- A good school backpack serves as an all-in-one carrier for essentials, including a tablet and books.
- Backpacks come in many styles, sizes, and materials and should be durable enough to last for years.
- The best backpack for students of all ages is the long-lasting JanSport Big Student Backpack.
As a high school teacher, I’ve seen backpacks in all states of disrepair, so I know how important it is to find a bag that is durable enough to be used day in and day out.
For kids and teenagers, it’s much more about how the backpack looks than how functional it is, so the tough job as a parent is to find one that is durable and big enough for all your child’s school supplies and lunch box, but that also looks cool. In elementary school, I was jealous of my best friend who had her initials monogrammed on her backpack, and in high school, I was dying for a messenger bag. Functionality clearly wasn’t on the top of my priority list as a child.
If you find the right backpack, it can last your child quite a few years, but finding the right one is key. We’ve made the process a little bit easier for you with a few tips and some of our favorite backpacks.
To help you find the best backpacks for your kids, I combined my experience as a teacher and student with expert and buyer reviews. From backpacks for preschoolers to college kids, these bags will help your child start the school year on the right foot. Below, find tips for selecting a quality backpack in our “what to look” for explainer.
Here are the best backpacks for students in 2021
- Best overall: JanSport Big Student Backpack
- Best for preschool: L.L.Bean Junior Original Book Pack
- Best for middle school: JanSport Superbreak Backpack
- Best for high school: The North Face Recon Backpack
- Best for college: The North Face Jester Backpack
The JanSport Big Student Backpack has many pockets, comes in an array of colors, and is durable for every student.
Pros: Spacious, durable, two main pockets, multiple side and front pockets, comes in many colors and prints
Cons: May be too big for very young kids, not machine washable
This backpack comes in fun colors and designs like galaxy or floral prints, as well as solid black, so whether your child wants to stand out with a fun print or just wants a plain backpack, this one will do the trick.
It includes a water bottle pocket on the side, two different main pockets, and three front pockets to hold smaller items. The ergonomic padded shoulder straps will help kids stay comfortable even while carrying their books, binders, and notebooks to and from class. It also includes a padded back and padded laptop compartment.
This backpack is great for younger kids and older adults alike, which is one of the reasons it’s our top overall pick. JanSport does not recommend machine washing their backpacks, but they do explain exactly how to clean them to maintain the shape and finish of the bag. It also offers a lifetime warranty on its backpacks, so you can send yours in for repairs. And if JanSport can’t repair your broken backpack, it will replace it, ensuring you get true value out of your purchase.
The best for preschool
L.L.Bean’s Junior Original Book Pack is just the perfect size for young kids for easy wear to prevent back injury.
Pros: Perfect size for young kids, reflective material for safety, machine washable
Cons: Only features one additional pocket and a water bottle compartment aside from the main zipper
The Junior Original Book Pack combines durability, affordability, and the cuteness factor for the perfect backpack for your young scholar. It’s available in a variety of prints or solid colors if you want to keep it simple. You don’t have to worry about these beautiful prints being ruined by messes and spills because this backpack is machine washable when inside a mesh laundry bag.
This is a small backpack designed for kids ages 4 and up, so the shoulder straps and back panel are padded and comfortable. Your little little one won’t be overpowered by a massive backpack.
Although it’s small enough for little backs, it’s still big enough to fit standard-sized folders and notebooks — something that can’t be said for all preschool-size backpacks. It also has waterproof and reflective materials to help keep kids and their belongings safe at the bus stop.
There’s also something so adorable about a little kid wearing a backpack, and this is the perfect choice whether your child is actually starting school or just wants a backpack to be like their big sibling.
The best for middle school
The JanSport Superbreak backpack holds just the right amount of supplies for elementary and middle schoolers, coming in diverse colors.
Pros: Tons of colors and patterns, good size, sturdy material
Cons: No laptop compartment, not machine washable
The JanSport Superbreak Backpack is sturdy, just the right size for elementary and middle school kids, and comes in tons of colors and patterns, so your child is guaranteed to find something your they like.
The backpack has a roomy main compartment that’s perfect for notebooks, folders, and lunch boxes, while the small front pocket is handy for pencils and other small items. It’s a lightweight bag, but it’s sturdy enough to handle anything your kid can throw at it — which they will.
While a great basic, this backpack does have its flaws. There’s no laptop compartment, and it only includes 2/3 padding on the back panel.
Since younger kids may not be carrying as many items to and from school, the Superbreak is a good option for this crowd. If your child is approaching their later middle school years though, it would be a good idea to take a look at our high school backpack pick instead. Like other JanSport bags, this one is not machine washable.
The best for high school
The iconic North Face Recon Backpack is comfortable, long-lasting, and comes with a lifetime warranty.
Pros: Highly durable, ergonomically designed for comfort, many pockets and other organizing features, lifetime warranty
Cons: Not machine washable
Today’s high school students are notoriously busy. When I was a teacher, some of my students got to school at 6 a.m. for sports practice, then went to class, volunteer activities, or even part-time jobs, and didn’t get home until after dark. They need a backpack that can keep up with them, and the legendary The North Race Recon comes highly recommended.
High school students also need backpacks that are extremely durable to support textbooks while also protecting expensive devices. This durable pack features a 15-inch laptop sleeve in the back, tablet sleeve in the front, cord container, mesh stash pocket for sports equipment like helmets, two mesh water bottle pockets, and a padded back with extra support along the spine. We love that this backpack comes with a hip and chest clip. Occupational therapist Karen Jacobs explained that this can help take weight off the shoulders, particularly for older kids.
