Backpacks are the quintessential symbol of back-to-school season. There are so many choices and it’s easiest to let our kids pick their favorite color or style, but will the one they choose be the best bag for the job? Hard to say. With that in mind, we tested nine backpacks to see which ones we preferred based on convenience, ease of use, comfort, and appearance.
Our favorite backpack is the L.L. Bean Deluxe Book Pack (available at L.L. Bean) which combines convenience, support, and durability while remaining a good value for the price. If the student in your life needs something primarily for carrying a laptop or electronics, the Incase Icon Laptop Backpack (available at Amazon) is an ideal option thanks to its padding as well as its chic design. Lastly, for an affordable backpack that still remains a classic after many years, the JanSport SuperBreak One Backpack (available at Amazon) comes in a wide variety of designs that will please even the choosiest of teens.
The recommendations in this guide are based on thorough product and market research by our team of expert product reviewers. The picks are based on examining user reviews, product specifications, and, in some limited cases, our experience with the specific products named.
L.L. Bean Deluxe Book Pack
This is a durable, flexible, weatherproof backpack that is reasonably priced. Plus, the website states that if the purchaser is not 100% satisfied with the bag, it can be returned for a full refund within one year of purchase.
The extra padded straps and chest harness are adjustable for all body types and take some of the pressure off carrying bulky or heavy items. It feels secure and can be grabbed by the straps or the loop on top. The largest storage area has a secure space for a laptop, and plenty of room for books, a sweatshirt, or other bulky items. The middle section can carry notebooks and thinner items. A small, padded pocket sits inside the middle pocket and has a hole for a charging cord or other delicate items that need to be tucked away for safety. The front of the pack has a zippered pocket for pencils, highlighters, and keys which can be attached to a cord with a clip. The storage areas are well thought out. It’s not easy to lose items and there is plenty of space. Two large water bottle holders make it easy to be well hydrated all day.
This is a simple looking bag that comes in nine color choices including black, camp green, navy, red and true teal. It isn’t our first choice as far as style goes, but the durability and storage options make up for what it lacks in appearance. It’s also the only pack we tested with reflective trim—a great addition if your student walks home from the subway or bus stop after dark.
A few online reviews mentioned problems with the water bottle holders tearing or the zipper getting stuck, but we didn't experience that issue during our extensive testing.
This pack is for someone who considers sturdiness a top priority. It’s the most padded of all the packs we tried and has the sleekest design, so it works for school or the office. The Icon is perfect for adults or older kids carrying a laptop and other heavy materials or items that need a lot of support and who can afford to pay more for a backpack.
This backpack is so padded it can stand by itself. The laptop case is super soft and supportive so, of all the packs we tested, I would be least concerned about my student's laptop being damaged. The straps have extra padding as well so it doesn’t dig into shoulders, although for smaller wearers, the pack might be a bit bulky.
The Icon has lots of pockets. Aside from the soft, cushiony laptop section there are two large areas for books, notebooks and other items. The backpack is so deep that if you forget you put something in it, you might not remember until you clean it out. The front most section has quite a few smaller areas for pens, pencils, a phone or keys. There is also a padded, smaller zipper area up top for perhaps your phone, so it doesn’t scratch. One big downside is the lack of a water bottle holder.
If you are looking for a stylish, professional looking pack, this is the one for you.
This is the simplest backpack we tested, but simple is sometimes better. The lightweight JanSport was easy to fill and, despite its light weight, it’s durable. It has the least frills and costs the least out of all the bags we tested, yet it’s one of our top picks because of its ease of use and flexibility. It comes with a limited lifetime warranty (which excludes normal wear and tear). We got a lot of positive comments on this bag, and there are many designs to choose from.
The JanSport is ideal for anyone who needs a more casual—yet stylish—backpack, including school children or campers. It comes in so many designs and colors you can find a design that will appeal to almost everyone.
Even though this bag is thinner and less padded than other packs, it’s more flexible and therefore comfortable, especially for those with smaller frames. It has enough room that you can include a laptop sleeve of your own, which is what we did.
