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Are you looking for a new everyday backpack? Our team researched over 50 best-selling budget backpacks available today before selecting 10 to purchase for hands-on testing. We hit the field to evaluate each bag's comfort, ease of use, versatility, and volume-to-weight ratio. Our side-by-side comparisons let us determine where each bag excels and where each faces struggles. Whether you are looking for a new bookbag, laptop bag, or travel pack, our in-depth review will hopefully make choosing your next backpack a little easier.
Main zippers can get stuck down in the side pouches
While one might assume that the Under Armour Hustle 5.0 would be a sport-specific option, we found it was a universally high performer. It has a few features that nod towards Under Armour's purpose-built athletic equipment. Most notable is the separate bottom compartment, perfect for stinky shoes or sweaty gym clothes, but it could be used for anything. The bag also boasts two large main compartments and a smaller accessory pouch. All the sections have convenient dividers that simplify organizing your things. The bag has stiff back padding and thin but wide shoulder straps, and it carries weight very well. Our testers had no complaints after fully loading it and taking it for an extended walk.
The only design flaw we noticed on the Hustle was that the zippers on the main pouch zip down into the side water bottle holders and can be hard to fish out, especially if you have something in those pouches. This well-thought-out backpack packs well is comfortable to carry and could be used for anything from school, work, gym, or as a carry-on while traveling.
JanSport has long been known for making the quintessential school bag; the JanSport Big Student lived up to our expectations. Constructed with students in mind, this high-volume bag can easily accommodate large textbooks, big graphing calculators, and many school essentials. The bag is well padded in the back and shoulder straps and easily carries loads up to 20 pounds. With three main storage compartments and a front utility pouch full of organizational tools, this bag will help keep even the most disorganized student on track. For all the same reasons, we found this to be a great school budget backpack, and it could also serve as a decent carry-on or commuter bag.
The only thing the JanSport Big Student was missing was a dedicated laptop sleeve. While this bag can accommodate almost any size laptop, having a dedicated and padded sleeve to give it more protection would have been appreciated. This bag is perfect for students needing to schlep around their heavy school books and associated accouterments.
The Everest Basic is about as simple as possible. With only one large compartment and a small front utility pouch, this bag doesn't have much going on. That being said, sometimes a small, lightweight bag is all you want or need. Big enough to fit a laptop, a few notebooks, pens, pencils, and your phone, this bare-bones option has room for all your essentials but not much else. We were surprised by how well this pack could shoulder heavier weight with no back padding and narrow shoulder straps. We wouldn't want to carry heavy loads for extended periods.
When it comes down to it, this is a small bag with minimal padding. If you want that, this bag is great, especially for the price. If you want something that can hold every last thing you may or may not need, the Everest Basic might be underwhelming. It's ideal for a first school budget backpack for young children and would also serve adults in carrying their essentials for a trip to the coffee shop.
While almost all of the bags we reviewed easily fit within the size constraints of most airline carry-on specifications, the Tzowla Travel Laptop bag had the most intentional design features to accommodate travelers and commuters. This pack is equipped with a luggage belt on the back that either lets you tuck away the shoulder straps or attach it to the suitcase handle. The top of this pack has a built-in combination lock that lets you lock the main compartment, a handy feature to avoid theft while traveling or commuting on busy trains. Another interesting feature is the built-in USB port and audio jack. The bag doesn't come with an external power bank, but you can use your own to charge your phone or computer on the go.
The bag is big enough for travel essentials and your laptop but has a small volume compared to other bags. This bag might be too small for you if you need to carry large textbooks, your computer, and other miscellaneous items. It's ideal as a carry-on bag or for a commuter who takes their laptop back and forth from work.
Doesn't fit a regulation-size soccer ball or basketball
The Adidas Alliance II Sackpack is a lightweight bag perfect for carting around your gym or sports equipment. This sack-style bag has one main top-loading compartment equipped with a drawstring closure. It has a small utility pouch on the front that is ideal for your keys, phone, wallet, snack, and other minor essentials.
With no padding and shoulder straps made from rope, this bag wasn't designed to carry heavy loads. While it's large enough to fit shoes, a change of clothes, and even a towel, it isn't big enough to fit a regulation soccer ball or basketball. Overall, it makes a great secondary bag to transport your workout gear fully separated from your regular work or school pack.
