Light enough to be worn all day, yet durable enough to withstand scuffs and tears, a backpack is the best way to carry all of your necessities around. Additional bonuses are that backpacks leave your hands free and evenly distribute the weight across your entire torso.
While alternatives like messenger bags and briefcases have their virtues, many people realize that that no matter whether you’re exploring the great outdoors or urban environments, the backpack is unmatched in both versatility and comfort. So what type of backpack should you get?
There’s no simple answer to that. Backpacks come in such a huge variety of price points, colors, fabrics, and sizes that chances are there are dozens of backpacks that fulfill your requirements. Some backpacks have features specific to a certain task, while others are generalists.
Before you start sorting through the thousands of options out there, first consider what you need your backpack to do for you. Here’s the information you need to make the right decision.back to menu ↑
If you’re pressed for time, here’s a quick rundown of everything you should consider when choosing a new backpack. To get more details, read on.
- 17L to 25L backpacks are probably sufficient for daily activities such as going to school and commuting to work. They could also be used for short hikes or day trips.
- Use REI’s backpack sizing guide to make sure that the height of the bag is right for the length of your back.
- Choose the smallest bag possible for the amount of stuff you carry. Lighter bags are more comfortable and better for your health.
- Make sure that the backpack can fit your laptop, especially if your laptop is thicker than a Macbook. Many companies use Macbooks as the benchmark for their laptop measurements.
- If you need a specialized backpack for extended travel, longer hikes, or for holding specific items like camera parts, check out our buyer’s guides for those specific types of backpacks.
If you’re spending over $200 on an everyday backpack, your ideal bag should have most, if not all, of the following features:
- High quality, durable fabric inside and outside (check out our guide to backpack fabrics!)
- Water-resistant exterior to protect from rain
- Front-loading or clamshell opening
- Removable hip and sternum straps
- Water bottle holder
- High-quality, water-resistant zippers from brands like YKK
- Dual density or EVA foam padding on shoulder straps and back panel
- Quick access pocket for small items
- Secure padded compartment for laptops and tablets
Step 1: Backpack Size
Have you ever tried on a backpack that had a supposedly larger volume than your current backpack but didn’t seem to hold as much? There’s a reason for that.
Protip for when you’re choosing the right backpack size: volume doesn’t tell the whole story. Companies measure backpack volume differently and some include details such as external mesh pockets in their calculations while others don’t.
To get a completely accurate idea of a backpack’s size, you’ll need to look at the dimensions in addition to the volume and use a tape measure to compare the length, width, and height with your current backpack.
Mini (Under 12 L)
With the resurgence of ‘90s fashion aesthetic in recent years led in part by social media influencers and millennial nostalgia, mini backpacks (also known as backpack purses) are once again back in vogue among young women. As with purses, mini backpacks are made to hold all of the essentials that women like to have at hand on a day-to-day basis.
The optimal size for minimalist packers or short hikes, these backpacks are unlikely to fit more than a 13” laptop, but they’re also usually light and easy to take around without breaking a sweat. 0.708 kg (1.57 lbs) 19L Yes 41 x 29 x 20 cm (16 x 11.4 x 7.9" (L x W x H)) 400d Halcyon/420d nylon ripstop 200d Halcyon #8 YKK Aquaguard® water-repellent zippers Fits laptops up to 14" Top-Loading
0.708 kg (1.57 lbs)
41 x 29 x 20 cm (16 x 11.4 x 7.9" (L x W x H))
400d Halcyon/420d nylon ripstop
#8 YKK Aquaguard® water-repellent zippers
Fits laptops up to 14"
Carrying a 15” laptop or going on a trip for a few days? This group covers the vast majority of backpacks that can hold just about anything you’d need to for regular commutes, full-day hikes, or for holding all of your essentials while traveling.
1.27kg / 2.8lbs
46 x 20 x 28cm / 18 x 8 x 11.5in
500d HT nylon w PU coating & silicone finish
420d HT nylon with PU coating
Fits 15" laptops
Good for people living out of one bag, going on multi-day hikes, or who have a ton of gear to haul around all the time. While some of these bags may fit on the plane as carry-on items, once you go above 40L, you’re pushing your luck.
