Sign In

The Ultimate Guide to Backpacks for College Students

Backpacks aren't just for grade schoolers, but older students have different needs. Here's what you need to know to get a comfy pack that'll last for years.
Published

Though it may not be at the top of your college prep to-do list, the bag you carry to class every day is an important consideration, and that old high-school backpack may not cut it. You're likely to be covering a lot more distance with a lot more books in college. The right bag will keep your gear — and you! — safe and organized along the way.

This isn't all about the stuff you're carrying. There are real health problems you can develop by lugging around a loaded-down bag. Carrying too much in the wrong way puts strain on your back, shoulders, and neck. This can cause back pain and headaches. As a new college student, you have enough to worry about. Don't add to it with a lousy bag!

We'll tell you what you need to know about picking the best bag for college, so you can get one that'll last all the way through graduation.


backpack messenger

Backpack vs. Messenger Bag

Stylish messenger bags have grown popular not only for their svelte looks, but for how easy it is to get gear in and out of them. With a messenger bag, there's no fumbling to pull the bag off to get at what's inside. But messengers don't distribute weight evenly across your body. The bag's single strap places the weight across your shoulder and chest. But a backpack evenly places weight on both shoulders (and sometimes across the sternum or hips with extra straps).

The more you carry in a messenger, the more you're likely to notice that weight distribution difference with strained, tired muscles. If you like the style, we would only recommend it if you don't have to carry a heavy load. But for most students, we really have to recommend a backpack.

What Do You Need to Carry?

Before you can pick a bag, you need to know what you're hauling around, and how often. Check out your book list: Is it mostly text books, or small paperbacks? How many of them will you have to carry every day?

Bag size is measured by the volume of what it can carry, typically in cubic inches or liters. Though this can be an easy way to compare one bag's size to the other, it's tough to convert your textbooks into cubic liters. Instead, look for measurements to decide what will fit where (or better yet, take some books to the store with you to see what'll fit).

Another important consideration is the distance you'll need to carry your gear. Are you living off-campus and biking in? You'll want to be sure to have a sturdy bag that's comfortable to wear for long periods, and can hold all the books you'll need for each day. If you're living on campus and your classes are just a short walk away, you could get away with a light-duty bag and dropping off your textbooks between classes.

You shouldn't be carrying around more than 10% to 15% of your body weight.

When considering weight, remember that you shouldn't be carrying around more than 10% to 15% of your body weight. So if you estimate your books weigh more than that, either figure out what you can skip carrying or consider a wheeled bag.

Some fields of study require supplies beyond textbooks, and now is the time to consider how you'll haul that gear around, too. Art students may need to carry paper, canvases, or other supplies, while lab workers may need to lug equipment. Whatever extras you'll need to lug, keep them in mind when considering the size of your bag.

Finding the Right Size Bag for You

It's not just about finding a bag that will fit all of your stuff; you want a bag that will fit you, too.

When it comes to backpacks, finding the right size bag is all about your torso length. You don't want one that falls below your hips, where a waistband (on larger packs) is designed to help distribute the weight. For messenger bags, some only come in one size, while others have a range — the biggest of which may dwarf individuals with smaller frames. If you find a bag that has options for men and women, be aware that women's bags are often slightly smaller to accommodate their typically smaller frames. Taller individuals will want men's packs, while the more petite are likely to appreciate women's packs.

Heading to a store is a good idea; it'll let you see the bags in person to get a better idea of how they'll fit both you and your stuff. Try some bags on and walk around with them. Even unloaded, you'll get an idea of how easy it is to move around and access things. Some stores will be able to offer advice on sizing, too.

Do You Need a Bag With Wheels?

Wheels aren't just for suitcases! Backpacks can come with wheels, too. These bags are often smaller (the wheels, frame, and handle cut into carrying space) and more expensive than non-wheeled counterparts, but if you have a heavy load they may be the answer.


college backpack

Key Features

Pockets and Compartments
You don't want a bag with a single cavernous compartment. Beyond hauling your stuff, you want to keep it organized and easy to find. If you're carrying a laptop, you should look for a bag with a laptop compartment (or carry your laptop in a padded sleeve). Laptop bags will list the size of laptop they carry, so be sure you get the right size.

Next consider the odds and ends you'll be hauling: pens, notepads, sunglasses, a water bottle? You want to be sure there's a spot to put everything you need. An external water bottle pocket is a good idea to help avoid damage in the event of leaks.

Durability
You want something sturdy enough to last for years. Look for good stitching, with handles and straps that are well-anchored to the main bag. Heavier cloth or even rubber on the bottom of the bag can help it stand up to being dropped or scraped over the ground when you set it down. And even if you don't plan on being out in the rain, water-resistant materials (with a flap of fabric over the zippers), will help keep your gear safe and dry in any conditions.

