There was a time that textbooks were all a college student needed to carry, but today, you need space for a laptop computer, pockets for electronics and space for your books in something light enough to carry without a wheelbarrow. Hauling a heavy backpack across campus isn’t great for your back, and carrying a flimsy one could leave your notebook or laptop vulnerable to damage. The best college backpacks can last you for years while expressing your personal style.
The challenge when looking for your ideal backpack is finding one that holds everything you need while protecting your laptop and other important electronics. By prioritizing what you’re looking for in a university backpack, you’ll get the one that best fits your needs. We take a look at your best college backpack based on durability, good looks, carrying capacity, safety features, special details and individual style.
In searching for the best backpacks, we looked at what you need to carry everything in comfort and style.
- Carrying capacity: At its most basic, a college backpack’s primary role is to carry books, so our top choices need a roomy compartment for textbooks, notebooks and papers.
- Electronics: It’s also got to carry electronics safely and securely, which means proper padding and tamper-proof locks that keep your gear from damage or loss.
- Durability: You want a pack that’s going to last for more than a semester of heavy lifting. Our top backpacks for college are built to last, and with proper care, they can easily take you from freshman orientation to senior graduation.
- Comfort: A backpack has to feel good enough for you to wear every day. Comfort is one of the most important criteria for judging the best college backpack.
- Style: College life is also about expressing your personal style, so the best backpack for college also has to look the part. Our choices range from sporty and sleek to rugged and stylish.
Here’s a quick overview of the five backpacks that stood out for our testers and among Amazon reviewers, thousands of whom have had plenty to say about these top picks.
The JanSport Super-Break Backpack is a classic for a reason. Made from thick rip-stop polyester that holds heavy textbooks securely, this backpack comes in enough colors to let you express your personal style while keeping the silhouette simple. Padded straps contribute to comfort without adding much weight, allowing this backpack to come in under 12 ounces in total weight.
If you’re looking for something that’s a little more professional-looking so you can impress during internships, the Mancro Anti-Theft Business Laptop Backpack could be your solution. The outer case is sleek and compact, but the pack is large enough to hold a sizable laptop in its padded inner compartment. Other inner pockets keep other electronics organized and accessible. A combination lock, sturdy metal zippers and cut-resistant materials make it a safer choice for your laptop too.
Sporty, stylish and supremely comfortable, the High Sierra Loop Backpack is ideal for carrying textbooks and binders with ease. It’s available in a huge range of styles and colors to suit any taste, and although it doesn’t have a padded laptop compartment, it holds smaller electronics such as calculators and phones with ease.
The Matein Travel Laptop Backpack looks office-ready, making it an excellent choice for business administration majors who already have an eye on the executive suite. With a USB port outside the backpack for easy charging and lightly padded airflow straps for comfort, this compact backpack’s ideal for any university student who does more work on a computer than in heavy textbooks.
For pure style, nothing beats the Vaschy Leather Laptop Backpack. Its canvas body and leather flaps offer timeless appeal with modern convenience. A padded compartment inside holds laptops and tablets of up to 15 inches, and a second pocket has space for lab notebooks and slimmer textbooks. The backpack’s design puts an emphasis on style, but not at the expense of comfort.
Reviews of the Best College Backpacks
JanSport Super-Break Backpack
When you think of a backpack, the image that comes to mind is probably something like this classic JanSport model. The front pocket for pens and calculators, the thickly padded straps and the gently curved silhouette are exactly what a backpack should look like. It’s simplicity in backpack form, and it earns a perennial place on Amazon’s best-sellers list.
That simplicity is both its style strength and its greatest weakness. On the one hand, you can’t go wrong with a design this clean-lined, which is why it’s stayed the same for decades.
On the other hand, you won’t be able to pick your JanSport out of a crowd unless you modify it with some artwork or other additions to personalize it. The wide color range helps offset the plainness of the design, so if you love brilliant color, it could be the backpack for you.
JanSport offers a guarantee of service or replacement for any of their backpacks, a sign of the company’s reputation for high quality and durability. The pack is as light as it is strong, with double-stitched straps and a reinforced base to allow you to carry even heavy textbooks across campus in relative comfort. This isn’t the largest backpack on our list, though, and if you have a heavy course load, you might want to reconsider. From a style standpoint, the smaller backpack may also look disproportionate for taller or broader wearers.
