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The Best Backpack for College


For college students, a backpack is not just a backpack; it’s a constant on-campus companion and portable locker. To find the best bags for the task, we put five highly rated laptop backpacks through the ringer, loading them up with the average college student’s everyday essentials and testing them for capacity, organization, comfort, support and water-resistance.

Our Top Choices

Best Overall


InCase

Icon

See Price at Amazon

Runner-up


Fjallraven

Raven 28

See Price at Amazon

For college students, a backpack is not just a backpack; it’s a constant on-campus companion and portable locker. To find the best bags for the task, we put five highly rated laptop backpacks through the ringer, loading them up with the average college student’s everyday essentials and testing them for capacity, organization, comfort, support and water-resistance.

We chose the InCase – Icon as the best backpack for college. It’s a sleek, structured, well-organized backpack made of strong, water-resistant ballistic nylon that has a compartment for anything a student could need on campus. Our runner-up pick is the Fjallraven – Raven 28, a spacious, durable, water-resistant pack with a classic design that received high marks for comfort.

Table of contents

How we selected products to test

To kick off our research, we interviewed college students to find out what they actually lugged around on their backs on an average day. In general, these items included a laptop, tablet, phone, binder, planner, heavy textbook, keys and a variety of pens.

A laptop sleeve was vital: Most students said that while they only carried books when they would need them for class, they rarely left home without their computers. They also preferred plenty of pockets, as well as space for workout clothes in case they decided to hit the gym after class. We also discovered that, in general, they preferred durability and comfort over a “dope” backpack design.

With this info in mind, we set out to find the top-rated backpacks on Amazon with especially high-rated laptop compartments. We also scoured Reddit for backpack recommendations from college students that aligned with our metrics, aiming for durable, high-quality bags under $200 that could endure all four years of college.

First on our list was the InCase – Icon, a sleek, well-constructed backpack with a plethora of interior compartments and pockets, including a protected laptop compartment. The Timbuk2 – Spire’s large capacity and quick-access laptop opening impressed us as well. We also wanted to give the Fjallraven – Raven 28 the old college try, since it had gotten great reviews for its comfort and quality laptop sleeve.

The most utilitarian of the group was the SwissGear – 1900 ScanSmart, an Amazon darling that got top marks for its large capacity and durability. Rounding out our lineup was the North Face – Recon, a sportier ripstop backpack that came highly recommended for its roomy design and lasting power.

Compare the five best backpacks for college

ProductPriceMaterialCapacity (liters)Measurements
1. InCase - Icon$$$$840D ballistic nylon (water-resistant)1719" x 13" x 9"
2. Fjallraven - Raven 28$$$65% polyester / 35% cotton, treated with Greenland Wax (water-resistant)2819" x 13" x 9"
3. Timbuk2 - Spire$$TPU / canvas (water-resistant)3012.4" x 18.7" x 5.1"
4. SwissGear - 1900 ScanSmart$1200D ballistic polyester (water-resistant)3118.5" x 13.5" x 9"
5. North Face - Recon$$210D Cordura ripstop nylon (water-resistant)3019.25" x 13" x 7"

Important features to consider

Fabric

When buying a backpack, you’ll most likely be choosing between four of the common fabrics used in backpack manufacturing: nylon, polyester, canvas and ripstop.

Nylon

The good: Known for its durability and strength, nylon is water- and mold-resistant and currently the most popular backpack material choice.

The bad: Nylon has poor UV resistance, meaning the fabric can weaken when exposed to the sun for extended periods of time.

Polyester

The good: Cheaper than nylon, polyester is recyclable and highly UV-resistant.

The bad: It’s less durable than nylon.

Canvas

The good: The classic backpack material, canvas is nylon’s predecessor and quite strong and durable. Waxed canvas, which is water-resistant, has been making a comeback with cool-kid brands like Fjallraven and Herschel.

The bad: Canvas is generally heavy unless it’s blended with synthetic fibers to lighten the weight of the fabric.

Ripstop

The good: Originally developed for parachutes in World War II and made to be especially tough, ripstop is sewn in a grid pattern designed to stop ripping in its tracks.

The bad: Ripstop is useful for college backpacks if blended with strong fabrics (such as nylon), but it can wear quickly when blended with lighter fabrics, since the lightweight fabric threads and strong ripstop threads wear at different rates.

Fabric weight

You’ve probably seen backpack fabrics described cryptically with a number followed by a “D” (such as 600D, 1200D, etc.). The “D” stands for denier, which is a fabric weight measurement. Generally, a higher denier number equals stronger fabric; however, this measurement is only good for comparing weights within one fabric category (for example, a 600D polyester is actually weaker than a 450D nylon).

