After researching dozens of backpacks and testing 13 top-rated contenders under New York City’s oppressive July heat, we’ve determined that the L.L.Bean Quad Pack is the best school backpack for college and high school students for the second year running. It offers superior organization, sturdy construction, and a comfortable, breathable fit at a lower price than its closest competitors.
Great breathability and a convenient array of pockets make the Quad great for schlepping books and electronics. It’s also big enough to work as a weekender.
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The Quad Packis designed to make student life easier: Its separated laptop storage sleeve provides easy access to a computer or tablet during class or through a TSA checkpoint, and its front stash pocket is more spacious and secure than those on any of the other bags we tested—perfect for storing running shoes, wet clothes, or a pack lunch. Cheaper bags wear out much sooner, and pricier bags shine on a trail, but the Quad has student-specific features and sturdy construction—our original test unit has no significant signs of wear after a year of near-daily use.
If you tend to carry heavier loads or hike on weekends, you might prefer the slightly pricier Osprey Parsec. Like Osprey’s other renowned hiking bags, the Parsec has airy, cushioned straps, which make even a hefty economics textbook feel like a softcover paperback. But the Parsec lacks the Quad’s convenience features such as the externally accessible laptop sleeve and a cover for its exterior stash pocket. But aside from these slight shortcomings, the Parsec is a great option for people who carry heavier books, electronics, or gym clothes.
At 1 pound, 10 ounces, the Osprey Parsec is the lightest and most comfortable bag we tested, but it’s also a bit more expensive and not as versatile since it has fewer organizational features and compartments. The Parsec lacks an externally accessible laptop sleeve, and its front external pocket doesn’t have a buckle top—its design seems better suited to hiking than attending class—but its excellent ergonomics make it a good buy for anyone who prioritizes comfort over organization. It’s definitely the bag to get if the Quad is unavailable.
Smart organization and lots of room make it a standout for its affordable price, though minimal padding makes it less comfortable than our top picks.Buy from Amazon
If you just want to be able to transport your school supplies from dorm to class on a dime and don’t mind sacrificing some comfort, the AmazonBasics AB 103 Laptop Backpack may do the trick. It offers more comfortable straps, better zippers, and a lighter weight than all other cheaper bags we tested. The AB 103 has a similar capacity and layout compared with our top picks, so you can carry all the books, electronics, and school supplies you need for the day. Its bargain price, however, is evident in its bulky fit, thin straps, and cavernous laptop sleeve. The thin padding on the back and shoulder straps also trap heat and sweat, making it less comfortable to wear during summer months than the other bags we tested.
At just $30, the AmazonBasics backpack is a bargain for a good, functional bag. But it lacks the comforts and convenient frills of our top picks. It offers a good variety of organizing pockets in different sizes, plus a second, wide sleeve attached to the laptop sleeve, which is a nice spot for folders if a little too large for tablets. But it’s a bit of an aesthetic snooze, and the lower price is evident in its rough nylon and its lack of little touches.
First and foremost, the 17-inch laptop sleeve is padded but so wide that almost any modern laptop you put in it will swim around. We’d recommend a separate laptop sleeve to go with it. The bag also feels much boxier than more ergonomic bags like the Parsec, Chacabuco, or even the Quad. The heavy padding on the back panel hugs your body. As a result, it runs hotter than any other backpack we tested and left testers with sweat-drenched backs.
The backpacks we used as college students often served double duty on trips home for the holidays and short hikes. Taking any bag beyond a regular commute highlights underappreciated strengths and draws attention to shortcomings. For people who want a bag that’s great for daily carrying between classes and good for use as a daypack or weekender when duty calls, we identified the following key features:
Affordability. In consideration with student budgets, we limited our options to less than $100.
Capacity between 28 and 33 liters. This will accommodate textbooks for a few classes, along with notebooks, pens, and other supplies, all while leaving room for a jacket, workout clothes, or snacks. Bags this size can double as weekenders in a pinch.
A sleeve for laptops 15 inches or larger. Most ultrabooks these days are 13 inches or smaller, but design and multimedia students still use larger computers. In any case, it should be more than just a square of loose-hanging fabric sewn to the inside of the bag—the gold standard here is a snug fit with ample padding.
Ergonomic, mesh-ventilated back panel and shoulder straps. These features should help keep your back and shoulders as sweat-free as possible. The most breathable bags will have two columns of padding on the back with a ventilation channel running down the middle, and shoulder straps with ventilated holes. But even with the best bag, some sweat is inevitable.
A waist strap. While hip belts do wonders redistributing the weight you feel on your shoulders from a hefty backpacking bag, the straps on these college backpacks are too thin to carry any weight, according to REI’s Bryan Nastanski. A well-adjusted waist belt will, however, keep your backpack from jostling against your back and boost your comfort overall.
A sternum strap. Just like the waist belt, a sternum strap won’t lighten your load. But a snapped-on sternum strap will keep your shoulder straps from separating too much and digging into your armpits, a problem that Nastanski said he hears from almost every customer who returns to REI dissatisfied with their bag. The strap will allow you to adjust your shoulder straps to make most bags around 30 liters work for your body.
Two stretchy water bottle sleeves. Such sleeves can accommodate anything from a can of soda up to a wider Nalgene and an umbrella.
Useful, organized pockets. A range of sensible, organized pockets will keep all of those small-but-necessary items—pens, chargers, snacks, and the like—accessible instead of buried at the bottom of your bag. It’s a big plus if some pockets are fleece-lined or padded to protect electronics and valuables, and zippers are a must.
A weather-resistant exterior. Anything that carries electronics should stand up to a sudden downpour to buy enough time to get to shelter. Water-repellant pockets will keep a cell phone safe, and ripstop nylon will be more abrasion-resistant than polyester. You should also look for a DWR (durable water repellant) finish, which means the fabric is treated to shed water.
Lighter is better. Books are heavy enough, so a bag should weigh no more than 2.5 pounds, and never more than 3.
Warranty and availability. You can find smaller companies that make stylish and affordable backpacks, but for this pick we wanted something that’s easy and reliably in stock online or at your local big-box retailer. And while all of the bags we tested are designed to last several years, it’s important to have a good warranty in case anything should go wrong. The last thing any student needs is an unexpected $100 additional expense.