The Venture Pal 40L had the best volume-to-weight ratio of the tested packs. This bag had a ton of compartments and organizational add-ons, including an internal waterproof pouch. With enough room to fit a towel, a rain jacket, and any souvenirs you might acquire, this makes an excellent day pack for exploring a new city or casual hiking. We appreciated that the zippers on the main compartments went almost ¾ of the way down the side of the bag, making packing easy and small items accessible when full.
While this bag has plenty of room to load it up with all sorts of stuff, it fully lacks any back padding, has minimal padding in the shoulder straps, and has no waist belt, a feature we would want in a more serious hiking pack. It also doesn't carry heavy or awkwardly shaped loads very well. If you're looking for a lightweight travel bag with a ton of storage space but doesn't need to accommodate much weight, the Venture Pal 40L will treat you right.
Anti-theft pocket incorporated into the waist belt
REASONS TO AVOID
Overkill for many occasions
The Matein Travel Laptop is similar to the Tzowla. It has more storage space and beefier padding, especially in the lumbar area. While we found the Tzowla to be a sleek travel laptop bag, the extra storage space offered by this pack could allow it to be used as an overnight travel bag for the space-savvy packer. The built-in electronics port and thoughtful organizational pouches make this pack a traveler's best friend.
The extra padding and all of the organizational add-ons make this pack heavier than the others we reviewed; however, it is still a fairly light pack. This bag is perfect for travelers who need extra room in their carry-on or want to go on short trips without having to check a bag.
The JanSport Cool Student is the grown-up and laptop-ready version of the Big Student. The primary differences are subtle aesthetics, such as the leather bottom and the internal volume divided between compartments. This bag only has two main compartments but has a laptop sleeve inside one of them, unlike the Big Student. Just like its counterpart, this is a large bag that is well-padded and carries weight comfortably, making it a great choice for students carrying around heavy textbooks. It also works great as a daypack for hiking and travel.
While the large size is great for students, the JanSport CoolStudent might be overkill for a daily work commuting bag. This bag is an excellent alternative to the Big Student. This bag may be a great option if you prefer the aesthetics and appreciate having an internal laptop sleeve.
Herschel bags have been on trend for a while now and are a minimalistic counterpoint to book bags with tons of zippers and compartments. The Herschel Classic 18L sports a more refined look, and you might find that these bags offer a more workplace-appropriate aesthetic if you want to rock a backpack but not give off the student vibe. With enough room for a laptop, a few notebooks, and a utility pouch for small items, it will fit your essentials and nothing more.
Given the small size, it's unlikely you'll be loading this bag up with too much weight, but it's worth noting that the bag has no significant back padding. The bag has no organizational add-ons; what you see is what you get. The Herschel Classic ideal for someone looking for a simple and good-looking bag to transport their laptop or notebooks around town.
A Stylish and Functional Alternative to a Tote Bag
The Baggu Drawstring is a cross between a tote and a lightweight daypack. This bag is a top-loading canvas sack with a drawstring closure and adjustable canvas shoulder straps. This feels like the perfect bag to take to the farmers market, and unlike a normal tote, you can throw this on your back and bike home. It's large enough to fit a small laptop and a notebook but not much else. If you plan on grabbing more than just a few fruits and veggies at the market, you might want to opt for something larger.
This bag has no padding and very little structure to it. These attributes don't lend themselves to carrying heavy loads, but we found carrying the weighted bag to be more comfortable than expected. It's perfect for bringing your book or computer to the local coffee shop or cruising around the farmer's market.
Why You Should Trust Us
We started our search for the best packs by researching the most popular brands being sold today. We selected ten of the most promising budget backpacks to independently purchase and pit against each other in a series of side-by-side tests. With each bag offering different volumes, closure styles, and carry systems, we were able to break down where each excelled and where each struggled.
Buck Yedor, our lead tester on this project, has been told he has a backpack "problem." While he doesn't see it that way, he does seem to own a specialized backpack for just about every possible occasion. From enormous backpacking packs to lightweight daypacks to budget backpacks and everything in between, Buck has sampled a wide variety of products. He knows what makes a pack worth carrying, having been a student, a bike commuter, and a serial traveler.
