After researching dozens of backpacks and testing 13 top-rated contenders under New York City’s oppressive July heat, we’ve determined that the L.L.Bean Quad Pack is the best school backpack for college and high school students for the second year running. It offers superior organization, sturdy construction, and a comfortable, breathable fit at a lower price than its closest competitors.
The Quad Pack is designed to make student life easier: Its separated laptop storage sleeve provides easy access to a computer or tablet during class or through a TSA checkpoint, and its front stash pocket is more spacious and secure than those on any of the other bags we tested—perfect for storing running shoes, wet clothes, or a pack lunch. Cheaper bags wear out much sooner, and pricier bags shine on a trail, but the Quad has student-specific features and sturdy construction—our original test unit has no significant signs of wear after a year of near-daily use. And if it were to fail, there’s always L.L.Bean’s famously generous lifetime guarantee.
If you tend to carry heavier loads or hike on weekends, you might prefer the slightly pricier Osprey Parsec. Like Osprey’s other renowned hiking bags, the Parsec has airy, cushioned straps, which make even a hefty economics textbook feel like a softcover paperback. But the Parsec lacks the Quad’s convenience features such as the externally accessible laptop sleeve and a cover for its exterior stash pocket. But aside from these slight shortcomings, the Parsec is a great option for people who carry heavier books, electronics, or gym clothes.
If you just want to be able to transport your school supplies from dorm to class on a dime and don’t mind sacrificing some comfort, the AmazonBasics AB 103 Laptop Backpack may do the trick. It offers more comfortable straps, better zippers, and a lighter weight than all other cheaper bags we tested. The AB 103 has a similar capacity and layout compared with our top picks, so you can carry all the books, electronics, and school supplies you need for the day. Its bargain price, however, is evident in its bulky fit, thin straps, and cavernous laptop sleeve. The thin padding on the back and shoulder straps also trap heat and sweat, making it less comfortable to wear during summer months than the other bags we tested.
Table of contents
Why you should trust us
As recent college graduates and lifetime backpack users, we have a solid understanding of what a modern student looks for in a backpack. We also spoke with Brian Nastanski, a camping sales lead at REI. Nastanski spends his days fitting people to backpacks and fielding questions about bags that don’t fit, so he’s well-versed in the features a good bag must have to fit most people. We also interviewed several current students and recent graduates about their bag preferences and asked them to try on some of our top picks.
Who this is for
If you’re starting high school, college, or on a graduate degree, you need a bag that can carry your books, electronics, and school supplies alongside whatever you need for the gym, rehearsal, or a late night at the library. And while you might not want to splurge on a bag that’s too luxurious, you’ll still want a bag that can survive the wear and tear of four years of an education, as well as weekend getaways and trips home.
Keeping student budgets in mind, as well as an understanding of how someone might use a backpack both in and outside of school, we looked at options under $100 that combined the features of a traditional book bag and a hiking pack. Even if you have no interest in scaling a mountain, many of the ergonomic and organizational features that make a bag good for hiking also make for a great school bag. Backpacks of this type can hold a ton of supplies and books, with room remaining for lunch, a jacket, and water. They also have the organizational and protective features necessary to hold a laptop and all of the other electronics a student needs to get through the day.
While functional, the outdoorsy aesthetic of most of these packs isn’t for everyone. On many campuses, you’ll find more style-conscious students carrying the faux-retro Fjallraven Kankens, Everlane Snap Packs, and Herschel Little America bags like the ones featured in our guide to our favorite laptop backpacks. We also like and use these bags in our daily lives and wouldn’t stop a student from getting one, but the picks featured in this review will provide much better comfort and ergonomics.
How we picked
Despite these backpacks’ popularity, we couldn’t find many editorial reviews of bags of this kind. Those that do exist (like this one at OutdoorGearLab) tend to focus on the bags’ merits as outdoor hiking daypacks as opposed to backpacks for student use. So we took a step back and thought about how people use them in order to develop some criteria for selecting what to test.
The backpacks we used as college students often served double duty on trips home for the holidays and short hikes. Taking any bag beyond a regular commute highlights underappreciated strengths and draws attention to shortcomings. For people who want a bag that’s great for daily carrying between classes and good for use as a daypack or weekender when duty calls, we identified the following key features:
- Affordability. In consideration with student budgets, we limited our options to less than $100.
- Capacity between 28 and 33 liters. This will accommodate textbooks for a few classes, along with notebooks, pens, and other supplies, all while leaving room for a jacket, workout clothes, or snacks. Bags this size can double as weekenders in a pinch.
