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The North Face Borealis Review

This highly spacious laptop backpack offers functionality and value that is unmatched.
Best Buy Award
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Price:  $89 List | $53.37 at Backcountry
Compare prices at 3 resellers
Pros:  Functional, plentiful storage, water-resistant fabric, inexpensive, versatile
Cons:  Not super stylish
Manufacturer:   The North Face
By Katherine Elliott ⋅ Senior Review Editor  ⋅  May 17, 2019
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76
OVERALL
SCORE


RANKED
#4 of 11
  • Laptop Protection - 25% 7
  • Comfort - 20% 8
  • Storage - 15% 8
  • Ease of Use - 15% 9
  • Water resistance - 15% 7
  • Style - 10% 6

Our Verdict

The updated The North Face Borealis comes highly recommended for its standout performance and value. We took this backpack from work to the trails after work. It was thrown around, crammed with stuff, and thrown in the shower. Featuring a high capacity of 28L, it can house a personal laptop up to 15 inches, a set of clothing, books, a tablet, your bike helmet, and even your favorite teacup pig! What we're saying is it's well-engineering to store a lot of stuff. It features many updates that make it more comfortable and easy to use, accompanied by a low price tag. The only backpack that is a tad bit cheaper is the TimBuk2 Rogue, which doesn't perform nearly as well as the Borealis. This classic got better and still offers the best performance to value ratio, earning it our Best Buy award.

Fit and style are both unisex with no gender-specific options.


Compare to Similar Products

 
Awards Best Buy Award Editors' Choice Award Top Pick Award   
Price $53.37 at Backcountry
Compare at 3 sellers
$159.95 at REI
Compare at 2 sellers
$149.98 at Amazon$129.95 at Amazon$89.93 at REI
Compare at 3 sellers
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Pros Functional, plentiful storage, water-resistant fabric, inexpensive, versatileDurable, waterproof, cool features, stowable rain fly and helmet net, lots of storage, ultra protectiveGreat organizational capacity, effective use of space, comfortable, adjustable, separate laptop side-accessVersatile, great storage, water-resistant exterior, fantastic laptop protection, comfortable padding.Best weather resistance, versatile, easy to adjust, good organization
Cons Not super stylishExpensive, not very stylishExpensive, lacks cushioning on the bottom of the packProblematic fit, long torso, roll-down top is not stylish.Lacks laptop protection, smaller fit
Bottom Line This highly spacious laptop backpack offers functionality and value that is unmatched.This award winner has us loving it for its protective and functional features that are geared for any commuter, student, or traveler.This Editors' Choice is a versatile option with great storage for electronics.A perfect option for the bike commute to work or tromping around town.A fantastically water-resistant bag that offers great versatility and performance.
Rating Categories The North Face Borealis Thule Pack 'n Pedal Commuter Incase Icon Thule Paramount 24L Patagonia Black Hole 25
Laptop Protection (25%)
10
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7
10
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10
10
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9
10
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9
10
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6
Comfort (20%)
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8
10
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8
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7
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6
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7
Storage (15%)
10
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8
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8
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9
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8
10
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8
Ease Of Use (15%)
10
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9
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9
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9
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8
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8
Water Resistance (15%)
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7
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9
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7
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10
Style (10%)
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6
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6
Specs The North Face... Thule Pack 'n... Incase Icon Thule Paramount 24L Patagonia Black...
Volume (L) 28 L 24 L 17 L 24L 25 L
Weight 2.7 lbs 2.4 lbs 2.1 lbs 2.2 lbs 1.8 lbs
Number of Compartments 2 2 4 2 1
Dimensions 19.75 x 13.5 x 8.5 in. 15 x 6.7 x 19 in 19 x 13 x 9 in. 11.6 x 10. 20.5 in 21 x 11 x 6.5 in.
Number of Large Pockets 2 1 3 2 2
Number of Small Pockets 9 2 14 2 5
Key Clip? No Yes Yes Yes Yes
Reflective Material? Yes Yes No Yes No
External Side Pocket(s) Yes Yes Yes Yes Yes
External Water Bottle Holder? Yes Yes No Yes Yes
Fits Laptop 15" 15" 15" 15" 15"
Hip belt Yes No No No No
Sternum Strap Yes Yes Yes Yes Yes

Our Analysis and Test Results

The North Face Borealis offers the best value of all the laptop backpacks we tested. It is highly versatile with 28L of storage. Its new updates make it more functional and protective, at a lower price. Take it to work or on your next hike — this is one of our favorites.

Performance Comparison


The North Face Borealis wins our Best Buy award for its basic style  great utility  and wonderful price.
The North Face Borealis wins our Best Buy award for its basic style, great utility, and wonderful price.

