The backpack is the unsung hero of the school years. A truly great kids' backpack needs to check a lot of boxes. First and foremost, it needs to be durable enough to last for years. It should be well organized to keep school supplies from getting lost or papers from getting crumpled. It should be well-structured so it's comfortable to wear—especially when carrying extra weight. And, of course, it needs to come in colors and styles that kids feel cool wearing.
After months of testing 11 top-rated kids’ backpacks, one rose to the top of the class: the Pottery Barn Kids MacKenzie Backpack(available at Pottery Barn Kids). Parents will love it because it’s durable and its design makes it just the right size for kids as young as 6 and as old as 12. Kids will like these backpacks for their fun range of colors and patterns that make them feel completely customized to each kid’s sense of style.
Coming in as our best value pick is the JanSport Superbreak Plus(available at JanSport). Not only are these bags well-made, they come in gorgeous colors and prints that slightly older kids will like. They are also completely machine-washable and come with a lifetime warranty,
Here are the best kids backpacks for school we tested, ranked in order:
MacKenzie by Pottery Barn (Large)
L.L. Bean Discovery Kids Backpack
JanSport Superbreak Plus
Hanna Andersson Classic
Kids Lands' End ClassMate Medium Backpack
Eddie Bauer Kids Adventurer
Po Campo Zinger
North Face Youth Recon
L.L. Bean Original
Herschel Kids’ Heritage 9L
Wildkin 15-inch Backpack
Pottery Barn Kids Mackenzie Backpack (Large)
While some backpacks we tried felt like nothing but a shrunken-down version of an adult backpack, the MacKenzie was truly made with kids in mind. The sturdy construction, playful designs, and kid-centric details make this bag a winner. It’s built to last through a child's evolving needs—making this a backpack that could easily take kids through their entire elementary school experience—while also being durable enough to stand up to the rigors that kids put their belongings through.
We appreciated thoughtful details like the front daisy chain (perfect for fun charms or for hanging hand sanitizer); a small top pocket that's just the right size for a smartphone, a face mask, or both; perfectly proportioned organizational pouches; an interior label (for when the bag inevitably gets misplaced); and two sturdy pockets that can accommodate drink bottles of of all sizes. The larger pockets are roomy—without being cavernous—and the bag is made with rugged 600-denier polyester—a high-density, water-resistant fabric that is often used for camp chairs. The fabric, while durable, isn’t overly heavy or itchy, and the bags come in dozens of fun and colorful styles that kids clamored for.
This bag also took into account kids' proportions and body shapes. It fit well on kids ages 6 to 11—it didn't dwarf the smaller kids but it offered enough room to fit everything an incoming 4th or 5th grader might need. It also had nice comfort features like an adjustable sternum strap, contoured and padded shoulder straps, and a lined and cushioned back plate that has just the right amount of mesh covering to ensure that kids don't overheat while wearing it.
The only place these bags didn’t perform well was with their flimsy laptop sleeve. Sized to fit a Chromebook, it's made of thin nylon and doesn't really offer anything in the way of support to keep a laptop or tablet in place, beyond a tiny strip of velcro. We predict that the pocket will rip after a couple years of use. That being said, it’s an inside pocket, so items won’t get damaged or lost should it end up tearing.
This bag also isn't technically machine-washable (it's advised that you spot clean). When tested, however, it cleaned beautifully in the wash. There are even blog posts about how to clean a MacKenzie in the washing machine without damaging it—so this is something people do with regularity. That being said, if a bag says it’s not machine-washable, we advise that you play at your own risk.
The pros of this bag, however, greatly outweigh those small cons. We tested the bag in the large size, which is best for kids 1st grade and up. At $60, it’s not a budget buy, but it’s an investment piece that will likely last them for years.
Sturdy, rugged, and with an unparalleled lifetime warranty, the JanSport SuperBreak Plus is the best value backpack you can buy.