1.55kg / 3.4lb
52 x 35 x 12cm / 20 x 13 x 5in (rolled)
Lightweight water resistant polyester
YKK with Aquaguard® Water repellent
Fits laptops up to 17"
Extra Large (50+L)
For the serious hiker, these extra large backpacks are great for camping or other activities that involve spending several days living outdoors. Unless you’re an outdoor enthusiast, you probably won’t ever need one of these.
When it comes to backpacks, lighter is almost always better. The benefit of extra weight in a backpack is more protective padding, durable materials, and organization options. That only becomes relevant if you participate in rugged outdoor activities — like rucking, spelunking, or doing pushups on your lawn (see below) — that are likely to damage your backpack.
If durability and organization are a lesser priority, always pick the lightest bag possible. An unnecessarily heavy backpack is far worse for you on a day-to-day basis than a bag that can’t stand up to intense abrasion tests.
For everyday bags, aim to keep the weight under 20% of your body weight. These percentages are a useful guideline, but sometimes don’t work for those on the more petite side.
When hiking, keep the weight under 10% of your body weight.back to menu ↑
Step 2: Backpack Types: Front-loading, Top-Loading, Roll Top
Top-loading bags are the design most people imagine first when they think of backpacks; you access the bag through a top opening and stack items on top of each other within the bag so that items you need less frequently are at the bottom and items you need more frequently are near the top.
The majority of backpacks are some variation of top-loading backpack with a main compartment protected by a zipper, drawstring, or flap/lid.
Front-loading bags open flat like a suitcase or clamshell to reveal the full contents of the bag all at once. This style has become increasingly popular in recent years.
Roll-top backpacks are another kind of top-loading backpack that you close by rolling up the fabric at the opening as you would a brown paper bag.
Benefits of Top-Loading Backpacks
- They look (and fit) better on shorter, thinner people. Top-loading backpacks are thinner than front-loading bags, making them much easier to handle when you’re walking through crowds or trying to make your way down the aisle of an overcrowded bus. If you’re a smaller person, you’ll find their thinner width conforms neatly to the shape of your back, making it much easier to carry.
- They offer better support. Top-loading backpacks are typically made for long-distance hiking. This means they’re built to take the weight off your back and onto your hips, making your journey more comfortable. If you don’t have much back strength and struggle to walk with a heavy load in your pack, a top-loading backpack will be more manageable for you.
- They’re lightweight. Because top-loading backpacks are usually hiking backpacks, they’re made to be as lightweight as possible. Whatever backpack you choose, your goal is to get a bag that’s as light as possible without sacrificing functionality or durability.
Benefits of Front-Loading Backpacks
- Front-loading backpacks offer more protection. This is important in any city where pickpocketing or snatch-and-grab type crimes are commonplace. It’s easy to add a padlock to the zippers to discourage opportunistic thieves. On the other hand, top-loading backpacks are often secured by little more than some string and plastic clasps, making them easy targets for pickpockets.
- They’re easier to pack. Due to their suitcase-like opening, front-loading backpacks are far easier to pack and unpack. Once you open the backpack all the way, all of the contents are easily accessible; no more fumbling around in the depths of the bag trying to pull something out of the bottom.
- They tend to be made of better materials. Front-loading backpacks are a niche item typically aimed towards a more premium market. As such, they tend to be made of tougher material compared to their top-loading counterparts. This is typically because top-loading backpacks are designed for hiking and adventure activities, where minimizing weight is essential.
Benefits of Roll-Top Backpacks
- They can expand and shrink as needed. Is your bag rarely filled to the brim? Roll top packs give you the versatility you need for any task by letting you shrink the bag down to the appropriate size using compression straps. This reduces the pack’s footprint and bulk and keeps the contents from shifting around as you move.
- They have wider openings for easy access. The large openings on top of rolltop backpacks make it easier to see the contents of your bag and also take out and put in said items. This eliminates a major challenge in many top-loading backpacks where poor organization can make it necessary to pull everything out of the bag to get to the right item.