Laptop Protection


The protection offered by the Borealis is reliable and trustworthy. It has a separate access compartment for the laptop that is soft, but not fleece-lined. It will fit any size of laptop up to 15 inches and is tight enough that a thinner tablet won't slide right down to the bottom. When loaded down with other stuff, the compartment is tight but will fit wider PCs as well as super thin MacBook Pros. Our 15-inch MacBook Pro and 11-inch MacBook Air were both well protected in this backpack compartment.


A backpack that earns top marks in this category will typically have a system to keep the laptop off the ground, with additional protection around the sides of the laptop. Also, it should have thicker cushioning in these areas. The Borealis scores well here because it has all those things, minus the thicker cushioning. The backplate of the pack features heavy cushioning that protects the computer if the backpack falls onto its back.

A look at the updated and new laptop compartment that is zippered from all around. Unfortunately  it does not have a lot of padding around the sides  but the panel on the back is sufficient for protection.
A look at the updated and new laptop compartment that is zippered from all around. Unfortunately, it does not have a lot of padding around the sides, but the panel on the back is sufficient for protection.

Inside the pack, there is a built-in suspension system that keeps the contents about two inches off the ground. This feature protects when you accidentally throw your bag onto a concrete surface, forgetting there's a valuable piece of equipment inside. Furthermore, with the suspension system, there is padding that seems to be about one-inch thick around the bottom of the bag.

While we love these features, we wish for a touch more padding around the top sides of the bag. Inherently, if it's loaded up, this additional cushioning provides more protection, but if it's empty the top of the laptop is susceptible to damage if the bag falls onto its side near the top. There is no additional strap to keep it in place, but the slim profile of the backpack keeps items from moving around. Overall, good protection that is trusty and reliable.

Comfort


This model is a comfortable laptop backpack that you can wear all day. It offers an ergonomic fit with a variety of adjustments to ensure a nice fit. The backplate offers excellent airflow offering utility as a hiking backpack or a great travel option. The straps are thick, flexible, and comfortable on the shoulders. We also appreciate both the sternum and hip strap.


As one of the most comfortable backpacks we've tested, we are happy to recommend it for all-day, anywhere use. The backpack straps feature foam that has a built-in venting system integrated inside of it. The foam is flexible and lays flat on the shoulders, with its construction providing an even weight distribution. The adjustable straps are spaced widely apart which offers both a unisex and versatile fit for those that are large to small. Affixed to the straps is a sternum strap that can be slid up and down on a built-in track. The track is long, which we like, giving you lots of options for weight distribution and fit.

A look at the adjustable sternum strap and breathable straps that are comfortable to wear all day long.
A look at the adjustable sternum strap and breathable straps that are comfortable to wear all day long.

The backplate is also comfortable. It features two padding sections that run lateral to the spine, with the spine sitting against a depressed flap of material that offers superior airflow. While this material is nice and breathable, our only caveat is that it's a little bit scratchy when worn directly against the skin.

The super comfortable back panel has ample breathability and is well-padded.
The super comfortable back panel has ample breathability and is well-padded.

The integrated hip belt, which is hard to find on many laptop backpacks, adds versatility to this bag. Given its less techy and more outdoorsy design, it also functions nicely as a hiking backpack. The hip belt is pretty thin without additional padding and can be tucked away into the expandable water bottle holders if you don't want the straps flopping around when not in use. This model is a comfortable laptop backpack that we would recommend for any situation where you might need a daypack.

The added hip belt allows for great weight distribution  also making it a great hiking pack.
The added hip belt allows for great weight distribution, also making it a great hiking pack.

Storage


Designed thoughtfully, we enjoy the 28L of completely utilizable storage. From the back of the bag, it has one main laptop compartment, a large high volume pocket, one medium pocket (with organizational capabilities), and small easy to access outer pocket. Exterior storage includes two container vessels on either side of the backpack that we love and an updated bungee system. One cool feature is a little Velcro tab at the top of the laptop storage space, meaning that if you don't have a laptop inside, you can affix a hydration bladder to the inside if using it as a hiking pack.


The laptop compartment, as mentioned above, fits laptops and tablets up to 15 inches in size. We would recommend only putting one computer into this compartment as there is no additional separation barrier to keep the computers from rubbing against each other.

This design has changed. In the previous iteration, there was a sleeve in which the laptop sat. Now, there is a completely separate pocket for the laptop, adding storage potential.

The large volume pocket is perfect for stashing papers, books, gym clothes, shoes, and the like. There are no additional organizational pockets in this space either. In a lot of ways, it's nice because you can put anything in there. We fit a jacket, shoes, papers, books, and more. The bottom of the pack is expandable, allowing you to store quite a bit.

A look at the large voluminous compartment that can store a plethora of items.
A look at the large voluminous compartment that can store a plethora of items.

