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Updated Mar 12, 2022 7:53 PM

Whether you’re rolling out of your dorm for an 8 a.m. class or commuting to school, a sturdy backpack to carry your supplies is essential. And when you’re lugging books, a laptop, notebooks, and any other essential supplies, you’ll want a backpack that won’t bust its seams or zipper after a few months of use. Though your pack’s functionality is top priority, you’ll be wearing it every day—so it wouldn’t hurt to have a bag that is also attractive and comfortable to heave onto your shoulders. A reliable backpack can also double as a weekend bag for trips back home or carry-on luggage for spring break. Here are our favorites.

Factors to consider when choosing the best backpacks for college

The best backpack to get you through all four years of school needs a variety of features to ensure it checks off all the boxes of functionality, durability, and style. The best backpacks for college have enough storage space to hold what you need in a day, plus enough compartments to make organizing supplies easier. Your pack should be sturdy and durable, with good stitching as well as handles and straps that are solidly anchored to the bag.

Regarding material, cotton is lightweight and doesn’t cost much, but it can be more prone to scuffs, tears, and water damage. Leather is tougher, but it requires more TLC. The prime material for the best college backpacks is nylon because it’s lightweight, durable, and generally water-resistant. Broad straps with lots of padding are better at distributing the weight of a backpack’s contents, and waist and sternum straps offer extra support for carrying very heavy loads. Just be sure all straps are secure and easily adjustable.

It’s also important to make sure you don’t put too much strain on your neck, back, and shoulders. You can prevent this by not loading yourself down with too much weight and by opting for backpacks that are comfortable to wear if you often have to walk long distances between classes. The best college backpacks are large enough to carry everything you need without overwhelming you. Make sure the one you choose is less than 15 percent of the student’s body weight when full. And the pack shouldn’t extend below your hips.

Related: Forgo the heavy books and check out the best audiobooks from Audible instead.

Is the backpack water-resistant?

When you carry a pack every day, it’s inevitable that you’ll get caught in the rain at some point. So it’s important to opt for a backpack that can stand up to the elements. The best backpacks for college are water-resistant or water repellent, which means they resist being penetrated by water to some degree but not entirely.

If precipitation is likely to be a big part of your college experience, look for a school backpack that’s waterproof to protect your essentials. For those who prefer natural fabrics like cotton and leather over synthetic ones like nylon and polyester, keep in mind that synthetic fibers are more likely to be water-resistant and, as an added bonus, stain-resistant. Polyester tends to be more water-resistant than nylon, but both need to be coated with special materials to be fully waterproof.

Best water-resistant backpack: The North Face Women’s Vault Backpack

It’s more than likely you’ll be caught in the rain at least once with your bag—and nobody wants water-logged notes or a glitching laptop after facing a rainstorm. This North Face backpack for women has a padded 15-inch sleeve that keeps laptops safe and secure, plus it comes in 25 different colors to suit many different tastes. A sternum strap allows for more even distribution of weight.

Is it suitable for athletes?

All class and no play may make for a somewhat dull educational experience, and that’s where after-school sports come in. If you end your day on the playing field or at the gym, you’ll need a pack that’s suitable for athletes going the distance. All of the standard requirements still apply, especially durability, since you’ll need it for more than just carrying around your school supplies between classes.

The best college backpacks for athletes are large enough to hold all your sports gear. Since that stuff tends to get pretty stinky, you’ll want your bag to have a compartment that can help to separate sweaty clothes and dirty equipment from everything else. 

Best backpack for college athletes: Nike Club Team Swoosh Backpack

Since it’s made of long-lasting nylon, the Nike Swoosh backpack should still be in shape after your college career is over. This pack also has a separate section to store your gym clothes or workout necessities—so your books won’t end up smelling sweaty. A waterproof bottom means you can put it on a soaked bench or rest it down on wet grass without worrying about moisture getting inside.

Does it travel well?

Spring break may come but once a year, but when it rolls around, if you don’t want to bring a suitcase as a carry-on, it’s a good idea to have a backpack that travels well. This means getting one that’s large enough to carry all of your travel necessities. You can get a cool backpack with rollers to help with mobility and ease the burden on your shoulders. Or you can get one with extra straps to help with balance and to keep it securely fastened to your body while you walk (or run to your gate!). 