- Fewer zippers means a more durable bag. Zippers can jam or fall apart, especially ones that aren’t made by premium manufacturers like YKK that are designed for longevity. By doing away with zippers, roll-tops are less prone to wear and tear.
Step 3: Backpack Features
Unisex vs Women’s Backpacks
In general, here are some of the differences between women’s packs and unisex packs (these are generalities and there may be some exceptions):
- Women’s packs have a shorter back length than unisex backpacks as women are generally shorter than men. Measure the length of your back from the C7 vertebra (or the base of your neck) to the iliac crest (your hip bones) to determine whether you’d benefit from having a backpack made for shorter torsos.
- Women’s packs have smaller carrying capacities and are usually narrower overall to account for the fact that women tend to have smaller builds and lack the broad shoulders that men have. A petite woman will probably find carrying a 70+ liter pack to be uncomfortable and even harmful to her back.
- The shoulder straps on women’s backpacks are narrower, shorter, and shaped differently so as not to dig into the chest. Men have broader shoulders on average than women, so a pack for women will be designed with this in mind.
- Hip belts on women’s bags are shorter. Some female-specific backpacks also come with additional padding in the hip belt to make it more comfortable to wear.
- Keep in mind that a backpack designed for women doesn’t necessarily fit all female body types. You may find that the shoulder straps from the unisex version are more comfortable, the hipbelt is too small, or the weight isn’t distributed correctly.
Don’t get hung up on who the manufacturers say the bag is designed for. Whether you’re a man or woman, the goal is to find the bag that fits your body type. If you’re a man on the shorter side, a women’s backpack might fit you better. What matters is what feels right, not who the manufacturer says their bag is for.
You need to try it on and try it on when it’s completely full of things that simulate the load you’d be carrying in actual use. A pack that is too long in the torso might seem passable when it’s not full. This is crucial, especially for hiking backpacks where an ill-fitting backpack can cause severe discomfort or even injury. You don’t want to figure out a bag isn’t the right size for you just as you’re about to start walking a trail.
Waterproof vs. Water-resistant Backpacks
For everyday use, you don’t need a bag to be waterproof, only water-resistant. Waterproof backpacks are meant to keep their contents dry when submerged underwater, so unless you swim across a river to school or commute via whitewater rafting, you probably won’t need such a feature.
Plus, waterproof bags are less common as they tend to be more difficult to design and manufacture, so you’ll have to pay more to get one. And, because they’re more of a niche item, there are fewer designs for you to choose from.
Water-resistant backpacks are sufficient to protect your stuff from a downpour. While having waterproof fabric on the exterior of the bag is always good, that doesn’t mean it’s impossible for water to get in. Water finds a way. Hence the need for manufacturers to claim that the bag is water-resistant.
A water resistant bag needs two features:
- Water-resistant fabric: This means nylon covered with a kind of protective coating like durable water repellent (DWR) or a more permanent solution like sailcloth
- Coated zippers: these keep water out of the bag in one of the most vulnerable places, since zippers are full of holes.
With laptops being all but mandatory for most schools and desk jobs these days, it’s little wonder that the demand for backpacks is on the rise. Shoving a laptop into a backpack without the proper organization leaves it prone to damage, however, so laptop compartments or sleeves are highly recommended if you want to provide your laptop with full protection.
A good laptop compartment has adequate padding, a false bottom so that the laptop never makes contact with the ground, and some way to hold the laptop in place so the laptop doesn’t get jostled around too much.
Most backpacks can hold up to 15” laptops, while certain tech-focused backpacks have enough capacity for 17-inch laptops or even multiple devices.
Padded, contoured shoulder straps
The amount of padding in the shoulder straps contributes to how comfortable the bag will be to wear. While some bags only offer thin straps that can dig into your skin over time, others have wider straps with closed-cell foam, which provide comfort and breathability. Few manufacturers mention the materials they use in their straps, but they should because the materials can make or break the carrying experience.
Contoured straps are slightly S-shaped versus the regular straight style found in more fashion-forward bags. This curved design makes contoured straps more comfortable as the strap makes less contact with the torso as you move. If you often carry heavy loads or go on extended hikes, having contoured straps will make your life far easier. The heavier the backpack, the more contouring the straps should have to compensate.
