The best backpacks for every student, from pre-k to grad school

Julianne Ross, CNN Underscored
Mon August 5, 2019

Story highlights

  • Your backpack's there to support you while you're in school.
  • We've broken down the top options for every stage of student life.

A backpack is one of the most important items you can buy for the new school year. Think about it: This is a product that'll get used pretty much every day and needs to protect everything from laptops to lunches. A flimsy bag can contribute to back and neck strain, or even fall apart from being overstuffed with books and homework.

Because a freshman will have very different needs than a first grader, we've broken down what to look for in a backpack at each stage of being a student. Whether you just want a cute way to pack some snacks for your preschooler or you're a grad student who needs to keep things professional, there's an option for you.

Best backpacks for pre-k and kindergarten

Kids this age shouldn't have much to carry much (we hope!), so it's best to keep backpacks simple and lightweight. Lots of pockets and organization aren't necessary, but fun colors and patterns are a must. You also don't want to spend too much here, since a backpack at this stage will likely get dirty and isn't meant to be used for years.

Skip Hop Zoo Narwhal Backpack ($20; nordstrom.com): An exceedingly cute and affordable pack for little ones heading to daycare, preschool or playdates. This bag has padded adjustable straps, plus a top carry handle, mesh water bottle holder and front zip pocket. You can even buy a matching Insulated Narwhal Lunch Bag ($15; nordstrom.com). Reviewers praise the bag for being sized just right for little kids and for being surprisingly durable.

Wildkin 15-inch Backpack ($24.99; amazon.com): Another option that comes in many adorable prints — think dinosaurs, outer space and zoo animals — and is perfectly sized for little kids. It has two zip compartments, plus an internal pencil holder, and is even lined with moistur-resistant nylon in case of (perhaps inevitable!) spills.

OFUN Dinosaur Backpack ($23.98; amazon.com): This highly-rated bag is essentially part backpack, part Halloween costume, and should delight small children. It has an average of 4.6 stars from more than 860 reviews.

Best backpacks for elementary school

Kids might be able to hang onto their pre-k bags through first grade, but soon enough they'll want something bigger, sturdier and not in the shape of a narwhal. You'll need something that still is comfortable to wear and preferably adjustable to account for the fact that kids grow so much during these years.

L.L. Bean's Junior Original Book Pack ($29.95; llbean.com): For kids under 10, we recommend checking out this junior version of L.L. Bean's best-selling Book Pack (which is what we recommend below for a great middle school bag). This backpack still has many of the same qualities of the big kids' version, but is better suited to smaller frames. The Junior Book Pack is roomy and weatherproof, features padded straps and even has reflective material on the front to keep kids visible to motorists at night. It comes in lots of fun prints, too.

Best backpacks for middle school

At this point it's time to invest in a bag that can carry more school supplies and has enough support to protect kids' shoulders. Both of our picks are durable enough to last for years — maybe even through high school — and come in plenty of color options to keep things fun.

L.L. Bean Deluxe Plus Book Pack ($49.95; llbean.com): You see L.L. Bean's classic book pack everywhere for a reason: these bags seem able to hold everything and last forever. Made from weatherproof rip-stop nylon, the Deluxe Plus is extremely durable. It features a padded back and "ergonomically curved" straps, plus a waist belt for extra support that can be hidden when not in use. Add tons of useful organization, a fleece-lined pocket for tech items and L.L. Bean's fantastic customer service, and you've got one of the best book bags ever made.

JanSport SuperBreak ($36; jansport.com): Another classic, highly rated bag from a brand many parents are likely familiar with (and might have even used themselves back in the day). JanSport's affordable SuperBreak pack is a quality choice for those who want to keep things simple. It features one roomy main compartment and an outer zip pocket. The sturdy fabric is also water and abrasion resistant.

Best backpacks for high school

You can totally keep using that trusty L.L. Bean Book Pack right through high school, but it's understandable that teens might want something a little less ... backpack-y. Students definitely need something supportive and durable to accommodate the inevitable increase in homework and extracurriculars, but high schoolers might also appreciate something a little more fashion forward.

Herschel Little America ($76.14 to $99.99; amazon.com): Herschel's popular Little America backpack has a unique silhouette inspired by mountaineering bags and comes in tons of color combinations, making it a favorite of stylish teens. The large main compartment has a drawstring closure rather than the more common zipper and includes a padded, fleece-lined laptop sleeve. The Little America also features contoured shoulder straps, a front pouch with a key clip and magnetic strap closures. If you're not into the drawstring design, Herschel's Settlement Mid-Volume Backpack ($60; nordstrom.com) is another good choice.

Fjallraven Kanken 15-inch Padded Laptop Backpack ($114.95; amazon.com): Another classic pack with a cool, retro design. This is a simple, durable bag good for those who'd prefer not to have a ton of built-in organization. It features a single roomy main compartment, plus an outer pocket, adjustable padded straps and a convenient top carry handle.

Best backpacks for college

The books are getting heavier and you're running around campus without a locker in sight. That means you'll want something that can hold everything you need for the day. A padded laptop sleeve is a must, and water repellency is a good bet in case you get caught in the rain between classes. Functionality may generally trump looks here, but your back and shoulders will thank you later.

Mancro Backpack ($23.99; amazon.com): Mancro's affordable pack has earned more than 4,000 five-star reviews. It offers plenty of organization, is made from water resistant nylon and even has an external USB charging port — meaning you can keep your phone powered through back-to-back lectures.

L.L. Bean Quad Pack ($89.95; llbean.com): L.L. Bean scores another appearance on our list for its versatile Quad Pack, which is essentially a hybrid of a hiking pack and commuter bag. While definitely not the sleekest option, the Quad Pack boasts a 33-liter capacity — enough to carry your books, laptop, chargers and pretty much anything else you need around campus. The sternum strap, tuckable waistbelt and breathable back padding keep things comfortable. There's a built-in organizer panel, too, plus mesh water bottle holders, a fleece-lined electronics pocket and an audio cord port.

Best backpacks for grad school and beyond

By now you need something that'll help you comfortably cart your stuff around without looking like you're late for biology. It's time to invest in a grown up bag that'll last for years to come and serve you in both professional and classroom situations.

Everlane Modern Snap Backpack ($68; everlane.com): Everlane's Modern Snap backpack manages to be both very good looking and very functional. With a 19-liter capacity, you can stuff enough into this bag for commutes and short trips alike. It features a drawstring closure on its main compartment, plus YKK zippers, two side water bottle pockets and a padded laptop sleeve. The leather detailing and monochromatic cotton twill exterior add to the bag's casual-chic vibe, meaning it won't look out of place, whether you're heading to class or the office.

Dagne Dover Dakota Medium Backpack ($139, originally $175; dagnedover.com): This Dagne Dover bag is compact enough to look sleek on your back, yet still roomy enough for office commutes or even overnight trips. The muted monochrome color selection and neoprene material give it a slightly sporty, yet still upscale vibe. It features a laptop sleeve, padded straps and side pockets, plus grown-up touches like a shoe bag and stretch key loop.

Note: The prices above reflect the retailer's listed price at the time of publication.