WHAT WE LOVE
- Light weight
- JanSport’s guarantee
- Clean, classic lines
- Color and design choices
- Generally, customers rated this backpack highly
WHAT WE DIDN’T LOVE
- Plain design could look a little too simple
- Not much padding for laptop or other electronics
- small size
Although customers liked the durability of the polyester pack, some Amazon customers thought it felt too lightweight or cheap. Without side cup holders or inner pockets, organization could be a challenge as well.
Mancro Anti-Theft Business Laptop Backpack
This backpack holds up to a 17-inch notebook, making it one of the larger models we’ve seen. Well-padded and thoughtfully designed, the pack will help you stay organized and keep your electronics safe behind a combination lock.
Roomy enough to pack textbooks and notebooks alongside your computer, the Mancro backpack makes getting across campus with it as easy as possible. This is one of the larger backpacks we reviewed, so if you have plenty to carry, this could be the pack for you.
WHAT WE LOVE
- Elegantly simple style
- Roomy interior
- Lock keeps items secure
- Multiple pockets keep items organized
The combination lock on this backpack sets it apart from the others we review here, and it was the best option we found in a mid-range price to secure belongings. Although the zipper to which the lock attaches sometimes stuck, the lock itself is easy to use and robust enough to make a would-be thief think twice. If you have to leave your pack unattended for a gym class or lab work, you’ll be glad of the additional layer of protection.
WHAT WE DIDN’T LOVE
- No padding on the bottom of the laptop compartment
- Vinyl inner pockets aren’t as durable as the pack’s exterior
- Zippers may stick
- Combination locks won’t foil a dedicated thief
Although the backpack’s large enough to hold a fair amount of textbooks and electronics, the straps are where carrying becomes a challenge. To keep the design sleek and slim, Mancro left the straps thinner for a low profile when wearing the pack, but thinner straps that lack padding aren’t the most comfortable to wear on a cross-campus jaunt.
High Sierra Loop Backpack
The sporty detailing of this backpack and its light weight make it feel like the sports car of the bunch, and it handles like one. Weighing in at 1.5 pounds, it isn’t the lightest in the group, which would be the JanSport, but it is the largest. If you’re tall or have plenty of books to carry, this is the college backpack for you.
The long, flat profile also makes it comfortable to wear. Side compartments and bottom webbing straps help keep all your other items, including electronics, water bottles, art supplies and pens organized.
What the High Sierra Loop pack lacks is a place to hold a full-sized laptop. It has enough padding and space for a tablet, which is great if you don’t need a laptop for your classes, but that may not be the case every semester. The interior of the bag is divided into two compartments, but that’s where the built-in organization stops. If you’re someone who needs to put everything in a designated place, keep shopping and pass up this college backpack.
WHAT WE LOVE
- One of the best options around for carrying books and notebooks
- Lightweight for its size
- Sharp, sporty detailing stands out in a crowd
- Flat profile distributes weight well
WHAT WE DIDN’T LOVE
- No compartment or padding for a laptop
- Strap stitching not as durable as it could be
- Interior lacks pockets
Although our testers had no such problems, the number of Amazon complaints that mention straps coming unstitched could suggest the company has had quality control concerns in the past, although later reviews don’t mention torn straps. Some reviewers also found paler colors hard to keep clean, so consider buying in a darker shade that doesn’t show wear as readily.
Matein Travel Laptop Backpack
If backpacks were a high school yearbook, this is the one who’d be voted Most Likely to Succeed based on professional style alone. Available in office-ready hues like charcoal and grey, this is the university backpack for the aspiring intern who wants to take it to the next interview.
The water-resistant and easily cleaned polyester shell repels stains and soil, making this pack a good choice for frequent travelers who need to look sharp on the go.
The Matein Travel Backpack is also one of the larger packs on our list. If your best backpack for college is one that holds a 15-inch laptop and a full semester’s worth of books, this might be your top pick. To make that much space, the manufacturers have left padding to a minimum, so be careful when carrying a heavy load of textbooks plus a laptop. With no padding on the bottom of the backpack, there’s a risk that setting it down too roughly could damage its contents, a significant design oversight that could knock this one out of the running for some.
Some Amazon reviewers found durability a concern, but overall, the pack got high marks for holding together even through rough use. The ruggedly made body generally fared better than the straps, some of which tended to loosen at the seams after repeated wear. The straps are a little narrow for comfort, but only if you’re wearing lightweight clothing; with a suit jacket or coat, the narrow straps will still distribute weight comfortably.
