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Updated Aug 10, 2022 3:37 AM

Backpacks can play a central role in the social and academic lives of students. If you have about a decade or two between yourself and middle school, one glance at your raggedy old Jansport book bag might bring those vibrant memories back to life, flooding your brain with those first awkward moments waiting in line to file into class in the morning. And if you’re in school now, you know that your backpack can say a lot about you. It’s hard to balance essential functionality with equally important style—but it can be done. Our guide to the best backpacks for school will help any backpack-wearer make a great first impression while juggling an array of notebooks, textbooks, and pencils.

How we chose the best backpacks for school

We have a few parents here on the PopSci Gear team. If you’re a fellow parent, you know that “kid-tough” is a synonym for “really, really strong.” Plus, it needs to be fashionable too, or risk social annihilation. If you don’t want to purchase a new backpack every year—which is good for the environment and for your wallet—one that can grow with your kid is also an important consideration. We looked at qualities like price, use-case, size, and durability to make our choices, guided by reviews, recommendations, and what the kids are talking about these days *rocks in rocking chair*.

What to consider when buying the best backpacks for school

While you may want to get your kid an adorable backpack to head off to school, it’s important to pay attention to what your kid requires and likes at every age. That Transformers bag might be really sweet in first and second grade but your child will probably be itching for something more mature by the third. 

First through second grade is a good time for lightweight packs that allow for storage of markers, tissues, and the safe transportation of precious early works of art home for quick framing. You’ll also want to look for a material that can shrug off spills and stains, as little folks are often spilling in the most creative ways. By high school, it’s time to consider strength, practicality, and utility.

Functionality

These days, backpacks go much farther than school, doubling as gear for everywhere from the skate park to the mall. Make the most of your purchase by looking for a backpack that’s durable, suitable for use outside school, light enough for your kid to transport, and, most importantly, gear that your child is happy to carry around.

For students, storage is essential. You’ll want to look for school bags that have pockets for phones, laptops, and tablets. It’s also helpful for the inner lining and outer material to both be water-resistant so that all their notes, homework, and graded papers stay safe from the elements.

Design

While tastes change, a classic design will endure. For younger kids, providing a simple but reliable pack that allows them to carry books and school supplies is probably the best bet. Look for straps that won’t leave marks on their shoulders and a durable fabric that won’t shred when the dog actually tries to eat their homework. Older kids’ sense of style evolves throughout high school, so when in doubt, a plain-colored bookbag will do the trick for all four years.

Age group

Whether the student is an English major toting books or a computer science major with the latest laptop, backpacks are essential for college students. The sizes of textbooks and variety of gadgets, required writing instruments, and specialized tools they’ll need to have on hand at all times puts all that nutty professor stuff to shame. Capacity is the name of the game—college kids need enough room to handle textbooks and notebooks for back-to-back classes followed by a marathon study session in the library.

Style

If you’re really trying to reach a fashion-forward youngster who won’t suffer the indignity of wearing a traditional two-strap school bag, have them take a look at the various sling-style options available. They lean toward a more casual look and come in a variety of cute designs. Sling backpacks also lend themselves to commuting in tight spaces, like on a cramped school bus.

The best backpacks for school: Reviews & Recommendations

Send a middle schooler to class with a first-grade-appropriate design and you are asking for trouble. You’ll need to remember that backpacks are used differently and are required to carry an increasingly heavier load as your child advances through each grade.

Best overall: Herschel Little America Laptop Backpack

Herschel

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Why it made the cut: This backpack is durable, stylish, and suited for all ages of school children, even those into college.

Specs

  • Capacity: 25 liters
  • Dimensions: 19.25 x 11.25) x 7 inches
  • Tech sleeve: Yes
  • Side pockets: No

Pros

  • Stylish
  • Durable
  • Lots of compartments

Cons

  • Expensive
  • Could overwhelm smaller frames

As the best multifunctional backpack for school, this model features an elegant design. Padded straps are the cherries on top of this technology-friendly design. The Herschel backpack is loaded with storage space, featuring multiple compartments, a headphone port, and a phone pouch. And, its tech-safe fleece sleeve helps protect 15-inch laptops and tablets or smaller. It’s inspired by classic mountaineering style and can grow with your student, even when they’re not in school anymore. The front pocket and key clip keep your belongings in an accessible place and protects them thanks to a hidden zipper that offers anti-theft protection.

Best for elementary schoolers: Simple Modern Kids Backpack for School

Simple Modern

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Why it made the cut: Function meets fashion with this durable backpack that comes in a bevy of designs.

Specs

  • Capacity: 12 liters
  • Dimensions: 15.83 x 13.66 x 2.91 inches
  • Tech sleeve: Yes
  • Side pockets: Yes

Pros

  • Limited lifetime warranty
  • Water-resistant design
  • Easy-to-clean

Cons

  • No solid color options

Help your kid stand out from the crowd with this colorful, personality-filled backpack. It fits the need of the modern student, with a padded tablet sleeve, large zip-closure front pocket, zip-closure stash pocket, and two expandable bottle sleeves on the side. It’s made from easy-to-clean, water-resistant polyester, and features reinforced stitching and padded, adjustable shoulder straps to last the entire school year. There are 32 designs to choose from, from a construction pattern to fan-favorite unicorns. A limited lifetime warranty means you’re covered in case anything breaks in a freak after-school buckle break. In case you want cohesion when it comes to your young one’s school style, there’s a matching lunchbox and water bottle.