Analysis and Test Results
Using a standardized testing process, we saw how each bag performed under the same conditions. By carrying the same loads and packing the same objects into each bag, our testers could compare each one accurately and extensively via our metrics series.
No matter how many cool features a pack has, it's not very practical if it isn't comfortable to carry. A backpack's comfort is largely derived from its back padding, shoulder padding, shoulder strap width, and how it sits on your back. While the packs we tested are mostly school and small travel bags, we decided to max them out and put twenty pounds of weights in each — we then walked a mile. The Matein was our stand-out winner in carrying comfort. With thick lumbar support and cushy shoulder straps, this bag handled the 20 pounds with ease, and our shoulders were no worse for the wear. The Tzowla was a close second, with both the JanSport bags following close behind.
The Venture Pals 40L is made from thin nylon and offered little support during our walking test. It carried the weight strangely and was pretty uncomfortable overall when loaded with that much weight. The Adidas Alliance II Sackpack carried the weight surprisingly well, but by the end of the mile, our testers found the rope shoulder straps to noticeably chafe their armpits.
Ease of Use
Ease of use refers to how easy it is to pack, unpack, adjust, and manipulate each bag. The Under Armour Hustle 5.0 was the most streamlined of all the packs. With simple but useful compartments and subdividers, the bag is well thought out. From your laptop to your stinky gym shoes, this pack had a spot for it all. Both of the JanSport bags are the product of years spent refining book bags. Offering large compartments for big-ticket items and smaller utility pouches perfect for pens and pencils, the layout of these bags was spot on for a student's needs.
The Adidas Alliance II Sackpack and the Baggu Drawstring are both top-loading sack-style bags. While both are easy to load, keeping the contents organized and separated is a different story. You have to go on a fishing expedition to retrieve any small items that might have ended up at the bottom of the bag.
The versatility of a backpack speaks to how many different types of situations you can use each pack for. Can you take it on a flight, is it big enough for all your school supplies, is it office-appropriate, does it work as a gym bag? We found the Under Armour Hustle 5.0 to be the most versatile of all the bags. It's a perfect size to use as a day pack while traveling. It also has a separate compartment meant for shoes or laundry, making it great for athletics, and it's sleek enough that you won't feel like a school kid walking around with an oversized backpack. Both JanSports boasted excellent size and a well-thought-out division of space, making them highly versatile. They are great as a school bag but certainly aren't too large to use as a carry-on or day pack.
The Adidas Alliance II Sackpack was perhaps the least versatile. With no padding and little structure to the bag, it excels at carrying lightweight athletic gear such as shoes and a change of clothes but doesn't function well for carrying books, laptops, or other bulky items.
Volume to Weight Ratio
The volume to weight ratio is a pretty simple metric that looks at how much internal space each bag offers in relation to how heavy the bag is. The Venture Pals 40L was the clearcut winner with 40 liters of internal space and weighing in at one pound. While being lightweight is great, this bag achieves this ratio at the cost of comfort for the wearer. With minimal padding, you won't want to be loading this pack up with too much weight. It does, however, offer a lot of options for packing large but light items — like clothing. Both of the JanSport bags fall somewhere in the middle, and for us, this was the sweet spot. With 34 liters of internal space and weighing around 1.5 pounds, these packs were big enough to carry a variety of things and had the padding and structure to make them comfortable.
The Herschel Classic had one of the worst volume-to-weight ratios. Coming in at around one pound and only offering 18 liters of storage space, you aren't left with much room. With that in mind, the fully canvas bag seems quite durable. There is always a trade-off when it comes to this ratio, and it's important to know what sort of balance will suit your specific needs. Having a good ratio doesn't always indicate a better bag.
After purchasing 10 of the best everyday use budget packs available today, we sent them through a series of side-by-side field tests to figure out how they all stack up against the competition. From laptop bags to hiking packs, we tested each bags' comfort, ease of use, versatility, and volume-to-weight ratio. We hope our in-depth testing will help you determine which bag is right for you.
GearLab is founded on the principle of honest, objective, reviews. Our experts test thousands of products each year using thoughtful test plans that bring out key performance differences between competing products. And, to assure complete independence, we buy all the products we test ourselves. No cherry-picked units sent by manufacturers. No sponsored content. No ads. Just real, honest, side-by-side testing and comparison.