Pack It Up, Pack It In: 11 Durable, Affordable Backpacks for Students

6,699 Views
Best backpacks for college
Students converse inside the Marshall Student Center at the University of South Florida in Tampa, Fla. Tina Russell/The Penny Hoarder

When searching for the best backpacks for college, cost isn’t the only thing to consider. Value is key, and that includes durability, comfort and the space to meet all your storage needs.

But how can tell you tell which, from the myriad options out there, are really the best college backpacks? We studied the options and narrowed them down to these 11 must-see bags. Whether you’re on a budget or prepared to splurge for special features, you’re sure to find something for you.

1. SwissGear Travel Gear ScanSmart TSA Laptop Backpack

Storage

This bag has plenty of space for your textbooks, binders and whatever else you may need to lug around.

Stay organized with features like an internal phone pocket and headphone port, accessory pockets, an accordion file holder, and a built-in daisy chain and carabiner to attach even more. When you have a lighter load, the condenser straps cinch the bag smaller.

The padded laptop sleeve holds laptops up to 15 inches, offers easy side access and can open and lay flat to meet TSA requirements (so if you travel a lot, you won’t have to take your computer out at security). There’s also a padded compartment for your tablet.

Durability

This backpack is made of “durable 1200D ballistic polyester.” One owner posted in the Amazon Q&A section that he’s used his bag heavily for five years and it’s just recently begun to show wear.

Comfort

This bag is durable and comfortable, with ergonomically contoured and padded shoulder straps (one has a convenient glasses holder) and a padded back panel with Airflow ventilation technology.

There are no chest or waist straps to aid with weight distribution, however, so bear that in mind if you need the extra support or plan to carry heavy loads.

  • Specs: 18.5” x 15” x 8.5”, 30L of storage
  • Colors: black, black/blue, black/gray, gray heather, red
  • Price: $50.99+ (all prices were valid at the time of writing)

2. Oakley Kitchen Sink Backpack

Storage

It’s the most expensive bag on our list for good reason; you could live out of this bag for days, whether you’re attending classes, going on spring break or studying abroad.

It has plenty of compartments, including a mesh sunglasses pocket, brushed media pocket and shoe compartment, but it’s still compact and easy to carry. The padded laptop sleeve fits laptops up to 15 inches.

Durability

An abrasion-resistant bottom panel gives it extra durability (and offers added protection for your stuff) in the event of a drop. A compression-molded back, adjustable shoulder straps, and chest and waist straps ease your carrying burden, and the construction is strong and secure.

Comfort

That said, some users have found the flap on the main compartment annoying to access on a regular basis, and depending on your stature and strength, this bag may be too big for you. For a smaller version, check out the Oakley Bathroom Sink Backpack.

  • Specs: 20” x 14” x 8”, 34L of storage
  • Colors: black, stealth black, herb (camo),
  • Price: $127.93+

3. Herschel Supply Co. Little America Backpack

Storage

This fun mountaineering-style bag has two faux leather buckled straps down the front for extra security (they close with easy magnetic snaps) and a classy striped fabric lining. The main compartment has an adjustable drawstring closure and internal media pocket with headphone port for your phone or MP3 player.

There’s also a front pocket with a hidden zipper and key clip and a padded laptop sleeve that holds up to a 15-inch laptop. This bag doesn’t offer a ton of compartments if you’re looking to keep your stuff separated, though.

Durability

It’s made of 100% polyester you can wipe clean with a damp cloth, and the company offers a lifetime limited warranty covering “common and everyday use for the duration of the original purchaser’s lifetime.”

Comfort

Contoured padded shoulder straps and air-mesh back padding make carrying it a breeze.

  • Specs: 19” x 11.25” x 7”, 25L of storage
  • Colors: 19 colors to choose from
  • Price: $77.26+

4. High Sierra Swerve Backpack

Storage

Compartments are the name of the game for this bag. Multiple large sections, including a main one with two-way access, keep your stuff separate and easy to find.

There’s also a handy shoulder strap media pocket with a headphone port, as well as two water bottle pockets, lots of places to put things like cords and pens, and a key fob hook.