WHAT WE LOVE
- Elegant, understated style
- All-metal zippers felt luxurious
- Roomy interior compartments keep gear organized
- Looks professional enough for university life
- Exterior USB charger
- Luggage strap makes traveling easier
WHAT WE DIDN’T LOVE
- No padding on the bottom of the backpack
- Narrow straps could become uncomfortable
- Inconsistent strap makes traveling easier
Vaschy Leather Laptop Backpack
If you place a premium on style, this Vaschy backpack is for you. Sturdy canvas and durable leather have been preferred design materials for backpacks and bags for centuries. Leather tabs and straps have a fashionably distressed look that weathers beautifully over time.
While plenty of laptop backpacks have space for accessories and other electronics, the pockets aren’t always as thoughtfully designed as these are. With a fabric interior instead of vinyl or other less durable materials, you’re also assured of having your pack for years.
The padded interior holds a 15-inch laptop with ease and could accommodate another half-inch or so with a bit of effort. This backpack is by far the heaviest on our list, weighing in at a hefty 2.7 pounds. That’s understandable, given the weight of its natural materials instead of lightweight man-made options, but it’s an important consideration if you have to carry it over longer distances. It’s also one of the bulkier designs, and its straps are a bit too narrow for its weight, we found. Although the design looks strappy, the buckles are for show, and the real closures are magnetic. If they were properly aligned, that would be fine, but some Amazon buyers noted theirs were offset, making the straps appear asymmetrical.
WHAT WE LOVE
- High-style genuine leather and canvas
- Distressed, lived-in look
- Roomy, well-padded interior pocket for laptop
- Stands out in a crowd
WHAT WE DIDN’T LOVE
- Magnetic closures don’t always align
- Large backpack may be uncomfortably big for smaller wearers
How to Choose Your Best Backpack for College
Figure out what’s most important to you, and you’ll know which backpack is the right one for you. If style is your life, for example, you probably want the Vaschy leather backpack; if you’re looking for lightweight simplicity, go with the JanSport backpack we profiled. Some questions you might ask to narrow down your choices include:
- How many classes are you taking, and do they all have bulky textbooks?
- Do you need a laptop case or a backpack?
- What’s your style preference? Are you sporty, colorful or high-fashion?
- How important is durability to you?
- Do you plan to customize your backpack?
If you’re still stumped about which backpack is your best choice, Lifehacker has additional advice on picking your pack..
Protecting Your Electronics with the Right Laptop Backpack
It’s all too easy for catastrophes to happen to fragile electronics, and when your classwork is on the line, you can’t afford to leave your laptop’s health to chance. Pick a backpack that has ample padding on all sides of the laptop compartment, including the bottom, for the safest choice. Check the depth and firmness of padding by placing one hand inside the pack and the other on the outside of its base. You’re looking for at least half an inch of padding there. These travel tips from PC World apply to cross-campus jaunts as well as cross-country flights.
External USB ports can also help protect your electronics as they mean you don’t have to take items out of the backpack to charge them. The Matein backpack, for example, contains a built-in charger that keeps your devices ready to use.
Water-resistant outer materials are a must to protect electronics, and while all these backpacks are resistant to a quick rain shower, some are more tougher than others against water. The JanSport and Vaschy packs are some of the most practical for fending off bad weather.
How To Wear a Backpack for Comfort and Safety
In high school, you might have thought it was cooler to slip just one strap on your back. In college, you know better. Shoulder straps are plural for a reason, and it’s smart to wear both straps as they were designed. Two straps will distribute weight more efficiently, sparing you back pain and reducing wear and tear on straps. The University of Pittsburgh Medical Center has more advice on how to adjust your backpack for safer trips across campus or across town.
Adjust shoulder straps so the backpack rides fairly high on your back. Your upper back is better able to support the weight of all those textbooks than your lower back.
Tighten the straps to keep the backpack from shifting on your shoulders. This is a safety issue for the laptop and other electronics your backpack might contain too; if your load is unbalanced, you risk dropping the pack and dealing with a costly repair. The American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons also recommends tightening straps so the backpack fits more closely to your body, preventing strain.
While there are thousands of backpack designs available, not all of them are right for college. These aren’t backpacks for kids; they’re ready for the more serious rigors of heavy university textbooks and office internships. The five backpacks we’ve gathered here represent the best we’ve found in value, capacity, safety, durability, comfort and style. Whether you lean toward classic designs like the polyester JanSport or leather and canvas Vaschy or are looking for a sportier look like the High Sierra Loop, you have plenty of options for your best backpack for college.