Although briefcases were once the gold standard in the office or at work, backpacks are more practical (and acceptable than ever). They balance weight better than a crossbody bag, and can tow more than a tote. Unlike some simple purchases, though — like a basic T-shirt or a baseball cap — backpacks came in an array of shapes, sizes and colors with a million different pocket combinations and with (or without) plenty of other add-ons.
Best Overall BackpackThe North Face Recon Backpack Read More
Best Upgrade BackpackFilson Dryden Backpack Read More
Best Affordable BackpackJansport Right Pack Backpack Read More
Best Backpack for Weekend TripsPatagonia Black Hole Pack 25L Read More
Best Waterproof BackpackRains Trail Mountaineer Bag Read More
Best Overall Backpack: The North Face Recon Backpack
Pros: Water repellent to keep contents dry. Body-shaped yoke makes it more comfortable to wear. Padded straps help keep your shoulders from hurting. Lined pocket for sunglasses or phone prevent scratches.
Cons: Water bottle pockets don't expand. Front pockets are too small.
Materials: Recycled nylon ripstop
Dimensions: 20 x 12.5 x 6 inches
The North Face makes plenty of technical packs for longer camping trips and extended hikes, but the Recon Backpack is its most basic — in a good way. You can wear this thing anywhere: to the gym with shoes and a water bottle stuffed inside; to work with your laptop in the standalone sleeve; to school textbooks billowing out of the top and a charger dangling in the front mesh pocket. What you do with it is your call, but know it can do it all.
Its versatility is what makes it our top pick: it's spacious, simple, surprisingly affordable and backed by a well-known brand. Plus, it's comfortable to wear whether it's overtop a jacket or just a T-shirt. The biggest pitfall, though, is the laptop "pocket":
Although the Recon has a dedicated laptop compartment, it doesn’t offer a sleeve — or, at least the model our tester tested doesn’t. (The bag has been updated a few times between 2019 and now.) When scouring online at past reviews, they found that the Recon used to have a protected sleeve that fit laptops up to 15 inches, but it was a tight fit that required some forceful pushing to make it work. It seems that the North Face ditched the sleeve in favor of a huge pocket for your machine.
This isn’t a bad thing, but only one part of that laptop pocket has a soft lining and the other side is a rough sort of nylon. Keep in mind that if you’re going to be shoving a laptop in here and you prefer to keep things scratch-free, the pocket’s big space won’t stop it from bouncing around. (But this could mean your laptop inside a protective case will fit.)
For a deeper look, read our review of the North Face Recon backpack.
Best Upgrade Backpack: Filson Dryden Backpack
Pros: 1000D Heavy-weight nylon makes it durable and weather-resistant. Comes in various colorways for every style. 2 side pockets for water bottles help keep you hydrated.
Cons: Zippers are covered by material so it can be hard to open and close as you have to push the material away to zip and unzip.
Material(s): 1000D heavyweight nylon, bridle leather
Dimensions: 18 x 12.75 x 7 inches
You know what you’re getting with Filson: a durable and tough bag with ample space and no frills. There’s a compartment or pocket for literally everything but the kitchen sink. Laptop, books, papers, chords and tech, and even a jacket or sweater can be tossed in for chilly lecture halls. Going to the gym after class? Throw some sneakers in here too while you’re at it. While functionality reigns over style at Filson, the leather details add a stylish touch.
Sure, it doesn't boast superb weight distribution tech or super-padded shoulder straps, but it's a great companion for trips, our tester learned, as this bag went with them on a long-haul flight. They could fit pertinent travel documents in the front pocket, personal tech in the second front pocket, bulkier items in the big main compartment and a laptop in the rear sleeve.
And even at max capacity, the weight remained well distributed (not perfectly balanced, though) and the bag plenty comfortable (and its original shape, too). Some bags buckle under the pressure of being a daily driver and a sack for special occasions (like traveling), but the Dryden Backpack handled challenges in stride. It's superior to most mass-market and designer bags, making it an excellent alternative to many other options above and below its price point.
For more information, read our full review of the Filson Dryden Backpack.
Best Affordable Backpack: Jansport Right Pack Backpack
Pros: Super-affordable, classic style for every budget. Padded laptop sleeve inside protects your device. Two exterior pockets offer extra room.
Cons:Lackluster straps make shoulders hurt
Material(s): 915 Denier Cordura, suede
Dimensions: 18 x 13 x 5.5 inches
It doesn't get much simpler than this. Tough Cordura fabric coupled with Jansport's iconic suede bottom give it a long-lasting appeal, both physically and aesthetically. It comes with two outer pockets for quick-access items and a single roomy main compartment complete with a padded laptop sleeve big enough for a 15-inch laptop.