If you plan to spend your break hiking in the middle of nowhere, you’ll want to skip the rollers, but don’t skimp on durability. Meanwhile, city escapes may warrant stylish backpacks with a touch of class. The best college backpacks for weekend trips are ones that won’t look out of place on campus and wherever you head off to when school isn’t in session. You can make the transition from a class to camp or to the beach or to some hip urban destination, changing your outfits but not your backpack.

Best travel backpack: Himawari Travel School Backpack

Looks aren’t everything, but the unique design of this Himawari backpack ensures it will stand out on campus. At 16 inches by 11 inches by 8 inches, this pack provides ample space for short getaways. It’s made of waterproof canvas that’s eco-friendly while protecting your belongings from the elements. If you’ll be traveling by plane, keep in mind that the backpack will add 1.4 pounds to your carry-on luggage.

Is it built to last?

For those who value function over everything else, when it comes to choosing the best backpacks for college, durability is a top consideration. You’ll want something that’s built to last. Ask yourself: 1) How is the stitching? 2) Are the handles and straps fastened tightly to the rest of the bag? 3) Is it water-resistant or, better yet, waterproof? 4) Does it scuff, stain, or tear easily?

Heavier fabric or rubber on the bottom of the backpack will offer extra protection when you set it down on the ground. As backpacks go, nylon is lightweight and durable, while heavier Cordura and ballistic nylon earn high marks for standing up to the wear and tear of everyday life. If you want something closer to indestructible, try Dyneema. It’s incredibly tough, but that high-end protection doesn’t come cheap.

Best durable backpack: Jansport Big Campus Backpack

Jansport is a tried-and-true brand when it comes to backpacks—they’re known to outlast much wear and tear and maintain their reliable quality for years to come. This bag has two spacious main compartments, including a 15-inch laptop sleeve, and the zippers on the various compartments are designed to withstand frequent opening and closing. Despite being a little larger than average, a Jansport Big Campus Backpack weighs in at a mere quarter of a pound.

Does your backpack reflect your style?

Although it may seem like a fairly trivial consideration, this is important: If you might be carrying around a backpack for four years or more, don’t you want it to look amazing while doing its job? Thankfully, you won’t have to sacrifice substance for style, since there are a number of designer styles that offer all of the required functions. Marc Jacobs, Michael Kors, and Moschino all offer stylish designer options. Also, you might associate the brand with ultra-glam women’s purses, but a Fendi backpack will make any outfit look better.

Best stylish backpack for college students: Kenneth Cole Reaction Manhattan Slim Backpack

If the style of your backpack is just as important as functionality to you, this brown leather bag checks both boxes. The straps on the Kenneth Cole backpack include extra padding, as does the rear exterior for a more comfortable fit. The checkpoint-friendly feature means you won’t have to remove your laptop while going through airport security.


Q: What size backpacks are good for college?

The backpack size that is best for college depends on your personal needs. If you aren’t carrying around your entire collection of textbooks, you can probably get away with a backpack that has the capacity to hold between 15 and 20 liters of stuff. If you’re spending less time at home and more time going from point A to point B on campus, a capacity of 21 to 30 liters might be necessary to hold a day’s worth of books and supplies. And if you regularly add trips to the gym into your daily schedule, aim for 31 to 40 liters.

Q: What color backpack should I get for college?

The color backpack you should get for college is a matter of personal taste, but if you want one that matches most of the clothes in your closet, black and navy blue are the way to go. Just keep in mind that darker colors get hotter in the sun, so if you want to beat the heat while matching the majority of your wardrobe, a lighter shade of gray should also suit your versatility needs. Note that white and other, brighter colors may get dirty more easily.

Q: Should I get a backpack or tote bag for college?

Whether you get a backpack or tote bag for college will depend on how much you want to carry around. Backpacks are good for heavier loads because they aren’t as hard on the shoulders. Tote bags are stylish, but they put more strain on the shoulder and back because you carry them slung over one side. Totes are better if you are only transporting a few light items at a time from class to class.

Related: Have kids younger than high school or college-age? These are the best tablets for children and students of all ages. 

The final word on the best backpacks for college students

The best college backpacks come in so many shapes, sizes, and styles that picking the right one can be an overwhelming experience—especially as you’ll be using it every day. Just remember that function is as important as style, so keep an eye on durability, comfort, and whether it provides adequate space for all of your daily essentials. To keep your belongings protected from unexpected acts of nature, stick to water-resistant fabrics, and make sure the zippers can hold up to frequent use. If you choose right, the best college backpack may continue to be useful long after graduation day.

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