- A sleeve for laptops 15 inches or larger. Most ultrabooks these days are 13 inches or smaller, but design and multimedia students still use larger computers. In any case, it should be more than just a square of loose-hanging fabric sewn to the inside of the bag—the gold standard here is a snug fit with ample padding.
- Ergonomic, mesh-ventilated back panel and shoulder straps. These features should help keep your back and shoulders as sweat-free as possible. The most breathable bags will have two columns of padding on the back with a ventilation channel running down the middle, and shoulder straps with ventilated holes. But even with the best bag, some sweat is inevitable.
- A waist strap. While hip belts do wonders redistributing the weight you feel on your shoulders from a hefty backpacking bag, the straps on these college backpacks are too thin to carry any weight, according to REI’s Bryan Nastanski. A well-adjusted waist belt will, however, keep your backpack from jostling against your back and boost your comfort overall.
- A sternum strap. Just like the waist belt, a sternum strap won’t lighten your load. But a snapped-on sternum strap will keep your shoulder straps from separating too much and digging into your armpits, a problem that Nastanski said he hears from almost every customer who returns to REI dissatisfied with their bag. The strap will allow you to adjust your shoulder straps to make most bags around 30 liters work for your body.
- Two stretchy water bottle sleeves. Such sleeves can accommodate anything from a can of soda up to a wider Nalgene and an umbrella.
- Useful, organized pockets. A range of sensible, organized pockets will keep all of those small-but-necessary items—pens, chargers, snacks, and the like—accessible instead of buried at the bottom of your bag. It’s a big plus if some pockets are fleece-lined or padded to protect electronics and valuables, and zippers are a must.
- A weather-resistant exterior. Anything that carries electronics should stand up to a sudden downpour to buy enough time to get to shelter. Water-repellant pockets will keep a cell phone safe, and ripstop nylon will be more abrasion-resistant than polyester. You should also look for a DWR (durable water repellant) finish, which means the fabric is treated to shed water.
- Lighter is better. Books are heavy enough, so a bag should weigh no more than 2.5 pounds, and never more than 3.
- Warranty and availability. You can find smaller companies that make stylish and affordable backpacks, but for this pick we wanted something that’s easy and reliably in stock online or at your local big-box retailer. And while all of the bags we tested are designed to last several years, it’s important to have a good warranty in case anything should go wrong. The last thing any student needs is an unexpected $100 additional expense.
Backpacks available in fits specific for women sound like a step in the right direction, but they didn’t impress us during our research and testing. “The biggest difference between men’s and women’s packs is going to be the size, so the torso will be a little shorter in a women’s bag. But aside from different color schemes, there aren’t huge differences,” Nastanski said. “A lot of times, I get people asking me if a man can wear a women’s bag or if a woman can wear a men’s bag, and the answer is yes, of course that works. Generally speaking, you can use anything you want.” Our testing confirmed that women’s bags did not offer a discernibly better fit for women, just a downgrade in size and capacity. This scaling down felt less like a special consideration and more like a flaw, as students who are not male take the same courses and need to carry the same amount of stuff, if not more.
With all that in mind, we looked at popular offerings at retailers such as Amazon, eBags, L.L.Bean, Zappos, and REI, to determine which bags warranted closer examination. We wound up with 11 backpacks (from seven brands) to test.
How we tested
With the backpacks in hand, our number-one question was comfort. We took every bag in the test group on a short walk around Manhattan’s Lower East Side during a muggy summer day—temperatures hovering around 88 degrees with 60 percent humidity. We loaded each bag with the same school-ready arsenal of a 13-inch MacBook Pro (3.48 pounds), that laptop’s charger, an 8.5-by-11-inch Moleskine notebook, a textbook weighing 2 pounds, headphones in a carrying case, a denim jacket, and one water bottle in an external sleeve (a 1-quart bottle, equivalent to 2.275 pounds), and a banana.
After walking a little over a mile carrying each bag, we evaluated how comfortably the bag hung on the shoulders, both with the straps properly cinched and adjusted and with the pack hanging a little loose. We also tested how damp the back panel felt after absorbing our (copious) amounts of sweat after we took the pack off. I then wore each as my daily bag for two days, taking it to work, to the park, and even to the grocery store to see how each held up to varied uses.
