How to buy the perfect backpack

Backpacks have become ubiquitous for day-to-day use. And it’s no wonder: if you’re carrying around laptops, tablets, phones, water bottles, and all of the other stuff that you need when you travel to the office, cafe, or local park, a backpack is the best way to go.

Choosing the best backpack for your needs can be a bit bewildering, however. There are so many different brands out there and so many different factors to take into consideration, including look, usefulness, comfort, and price. What and how much will you be carrying? Do you need extra protection for rain or an accidental tumble? Do you want a separate place for each of your devices, or do you hate searching through dozens of separate pockets for your EarPods?

Instead of telling you the best backpack to buy, we’re going to walk you through the important things to look for and take note of when you’re picking out your next pack. All of these guidelines and suggestions apply, no matter what your needs are in terms of capacity and budget or your preferences for style.

The best way to shop for a backpack is, of course, in person. Like a pair of shoes, you never really know whether a backpack is right for you unless you try it on. However, if you don’t have the time to go shopping or if you prefer to shop online, then the three things you want to keep in mind are comfort, material, and design.

(In this piece, we are mainly describing daypacks that are best suited for work, school, touristing, or urban wandering.)

backpack
Look for a backpack that can hold all of your stuff.
Photo: Nemeio

Comfort

Comfort should be number one on your list. Even if you don’t usually carry around a heavy load, there may come a time when you will need to really load up that pack, and you won’t want your back to be screaming at you by the end of the day. (Check out The Verge’s running feature What’s in Your Bag? to see the variety of things that some people carry around with them.)

Make sure the pack distributes the weight of your stuff evenly. Most sites that offer recommendations on how to wear backpacks suggest that they should be worn high on your back with the bottom of the backpack at or above your waist. If you think you’re going to carry a lot of weight on a regular basis, a chest, waist, or hip belt can make a big difference in relieving the stress on your back.

STM Trestle backpack
A belt that attaches across your chest or waist can relieve stress on your back.
Photo by Vlad Savov / The Verge

It’s a good idea to look for a pack that’s appropriate for your build. For example, in a good-quality women’s pack, the straps will be designed for narrower shoulders and the hip belt will be designed for riding on wider hips.

Your comfort with a backpack can also vary depending on the size of the backpack and your own height. If you’re shopping online and aren’t sure what size will suit, look for photos of the pack being worn by a model. You can usually estimate how tall you are compared to the model, and that should give you some idea of how the pack will fit.

You can also go to a store and try on some backpacks to figure out what size you’re most comfortable with. Backpack capacity is traditionally measured in liters. Slimline bags that you can only fit your laptop and a few books into are between 10L and 16L, the most versatile packs are around 20L to 25L, and the professional camera gear and weekender bags go up to 30L and beyond.

If you’ve got a lot to carry and plan to do it in warm weather, a mesh covering that sits between you and the pack can lessen the amount of sweating you do.

Finally, if you have serious physical issues, or if you will be carrying loads that could tax your strength, don’t be embarrassed to consider a wheeled pack. But keep in mind that if you plan to also carry that pack, the wheels will add considerable weight.

Materials

Once upon a time, backpacks were usually made out of cotton canvas that were treated with wax in order to add waterproofing. It was reasonably effective, but it was also heavy, and if you stored one away for any length of time, the canvas would start to rot. (If you’re tempted by some of the retro options out there.)

Nowadays, most packs are made with either nylon, polyester, or some variation thereof. For most people, these will work just fine. If you’re looking for real stamina and / or you prefer a more textured feel, textiles such as Cordura will provide additional strength.

Backpack with leather highlights
You can opt for a backpack with leather highlights, which will add class but not too much weight.
Photo by Amelia Holowaty Krales / The Verge

Of course, if you’re looking for something classy, there is nothing like leather, which is strong, can be made water-resistant, and looks great. However, leather is also going to be a lot heavier, and a reasonably-sized computer backpack made of leather is going to eat a nice hole in your bank account. (You can compromise by getting one with leather highlights.)