The medium pocket is a tiered system. This arrangement means that it sits in front of the large compartment, but doesn't impede the storage of it. It's about half the size, with the pocket depth about half the size of the larger pocket to the back. In this pocket, there is a place to stash a tablet, smaller books, a journal, and the like. It also has a zippered compartment, perfect for your power source, in addition to several smaller organizational pockets to store power cords, pens, and keys.

The organizational capability of the middle pocket. It is about half the length of the pack that allows the large compartment to expand for ample storage.
The organizational capability of the middle pocket. It is about half the length of the pack that allows the large compartment to expand for ample storage.

The small pocket in the front has a fleece material lining. We commonly used this to house our cell phone, keys (just because it's more accessible), or a pair of sunglasses.

The quick access pocket is shallow but padded with felt. This makes it perfect for a pair of sunglasses or a cell phone.
The quick access pocket is shallow but padded with felt. This makes it perfect for a pair of sunglasses or a cell phone.

The water bottle holders are the most practical that we've seen thus far. Both are made up of expandable mesh that'll fit super wide bottles. Also, when the bag is loaded up, they work just fine because of their expandable nature — a hard feature to find. The bungee system is perfect for affixing a helmet or jacket that is too large to store inside of the backpack.

The new bungee system still fits a helmet nicely. We also appreciate the two expandable mesh pockets that work even when the pack is fully loaded.
The new bungee system still fits a helmet nicely. We also appreciate the two expandable mesh pockets that work even when the pack is fully loaded.

This year, the bungee system sees an update. It sits a little bit lower, and the backpack now has several attachment points along the sides of the system for affixing anything you need with a small carabiner.

Ease of Use


The Borealis is a super simple backpack that is very easy to use. All the compartments are closed with big and easy to pull zippers. The main compartment zipper zips half the length of the main compartment, making finding items quite easy. Several adjustments throughout the bag aren't too complex, which adds to its simplicity. We like the separate computer compartment, as you don't have to dig through other stuff to get to it.


In general, there is a lot of storage with quite obvious utility. There aren't too many pockets, and the organizational options make sense for the average person. We enjoy the adjustable bungee system and water bottle holders that are incredibly functional and simple to use.

The buckles and zippers are nice  big  and easy to use.
The buckles and zippers are nice, big, and easy to use.

Water Resistance


This backpack is not waterproof, but the fabric offers a good level of water resistance. In our shower tests, we put this bag under the nozzle for about one minute, agitating the fabric, to see if any water got inside. We also stood in the rain and specifically noted which compartments did and did not get wet.


All the zippers protected by flap covers offered a fantastic level of water protection. After a minute under a raging spray from the shower, and sitting in a pool of water, the front pocket was bone dry. The fabric held up from the spray, offering protection from rainstorms and the like.

A look at the water resistance on the face fabric of the Borealis.
A look at the water resistance on the face fabric of the Borealis.

The zippers, like most backpacks, are a different story. When opening the medium compartment, we saw a big pool of water sitting at the bottom of the pocket, even though the material in the pocket seemed to be dry. Through the large main compartment, there were a few water drops along the length of the backpack but not much more than that.


In the laptop compartment, we stuffed a cotton shirt, to see if any moisture got in. Sadly, at the very bottom, there were a few drops of water. In reflection, it offers great water protection in the form of the fabric. The bottom is reinforced with a more water-resistant material, protecting it there. However, the seams and zippers aren't watertight. This issue could improve by adding more flaps over the zippers for enhanced protection.

In this update, The North Face added a flap over the exterior pocket, which beefs up water resistance.

Style


If you're into the outdoorsy look, you may love this backpack. It reminds us of a simple school bag and doesn't offer the hippest design. That said, it's still cute enough to wear around town and to work, but it doesn't make you look any cooler than you already are.


We appreciate the versatility and functionality of this best buy award winner.
A look at the "look" of the North Face Borealis. Outdoorsy and not-so-stylish.

Best Applications


As a versatile and comfortable laptop backpack, it has numerous applications. It can tote around a personal laptop to and from work or school, but it can also go on a hiking trip. While traveling, you may need to decide on a bag that can do it all, and the Borealis, we think, is a great pack for this. Its comfortable and spacious design can be used anywhere in the world.

Bike commuting to school  hiking  or wear while traveling. This Best Buy award winner is super versatile and comfortable for everyday use.
Bike commuting to school, hiking, or wear while traveling. This Best Buy award winner is super versatile and comfortable for everyday use.

Value


This high-value laptop backpack is our Best Buy award winner because of its top marks for performance with a lower price tag. Of the products tested, this is one of the most inexpensive at just $89. You'll be hardpressed to find a better deal that offers so much.

Conclusion


This high-value laptop backpack is also highly versatile. It's best for those seeking a backpack that you can take to work as well as on the trails. As a lower priced option, its also recommended for those looking to pinch a few pennies.


Katherine Elliott