None of the bags we tested claim to be waterproof, but a good bag should at least be able to withstand a drizzle or brief drop in a puddle. We tested both of these worst-case scenarios. We first placed each bag in a bathtub, standing it upright in an inch of water, with a plain towel sitting at the bottom of the main compartment. After 10 minutes, we removed the bags from the water and checked the towel for dryness. We also placed each bag under a running showerhead with a towel taped to the top of the bag. After 2 minutes, we checked the towel for dryness.
Our pick: L.L.Bean Quad Pack
For the second year in a row, the L.L.Bean Quad Pack reigns supreme as the most functional bag for college students. It’s a great backpack to wear to class or the gym, carry on a plane, or even take on a weekend trip. With an external laptop sleeve and covered front stash pocket, the Quad offers the most efficient organization of any bag we tested. It’s also spacious and capable of carrying just about anything you might need. On L.L.Bean’s site the Quad has great reviews from high schoolers, hikers, law-school students, and archaeologists alike. It isn’t a revolutionary bag, but its thoughtful design blows slightly more expensive competitors out of the water.
The Quad was by far the most breathable backpack we tested. No bag will keep you sweat free on a muggy summer day, but the Quad’s turtle-shell–patterned back panel and perforated foam shoulder straps put up a decent fight. This design lets air flow between your shirt and the bag, allowing heat to escape from your shoulders and chest.
The Quad’s straps were also more comfortable than those on almost every other backpack we tested—other than the Osprey. They’re shaped to keep the bag close to your body regardless of how full or empty it is. The Quad’s straps are also padded from top to bottom, unlike the straps on competitors such as the North Face Recon and High Sierra Swerve, which are padded almost to the top but stitched into the bag with a small strip of nylon. The bag also features an adjustable waist belt to keep the bag fitted to your back, which is helpful for any smaller-bodied people wearing this unisex bag. And if you don’t plan on using them, you can stow them into a little compartment by the back panel.
With a capacity of 33 liters, the Quad holds the most out of any pack we tested by a 2-liter margin. This often came in handy, such as when stuffing a raincoat in the roomy front pocket, yet never felt unwieldy when not fully packed. When left unfilled, the bag’s many exterior pockets can lie flat against the bag and make it much slimmer to wear.
The Quad’s exceptional organizational features also helped keep things balanced. With eight separate zipped compartments, it boasts the most pockets of any of its competitors. Sleek bags like the Patagonia Chacabuco may look nicer, but offer fewer pockets. The Quad’s extra storage space is far more important in daily use. The Quad’s main compartment also contains a second padded and elastic sleeve that’s perfect for tablets or notebooks during the school day or a hydration bladder during a hike. If you use the inner sleeve for your laptop, that leaves the padded side-zipper sleeve available for larger books or notebooks or documents you want to keep separate from the other contents of the bag.
The middle compartment of the Quad has three notebook/tablet-sized sleeves stacked on top of one another, along with an organizer for pens, pencils, and such—though students who carry specialized tools or art supplies might consider getting a separate container they can slide in and out of their pack. Flanking the Quad’s organizing compartment are two fleece-lined pockets, one top-zip and one side-zip, which can fit sunglasses and a portable charger with room to spare. The Quad’s fleece felt more substantial than the lining of other bags’ smaller pockets, such as that used in the Parsec’s thin, heat-embossed stash pocket. And on the sides of the bag, the two mesh side pockets could grip fit a normal water bottle while stretching to accommodate a larger 1-liter Nalgene.
One of the Quad’s most distinctive features is the large outer pouch on its front, which functions like a zippable stash pocket with a buckle-secured top. Unzipped and with the buckle off, you can spread the pocket wide open to fit anything from a raincoat to a book to your lunch. This pocket is also convenient for stashing gym clothes or other stinky items away from your notebooks. The external pouches on the Parsec and Recon are similar but lack a buckle top, which makes your items more likely to fall out or get rained on. You could squeeze some slim running shoes into the Quad’s external pocket, but even the slimmest pair would stick out of the top.
If you’ll be carrying a decent amount of electronics and gadgets, the Quad has you covered with its multiple padded pockets and laptop sleeves. It was the only pack that had both an externally accessible laptop compartment and an internal sleeve. Others had only one or the other. The externally accessible sleeve is padded on both sides to protect your computer during travel and is a helpful shortcut for navigating TSA checkpoints. The second laptop sleeve in the main compartment is elevated 2 to 3 inches above the bag’s bottom, which helps cushion the laptop in the event of a drop or an unexpected puddle. The only other bag we tested that has a separate laptop sleeve was the Chacabuco, but its main compartment only has a smaller sleeve for tablets, which we found less useful.