The JanSport had the least pockets of all the packs we tested, which contributed to its light weight and ease. You know exactly what you put in it and won’t easily lose items. There is one main pocket and one smaller pocket in the front. This particular model doesn’t come with a water bottle holder, so given how much we liked the product, we would order a different model that comes with a large water bottle holder. We love how easy it is to toss in the wash.
This pack is very casual because of its canvas exterior and the multiple fun designs available such as camo, garden tea party, galaxy and a variety of solid colors.
The Fjallraven Kanken is a simple, well-made, classic looking backpack that feels light even when you pack it to the max. The sleek design, great color options, and trendy look of this pack make it great for school, extracurricular activities, camping, or anytime you need extra storage.
Even when packed to the brim, the ergonomics on this pack make it feel light. It comes with a foam board which can be placed at the back of the large pocket and protects the user’s back. A strap on top makes the bag easy to grab.
The one large section of the Fjallraven Kanken stores more than it would appear to. There is a separate section for a laptop near the foam board which may keep a computer more protected. A smaller pocket in front is great for keys, pens, a phone, or anything else you want to access quickly.
The Fjallraven comes in over 30 eye catching color choices making it easy for anyone to find a bag that fits your style. It’s a casual, clean looking bag and we like that the circle logo on the front of the bag is reflective.
There were several major downsides to the Fjallraven, however. The shoulder straps aren’t padded, which made it somewhat uncomfortable when worn for a long period of time, and it wasn't roomy enough to hold our tester's lunchbox as well as all of her required schoolbooks and laptop. And while the Kanken does have two sturdy water bottle holders, they are narrow and didn't fit a large bottle.
This is a classic backpack that is good for school, camp, sports or a hike, and is ideal for anyone who wants a straightforward well-fitting backpack. However, if you're looking for a colorful backpack, you'll be disappointed with the Adidas—it only comes in varying shades of grey and black with a few lighter options like beige or linen green.
The back and the shoulder straps are well padded, thick, and adjustable, which makes it easy for any body type to be comfortable. The bottom can be stretched or contracted depending on what the wearer is carrying.
There are three larger storage pockets and two smaller ones. There is also a pouch for a phone or items you want to keep in a safe place. The two water bottle holders are great for carrying thinner bottles, however they didn’t hold our thicker bottle. The material is easy to wipe clean if lunches spill or pens mark up the inside. The laptop section is more padded than the rest of the bag. The straps are wide, cushioned, and well-fitted. It does come with a warranty.
The Under Armour Gameday is a standard looking backpack that can be used for school, as a casual office bag, or for the gym. While it's fine for all ages, its simple design and sturdy laptop section make it more suited for older kids or adults. Younger kids may want more of a variety of colors and designs, but the choices of black, white, blue, grey and other solid colors are classic.
The back of this bag is stiff and sturdy and so are the straps. Overall, it’s comfortable, but it can pull on your shoulders and feel heavy after a long day if it’s packed with too many items.
The laptop compartment is well padded, and it can be slim or stretch it to fill it a decent amount of supplies. It’s deep and the pockets are slim but can extend to be wider by pushing on the bottom of the main section. The laptop pocket is tight and soft making it very supportive of electronics. There is a small, soft compartment up top for glasses.
The Herschel backpack is light and simple, and is good for young children or older people carrying lighter items. The website says the Herschel Youth XL is for kids age 8 to 12 to take to school, camp, or for sports, and we totally agree. We packed it to capacity and probably wouldn’t be able to fit much more. Older kids and adults might find it to be too small. When this bag wasn’t headed to school, we grabbed it at the last minute to bring items on roads trips like books and art supplies because the two pockets make it easy to find things.
The Herschel has thick padded straps that easily adjust as well as a lap belt. It also has two pockets and a thin laptop divider. The small front pocket is great for storing a phone, sanitizer, keys, and a few pens. The main pocket holds a decent amount of stuff. We were able to pack it with everything we needed for the day, but we tested it to its limits. There is one water bottle holder, but it was too thin to hold our water bottle.