Zippers

When it comes to weather-resistance, your backpack’s zipper makes all the difference. Unless your bag features a truly waterproof zipper (like the TIZIP and YKK AquaSeal), there will always be a chance that water will sneak in. You can help safeguard against this with high-quality zippers and zipper flaps, and also by choosing a bag with less entry points exposed to the elements (such as a roll-top backpack).

Comfort and support

Straps

Well-padded straps are a no-brainer when it comes to backpack comfort. But what kind of padding is best for all-day comfort? Closed-cell foam, which has closed-off cells to seal off the foam’s interior from air, is flatter and denser than open-cell foam and provides better long-term support. Look for terms like “dual density” and “EVA” in product descriptions.

Also important for comfort is the width and placement of the straps. Wider straps placed farther apart provide better weight distribution, and prevent rubbing on the neck and under the arms. A sternum strap can also help distribute weight evenly across the body. (Pro tip: sternum straps should fall about 1 inch below your collarbone.)

Back panel

A padded back panel is important for comfort. However, if the bag’s laptop compartment is located against the back of the bag, you’ll want some rigidity there to protect your computer from impact.

Laptop compartment

To protect your computer, you’ll want a laptop compartment with plenty of structured padding and shock protection. A compartment that hovers above the bottom of the bag or has a padded base is best. If the compartment is located against the back of the bag, the back panel should also be heavily protected with sturdy padding. Also consider the size of the compartment; you’ll want to choose one that matches your laptop closely to prevent your computer from shifting around too much.

How we tested

To test our backpacks contenders, we loaded them up with the supplies our surveyed college students told us they carried: a laptop (ours was a 15-inch), tablet, phone, binder, planner, heavy textbook, keys and a variety of pens. We also threw in a pair of sneakers and gym clothes for good measure.

After packing up the backpacks, carrying them around, testing the accessibility of their compartments and giving them a good rinse in a simulated rain shower, we rated each of the packs. While we kept functionality and comfort top of mind, we did give a few extra points to the backpacks that looked cool as well (these are for college students, after all). We judged the backpacks using the following criteria:

  • How would you rate the capacity and interior organization of the backpack?
  • How accessible was the laptop compartment, and how well was it padded and protected?
  • How comfortable did you feel wearing this backpack?
  • Was it breathable?
  • How would you rate the bag’s back support?
  • Were the backpack’s materials durable?
  • Was the construction high quality?
  • How well did you like the aesthetic look of the backpack?
  • Is this pack worth its price?

Best backpack for college: InCase – Icon

For college students, we highly recommend the InCase – Icon. Sleek and compact on the outside, the 17-liter Icon is surprisingly roomy on the inside and superbly organized, with a laptop compartment, separate tablet compartment, two large main compartments, front zippered pocket and fleece-lined top pocket (for sunglasses, phone, keys, etc.).

Within the bag’s main compartments are plenty of zippered and Velcro pockets, pen holders and large sleeves for holding books, binders and papers. There seems to be a designated place for everything in this backpack, which makes it a cinch to find and extract exactly what you need without having to dig around. The only pockets it lacks, unfortunately, are water bottle holders.

Located against the back of the pack, the Icon’s laptop compartment is well-padded and lined with soft fleece to prevent surface scratches. With all of the thought and care that clearly went into the design of this backpack, we were surprised that the laptop compartment isn’t raised up from the bottom of the bag. However, since the bottom of the compartment has a padded flap to soften any impact in that area, it isn’t a dealbreaker.

We were impressed with the Icon’s sturdy construction and standout intuitive design; the other backpacks in our lineup felt floppy and second-rate by comparison. With its solid, square base, the Icon is the only backpack in our lineup that stands up easily on its own, whether it’s empty or filled to bursting. Because of its clean, structured design, the Icon is not bulky and lays relatively flat against the body.

Best Backpack for College: InCase - Icon

With its structured and supportive design, durable 840D ballistic nylon exterior and variety of compartments and pockets, the InCase - Icon will hold up through all four years of college — and beyond.

This pack is made of durable materials, with an 840D ballistic nylon exterior, thick cushioning and smooth zippers that seemed incapable of snagging. In our rain-shower tests, water simply beaded up and rolled right off the Icon’s water-resistant surface.

The Icon is also a standout in terms of fit, with three sets of adjustable straps that can be fine-tuned for different heights and body types: shoulder straps, a sternum strap (adjustable both laterally and vertically) and load stabilizer straps on each shoulder to tighten or loosen depending on how much weight you’re carrying.

The Icon’s top carrying handle and shoulder straps are well-padded and comfortable, with cushioning that extends across the trapezius area for additional comfort and weight distribution. The bag’s back plate, while supportive, is made of dense foam that some may find a bit too stiff.