Don’t underestimate the importance of the zippers: a misbehaving zipper can destroy the usefulness of any pack. If you’re shopping in a store, be sure to test every single zipper to see how smoothly they operate. Whether in person or online, look for zippers that include rain protection (which is costlier, but worth it). In addition, be aware of 90-degree corners on bags since it can be difficult or nearly impossible to make the zipper turn that corner. And get a bag with metal zippers; plastic zippers won’t last long under daily use.

Some bags come with magnetic latches and clasps. While these can be fast and convenient, they can also be annoying if they constantly miss their mark.

Design

Some people will complain because their bag has so many pockets that they forget which pocket they’ve put each device in. Others don’t think that there can ever be too many pockets.

The number and types of pockets, loops, and other storage options in packs today can vary widely, and it’s a very personal choice as to how many you’re comfortable with. You could, if you wanted, go for simplicity: a main compartment, a padded sleeve for your computer, and maybe two or three small pockets for other stuff. Or you could get a bag with places for dozens of specific uses. Some bags even include removable folders, computer bags, dividers, and other modules. (Although modularity can be a polarizing issue for backpack enthusiasts, for smaller items, you can buy a camera bag where all the compartments are user-adjustable.)

Backpacks with pockets
Some backpacks offer lots of pockets and other storage.
Photo by Thomas Ricker / The Verge

Consider the following as a bare minimum: a padded pocket for your computer, preferably (but not necessarily) separate from your main compartment, and an internal zipped compartment for your wallet or other valuables. You probably want to add a couple of external pockets for an umbrella and / or water bottle and an easy-access pocket for your phone, keys, or sunglasses. After that, the sky’s the limit.

There are other design features that can be useful. For example, some packs have flat bottoms that allow them to stand on their own, which can be very handy. (They can also look blocky when actually worn because they don’t slim down if you’re packing light.) There are even one or two out there that have built-in kickstands. Others have tops that can be belted down for smaller loads and then unfolded when you’re carrying more. If you travel a lot, you’ll want a pack with a pass-through strap in the back so you can loop it over the handle of your wheeled suitcase.

Some backpacks come with side access to their laptop compartments. While this may be handy on a day-to-day basis, it is not ideal for flying. It means you’ll have to take your bag out entirely from under the seat in front of you instead of just sliding the laptop out.

If you often pack extra clothing, shoes, or other gear, consider a gym backpack with segmented compartments at the bottom for your dirty clothes or shoes.

Concerned about theft? Some packs offer extra security, such as locking zippers, hidden and / or camouflaged pockets, slash-proof material, and built-in cables so you can secure the bag if you have to leave it somewhere. Bags such as the Riutbag have all of the pockets on the side of the bag that’s against your body. (It’s a great way to avoid pickpockets, but it’s a pain to actually use). Electronic theft can also be covered by bags with RFID-safe pockets for your credit cards and other digitally sensitive materials.

You may also want to be aware of any size or other restrictions from airlines, conventions, or other places you may visit.

Mind the small print

When pricing a backpack, it’s smart to factor in the manufacturer’s warranty. You will often get premium treatment when you buy from a premium brand. Companies like Briggs & Riley will repair any issues that arise for free for the life of the bag.

Finally, you’re going to carry your new bag around for some time, so don’t choose a pack that you won’t want to be seen with in public. Don’t compromise too much on price: a good backpack that will last you 10 years is, in the end, more cost-efficient than a cheaper one that falls apart two years after you buy it. And if, while you’re walking down the street, you catch sight of a backpack that really makes you take notice, note the brand and check it out online. Even if that particular bag isn’t quite right, the company may have one that is just right for you.

Vox Media has affiliate partnerships. These do not influence editorial content, though Vox Media may earn commissions for products purchased via affiliate links. For more information, see our ethics policy.

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