This backpack is quality from top to bottom. Super strong zippers on all of the pouches are protected with storm flaps, and the well-padded internal laptop sleeve showed no sign of tear, even when we pulled and prodded in our testing. Even though the lifetime warranty is a big bonus when purchasing this workhorse of a backpack, it’s so well-made that we aren’t sure you’ll ever need to actually use it.
While you can certainly get away with this backpack with younger kids, we recommend it for 3rd grade and up. The JanSport SuperBreak Plus's styles tend to the more sophisticated (some are just gorgeous); our younger test group weren't that interested in them, but kids over age 9 loved them. It also has a more basic design that lacks a lot of bells and whistles of bags that are made with kids in mind. It has one main compartment and a small front pouch with barebones internal organizer pockets. It also doesn't have any special comfort details, which we think are necessary for younger kids. If you are looking for a straightforward, simple bag, however, this is one that will take them right through high school—providing their taste and style doesn't change.
Hi, I’m Janelle Randazza, Parenting staff writer at Reviewed, where I test, review, and write about all things kid- and parent-related. I am also guilty of destroying more backpacks than anyone would have thought humanly possible in my childhood. I’m fairly certain my child is my clone (at least in regards to his flair for unintentional destruction), so I have a vested interest in finding a rugged backpack that will last him for years. With the school year approaching, and with my son entering 2nd grade, it’s time to upgrade his backpack to one that will last the next few years of elementary school.
He’s a picky kid, and I’m a picky mom. This was our quest to find the perfect backpack that appealed to my desire for durability and his hopes for finding a bag that looks cool and feels good while wearing it.
Our tests focused on durability, capacity, fit, comfort, and potential to grow with the child.
Our durability tests looked at strength and abrasion resistance. We tested both by filling each backpack to a reasonable weight and an excessive capacity, and tossed each—multiple times—down a flight of nine stairs that landed on a rough, concrete walkway. The test was meant to mimic a bag being thrown on playgrounds and dropped off the side of chairs repeatedly throughout the school year.
We also tested for fit and comfort on kids ages 5 to 12, analyzing the amount of padding in the straps and on the back, as well as ergonomic features like contouring, adjustability options, and the effectiveness of chest straps where applicable.
What to Consider When Buying Kids’ Backpacks
As it turns out, there's a lot to consider when buying a kids' backpack—particularly if you want it to last for more than one school year. We asked a group of about 20 parents of kids ages 5 to 12 what they look for when buying a kids' school backpack—and what ends up being a source of frustration once they have time to sit with them a while. Here is what they told us to look out for:
Not all kids' backpacks are created equal. Many are just smaller versions of adult backpacks, and they don't take into account a child's body and how kids will be able to manage the weight of a full backpack. Our top winner, the Pottery Barn MacKenzie, has an ergonomic design that is made with a child in mind.
If you're worried about weight, look for bags with contoured and padded shoulder straps, chest straps, and that have an element of back padding. We noted when bags have ergonomic designs that are truly kid-specific in the pros and cons sections of each review.
Water Bottle Holders
Time and time again, the parents polled voiced frustrations with water bottle pockets. First and foremost, these holders should accommodate bottles of all sizes. Restrictive bottle pockets that only accommodated 8-ounce bottles are a constant source of frustration and—for many parents—this ends up being an insurmountable issue as kids get into 2nd or 3rd grade. If you want your kid's bag to grow with them, they need to be able to carry a bottle that fits their growing needs.
They also cautioned to look for bottle holders that won't rip over time, as is the case with many full mesh bottle holders. In scoring, we favored bottle holders that were either canvas or had a canvas-and-mesh combo that appeared to thoughtfully support bottles without ripping.
Ease of Cleaning
Astonishingly, there are very few kids’ backpacks on the market that are made to be machine-washable. That being said, most of the backpacks we tried, which specified that they only be spot cleaned, actually held up fine in the wash. The manufacturers, however, informed us that while many of their backpacks can stand up to a gentle wash cycle, their colors are not guaranteed not to bleed, and protective weather-proof coating may wear off. If you need a backpack that will stand up to monthly (or weekly) machine washings, be sure to keep an eye out for top picks that are noted as "machine-washable" listed as a “pro” in each review.