Are you the kind of person who likes to know where everything is in their bag at any given point, and do you have designated pockets for accessories like sunglasses, pens, and hydration bladders?
Some bags are just entirely one big compartment that encourage you to self-organize using packing cubes, while others are divided up already for your convenience. I prefer the latter type of bag, as I am extremely disorganized and also too lazy to use things like packing cubes to keep things tidy.
The more self-motivated you are to keep your bag neat, the less you need to rely on the backpack to handle the organization for you.
Water bottle holder
Hydration is important to a healthy lifestyle and crucial for you to operate at peak performance for the entire day. That’s why whether or not a backpack has a water bottle holder and also its location on the bag should inform your bag-buying decision.
External water bottle holders enable you to carry your H2O around without worrying about spills ruining the contents of your backpack.
Another added benefit of a water bottle holder is that it provides an easy access pocket to other objects like umbrellas or other small, useful cylindrical objects.
Sternum straps help transfer some of the burden off of your shoulders to reduce the strain when carrying heavy burdens. They also keep the shoulder straps in place, ensuring that they do not slide off your shoulders. The tighter the sternum strap is, the more weight they displace.
On the other hand, if a sternum strap is too tight, it can start to constrict your breathing and pinch your neck around your trapezius as well as your chest muscles. are adjustable lengthwise across your chest via adjuster buckles and height-wise via a sliding rail system.
Ventilated back panel
When it comes to comfort, the back panel is the part of the backpack we forget about when it’s doing its job correctly. Only when we’re drenched in sweat from a hike and starting to feel the backpack pressing up against our skin do we realize the value of a high-quality back panel.
There are a number of flexible materials like meshes and foams that go into the back panel, but not all are equal.
The best types of material will allow your sweat to evaporate easily rather than soak it up like a sponge; this is what people often mean when they praise the “breathability” of the bag. If your bag absorbs sweat, it won’t be pleasant to carry around, and it won’t smell all that great either.
Ever carried a bag that made your back and shoulders feel itchy? Skin irritation is a sign your backpack’s manufacturer is using cheap, common materials like air mesh. Make sure to pay attention to user reviews on the back panel, as it is a major source of buyer’s remorse when getting backpacks.
If you’re carrying a heavy pack for a prolonged period while traveling or hiking, you’re going to need a hip belt to keep your shoulders from wearing out. According to REI and Outdoor Gear Lab, a hip belt can carry 80-90% of your pack’s weight.
Still, a lot of people either forget their hip belts exist or neglect to purchase a bag with one. Transferring all that weight off your shoulders onto your hips gives you the extra endurance you need to be on the move all day.
By shifting the weight from your shoulder muscles to the more powerful calves and thighs, your upper body will be under far less strain, protecting your back.
Don’t allow yourself to be bamboozled by confusing backpack jargon; hip belts are quite different from waist straps and webbing belts. A quality hip belt has padding and is designed to shift weight to your lower body. The latter two are more for keeping your bag from shifting around while hiking.
Warranty and Customer Service
The best backpack manufacturers offer lifetime warranty. There is little reason to purchase a backpack from a company that offers anything less than lifetime warranty. There’s usually a reason a backpack manufacturer would put a limit on their warranty and that’s because they build out their backpacks out of cheaper, less durable materials to reduce the upfront cost.
Lifetime warranty isn’t good enough on its own. Companies have different criteria for what issues are covered by warranty and which are not. Make sure to read the legal section to understand what exactly lifetime warranty protects you from and what is considered user error.
There’s little to say on the subject of how much a backpack should cost or what makes a backpack good value for the money, other than that you can find a backpack that fulfills most of your needs within your budget at any price point.
A $100 bag isn’t going to be twice as good as a $50 bag in either design or functionality. It might look a little nicer, or the material might last a few more years, but how much is that worth to you? It all comes down to your needs and how much you’re willing to pay for a bag that ticks all the boxes.
Whenever I recommend a high-end bag in one of my top 10 lists, I’ll always include a few budget alternatives that have a similar look and features so that you can compare the differences and choose what feels right for your budget.