Weight
A bag made out of bulky materials will be heavy before you even start packing it. You'll want something that's both light and strong, which usually means synthetic fabrics.

Material
While a visual examination can give you an idea of how sturdy a fabric is, what you want to look for is the denier. That's a measure of the density of the fibers used to make the fabric, with a higher number indicating a more durable weave.

Non-synthetic materials include cotton (or cotton canvas) and leather. Cotton is lightweight and low-cost, but doesn't wear very well with no resistance to water, scuffs, or tears. Leather, on the other hand, is heavy and expensive. It can wear well, but requires some care to stay in top shape — if you're likely to abuse a bag, leather probably isn't the best choice. It's also one of the bulkier options, and it can lead to a bag that will weigh you down.

If you're likely to abuse a bag, leather probably isn't the best choice.

For synthetic materials, Nylon is the most common. It's lightweight and typically treated to be water resistant. Cordura and ballistic nylon are both heavier, more durable variations of nylon, with ballistic being the heaviest. Dyneema is an especially tough fabric, but it's also pricey: you're only likely to find it in high-end bags. Polyester is the budget option for synthetic fabrics; it's cheaper than nylon, but it's also less durable.

Straps and Padding
No matter what kind of bag you're carrying, you want broad straps with a good amount of padding to distribute the weight load. A padded back can help a heavy load feel a little lighter, and vents along the back (most common on backpacks) can help pull heat away from your body when you're lugging the bag around for hours.

A waist or sternum strap for backpacks is important if you're carrying a heavy load. Look for similar straps for balance and weight distribution on messenger bags, too. All straps should be easy to reach and adjust for the perfect fit, while staying securely in place once you have them just right. A handle on the top of the bag so you can easily grab it is also a good idea.

Tech Features
A bag with the latest tech features seems like a good idea for the modern tech-savvy student, but these add-ons increase expense and bulk. While high-tech bag features can be convenient, stand-alone gadgets like chargers are likely to be cheaper, and you can carry them even when you're not carrying your whole bag.

Reflective Materials
If you're going to be walking or biking at night, especially near roadways, look for a bag with reflective materials or straps. If it doesn't come with these things, look to add your own reflectors so you can be easily seen in the dark.

Warranty
It's important to check out how the company will back their bag if something goes wrong. Some bags even come with a lifetime warranty, which can make them a great buy.

SEE ALSO: I Guarantee It: Companies That Still Offer Amazing Warranties


backpack messenger

What Will a Good Bag Cost?

You can spend as much or as little as you'd like on a bag for college. The most basic of basic backpacks can cost as little as $20, while high-end packs can run $200. For a good bag that will last you several years, expect to spend around $50. If you're looking at packs in the $100 range, expect high-durability materials, a well thought-out design (not just one big compartment!), and an excellent warranty to make it worth the price.

If you're looking to save, expect to see bags discounted as we get closer to back to school season. In the past, we've seen backpacks and other bags significantly marked down from late summer through Labor Day.

Which Brands Should You Look for?

There are lots of brands in the laptop and messenger bag space, but these two stand out for quality.

JanSport
JanSport is one of the biggest names in backpacks, and with good reason. They offer a huge range of bags, including basic backpacks, wheeled backpacks, laptop backpacks, and messenger bags, all of which are backed with a lifetime warranty. Most JanSport models are in the middle of the pack, price-wise.

The North Face
The North Face makes durable bags that the company claims are designed to last a lifetime — a claim backed by their lifetime warranty. This means their packs are on the upper end of the price range, but you can certainly expect them to last you all the way through college.

Readers, what do you look for in a backpack? What are your favorite brands? Let us know in the comments below.


Contributing Writer

Originally working in IT, Elizabeth now writes on tech, gaming, and general consumer issues. Her articles have appeared in USA Today, Time, AOL, PriceGrabber, and more. She has been one of DealNews' most regular contributors since 2013, researching everything from vacuums to renters insurance to help consumers.
DealNews may be compensated by companies mentioned in this article. Please note that, although prices sometimes fluctuate or expire unexpectedly, all products and deals mentioned in this feature were available at the lowest total price we could find at the time of publication (unless otherwise specified).
You might also like
Leave a comment!

or Register
3 comments
sc122002
Backpacks with mesh backs. That was one thing I invested in when I started school. It gets hot walking around campus and lugging around all that stuff. Also agreed re: something that has a water bottle holder/compartment.
Allyson
Lol! I'm not in college, but I'm pretty sure I carry around more than 10% to 15% of your body weight when I use my backpack.
pdot
I recommend something with a water bottle holder. It will help you to skip those soda purchases. You can even put soda in it instead of water if you can deal with room temperature stuff.

Some hiking day packs could work well as school bags, are light, durable, and often have bottle holders.