Teaching a young child how to be organized is no small feat. When scoring, we favored bags that had smart organizational features including internal pouches or easy-to-access smaller pockets. Likewise, we looked for bags that knew not to overdo it in the pockets department. As far as pockets are concerned, we found that more and bigger definitely doesn't mean better. Keep in mind that too many pockets—particularly when some are too deep—can result in lost papers, permission slips, and sometimes lost food items. We looked for backpacks that had a logical number of pockets and pouches that could help a kid stay organized, and not defeat them by having too many places for important items to disappear.
Other Backpacks for Kids We Tested
L.L. Bean Discovery Backpack
This new spin on the classic L.L. Bean backpack has soft, contoured straps and substantial, ergonomic back padding, with a focus on comfort in the lower back area where a heavy book bag may cause strain, making this a comfortable, wearable backpack with a well-designed fit for kids. We also like that the internal pockets are secured with heavy-duty Velcro, there is a well-made laptop sleeve, and two mesh water bottle holders.
Where this bag took the biggest hits were for its lack of style choices (at press time there are only two), and for its cavernous pockets. What looks to be a perfectly positioned, small front pocket is actually a huge pocket that went up to my son’s shoulder, but with a narrow opening. Likewise the middle pocket is equally deep. While this may not seem like a problem, three deep pockets caused lost school notices, a half-eaten apple was forgotten for a least three days, and my son felt less organized than he did with almost any other we tried. Sadly, this is a near-perfect bag in many ways, but the frustration from the overly deep pockets pushed it down in our scoring.
This sweet little number by Hanna Andersson surprised us all in the testing. It's bursting with high-quality components, including reflective zippers, ergonomic shoulder straps, a well-constructed laptop sleeve, and the perfect number of pouches for younger kids who are just getting a handle on organization. Additionally, the canvas bottle pockets held a range of sizes and—since they are mesh-free—will likely hold up for years.
Because it was designed for kids with a smaller frame, we were surprised by just how much could fit in these bags. There was plenty of space for a laptop, a lunch bag, two books, and a jacket. There are very few designs to choose from with this bag, and most appeal more towards younger kids, but if you’re looking for a just-right preschool backpack to take them right through 1st grade, this it a perfect starter bag for smaller kids.
The Lands' End ClassMate Medium Backpack was the most lightweight of all the backpacks we tested, and had a real focus on comfort with padding on the back, contoured mesh straps, and an adjustable sternum strap. Additional daisy chains across the main pocket make for lots of extra places to hang necessities.
This bag comes in kid-approved, grow-with-you designs that are just as good for 1st graders as they are for 5th graders, and can be personalized with initials, words, or fun and colorful badges. It also featured well-placed reflective strips, making it a good choice for twilight walks or bike rides home. This bag is also machine-washable.
Priced at just under $40, this bag came close to winning our Best Value badge, but fell short with their return policy, which only allows for 90-day returns. While a lengthy conversation with customer service said, “You are welcome to return an item you're unhappy with,” they would not get specific as to whether those returns would be honored if a backpack did not last for the duration of the school year and if a return fee would be applied.
There is actually a lot to like about this bag, and it was a contender for both Best Overall and Best Value. The back padding is ergonomically set and the shoulder straps are contoured for excellent comfort, making this a terrific backpack for school or for travel. It has high quality reflective strips and we really liked the variety, sizes, and types of pockets this bag has, including a perfect pocket for a face mask, and internal sleeves for small items. It also has one of the best laptop sleeves of any we tried; it's right on par with the JanSport SuperBreak Plus, possibly better due to it being up against the excellent back padding.
That being said, other backpacks of the same caliber had a better return policy and, when we are talking about kids, a good return policy is important. The company does stand by its craftsmanship and will accept returns if a product is determined to be defective, however based on a personal attempted return of a defective product, I was unable to return once-used products without tags. This is a good bag, just be sure to double, triple, and quadruple check with fickle kids that they like the design before you buy, and save those tags.
