In search of the next best laptop backpack? We researched over 60 different products before selecting 11 of the best to test side-by-side. We zoomed around on bikes from coffee house to co-working spaces all over the United States. We wrote stories, built software, developed programs, all whilst seeing which backpack we trusted the most. We traveled from the sunny interior of Colorado to the cold North of British Columbia to the hot beaches of Hawaii. We have been testing laptop backpacks for over five years in a variety of conditions. From torrential downpours to hot days in the city. With all this data logged and patterns identified, we've been able to offer your our recommendations for the best laptop backpacks of 2019.
The Best Laptop Backpacks of 2019
|Price||$159.95 at REI|
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|$99.98 at Amazon||$109.22 at Amazon|
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|$88.95 at Backcountry|
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|$129.00 at REI|
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|Pros||Durable, waterproof, cool features, stowable rain fly and helmet net, lots of storage, ultra protective||Great organizational capacity, effective use of space, comfortable, adjustable, separate laptop side-access||Versatile, great storage, water-resistant exterior, fantastic laptop protection, comfortable padding||Functional, plentiful storage, water-resistant fabric, inexpensive, versatile||Best weather resistance, versatile, easy to adjust, good organization|
|Cons||Expensive, not super stylish||Expensive, lacks cushioning on the bottom of the pack||Problematic fit, long torso, roll-down top is not stylish||Not super stylish||Lacks laptop protection, smaller fit|
|Bottom Line||Our favorite backpack geared for any bike commuter, student, or traveler.||Our favorite for everything from lugging around electronics to going to the gym.||A perfect option for the bike commute to work or tromping around town.||This highly spacious laptop backpack offers functionality and value that is unmatched.||A fantastically water-resistant bag that offers great versatility and performance.|
|Rating Categories||Thule Pack 'n Pedal Commuter||Incase Icon||Thule Paramount 24L||The North Face Borealis||Patagonia Black Hole 25|
|Laptop Protection (25%)|
|Ease Of Use (15%)|
|Water Resistance (15%)|
|Specs||Thule Pack 'n...||Incase Icon||Thule Paramount 24L||The North Face...||Patagonia Black...|
|Volume (L)||24 L||17 L||24L||28 L||25 L|
|Weight||2.4 lbs||2.1 lbs||2.2 lbs||2.7 lbs||1.8 lbs|
|Number of Compartments||2||4||2||2||1|
|Dimensions||15 x 6.7 x 19 in||19 x 13 x 9 in.||11.6 x 10. 20.5 in||19.75 x 13.5 x 8.5 in.||21 x 11 x 6.5 in.|
|Number of Large Pockets||1||3||2||2||2|
|Number of Small Pockets||2||14||2||9||5|
|External Side Pocket(s)||Yes||Yes||Yes||Yes||Yes|
|External Water Bottle Holder?||Yes||No||Yes||Yes||Yes|
Thule Pack 'n Pedal Commuter
This wonderfully versatile laptop backpack is first built for the bike commuter but offers so much versatility it receives our highest accolades. It has several features that make it perfect for the bike commuter, such as reflective tape, a mesh helmet holder, and even a protective sunglasses pocket! The back panel and shoulder straps are both breathable and comfortable. For rainstorms, it's perfect. Whip out the stowable rain fly, strap it on, and make your way through the rain without worry. The removable laptop sleeve encapsulates a 15-inch tablet from all sides and clips into the top part of the bag to help protect from hard set-downs. If you're traveling and want to take the bag hiking or out on the town, remove the sleeve, and you have a roll-top backpack with over 24L of storage.
While it's hard to find anything wrong with it, we will say it's not the most stylish. It looks a little techy, and the roll-top look isn't the most appealing to some. It's also expensive, but it is nice and durable. This model is an excellent option for the daily commute, anywhere where you might encounter precipitation, or for travel. It's also one of the most versatile and functional backpack we've tested.
