but was unable to do so. For those of larger builds, the backpack was comfortable to wear for short and long walks.

Storage: There are tons of storage options in this backpack. The large, padded laptop sleeve is one of the best parts of the bag. There are two large compartments, one medium-sized compartment, and one smaller compartment. This is one backpack you could easily take on a long weekend; clothes and electronics alike will fit beautifully.

One of our testers found the plethora of storage options to be more problematic than helpful—with so many pockets and pouches, it's easy to forget exactly where you placed a certain object.

There are two water bottle pouches on the side of the bag that should comfortably fit smaller water bottles.

Looks: It is a basic black backpack with a few accents. It's never going to appear on a fashion runway.

What owners think: Customers really like the variable storage options, and didn't like the fact that the stitches and fabric started to break and fail within the first few months of purchase.

Lupan laptop backpack

Where To Buy

$39.87 Amazon Buy

Lupan Business laptop backpack

Bottom line: The Lupan Business laptop backpack is a great pick for people who want to protect their devices on a budget.

Who it's for: Those carrying around primarily electronics and books

Comfort: The mesh-covered back and pads make this bag relatively comfortable to carry on your back. However, the sweat builds up quickly and the poor venting ensures that the sweat lingers.

Our testers found that the straps were flimsy and not especially comfortable.

Storage: The laptop sleeve in the main compartment is not padded, and that may be problematic when storing other bulky things in the main compartment. A medium-sized compartment is perfect for holding chargers and a pair of flip flops, while the small compartment in the front of the bag would be a good fit for pencils and spare change. Despite the multiple storage compartments, it's clear that this backpack is built to carry around your devices and not much else.

There are, however, two pouches on the sides of the bag that are ideal for standard water bottles. It also comes with a luggage lock, a USB cable, and a port to the outside of the backpack that allows for access to charging outlets or water bottles without opening the bag.

Looks: This Basics laptop backpack comes in a few colors, and seems to live at the stylistic intersection between "college kid" and "early career professional."

What owners think: The online reviews for the Basics laptop backpack are all very positive. Everyone especially loves the USB charging port and the different storage compartments. The only negative review on Amazon simply says, "Gross," which we assume applies to the scratchy material of the bag.

Jansport superbreak

JanSport SuperBreak backpack

Bottom line: The Jansport SuperBreak is a classic for a reason. It's a basic no-frills backpack that gets the job done.

Who it's for: Casual use for those carrying around mostly bulky, irregular items and a few books

Comfort: This is the lightest backpack we tested, weighing just half a pound. The back is not padded or vented, but it didn't cause sweat to build up noticeably.

The padded straps are adjustable, but may be too close together for someone with broader shoulders.

Storage: There are two compartments in the SuperBreak—the main compartment, which has no laptop sleeve, but could conceivably hold a laptop and some schoolbooks, and a smaller pouch, which is where you'd put a phone or a wallet, along with pens and pencils. The lack of storage options means it would be tough to find a small object thrown into the large main compartment.

There are no exterior pouches for water bottles.

Looks: The SuperBreak comes in a wide range of colors and styles. It definitely looks like a bag belonging to an elementary- or middle-schooler.

What owners think: Owners loved the durability of the backpack material, but generally hated the zippers that often got caught on said backpack material. Others reported that knock-off JanSport products sold under the JanSport brand were of cheaper quality and broke easily. Be sure to buy direct from JanSport to avoid counterfeits. For genuine JanSport products, there is a lifetime warranty.

Things to consider

Before you go to buy a backpack for the school year, consider the following:

• How the bag will be used (Day trips? Business trips? Heavy use every day?)

• How long you'd like it to last (The school year? Multiple school years?)

• The age/body type of the person wearing it (Tall with narrow shoulders? Shorter with wider shoulders?)

• The price point (Budget? Mid-range? Expensive?)

Happy hunting! May your straps never break, and may you never sweat through your only meeting-appropriate shirt.

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