Durability

Made of long-lasting Denier Duralite material, this bag offers plenty of protection for your gear with a padded Cushion Zone laptop sleeve that fits laptops up to 15 inches, a Tech Spot tablet sleeve and a cushioned bottom panel. There’s also a lifetime limited manufacturer’s warranty against defects in material and workmanship.

Comfort

It also offers protection for your back and shoulders in the form of S-shaped Suspension System shoulder straps, a padded Airflow back panel and condenser straps to adjust its overall size.

There are no additional support straps, but from customer reviews, it doesn’t sound like you really need them.

  • Specs: 19” x 13” x 7.75”, 31L of storage
  • Colors: a whopping 25 color and pattern options
  • Price: $33.48+

5. High Sierra Freewheel Wheeled Backpack

Storage

Similar to No. 4 in terms of compartments and laptop storage, this model comes on wheels for those with back problems (or those who simply prefer to pull their gear).

Durability

Two inline, corner-mounted wheels make for smooth rolling, while a kick-plate adds extra durability against bumps. This model doesn’t come with a lifetime warranty, but it does have a limited five-year manufacturer’s warranty.

Comfort

The telescoping handle can be hidden away when not in use, and should you decide to carry your stuff instead, Cushion Zone sleeves and a padded back panel make the experience comfortable. (The straps can be tucked away in a pouch on the bag when not in use.)

  • Specs: 13.5” x 20.5” x 8”
  • Colors: red or black
  • Price: $52.99 for red, $69.99 for black

6. North Face Surge Backpack

Storage

This bag comes in two similar varieties: unisex and the slightly smaller, rounder women’s model. The unisex version’s fleece-lined laptop compartment holds laptops up to 15 inches, while the women’s version holds up to 17 inches.

Both styles feature a large main compartment, front pocket, and fleece-lined pockets for your tablet, phone and sunglasses. Plus, there’s a lay-flat design for easier TSA inspection.

Durability

It’s constructed of “hyper-durable ballistics nylon,” and several reviewers commented on how long it has lasted them. One even mentioned that it still looks great after she tossed it in the washing machine!

Comfort

Both styles enable you to carry a large load with surprising comfort thanks to FlexVent injection-moulded shoulder straps, a removable chest strap and non-removable waist strap, and a padded air-mesh back panel with Spine Channel and PE sheet for added support.

  • Specs: 22” x 16” x 5”, 30L of storage (unisex); 21” x 16” x 5”, 26L of storage (women’s)
  • Colors: 12 to choose from for unisex; 19 for women’s
  • Price: $94.86+ for unisex; $100+ for women’s

7. Bolang Water Resistant College Laptop Backpack

Storage

If simple’s more your style, check out this lightweight, streamlined bag with a clean design and plenty of fun color options from black to bright to pastel.

The main pocket has a padded laptop sleeve that holds laptops up to 16 inches. There are also three front pockets with lots of storage features, and two mesh water bottle pockets on the sides.

Durability

Made of durable nylon with an inside liner, this bag is water-resistant to help keep your things dry as you dash between buildings in a rain shower. It’s not waterproof, however, so don’t test your luck by walking home in a downpour without an umbrella.

Comfort

Padded shoulder straps, a padded back and a chest strap help you shoulder the load. Several reviewers mention how comfortable they find this pack.

  • Specs: 18.5” x 12” x 6”
  • Colors: 11 colors to choose from
  • Price: $51.89

8. KAKA Terylene Fabric Backpack for 17-Inch Laptops

We’ll pause a moment to let you get out any snickers that may inevitably bubble up at the rather unfortunate name of this company. It may have a silly moniker, but this bag’s no joke.

Storage

Offering the largest storage capacity on this list in terms of sheer volume, this bag has a huge main compartment, a large secondary compartment, two smaller front compartments and two water bottle pockets.

Some customers have complained the main compartment is too deep, which can lead to smaller items having to be fished from the bottom. That said, the bag zips all the way open, and its big zippers work smoothly to make retrieval as convenient as possible.

The laptop compartment can hold laptops up to 17 inches and has a neat combination lock to deter theft.