The Quad’s build quality is superb, and we doubt you’ll run into any issues. Mathew Olson reports no signs of wear and tear after a year of near-daily use. But if you do encounter trouble, L.L.Bean products carry a 100 percent customer satisfaction guarantee, coupled with a generous lifetime guarantee.
Flaws but not dealbreakers
The Quad did come up a little short in our water test. L.L.Bean’s website lists the Quad as having 1,000-denier nylon along the bottom, which is about the same weight you’d find on nice luggage. However, our test garment still came out damp after the Quad’s 10-minute soak, whereas the Patagonia Chacabuco kept the garment almost bone-dry thanks to its water-resistant finish. While we’d prefer to see the Quad have such a treatment, the absence of it isn’t awful—just avoid puddles.
And this is picking nits, but a 33-liter capacity is borderline too big for a school backpack. If you give someone the space, they’re wont to use it, which can lead to overpacking. In practice, however, the Quad didn’t feel bigger than the other bags we tested. Although its straps felt wide on Sabrina’s smaller-than-average frame, buckling the sternum belt kept the shoulder straps out of her armpits.
The Quad comes only in unisex sizes, but in the bags we tested, we didn’t find the separate women’s models to be game changers in terms of fit or comfort. The women’s versions seemed to be nothing more than a smaller version of the men’s bag, making them options for those who need to carry less.
Runner-up: Osprey Parsec
At 1 pound, 10 ounces, the Osprey Parsec is the lightest and most comfortable bag we tested, but it’s also a bit more expensive and not as versatile since it has fewer organizational features and compartments. The Parsec lacks an externally accessible laptop sleeve, and its front external pocket doesn’t have a buckle top—its design seems better suited to hiking than attending class—but its excellent ergonomics make it a good buy for anyone who prioritizes comfort over organization. It’s definitely the bag to get if the Quad is unavailable.
The Parsec’s ergonomic design gives it an almost mystical ability to make whatever you’re carrying seem several pounds lighter. Its straps are thick but not stiff and breathable but not insubstantial. And its top handle also bested the bunch, as its arched frame kept it elevated and made it easier to pick up than others we tested. Sabrina, a 5-foot-4 woman, found it to be more comfortable than any other bag—female-specific or not. Like the Quad, the Parsec is available only in a single unisex model; there are no separate men’s and women’s versions.
The Parsec offers similar organizational features as the Quad, it just has fewer of them. The Parsec has a padded laptop and tablet sleeve in the main compartment, a middle compartment with sleeves and an organizer, and a scratch-free stash pocket for small electronics or sunglasses. It’s an impressive number of pockets and features for a bag that also weighs 1 ounce less than the too-simple Patagonia Chacabuco and is considerably more comfortable than the similarly functional North Face Recon. And each compartment seals smoothly with looped zipper pulls that were the easiest to use out of all the bags we tested. Like the Quad, the Parsec’s two side stretch mesh pockets can grip small water bottles and stretch to hold a larger Nalgene. However, the lack of an externally accessible laptop pocket and its smaller front pouch make it less user-friendly than the Quad overall.
Though nothing quite compares to L.L.Bean’s lifelong guarantee, Osprey’s All Mighty Guarantee is impressive in its own right and covers you for any damage as long as you own your bag.
Budget pick: AmazonBasics AB 103
At just $30, the AmazonBasics backpack is a bargain for a good, functional bag. But it lacks the comforts and convenient frills of our top picks. It offers a good variety of organizing pockets in different sizes, plus a second, wide sleeve attached to the laptop sleeve, which is a nice spot for folders if a little too large for tablets. But it’s a bit of an aesthetic snooze, and the lower price is evident in its rough nylon and its lack of little touches.
First and foremost, the 17-inch laptop sleeve is padded but so wide that almost any modern laptop you put in it will swim around. We’d recommend a separate laptop sleeve to go with it. The bag also feels much boxier than more ergonomic bags like the Parsec, Chacabuco, or even the Quad. The heavy padding on the back panel hugs your body. As a result, it runs hotter than any other backpack we tested and left testers with sweat-drenched backs.
Furthermore, the wide-set straps, while padded and comfortable, could be a problem if you have a smaller frame, as they can slide off and wedge themselves under your shoulders—and there’s no sternum strap to keep them together. But the straps are padded all the way up to the top of the bag, unlike the High Sierra Swerve or the North Face Recon. The water-bottle pockets also aren’t wide enough to accommodate a 1-liter Nalgene, and the wide-holed mesh is prone to snagging, so stay away from brambles if you take it on a hike.
