The best backpacks for college are a little misleading. When your commute requires balancing a phone in one hand and a breakfast sandwich in the other, a canvas tote ain’t going to cut it—let alone accommodate a 15-inch laptop and your gym clothes. So unless you work at a white shoe law firm or find yourself auditioning for the next season of Industry, they’re also crucial pretty much everywhere else. But what separates a merely good option from the really, truly great?
Storage capacity, for one. If you’re headed back to campus this fall, you’ll want a backpack with around 22L of volume. That’s enough space for a day of classes, and in the post-grad world, plenty of room for a change of clothes and a hefty lunch. But merely holding all your stuff does not a great backpack make; room for all your notebooks, binders, and miscellaneous papers is but one factor in the equation. If you’re commuting to work or biking to class a good backpack has to be durable, comfortable, and ready and able to protect all your valuables. (Needless to say, a dedicated laptop sleeve is a non-negotiable.) But a great campus-friendly backpack—like the ones we’re talking about here—can do it all and look stylish, too. You may not think of a backpack as an essential part of your outfit, but neglecting the accessory you’ll turn to day in and day out is sort of like running to the end zone and then spiking the football at the one yard line.
So to help you make a splash wherever you find yourself in the coming months, we went deep on over a dozen of the very best backpacks for college and beyond. Whether you’re scrambling to get to class or an all-hands meeting at the office, each one spotlighted below will keep your shit in the condition it came in—and level-up your first day outfits in the process.
The Best Overall Backpack
Bellroy’s entire MO centers around balancing clean aesthetics with a deceptive amount of storage space; naturally, its flagship model boasts 20L of room cleverly engineered to fit everything you need for school, work, and anywhere you’re headed after. (The clamshell design offers easy access and visibility to all of your belongings, a rare feature among most backpacks.) The main compartment can easily hold an extra pair of shoes and a change of clothes, and fits laptops up to 16-inches in size. But true to Bellroy’s reputation, the best part of the Transit is the bevy of cleverly hidden exterior pockets that reduce visual clutter without limiting what can you shove in there. Inside you’ll find a water bottle pocket, a padded sunglasses pocket (at the top, so your favorite shades won’t get crushed), and a side pocket for your wallet, phone, and keys—with a keyholder! All of which makes the Transit a perfect pick and a hell of an upgrade for college students, commuters, and anyone who ever lamented the flimsy construction and unwieldy design of a standard issue canvas tote.
The Best Backpack for Nostalgic Grown-Ups
When the team at Unicode designed the backpack emoji, they probably had a JanSport in mind. After all these years, the brand’s legendary roster of backpacks remain exemplars of the form, as timeless, durable, and dependable as a pair of Levi’s 501s. The Right Pack takes Jansport’s classic SuperBreak backpack—the OG version you probably rocked in middle school—and upgrades it with super durable Cordura fabric for extra durability, with a dedicated 15” laptop sleeve added in for good measure. Like the SuperBreak, it features handsome suede accents as well as an easy-access organizer front pocket and handy water bottle pocket. It’s a great college backpack, for sure, but once you’ve left school behind, it’ll make for a great daily carry too. It may not be the most tech’d out bookbag on the market (the original design dates back to the ‘60s, after all), but that simplicity—along with the requisite nostalgia factor—continues to make it a winner.
The Best Virtually Indestructible Backpack
In dire need of a do-it-all bag that can stand up to whatever the day throws at it? Patagonia’s aptly-named Black Hole bag is for you. The Black Hole series is one of Patagonia’s toughest (and most sustainable), harnessing the power of recycled polyester ripstop coated with ultra-tough, weather-resistant TPU to keep your valuables secure on your next outdoor excursion or commute to work. This one offers plenty of clever storage and compartment space too, making it easy to access your laptop, charger, and backup charger(s) without having to dig through the cavernous 32-liter main compartment. Add a super aerated mesh back, padded shoulder straps, and a bonus sternum strap to the mix, and you’re left with a cushy workhouse backpack that won’t cramp your style—physically or otherwise.
The Best Old-School Backpack
This bag is deceptive: it may look like the long lost heirloom of a pioneering mountaineer, but it’s tricked out with features expressly designed for the here and now. That exact modern-retro approach has taken the Herschel Little America from trendy campus must-have to verified classic within the last decade. So don’t let the faux leather straps and old-school flap top fool you: inside you’ll find a litany of useful features—like a media pocket with a headphone port and a fleece-lined 15″ laptop sleeve—easily accessible via a magnet-secured drawstring closure. And because canvas can be stiff and overly burly, Herschel blends it with lightweight nylon and polyester and upgrades the contoured back with mesh for a more comfortable fit.