This backpack gets bonus points for its sleek monochrome design, which is sophisticated enough to transition easily from college to the workplace.

Key takeaways:

  • The InCase – Icon is superbly organized with a variety of well-placed pockets and compartments for virtually anything you would want to bring on campus.
  • The Icon features a well-padded, fleece-lined laptop compartment. Though it isn’t positioned above the bottom of the pack, the compartment base includes cushioning to soften impact.
  • Made of durable 840D ballistic nylon that’s truly water-resistant, the Icon features high-quality materials throughout, including smooth zippers and thick shoulder cushioning. The foam back plate, though a little stiff, provides good back support.

Runner-up: Fjallraven – Raven 28

Coming in second place is the Fjallraven – Raven 28. Unlike its boxy hipster cousin, the Fjallraven Kanken, the Raven 28 is a more classically shaped backpack that’s reminiscent of Jansport’s old standby. As its name suggests, the Raven 28 has a spacious 28-liter capacity. This gives it more breathing room than our top pick, the InCase – Icon, though considerably less structure (the Raven cannot stand up vertically on its own).

The bag’s back compartment includes a well-padded laptop sleeve partially lined in fleece fabric and positioned above the bottom of the bag, as well as a tablet sleeve. The center compartment is pocketless and cavernous, making it perfect for large items like books, binders and gym clothes. The two front compartments include a good number of open sleeves and zippered pockets for pens, keys and other odds and ends. A small, fleece-lined top pocket is perfect for sunglasses or a phone.

The Raven 28 is made of Fjallraven’s durable G-1000 fabric (65% polyester and 35% cotton), which is treated with Greenland Wax and touted as water-resistant and quick-drying. However, in our tests the Raven 28’s exterior wasn’t as impervious as that of the InCase – Icon; though water did bead up and flow off its surface, the G-1000 fabric took longer to dry. Regardless, the items inside the backpack did remain dry.

Runner-up: Fjallraven - Raven 28

Spacious, durable and comfortable to wear, the Fjallraven - Raven 28 is an elevated iteration of the classic student backpack.

Unlike the Icon’s three-point adjustment system, the Raven 28’s shoulder straps are only adjustable at one point. However, they are nicely cushioned, and we found the pack comfortable to wear for an extended period of time. The Raven’s back plate is well-padded but not too stiff; some may find it more comfortable than the Icon’s structured back plate. We thought the bag’s leather-top handle could use at least a little padding.

The Raven 28 has a nicely understated look; the only wink to the popular Fjallraven brand is its fox logo, stitched onto a little leather patch on its front pocket. Though not as office-appropriate as the InCase Icon, the Raven 28 is a durable and all-around great campus companion for college students.

Key takeaways:

  • The 28-liter Fjallraven – Raven 28 provides spacious storage and plenty of pockets for on-campus essentials, including a well-padded laptop compartment positioned above the bottom of the pack.
  • The Raven 28 features strong, durable construction and high-quality, water-resistant materials.
  • Though not as structured as the InCase – Icon, the Raven 28 is well-cushioned and comfortable to wear for extended periods of time.

Other products we tested

Though the InCase – Icon and Fjallraven – Raven 28 stood out as the best backpacks for college students with laptops, the other backpacks in our lineup were high performers as well.

Timbuk2 – Spire

We liked the Timbuk2 – Spire’s cool rolltop look and well-protected laptop compartment, which was positioned above the bottom of the pack. However, the pack’s single large compartment is quite large and would benefit from more separation and organization. We were also annoyed by the top flap’s hook closure, which was consistently awkward to unlatch, as well as its noisy Velcro flap, which would be disruptive in class and the library.

SwissGear – 1900 ScanSmart

The SwissGear – 1900 ScanSmart is very comfortable and supportive to wear, but we were disappointed with its odd laptop compartment, which only has a single strap to hold our computer in place. It simply didn’t feel secure enough for our 15-inch MacBook Pro.

North Face – Recon

We had similar issues with the North Face – Recon, which is roomy and well-constructed with a weak laptop compartment, and lacking the padding and support needed for proper protection. The Recon’s thin fabric also felt too flimsy for carrying a heavy load of electronics and books around campus.

The bottom line

It’s essential for a college student’s backpack to have a well-protected laptop compartment, as well as a good balance of comfort and durability.

The InCase – Icon has these qualities in spades. An intuitively designed backpack featuring sturdy structure, hardy materials and a wealth of organization pockets and compartments, the Icon is our top pick for college students.

Our runner-up is the Fjallraven – Raven 28, a classically designed, spacious backpack that’s comfortable to wear and made of durable materials.

Best Backpack for College: InCase - Icon

Well-designed with fleece-lined pockets that can hold just about anything, the InCase - Icon is a sturdy backpack for campus or camping.

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