For sportier kids, this is a quality bag with some great and innovative features. The Po Campo is a backpack and bike bag combo that easily transitions between the two with a few flips of the straps and a couple well-placed snaps. It’s an ingenious design that’s a smart choice for kids who bike to school.
Ergonomic back padding and shoulder straps keep this bag comfortable, and the high quality mesh covering of both keep sweating at bay. The water bottle pockets are made from a smart mesh and canvas combo that accommodates bottles of all sizes, but will prevent rips when bags are dragged or dropped on the ground. The laptop sleeve is well-padded, and there are high-quality reflective strips all around in strategic places. Made with super rugged fabrics that are both vegan and waterproof, it also has protective storm flaps over the zippers to keep all your kid's belongings safe and dry.
We are huge fans of North Face products overall. Their no-strings-attached lifetime warranty and the overall construction of all of their products is consistently impressive. This bag is no different. It’s made with quality materials that were built to last and thoughtful design considerations that make this backpack well-sized and well-suited for smaller kids. Standout features include a reflective bike light loop and fine mesh water bottle pockets that can easily double as quick-access treasure keepers.
This bag, however, was nothing special. It’s a good bag, but it comes in very few design choices that kids can get excited about, and there weren't any components that truly set it apart from the pack. It is comfortable and kids liked it overall, but nothing about this bag make it a “must buy.”
You can’t beat a classic. The L.L. Bean Original is virtually unchanged since it’s 1982 debut, and that consistency is mainly due to the fact that they’ve done a lot of things right.
This well-priced bag is sturdy, simple, and comes with a generous one-year warranty. As you may expect from L.L. Bean, this pack has plenty of quality finishes. The bag and pouches are made from a seemingly indestructible nylon, the zipper to the main pouch is covered with a storm flap for protection against drops, a 3M Scotchlight reflective strip is well-placed on the front for any kids that get to school on foot or bike, and it has well constructed zipper pouches to keep smaller items organized. It’s also machine-washable and comes in a wide selection of designs that will appeal to little kids and those that are high school-bound.
Where it didn't fare as well was with comfort. While it does have minimal padding, there are no ergonomic elements and it lacks features like contoured straps and a chest strap. Smaller kids felt uncomfortable wearing this and it lacked a laptop sleeve to keep older kids' devices well-protected. In spite of all of that, we can personally vouch that these backpacks can last for well over a decade of continued use. If you're looking for a well-priced backpack that's a confirmed classic, you could definitely do worse than the L.L. Bean Original.
Structurally, this is probably the most well-made of the bunch. Every part of this pack is made with the highest quality and craftsmanship, so we actually really wanted to love it. In the end, however, it just doesn’t feel like a pack that was actually created with kids in mind.
The design choices are limited and too sophisticated for younger kids. The water bottle holder is restrictive and we struggled to fit most bottle sizes. Size-wise, this backpack is best-suited to kids in kindergarten or younger—beyond that, this style is too small and lacks any "grow with them" potential, unlike the Hanna Andersson, which can get them from age 3 to 7 easily. While you can opt to buy a larger size, that's going to cost more for an already-expensive bag. What's more, kids just didn't like wearing this. They said it was stiff and uncomfortable and voiced preferences for other backpacks.
These are definitely well-made bags that will last a long time, but there’s little point to that durability if your kids don't like wearing it.
This really isn’t a bad little bag, but it's also nothing special. It’s comfortable for kids, affordable, and a good fit for preschoolers. If you’re looking to save money on a first bag, this isn’t a bad choice, it just didn’t manage to keep up with the bells, whistles, and thoughtful design of other bags. This Wildkins model only has one bottle pocket and that pocket only allowed for the smallest bottle we had. It also could have done better with regards to organizational pockets.
That being said, preschoolers don’t require everything older kids need. This bag probably won’t grow with them but, for a first bag, it’s affordable and a solid choice.
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