Our tester took theirs to pick-up basketball games and back, reveling in bygone college hoop dreams. It gives kind-of-collegiate vibes, and the whole thing is far simpler than most backpacks on this list. Case in point? There are fewer pockets to forget, which means less frantic searching for items you think you might've lost. The primary pocket fit a full-size basketball and a large Nalgene, or the large Nalgene, size 12 basketball shoes, a hat, headphones and more.
These items are light, though, so our tester never truly experienced how this one would feel with a full load of hefty textbooks, but based on the straps, they'd say... not so well. You won't get the cushion that comes with the Recon Backpack, but you won't lose circulation in your arms.
Find more backpacks for students in our guide to college backpacks.
Best Backpack for Weekend Trips: Patagonia Black Hole 25L
Pros: Plenty of room for your belongings. Water-resistant construction.
Cons: No hip belt for long hikes
Material(s): 70D recycled ripstop nylon
Dimensions: 22 x 10.5 x 5.5 inches
Traditional backpacks can feel a little bit grade school, but the Patagonia Black Hole Pack feels more outdoorsy and adult than many of its competitors. The pack’s design is straightforward and sensible: the main pocket has a slot for your laptop and tablet as well as a zippered compartment, and the exterior zip pocket is great for quick access to things like phone chargers or sunglasses.
Our tester appreciated the water-resistant material’s ability to keep the bag’s contents dry, and argued it might be its best feature. The tough ripstop material can take a real beating. The pack is very comfortable to wear, even when weighed down, though a bag this great for the outdoors could have benefited from a hip belt for better carrying weight on hikes. This isn’t the pack you’ll want to wear on long hikes for hours on end, but for commutes and weekend trips, the great design and tough construction make it an excellent option.
Best Backpack for Commuters: Everlane The ReNew Transit Backpack
Pros: Clean and sleek look.
Cons: Uncomfortable when full due to thin straps and lack of structure.
Material(s): Recycled polyester
Dimensions: 17.5 x 12 x 7.25 inches
Everlane’s ReNew Transit Backpack is a lightweight, travel-focused backpack with some nifty features. Our tester mostly appreciated the bevy of pockets — there’s a zippered one in an exterior flap, a zippered front pouch, a stealth, vertically-zippered laptop pocket against the back, an outer water bottle pocket, and then the main inner compartment which features a small zippered pocket, a large open pocket and another spot for a water bottle.
It’s a lot of organization packed into a light and streamlined package, and they loved how the bag is a lot more functional than its sleek and minimalist appearance would have you believe. It has a sleeve that fits over the handle of a rolling suitcase — an often overlooked feature that frankly should be on every backpack — and they like the magnetic flap that covers the main compartment, as well as the smaller flaps that shield the zippers. While the bag isn’t waterproof, it does have a water-resistant coating, and water beads right off of it, meaning those flaps do an excellent job of keeping things dry if caught in a light rainstorm.
The bag’s light weight, unstructured design and minimalist ethos mostly serve it well, but they also contribute to its main downside. Because its design is so spartan (number of pockets notwithstanding), it’s pretty uncomfortable when loaded up. The shoulder straps are both thin in width and lack padding, and there’s no chest strap or anything to help spread the weight more evenly. There’s also basically no padding on the back, which causes the back to sit somewhat awkwardly as it conforms to the shape of whatever it is you’re carrying. This all adds up to unneeded pressure on the shoulders, making this pack best suited for quick trips and lighter loads.
Best Waterproof Backpack: Rains Mountaineer Bag
Pros: Waterproof PU design truly does repel rain. The rectangular shape makes this bag easy to fill — in an organized way, too.
Cons: Front string slot doesn't fit much besides a helmet — you wouldn't want to trust it to carry anything valuable.
Material(s): Polyurethane, polyester
Dimensions: 18.5 x 12 x 7 inches
Though it’s well-known for its waterproof outerwear, Rains also makes a range of water-repellent bags perfect for inclement weather. This minimalist bag has a padded laptop sleeve and external compression straps, and the material blend is inspired by the Danish brand’s classic raincoats.
Our tester appreciated the bag's rectangular design, which can fit a whole hell of a lot if necessary. It holds its shape when full, and the open-top design is easy to access. Inversely, it acts as a sort of cover for the contents inside, especially when it rains. The water-repellent top acts as a sort of hood, protecting the zipper from direct rain.
The compression straps help tighten looser packs, while offering support for heavier loads. Our tester tried carrying a hefty bike lock, helmet and cycling shoes, and it didn't buckle under the weight. Plus, the rounded straps helped keep the weight well distributed, not centralized on the traps. And unlike other bags on this list, the side mesh pockets were big enough even for our tester's oversized Nalgene.