Durability

Made of tough terylene oxford material with water-resistant lining, it’s adjustable and can even be washed if it gets too dirty.

Comfort

Several reviewers describe this bag as comfortable to carry, even with a heavy load on a bike or motorcycle.

  • Specs: 12” x 22” x 7”, 35L of storage
  • Colors: black, blue, gray, red, camo
  • Price: $27.99+

9. OutdoorMaster Hiking Backpack

Storage

Whether you’re trekking the mountains or trekking across campus, this hiking backpack has plenty of great features that will keep all your gear in order.

Store your books and binders in its big main compartment or secondary pocket. Smaller stuff can fit in the slip pocket in front, which has plenty of places to organize supplies and gadgets.

There’s also a phone pocket (though the location of the headphone port isn’t terribly convenient), a sunglasses hanger, and straps underneath intended to affix a sleeping bag or tent (they work just as well for a rolled-up sweatshirt).

Laptops up to 15 inches fit in the padded laptop compartment. Add two water bottle pockets and you’ve got all your basics.

Durability

Made of lightweight and durable nylon, this backpack is meant to survive laung hauls through the great outdoors — so chances are it’ll do just fine on your daily hikes across campus. A waterproof rain cover tucked away in one of the pockets keeps your stuff dry in all weather.

Comfort

S-curved shoulder straps, adjustable waist and chest straps (the waist strap is padded), and a thick back cushion make carrying easy. The waist belt even has zippers on each side for easy access to things like cards or keys.

  • Specs: 23” x 14” x 9” inches, 50L of storage
  • Colors: seven to choose from, from vibrant hues to classic black
  • Price: $36.99

10. EcoCity Vintage Canvas Backpack

Storage

There’s a hanging pocket in the main compartment and a front pocket for smaller items, as well as side pouches.  

The laptop sleeve fits devices up to 13 inches. (If you prefer a Chromebook or tablet to a standard laptop, this compartment will be just right).

Durability

Feel like an explorer with this cool bag’s rucksack vibe. Made of eco-friendly cotton canvas, it has a top-loading main compartment that closes with a drawstring and flap secured with leather-looking straps (they’re actually magnetic). Reviewers were surprised to find this bag doesn’t sacrifice substance for style; its heavy canvas material holds up to wear and tear much better than expected for such a fashionable item.

Comfort

Even without the padding other bags offer, this backpack’s thick, adjustable thick shoulder straps are comfy. While it may not be as large or offer as many complex storage options as other options on this list, for those without massive class loads, it’s a stylish and affordable option worth mentioning.

  • Specs: 11” x 16.5” x 6.3”, 19L of storage
  • Colors: black, army green, coffee, gray, khaki
  • Price: $36.99

11. AmazonBasics Laptop Backpack

Storage

When it comes to getting maximum value for minimum dollar, this bag is a great choice. It offers plenty of storage, with five main compartments, lots of smaller compartments, a tablet pouch and a padded laptop sleeve that fits devices up to 15.6 inches (17 inches for slim models).

A mesh compartment on the front of the left shoulder strap allows for easy smartphone access. It also has two water bottle pockets and an array of organizational options for accessories like pens and calculators.

Durability

This bag isn’t as heavy-duty as others on this list, but is well-made given the price point. If you tend to play rough with your stuff — dropping your bag on the floor when you get home, shoving it into overhead compartments — a pricier bag may be a wise investment for the peace of mind it provides.

But for daily handling and wear and tear, this bag gets the job done for a fraction of the cost.

Comfort

Padded, adjustable shoulder straps are a nice feature, but this backpack is missing any added features like waist and chest straps or a reinforced back.

For the cost, it’s comfy enough, but if you need extra support or plan on carrying a super-heavy load, you may find you want something that offers a little more in terms of weight distribution.

  • Specs: 15” x 17” x 19”, 32L of storage
  • Colors: black
  • Price: $29.99

Kelly Gurnett is a freelance blogger, writer and editor who runs the blog Cordelia Calls It Quits, where she documents her attempts to rid her life of the things that don’t matter and focus more on the things that do. Follow her on Twitter @CordeliaCallsIt.