Best for middle schoolers: JanSport SuperBreak One Backpack

JanSport

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Why it made the cut: A durable step-up that can last all throughout middle school, from band practice to algebra.

Specs

  • Capacity: 25 liters
  • Dimensions: 13 x 16.7 x 8.5 inches
  • Tech sleeve: No
  • Side pockets: No

Pros

  • Lightweight
  • Durable
  • Lifetime warranty

Cons

  • No side pockets for water bottles or drinks

The always-popular JanSport SuperBreak has received some nice upgrades since most millennials used them. Even without them, the SuperBreak provides a straightforward and stylish solution to book porting—definitely one of the best backpacks for middle school. It contains a front pocket with an organizer for pens, pencils, and protractors, and its main compartment can hold textbooks and binders. The materials used are water-repellent, and the 600 denier polyester helps resist abrasion. And, JanSport backpacks have a lifetime warranty and the company will repair or replace a pack if there’s a manufacturing defect.

Best college backpack: Mancro Laptop Backpack

Mancro

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Why it made the cut: A built-in USB charger will keep you powered from class to lab to group project meetings in the library.

Specs

  • Capacity: 20 liters
  • Dimensions: 20 x 12.2 x 5.7 inches
  • Tech sleeve: Yes
  • Side pockets: Yes

Pros

  • Lots of pockets
  • Password lock
  • Water-resistant

Cons

  • Built-in charger cord gets in the way of laptop sleeve

With style and supreme functionality, this laptop backpack provides college students with a main pocket, laptop compartment, external pocket, and smaller outer pocket for knick-knacks and small items. The S-shaped padded straps offer comfort and shoulder pain relief, while the included lock and metal zippers ensure security. A luggage strap allows you to take this backpack when traveling for med school interviews or flying home for breaks. And, you won’t experience your phone dying in the middle of the day thanks to the built-in included travel charger. Plus, it comes in five different colors to suit anyone’s personal style. Get one of the best backpacks for college before heading to campus. If you’re looking for a stylish backpack that can take you from class to internship and back, we’re partial to the Incase Transfer Two-Way Tote, which can fit a 16-inch laptop and under. It transforms from a tote into a backpack, meaning you don’t have to sacrifice style for function when hopping and bopping around campus.

Best sling backpack: KAVU Original Rope Sling

Why it made the cut: The rope strap and polyester fabric add comfort and durability for all kinds of adventures.

Specs

  • Capacity: 10 liters
  • Dimensions: 20 inches x 11 inches x 5 inches
  • Tech sleeve: No
  • Side pockets: No

Pros

  • Rope-strap is comfortable
  • Durable
  • Easy to put on and take off

Cons

  • Might not fit all school supplies
  • Zippers not hidden, which could be a security concern

KAVU’s rope sling packs are favored by runners due to their small size and stylish storage solutions. Made from 600 denier polyester, these trendy cute bags are durable enough to lug from class to class all day, too. It offers a zippered front pocket for cellphones and two vertical compartments with zippered pockets for lip balm, water bottle, wallet, cellphone, and the ever-important travel pack of gum. The sling backpack is offered in dozens of colors and patterns for your vibe.

Best budget: Trailmaker Classic 17-Inch Backpack

Trailmaker

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Why it made the cut: If you’re looking for a basic backpack on a budget, look no further than this.

Specs

  • Capacity: 15L
  • Dimensions: 17 x 12 x 5.5 inches
  • Tech sleeve: No
  • Side pockets: No

Pros

  • Eight colors to choose from
  • Dual zippers
  • Large front pocket

Cons

  • Older students might prefer something with more pockets

This polyester backpack is perfect for kids who go through bookbags like candy. This simple, solid-colored backpack is durable and its standard size works for children of all ages at multiple stages of their education. Eight colorways mean there’s a bag for you, and padded shoulder straps mean you’ll be comfortable taking your belongings in-between classes. The main compartment is roomy and can fit a laptop and tablet (although it doesn’t have a built-in tech sleeve, meaning you’ll need a travel sleeve), or school supplies and textbooks. The outer front pocket keeps your phone, wallet, pens, tissues, and snacks in easy reach. The hang handle is double-stitched so it won’t be foiled by a cubby hook.

FAQs

Q: What are the best quality backpacks?

It really depends on what you’ll be using your back for. JanSport has a great reputation for younger students who carry few books, while more expensive brands like NorthFace and Patagonia are favored among hikers. The most important aspect is material: it should be durable and water-resistant (think nylon and polyester).

Q: What are the best fabrics for school backpacks?

Codora and rip-stop nylon are generally touted as being more rip-resistant than polyester, but most grade school students don’t need that level of toughness to carry books. For older and younger students, 600 denier polyester is water-resistant and tough, ensuring it’ll last the full year.

Q: What is the best value backpack?

JanSport has a great reputation for providing value in its backpacks. They might not come with all the bells and whistles, but you can get something cheap and reliable without looking too hard if you explore their product lines.

Final thoughts on the best backpacks for school

Remember friends, they call them the “formative years” for a reason. The best backpacks for school are something that will be attached to students for a good part of their early lives, so it’s essential that they’re both practical and slick. When in doubt, go for a sturdy fabric in monochrome color—it will stand the test of time.