Young or old, there's a backpack to suit your needs
Although backpacks are most often thought of as a means to haul school supplies, a good-quality pack can be pressed into service as anything from a diaper bag to a daypack for hiking or travel. There are a few important factors in choosing the right backpack. Organization features are key, but, even more important, is choosing the right backpack for the age of the person who will be carrying it. This will influence not only the type and number of pockets and holders, but also the weight and size of the pack.
Experts recommend that children carry no more than 10 to 20 percent of their bodyweight in a backpack, so, when choosing a child's pack, first look for a pack that's big enough to hold everything he or she needs for school, then work backward from there. It should fit your child comfortably now but still leave room to grow so it can be used for more than one school year -- although don't expect your middle-school or high-school-aged child to agree to use the same backpack he or she took to preschool. It's nice if a backpack offers a range of color and pattern options; if the child gets to choose a favorite color they may be happier with the backpack overall.
Price isn't always the best indicator of quality. Our Best Reviewed backpacks range from $20 to $100, with some highly durable, lifetime-warranted bags coming in at about $50. That said, an expensive backpack will have more features: internal organizers, reflective detailing for better visibility, extra padding and sometimes a built-in laptop sleeve. All those extras add weight to the pack and dollar signs to the price, so consider whether you really need a lot of pockets and zippered pouches.
Types of backpacks
Backpacks for toddlers/preschoolers should be very lightweight and simple to use. At this age, a plethora of pockets and compartments is more overwhelming than helpful, and may be impossible for little fingers to navigate. A small compartment for crayons and one large compartment for papers or a change of clothes for daycare, is all they need. A side-mount water bottle holder is also a great feature for field trips, picnics or travel. These smaller backpacks are great for little backs, but usually are not large enough to hold an 8.5 by 11-inch folder.
Backpacks for kindergarten through middle school should be large enough to hold 8.5 by 11-inch folders or binders. The older the child, the bigger the binder. A few organizational options will help keep everything organized and easy to find. Padded shoulder straps help keep fatigue at bay.
Backpacks for high school and college and beyond. High school and college students often don't have time to stop at their locker between classes and have to carry their backpack everywhere they go. That makes good weight distribution, comfortable, ergonomic shoulder straps and durability even more important. Look for a good number of organizational options, including smaller compartments for electronic devices and cosmetics -- items college and high school students usually like to have on their person at all times. Some high schools -- and nearly all colleges these days -- require a laptop, so a laptop sleeve may be a necessity. Backpack-toting adults typically want the same things in a backpack, so the same considerations apply.
Rolling backpacks save your back, but aren't always appropriate. They're great if you have orthopedic problems or frequently haul a heavy load. Most have tuck-away straps so you can wear the pack on your back while navigating crowded areas; smooth-rolling wheels and telescoping handles let you pull the pack behind you when terrain and crowds allow. Some are specially sized for children. However, many schools do not allow wheeled backpacks for various reasons -- either due to size restrictions, trying to control tripping hazards in crowded school halls, or because they prefer that children leave their backpacks in their lockers. Be sure to check with your school to see what the policy is. However, school aside, rolling backpacks are extremely popular with adult hobbyists or travelers, who find rolling backpacks a handy way to haul fabrics, craft supplies, or to tuck under an airline seat.
How we found the best backpacks
There are few expert reviews or professional tests of backpacks, and those that exist primarily focus on backpacks for children. However, owners are very passionate about their backpacks and we found thousands of user reviews for the top backpacks. This includes reviews from parents of young children, as well as many teens and young adults who offer up their own feedback. ConsumerSearch evaluated all of these backpack reviews to narrow down the choices for the best backpacks. We take into account performance, comfort and durability to find a backpack that will be a good fit for any life stage or activity.
Elsewhere in this report:
Middle School and Kids' Backpacks | High School and College Backpacks | Rolling Backpacks | Buying Guide | Our Sources