The North Face Recon Backpack is available in several different colors and comes in men’s and women’s designs. The women’s bag is a little bit smaller than the men’s, and features custom injection-molded shoulder straps with flexible attachment points that are contoured for a smaller frame. The backpacks are covered by the North Face’s lifetime warranty, so returns are simple and always free.
The backpack also features reflective surfaces on the exterior and is made of breathable material. The North Face does not recommend machine washing their backpacks, so you’ll need to spot clean this one.
The best for college
The North Face Jester Backpack features a heavy-duty padded laptop compartment aside from it holding other essential supplies.
Pros: Perfect for carrying laptops around campus, large main compartment, two mesh water bottle pockets, secure-zip pockets, reflective bike light loop for evening campus walking
Cons: Not machine washable
College students typically have a mountain of textbooks on their desks, so having a backpack to carry some of the pile, as well as a laptop, notebook, and other supplies make The North Face Jester Backpack the gold standard for strolls on campus.
In addition to its large main compartment, this sleek backpack has a durable, padded laptop compartment that can fit up to 15-inch laptops. Aside from ensuring this college essential is safely stored within the backpack, the Jester has two external mesh pockets to store your water bottle, as well as a front compartment to store pencils, a pack of tissues, and other on-the-go items.
And it even comes with safety features for evening walks on campus. Its reflective bike light loop, water bottle tabs, and shoulder webbing are designed for 360-degree reflectivity for nighttime visibility.
The Jester is made of breathable material, but the backpack is not machine washable. The bag also includes a sternum strap to shift some weight off the shoulders.
What we’re looking forward to
For an update to this guide, all backpacks will be put through a series of durability tests. In addition to our current recommendations, we are also testing the following backpacks:
- Amazon Basics Sport Laptop Backpack
- Cat & Jack Backpack
- Everlane The Modern Snap Backpack
- Kane Kids Travel Backpack
- Pottery Barn Kids Mackenzie Backpack
- Pottery Barn Teen Gear-Up Aurora Recycled Backpack
- Wildkin Backpack
What to look for in a backpack
- Safety: While monogrammed backpacks are fun and unique, we strongly advise against putting your child’s initials or name on their backpack, a sentiment that Dr. Jacobs and teacher Whitney Rancourt shared. It provides a perfect avenue for child predators to appear friendly and familiar by knowing your child’s name. Jacobs also recommended backpacks that have reflective material to keep kids safe at the bus stop or while walking to and from school.
- Size: The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) recommends that a backpack shouldn’t “weigh more than 10 to 20 percent of the student’s total body weight.” The size of the backpack should correspond accordingly. Additionally, Jacobs recommends looking at your child’s back as if it is a rectangle and making sure the backpack fits nicely within that rectangle. For this reason, she also recommends buying a backpack your child can try on, whether that means buying in store or from a retailer that offers free returns.
- Comfort and support: Look for a backpack with a padded back and wide padded shoulder straps. The AAP advises against narrow straps that tend to dig into shoulders, as they can restrict circulation and cause pain. Jacobs also advises buying a backpack made with breathable material and recommends that older kids make use of a chest or shoulder strap, which can help take weight off the shoulders.
- Features and organization: Besides the main compartment, a good backpack should have multiple interior and exterior pockets for organizing items. Popular features include water bottle holders, laptop pockets, charger pockets, key chains, and pencil pockets. With many students carrying devices in their backpacks, a water bottle pocket is very important to prevent water spilling on the device. Additionally, “organization systems (compartments that fit folders, pens, erasers, and every school supply in between) are important, especially for children that might have executive functioning issues,” learning specialist Jessica Prohias Gardiner explained.
- Appearance: We all know that kids want backpacks that look cool, but it’s important to strike a balance between cool and practical. “Avoid backpacks with detailing like sequins or glitter that won’t hold up well to regular machine washing. The most eye-catching backpacks in the first week of school usually look the worst by the end of the year,” Rancourt said, adding that backpacks should be washable, as students tend to place them in less-than-clean places.
How to pack a backpack
Jacobs provided some excellent tips to help students pack a backpack that isn’t too heavy and that feels comfortable:
- Put the heaviest item closest to the back.
- Check backpacks daily to make sure your child isn’t lugging around unnecessary items.
- Pack backpacks the night before.
- Use compartments to help stabilize items.
- Pack backpacks on a table or raised surface. This makes it easier to pack and easier to slip on your child’s back.
- If your child complains about their backpack being too heavy, investigate why and see what can be taken out. Most schools can provide digital textbooks and/or an extra copy of books to keep at home.
Jacobs also emphasized the importance of connecting with your school’s occupational therapy practitioner if your child encounters an issue with backpacks.
- Karen Jacobs, EdD, OTR/L, CPE, FAOTA, is a clinical professor of occupational therapy and the program director of the distance education post-professional occupational therapy programs at Boston University. In addition to being an occupational therapist, Jacobs is also a certified professional ergonomist (CPE). Jacobs founded National School Backpack Safety Awareness Day a decade ago to raise awareness of the harm heavy loads worn incorrectly can cause children and even adults.
- Jessica Prohias Gardiner is a learning specialist at LREI (Little Red Elisabeth Irwin) High School in New York City.
- Whitney Rancourt teaches third- and fourth-grade reading and writing at a Title 1 school in Texas. She’s also the owner of Mama Manages, a blog dedicated to helping parents and teachers raise confident and happy kids.
Check out our other school supply guides