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Best High School and College Backpacks

By: Kelly Burgess on July 18, 2017

High school and college students need space for books, technology and recreation

High school students need bigger packs than elementary or middle-schoolers to carry their supplies. By this age, students are often required to have a laptop or tablet, along with standard school necessities like books, binders, gym clothes and lunches. And don't forget music players, phones and cosmetics.

The JanSport Big Student (Est. $35 to $70) stands out for its 2,100-cubic-inch capacity. Its two main compartments, smaller utility compartment and front stash pocket leave plenty of room for school supplies and extras like gym clothes, cosmetics or electronics. The zippers and fabric stand up to years of over-packing, say students and their parents, and it gets excellent scores for water resistance. It doesn't have a built-in laptop sleeve, but reviewers say it's large enough to fit a laptop or tablet, even one that's in its own protective sleeve.

The Big Student is reported as very comfortable to wear, even for extended periods, thanks to the padded, ergonomic shoulder straps. A few report that the shoulder straps can feel a little stiff at first but will soften up to offer the right blend of comfort and strength. This JanSport backpack doesn't have a hip belt, something that's found on many larger backpacks, but most don't seem to mind. The Big Student comes in a vast selection of colors and designs, to please males and females. Made of 600-denier polyester, the Big Student will last for years, owners say. Many students use their backpack for a variety of purposes outside of school, including as a daypack for hiking or for travel; it holds up particularly well to the rigors of travel, reviewers note. JanSport packs all carry a lifetime guarantee and customer service gets good reviews for being helpful and responsive.

For those students who have to haul their backpack all day, rather than having the option of leaving it in a locker during classes, the North Face Jester (Est. $60) might be a better choice. Although it's smaller than the Big Student at 1,830 cubic inches, it's reported as plenty roomy and very comfortable to wear even for long periods of time. It has a number of dividers that help keep everything organized, too. The Jester's frame is also a good choice for adults who need a backpack as its frame fits most adults, from 6-foot-tall men to petite women, and some call it the most comfortable pack they've ever put on, thanks to its ergonomic shoulder straps and removable waist belt. Like the Big Student, the Jester comes in a wide variety of colors and prints, and is extremely durable. It also has North Face's lifetime guarantee.

The North Face Borealis (Est. $80) has less storage space than the Big Student or the Jester (1,650 cubic inches), but it might be a better choice for college students as it includes a built-in laptop sleeve and, by college, virtually every student needs a laptop. It also has a tablet sleeve in the front compartment and two water bottle holders. The Borealis is reported as very comfortable to carry, with a padded hip belt, "anatomically correct" shoulder straps and a ventilated back panel. It's also water-resistant which helps protect valuable electronics.

Like all North Face backpacks, the Borealis comes in a vast range of colors, and gets high praise for its extreme durability. Reviewers say it's very versatile, and many reviewers buy it to use for travel or other activities rather than for school. While it has a smaller capacity than either of the other North Face backpacks in this report, many say they actually purchased it for that reason, because it has a lower profile that they really appreciate.

Another popular backpack choice that gets good reviews from both older students and adults is the Under Armour Hustle II Backpack (Est. $50). At 1,875 cubic feet, it has a large capacity that users say doesn't feel too big. They also praise its extremely stylish appearance and wide variety of colors. It has two side water bottle pockets, a hit with those who like to use their school backpack for day hiking.

The Hustle II has a lined laptop sleeve that holds up to a 15-inch laptop, and its polyester/nylon construction is water resistant. The padded straps are reported as comfortable and adjustable enough to fit just about anyone.

If you need a backpack for commuting, we recommend taking a look at the classically-styled Timbuk2 Rogue Laptop Backpack (Est. $80). It has a slimmer, more professional-seeming profile that still accommodates a 15-inch laptop, as well as offering plenty of organizational options -- in fact, TheWirecutter.com makes it their runner up pick if you need more organization.

The Timbuk2 is waterproof to protect your precious electronics and important papers, and the compression options keep everything secure whether you're riding your bike on city streets or being jostled by your fellow commuter on public transportation. While grown-ups love its attractive appearance and good selection of colors, some say it's too small and others that they wish the material against their back was more breathable.

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What every best Backpacks has:

  • Ample capacity.
  • Good organization.
  • Sturdy zippers.

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