Read Review: Thule Pack 'n Pedal
Best Bang for the Buck
The North Face Borealis
This classic just got better with a recent update. Of the laptop backpacks tested, it still features the best performance-to-price ratio. We love it for its easy-to-use pockets, separate computer access, an awesome amount of storage. It has all the necessary organizational features with many add-ons that make it a great option for both the city and the trails. Given its awesome level of versatility, it is a fantastic pack for work, school, travel, or running errands.
While we don't mind the outdoorsy style of this pack, it's not truly fit for those looking to set the trend. And though the back panel is breathable, we think the material is a tiny bit scratchy when placed directly on the skin. Aside from these minor caveats, it's our best recommendation for those in need of a good bag on a budget.
Read review: The North Face Borealis
Top Pick for Organizational Storage
If you seek organization and a high capacity to store all your gadgets in one place, this is our favorite option. It is perfect for loading up a laptop or a couple of tablets, your lunch, and an extra layer. While the volume advertises to hold 17L, it provides better storage capacity than expected, plus the option to pack away all your electronics among the numerous pockets and three larger compartments.
While we love the urban style and functionality of this laptop backpack, it's a little pricey and not waterproof. That said, if you are in search of a model that specializes in helping you organize your electronics with a separate access point for both the laptop and tablet, this may be the perfect option for you.
Read review: Incase Icon
Top Pick for Travel
Cotopaxi Tasra 16L
This is easily one of the most unique and 'coolest' laptop backpacks that we've tested thus far! It offers several features that make it best for travel, either to your office or on a plane. It features a collapsible suitcase-like design, perfect for carrying on to a plane, and it fits under a seat easily. Its organizational compartments make everything easy to see, including a zippered compartment for extra layers or items that you'd like to keep super secure. You can wear it as a backpack or tuck away the straps to carry as either a briefcase or messenger bag. What we love even more is that no bag out there in the world is the same. Each has the same architecture, but with different fabric colors and designs. So, when you buy it, you won't only be supporting a company that makes these bags with recycled materials, but you'll be getting a backpack that is 100% unique. Cool huh?
While this bag is one of our favorites, mostly because of its functionality during travel and cool patterns, it certainly has its downfalls. The biggest being the lack of protection. Given the collapsible design, it features little to no padding, forcing us to us an additional padded sleeve (which does work inside the bag), to keep our laptop safe. While the fabric offers some water resistance, the zippers absolutely leak, so it's not the best option for poor weather. The last caveat is the lack of structure. Aside from those caveats, it's our top choice for travel. It's a perfect carry-on, hiking bag, and office commuter.
Read review: Cotopaxi Tasra 16L
Why You Should Trust Us
Our review team consists of two veteran OutdoorGearLab review writers, with contributions from friends and family. Amber King and Katherine Elliot took the lead, testing all the backpacks you see today. Amber works as a full-time freelancer. She spends most of her time traveling while dropping into shared remote working spaces like the Ridgway Proximity Space along the way. Katherine is based out of South Tahoe, where she often bike commutes with a laptop in tow. In addition to Amber and Katherine, we asked the teachers, software engineers, and other commuting professionals to help us gather data for each product.
To test each backpack, we wore them everywhere we went. Using a 15-inch MacBook Pro and 13-inch MacBook Air, we can see which bags provide the best capacity and protection. We stuffed each with electronics, threw in our gym clothes, and loaded them down to see which were more comfortable. We noted the number of compliments and the "ooh's" and "ahh's" to figure out which were the most stylish. We wore each while riding a bike to see which fare best in the rain and we even threw them in the shower to test how they'd do in a downpour. With this and our in-depth selection process, we provide you with a great unbiased review of the best laptop backpacks out there.
Related: How We Tested Laptop Backpacks
Analysis and Test Results
After testing a series of products, we honed in on the most important considerations. A great laptop backpack exemplifies a balance of comfort, functionality, and style. It must also protect your laptop, whether you accidentally throw it down on the kitchen floor, or gently place it on your desk. It should store all the things that you take to work while providing a certain level of versatility that'll allow you to use it anywhere. While all the products in this review suffice as a bag to hold your laptop, there are several different options with unique features. When perusing this review, keep in mind what you need from your backpack and select which works best for you.
