Best Budget Backpack of 2020
While one might assume that the Under Armour Adult Hustle 4.0 would be a sport-specific option, we found it was a universally high performer. It does come equipped with a few features that make a nod towards Under Armour's purpose-built athletic equipment. Most notably is the separated bottom compartment that is perfect for stinky shoes or sweaty gym clothes. In reality, it's just another compartment that could be used for anything. In addition to the bottom storage area, the bag has two large main compartments and a smaller accessory pouch. All the sections have convenient dividers that make organizing your things simple and easy. The bag carries weight very well. With stiff back padding and thin but wide shoulder straps, our testers had no complaints after fully loading it up and taking it for an extended walk.
The only design flaw we noticed 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 is a well thought out bag that packs well, is comfortable to carry, and could be used for anything from school, work, going to the gym, or as a carry-on while traveling.
JanSport has long been known for making the quintessential school bag; the 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 any multitude of school essentials. The bag is well padded in both the back and shoulder straps and had no problem carrying 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 backpack, it would also serve as a decent carry-on or commuter bag.
The only thing this pack was missing, especially in this modern-day and age, was a dedicated laptop sleeve. While this bag can certainly accommodate almost any size laptop, having a dedicated and padded sleeve to give it a little more protection would have been appreciated. This bag is a perfect choice for students needing to schlep around all of their heavy school books and associated accouterments.
The Everest 1045K Basic is about as simple as a pack can be. With only one large compartment and a small front utility pouch, this bag doesn't have a lot going on. That being said, sometimes a small lightweight bag is all you really 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. For having no back padding and narrow shoulder straps, we were surprised by how well this pack could shoulder heavier weight. That being said, 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 that's what you are looking for, this bag is great, especially for the price. If you want something that can hold every last thing you may or may not need, this bag might be underwhelming. It's ideal for a first school 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 handle of a suitcase. The top of this pack has a built-in combination lock that lets you lock the main compartment, which is 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 compared to other bags, the volume is relatively small. If you need to carry around large textbooks in addition to your computer and other miscellaneous items, this bag might be too small for you. It's ideal as a carry-on bag or for a commuter who takes their laptop back and forth from work.
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 that is equipped with a drawstring closure. It has a small utility pouch on the front that is ideal for your keys, phone, wallet, a snack, and maybe a few 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 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 any of the packs we tested. 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 is fully lacking any kind of back padding, has minimal padding in the shoulder straps, and additionally 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 that has a ton of storage space but doesn't need to accommodate a lot of weight, this pack will treat you right.
The Matein Travel Laptop Bag is very similar to the Tzowla. It has a little 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 makes this pack a traveler's best friend.
The extra padding and all of the organizational add ons do make this a fairly heavy pack compared to the others; however, in reality, it is still a fairly light pack. This bag is perfect for travelers who need a little extra room in their carry-on or who want to go on short trips without having to check a bag.
The JanSport Cool Student is a modern riff on their Big Student. The primary differences are subtle aesthetics, such as the leather bottom. This bag also only has two compartments, with the addition of a laptop sleeve inside one of them. Both bags offer the same internal volume but divide the space differently. 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 multiple textbooks.
While the large size is great for students, it might be overkill for a daily work commuting bag. This bag is an excellent alternative to the Big Student. If you prefer the aesthetics and value an internal laptop sleeve, this bag may be a great option.
Herschel bags have been on trend for a while now and stylistically are a minimalistic counterpoint to school bags like the JanSport options. Offering a more refined look, those who want to rock a backpack but not give off the student vibe may find these bags to be a more workplace appropriate option. Offering 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. It's ideal for someone looking for a simple and good looking bag to transport their laptop or notebooks around town.
The Baggu Drawstring is an amalgamation of a tote bag and a day pack. 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 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.
This bag has no padding and virtually no structure to it. These attributes don't lend themselves to carrying heavy loads, but we did find carrying the weighted bag to be more comfortable than we 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
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, Buck has sampled a wide variety. Having been a student, a bike commuter, and a serial traveler, he knows what makes a pack worth carrying.
We started our search for the best packs by researching the most popular brands being sold in 2020. We selected ten of the most promising bags 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 they struggled.
Analysis and Test Results
By using a standardized testing process, we were able to see how each bag performed under the same conditions. By carrying the same loads and packing the same objects into each bag, our testers could accurately and extensively compare each one via our series of metrics.
No matter how many cool features a pack has, if it isn't comfortable to carry, it's not very practical. 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 ware. 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 Adult Hustle 4.0 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 both the Under Armour Adult Hustle 4.0 to the most versatile of all the bags. It's a perfect size to use as a day pack while traveling. It also has a separated compartment meant for shoes or laundry, making it great for athletics, and is sleek enough to not make you 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 is looking 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 it 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 and reviewing ten of the best backpacks available in 2020, we were able to determine the best and worst qualities in each. From school bags to gym bags and everything in between, we put each bag through the same series of tests to determine each one's versatility and comfort, among other crucial metrics. We hope our results will take some of the mystery out of your next purchase.
— Buck Yedor