Best Backpack for the Outdoor-Leaning: Topo Designs Daypack Classic
Pros: The recycled nylon and heavy-duty zipper pulls are very durable. Holds its shape, even when pretty empty. Topo has a large selection of colors to choose from.
Cons: It lacks internal pockets for smaller items, such as pens, chargers and other small daily tools. The water bottle holders are not big enough for the large trending water bottles. The straps seem sturdy, but they are not notably comfortable.
Material(s): 1000D Cordura and Horween leather
Dimensions: 19 x 11 x 5 inches
The looks of this bag make it a winner, our tester says. They appreciated Topo’s 10 color options, and that the bag holds its shape, even when not completely full. Made out of recycled Nylon, they found the bag’s exterior to be pretty resistant to the rigors that come along with airport travel. They also imagined it would hold up to all the situations you find yourself in on a college campus, especially with the different laptop storage options.
That being said, if you like all of your knick-knacks to be organized, the lack of internal packets can be a tad frustrating, they explained. There is nowhere to store a pen or zip up your wallet. It has two water bottle holders, but if you are a Stanley Cup fan, you might be disappointed as our tester couldn’t even squeeze in their 32 oz. Hyrdroflask, but their 25 oz. CamelBak was a perfect fit.
Best Laptop Bag: Timbuk2 Tuck Laptop Backpack
Pros: Has a big rear back pocket with side access. The laptop sleeve is large enough to fit a computer in its protective case. Roll-top design deters rain.
Cons: Bag as a whole feels far too flimsy.
Material(s): Recycled nylon and polyester
Dimensions: 18 x 18 x 5.5 inches
Timbuk2's roll-top Tuck Laptop Backpack emphasizes your most prized possession: your fancy little laptop. It stays upright in a dedicated, water-resistant sleeve, and away from everything else you put inside — which can be quite a lot considering the room you've got in here.
The biggest downside to this bag, though, is the lackluster frame. Sure, backpacks don't all need to be stiff and sturdy like Filson's, but this Timbuk2 bag almost feels... too flimsy, our tester says, especially for being a dedicated laptop bag. The rear sleeve, though, which can be accessed from an external zipper, too, is big enough, like The North Face's to fit a laptop inside of its own protective case. That's probably the smart way to carry a laptop anyway, our tester adds, but it may be the deciding factor for folks who prefer not to travel with any extras.
This backpack has a dedicated area for your laptop. Some don't. For a curated list of those with them, shop our laptop bag buying guide.
Best Everyday Outdoor Backpack: Fjällraven Räven 28
Pros: Easy to stay organized with 10 sleeves and pockets. Easy access pocket for wallet, passport, phone. Dedicated tech compartment with sleeves for laptop and tablet.
Cons: Could use a chest strap to help distribute weight. Material can be hard to clean.
Material(s): Polyester, cotton
Dimensions: 18.5 by 12 by 8 inches
Our tester purchased this bag new and has been using it as a carry-on for several months on cross-country and international work trips. He found that it made it much easier to stay organized with three separate internal compartments and 10 zippered pockets and sleeves. Our tester found the tech compartment with a 15-inch laptop sleeve and a tablet sleeve particularly helpful on a family vacation, as the rest of the bag was commandeered for diapers, snacks and toys. He also likes the easy-access zippered pocket at the top for holding a passport, wallet, smartphone, keys and anything else requiring easy access.
The shoulder straps were comfortable for our tester, though he noted that those carrying heavier loads may lament the lack of a chest strap to help distribute and secure the weight. The G1000 material is durable but also a bit of a pain to clean. A cleaning attempt from a stain left by our tester’s daughter’s Nutella hands resulted in the stain spreading, fading and absorbing into the patina of the bag rather than being removed.
Best Waxed Canvas Backpack: Billykirk No. 297 Standard Issue Backpack
Pros: Hefty waxed canvas and leather materials, Plenty of organizational options.
Cons: Straps aren’t as padded for heavy loads.
Material(s): Waxed canvas, leather, nylon
Dimensions: 17.75 x 14.5 x 5 inches
Billykirk's backpacks are made in New Jersey, along with the rest of their leather and waxed cotton canvas goods. The 297 is made from 10.1 ounce waxed canvas. There are leather accents throughout and nickel-plated brass hardware attached where needed. Plus, this back comes with a matching removable pouch, which zippers shut so you don't lose what's inside it.
Inside, there's a nylon lining and enough pouches to separate and organize a bevy of things. The exterior pouch is a nice added touch for quick access items like a wallet, sunscreen or Metrocard, our tester says, while the laptop pouch easily fits a 15” computer. This bag wears well in the elements, but our tester wished the nylon lining was also in the exterior front zipped compartment.