It’s not all bad, though. The bag’s zippers unzipped better than the High Sierra’s, which often got stuck turning corners. And at 2 pounds, it’s on the lighter end of the bags we tested—even lighter than the Quad. While the AmazonBasics is only offered in black, its design is more inoffensive than the Swerve’s, which features a large logo emblazoned on the front of the bag. The handle is also wider and more comfortable in comparison with that of the more basic 15-inch-laptop AmazonBasics backpack we tested two years ago. That, combined with this design’s better array of pockets and less boxy shape, makes the 17-inch AmazonBasics worth the extra money.
Like all AmazonBasics products, it carries a one-year warranty. And it’s built well enough that we think it should last a bit longer than that. Its cheaper construction seems likely to wear out before either of our other picks, however. At the end of the day, it’s a serviceable bag for budget-minded students, but we’d leave it at home before a hike.
Though The North Face Recon snagged our runner-up spot last year, it’s just not as comfortable to wear for long stretches of time as our top picks. The thick padding of the shoulder strap stops right before the top of the strap, transitioning into a thick canvas-like strap before attaching to the bag. This disconnected fabric becomes pretty uncomfortable with heavy weights, especially if you have smaller shoulders. The back padding is also too stiff—one recent graduate we interviewed said, “It makes you feel like someone with a six-pack is spooning you, but not in a good way.”
We also looked at two other models from The North Face, the Hot Shot and the Pivoter, but both bags had unconventional pocket designs that, while great for hiking, were less useful on campus. The Hot Shot had a C-shaped front pocket that could be unzipped almost all the way, which felt like a recipe for losing whatever you have stored in the front pocket. And the Pivoter had organizational pockets, but only in the back laptop sleeve, devoting most of the bag’s interior to a large stuff-it pocket that seems great for stashing a puffer but incapable of keeping loose supplies organized.
On the lower end, the High Sierra Swerve didn’t offer any better features than the cheaper AmazonBasics bag. The bags had almost identical design, except, just like the the Recon, the Swerve’s strap padding ends before the top of the strap. It was just as uncomfortable here as it was on the Recon.
The Patagonia Chacabuco is a featherlight bag that sacrifices extra organization for a sleek, beautiful design—though these priorities don’t quite square with the needs of your average student. It lacks the smaller organizational pockets designed to hold wallets, sunglasses, and electronics that students may want to access without fishing around the clutter of the main pocket. The Chacabuco’s back padding also spanned the whole width of the bag, forgoing a ventilating back channel that can be a lifesaver on a muggy summer day. It’s not a bad bag—it just doesn’t offer enough features to justify its $100 price tag.
We also tested the Patagonia Refugio, but we valued the Chacabuco’s separate-entry laptop sleeve over the Refugio’s front-zip pocket (the only real differences between the bags.) The Patagonia bags also come in both men’s and women’s models, but at 28 liters for the Chacabuco and 26 liters for the Refugio, the women’s bags felt bloated when stuffed with our bare-essentials testing kit of a laptop, textbook, notebook, jacket, snacks, and a water bottle.
Last year, we tested another L.L.Bean offering, the Digital Organizer Pack, and found it far less impressive than the Quad. The selling point of the Digital Organizer Pack is its large, 17-inch laptop sleeve and accompanying tablet sleeve—beyond those features, not much sets it apart as a tech-oriented bag. Absent are the Quad’s unique organizing pockets, and construction-wise, the Digital Organizer’s straps and back panel feel cheaper and less breathable. At the same list price, you’re better off with the Quad.
We also considered testing the JanSport Agave last year, because its $70 price (at the time we checked) put it somewhere between the low-end AmazonBasics AB 103 and the midrange L.L.Bean Quad, but we ended up deciding that it didn’t offer enough to sway anyone in either direction. With an unsculpted back panel, it seems as if it would run much hotter than the Quad—it’s similar in design to the L.L.Bean Digital Organizer—and its higher material quality makes it much costlier than the AmazonBasics bag. It also lacks the external pouch of the Quad and Recon, opting instead for a daisy chain. We think a pouch is more useful.
On the lower end, the 15-inch-laptop AmazonBasics AB 102 Laptop Backpack we tested two years ago doesn’t hold up against the 17-inch version. It also offers unremarkable aesthetics, an inferior handle, and fewer organizational features. And, at the time we checked, it cost only $7 less. We’d pay the extra dollars for the 17-inch version every time.
(Photos by Michael Hession.)