The Best Backpacks for Students

Students are going back to school, and they're going to need to do some hauling.

On my way to class
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In my quest to find the best student-friendly backpack, I focused on finding a something that can hold books, notebooks, a computer, a bike lock, a cardigan, and some pens. The classic Jansport doesn’t have enough internal organization, while North Face bags are bogged down with the kinds of straps and netting.

There has to be a happy medium, and so for years I’ve been in search. Here's what I've found.

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Fjallraven
Best Simplicity: Kanken Classic Pack
Fjällräven
$79.95

I expect a backpack to have the pockets that a tote bag probably doesn’t. But I’ve never stopped being drawn to the Kanken’s aesthetic appeal—its simplicity and crisp lines that deny gendering, the sharp corners that seem inherently foreign, the too-thin straps that are a nice antidote to the horsey slabs that adorn so many backpacks. 

Fjallraven created the Kanken as an ergonomic bag big enough to hold two A4 ring binders. Unfortunately, it really isn’t that ergonomic, so the Kanken wasn't quite the bag for me. 

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Fjallraven
Best Utility: Raven 20
Fjällräven
$84.94

But the Fjallraven’s Raven 20 pack has a more modern approach to ergonomics, with thorough padding and curved straps. It takes almost the opposite appraoch to the Kanken: a very regular looking bag with all the right pockets. It looks small but can hold a totally appropriate 20 liters. 

The straps feel a bit aggressive in their curving,  and the shape doesn't look all that different than you common Jansport bag. But if I put my vanity aside and cave to pure utility, this is the backpack I’d choose.

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Incase
Best for Laptops: Icon Pack
Incase
$199.95

For carrying a laptop, you’d be hard-pressed to find something better than Incase’s Icon backpack. It’s boring looking but in a good way. It has plenty of interior pockets separate from the laptop compartment and high up in the bag, so you don’t have to rifle through a bunch of stuff to get to them. 

Like the Raven 20, it has a rather classic shape that reflects its utilitarianism. If you like cargo shorts in theory but not in practice—the Icon could be the answer.

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Black Ember
Most Pockets: Citadel Minimal Pack
Black Ember
$225.00

The Citadel Minimal Pack is the quintessential backpack of too much. It’s too big, has too many pockets, is too rigid, too “tactical.” Even if I had enough small items to fill all the pockets in this pack, I wouldn’t want to, because it would be too awkward to ever remove them. While this backpack isn’t intended specifically for school, I thought I’d give it a try, since I’ve often used so-called non-school backpacks for books. 

There are some thoughtful features: pockets for all your gadgets, a compression divider, and two access points (one zipper that opens completely, letting you back the bag flat; and another for reaching in to grab items as you would in a traditional backpack). But overall, the bag just felt like overkill.

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Topo Designs
Best Style: Daypack
Topo Designs
$216.27

Topo combines outdoorsiness with clean modern design in the right balance on the outside. It also had just the right amount of pockets, so the Daypack had a lot going for it. But the inside of the bag was a bit of a mess. The pockets, however well-intentioned, are in the exact wrong spot: flat against the laptop sleeve, where, even when there’s not a laptop in the bag, they haven’t been given enough slack to comfortably fit much more than a thin stack of business cards. 

Every time I had to jam my keys into the too-shallow pocket that seemed designed for keys. The same problem befell the water bottle pockets, which work only if you have empty space inside the bag, since the slack is not the pockets’ fabric but the fabric of the main compartment.

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Kletterwerks
Best for Mountaineers: Kletterwerks Flip Pack
Mystery Ranch
$149.21

Like the Topo Daypack, this back is a couple of inches too tall for my taste. Despite the height, the Kletterwerks Flip is a great backpack. 

Perfect? No. But I’ll gladly use it to tote around a computer and some books. The top of the backpack has a featureless but suitable pocket for wallet, keys, phone, and pens. The fact that the handle is connected to this part of the bag can make it awkward to use when it’s unzipped; I found myself grabbing it by the fabric as often as I grabbed it by the actual handle. 

The laptop sleeve has a nice Velcro strap to keep a computer secure should the bag end up upside down. The main thing it lacks is just one extra pocket, something inside the hide precious cargo.

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Madden
Best Overall: #0 Backpack
Madden Equipment
$179.00

The Madden #0 is shorter than most other 15-inch-laptop bags I’ve tried, and this rolltop backpack looks and feels like a classic. 

Though it takes some getting used to, the rolltop is ultimately useful, providing a wide look into the bag and a closure that’s guaranteed to keep out water. The bag does have two zippers: one, thoughtfully placed along the side of the bag, for easy access to small items, and one inside. 

The laptop sleeve could have a softer lining, but as is, it does just fine. Overall, the backpack is just about the perfect size. And given one more pocket, it might even be the perfect backpack.

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