The stylish, simple look can fit in almost anywhere. It comes in 17 color choices including some really cute patterns like tie dye, camo, polka dots and motorbikes. We received a lot of positive comments on our ash rose colored bag with red and white striped wipeable lining.
The Lands' End Kids ClassMate Extra Large Backpack is a traditional school backpack with four pockets made of washable canvas. While it's a good choice for anyone, younger children will especially love the fun designs.
The material on the Lands' End Kids ClassMate is thin and flexible. The shoulder straps have more padding than the rest of the backpack, but overall the thin material made the bag uncomfortable for long-term wear. There are three main larger pockets and a smaller one in front that help your student stay organized. It has section for a laptop, but it doesn’t have extra padding. The water bottle holders are nice and big and easily held our large bottle.
Vera Bradley bags are known for their beautiful designs, and their backpacks are no exception. These bags are beautiful inside and out. Several of the floral options are pretty and unique so this pack stands out in a crowd. This is a versatile bag that can be used for school, camp, or traveling. It’s also one of the pricier bags we tested.
The Grand Backpack is great for anyone that wants a more feminine design; even the bags with a grey or black exterior have a floral lining. The website states that the bag is made from 24 recycled plastic water bottles and is water-repellant so it’s great for someone who wants an eco-friendly bag that will withstand the elements.
My student found that the Vera Bradley was comfortable when packed lightly, but when fully packed it fell forward when it was set down on the ground. Plus, the straps are less padded than some of the other bags we tested.
This bag has a lot of sections. The main compartment can be expanded or contracted by pushing the base of the bag in or out. There are two mesh compartments in the biggest section which is nice for storing smaller items. The back section fits a laptop and is well padded. There is a deep front pocket that contains a compartment designed for pens and smaller items. The deep pocket was an easy place to lose things we tossed in and forgot about. There are two water bottle holders, but they were tight and didn’t fit our fatter water bottle. This bag also has a sleeve on the back so it can be secured to luggage, which is a nice feature.
Hi, I’m Jaclyn Greenberg. I live on the East Coast with my husband, three children, and a dog. I love researching products that make our lives easier and sharing those findings with other busy moms. Last year, when my daughter started middle school, her backpack was extremely bulky and I worried about her carrying a heavy bag all day. We loved trialing which backpacks were the most comfortable and proficient.
We packed these bags to the brim with everything a middle schooler carries each day, and more: a laptop, laptop case, accordion folder with papers, YA book, dry erase board, two notebooks, a pencil case, phone, lunchbox, lunchbox case, and water bottle. Then, we sent it to the wilds middle school for several days where it was taken on and off over a period of six to eight hours.
After school, I asked my student a few key questions, including "How comfortable was the bag after carrying it around to various classrooms?," "Was it easy to find your items when you needed them?," and "Did you like the way it looked? Did others comment on the style?" We then scored each backpack on comfort, durability, attractiveness, and how well they functioned under the rough daily use of a busy middle school student.
What You Should Know About School Backpacks
Think About What's Going to Be Put in It
Depending on what items your child carries in their backpack, they may require specific features. Are they avid readers that love to pack a bag full of books? Or will they mostly be carting around a laptop—and need a padded sleeve? Do they carry lots of small items that need to be kept safe like sunglasses, keys, and a wallet? Larger items that need a lot of room? Will they do better with several sections so their belongings are compartmentalized, or will more compartments just cause confusion and make it hard to find loose papers, pens, or a phone? Take the time to truly assess your child's unique needs in order to find the best backpack for them.
Whether or Not It Holds a Water Bottle
These days, most students carry water bottles, which means having a backpack with a dedicated space for their bottle is important. But just because a backpack has a water bottle holder doesn't mean that it fits all sizes. It's worth double checking to make sure that any backpack you're planning to purchase will accommodate whatever size water bottle your student carries.
How Comfortable It Will Be for Long School Days
Tweens and teens are in school—and carrying around a full-to-the-brim backpack—for hours every day. If it's not comfortable when it's filled with all their belongings, it's going to make lugging it from class to class a miserable experience. Padded straps and an appropriately sized backpack for the build of your child are paramount for comfort.
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