Best Drawstring Backpack: Joshu+Vela Stone Backpack
Pros: Lifetime guarantee. One-handed opening.
Cons: Side pouch use limited when main compartment is full.
Material(s): 18 oz cotton twill
Dimensions: 16.5 x 12 x 5 inches
Made in San Francisco, this simple flip pack secures your goods without the need of a drawstring closure. The bag is cut from 18-ounce cotton twill, features a military-grade “G” hook closure, includes an internal laptop sleeve and has a double-layered bottom for durability.
The top-loading design has a gusseted flap to protect your goods, and the body only got better with use, our tester says. That being said, if the bag is packed full, the exterior canvas side pockets are harder to use.
Best Leather Backpack: Lotuff Leather Zipper Backpack
Pros: All-leather construction with brass details. Handcrafted in New England.
Cons: Not much padding to protect electronics or shoulders. Laptop compartment is a little small.
Dimensions: 17 x 13 x 4.5 inches
There’s nothing quite like American craftsmanship. Like all of Lotuff’s leather goods, each of the brand’s Leather Zipper Backpacks is handmade in New England using only natural, vegetable-tanned leathers. They’re made entirely from leather, meaning there’s not much padding throughout to protect your equipment, if that’s something you’re worried about.
The leather and craftsmanship on this bag are second to none, though, our tester says. It looks incredible and wears well — definitely an understated luxury piece, but one that ages gracefully, they add. They did find, though, that the computer pouch is a little tight for a 13” laptop, so they opted to keep their laptop in the main compartment.
Best Backpack for Longer Trips: DB Hytta 50L Split Duffel
Pros: Boxy design helps fit oversized items (like a motorcycle helmet).
Cons: It is still a backpack, and it can be quite cumbersome completely filled.
Dimensions: 20.1 x 13.4 x 11 inches
Our tester has not yet switched over to a rolling bag, and this incredibly versatile pack is a big reason why, they say. They've used it for everything from cross-country trips to delivering meals-on-wheels by bike around Brooklyn.
Super comfortable, even with lots of cargo, and the boxy shape and un-zippable sections enable carrying even large awkward items like motorcycle helmets. As structured as it appears, it packs down accordion-style so it's pretty easy to stash when not in use. The daisy chains on the back are great for tying on additional gear too, they explain.
Not convinced? Here are 5 reasons why you should carry a backpack, not a suitcase, on your next trip.
Before You Buy
Why You Should Carry a Backpack
With comfort and functionality as priorities, lots of people now use backpacks for their everyday commute — just throw it over your shoulders and you’re hands-free for a coffee, checking out or holding onto a handrail while the bus or train creeps forward. They offer a safe and secure place for everything you need: a laptop, books or textbooks, work supplies and even a change of clothing for the gym. Ideally, they offer interior organizational solutions to divide these different items. (You don't want your sweaty gym shorts to soil your laptop, for example. Ew.)
Backpacks are also better at distributing weight. Balancing a heavy tote bag on one shoulder can do serious musculoskeletal damage. In fact, many chiropractors say it's the primary contributor to back, neck and shoulder pain: "Over time, the amount of strain that we put on our bodies due to oversized bags can cause some pretty serious pain and even long-term issues like muscle spasms or a pinched nerve," personal trainer Caleb Backe told Healthline. If you do it for decades on end, you might run into something more serious — like thoracic outlet syndrome, which causes weakness in the muscles in your arms and back.
How to Pick the Right Backpack
While aesthetics (colors, textures, logos, etc) are a matter of personal preference, there are a number of features that some backpacks certainly have while others definitely do not. Do you remember Jansport? Their popular, perfect-for-grade-school backpack comes without many of the bells and whistles one by Filson or The North Face would. If you expand your search, you'll find there are backpacks for nearly every need: hiking, carrying a laptop, flying or even riding on a boat (in the case of waterproof packs).
As important as your use case is — translated: what it is you need it for — it's important to consider your cargo's total weight. If you're towing a ton of textbooks or lots of tech, you'll want something with a ventilated back and padded straps. If your contents are fragile or even remotely delicate, you'll want to find a backpack with a reinforced bottom, so when you set it down on the floor, it isn't your cargo making direct contact.
How We Tested
Our testers took the backpacks they were assigned on trips, to work, on bike rides and beyond, ensuring they did what we asked of them — and, on occasion, then some. We observed how easy they were to open and close, access and unload, as well as carry and whether they were comfortable (or a burden). The backpacks below made this list because they excelled when it mattered most: while on.