Related: Buying Advice for Laptop Backpacks
When considering a laptop backpack, the price is a significant factor for most of us. You will find laptop backpacks that cost next to nothing and others that are crazy expensive. Some contain outlandish fancy features, while others stand out as super simple and versatile. While fancy features are attractive, it's important to consider if you're going to need them or not. For example, the Thule Pack N Pedal has many bike-specific features while the The North Face Borealis is best for general use. Both have significant price differences with the North Face Borealis offering the best price. If you seek a simple laptop backpack that will carry your computer in addition to lunch and a few other items, choose a lower-priced contender. Consider the best options that fit your criteria while keeping in mind what you can spend.
The main job of any laptop backpack is protection. What good is a bag that can't protect a laptop? Considering this fact, we made this the most important metric to consider when rating each backpack. When considering this metric, we looked at the padding. Specifically, the amount and its placement. We looked at the laptop compartment size, the securing system that keeps it in place, and laptop location. While most backpacks do a decent job of protecting a laptop, no system we tested was perfect. We are surprised that companies don't emphasize this metric deeply in engineering and design. Below, we dissect all these important considerations, providing an overview of which laptop backpacks provide the best in protection.
Laptops are fragile and expensive machines and need protection from knocks and blows that could cause damage. The laptop compartment architecture is critical in achieving knock-out protection. Padding in the form of foam pads or sheaths are common, yet the most protective system utilizes a well-padded suspension system or a separate, well-padded compartment. Some of these compartments are built-in, while others that seem to offer the best protection can be taken out of the backpack for effortless utility.
A well-padded suspension system floats the laptop over the bottom of the back to avoid forceful blows. The Thule brand backpacks have proven to offer the best protection through the use of a well-padded system that doesn't just protect on the backplate, but on the bottom and edges (near the zippers) as well. Specifically, the Thule Pack n' Pedal has a compartment that detaches from the inside of the backpack and is heavily padded from all sides. This arrangement is similar to the Thule Paramount except it does not have a removable pouch. Both offer some of the best protection because they are so well protected from all angles, especially when loaded up. The Incase Icon also provides ample protection but utilizes a heavily padded foam compartment that sits right on the back of the user instead.
Other options that lack padding still might have suspension systems, like the Patagonia Black Hole 25 but have no real padding around the laptop itself. To find the best protection, consider options with ample padding, separate compartments, and suspension systems that will keep your computer off the ground. In addition, when considering backpacks that are without structure, like the Cotopaxi Tasra 16L, know that adding items (like a jacket) inside of them, will inherently make them more protective.
Laptop Compartment Size
The size of the compartment that holds the laptop is critical because if it is too large, the computer will move around, exposing it to potential knocks and friction. Virtually every bag we tested is designed to fit a 15-inch laptop, except for the Incase City, which holds up to a 17-inch Macbook. Most of the main laptop sleeves are not for an 11-inch machine, which causes smaller ones to move around considerably in almost every bag.
Virtually every laptop backpack is designed with a sleeve or slot to accommodate an iPad or tablet. While many of these compartment sizes may seem too large for a small laptop, you can quickly fill your backpack with lunch or other items to prevent the computer from shifting around. Consider the size of your laptop and choose a pack that will provide the best options.
The securing system works hand-in-hand with the compartment design to hold the laptop in place, ensuring that it doesn't move. Adjustable Velcro straps, like those found on the Thule Paramount, work best. Other options don't have these securing systems, but have a separate pocket for the laptop, like The North Face Kaban. Those that are more narrow will limit the range of motion, while those that are wider means your computer will be shifting more often than not. Some of the bags have no securing system at all, meaning you'd better be very careful to set your bag down upright and gently, or pay the possible price.
The last critical feature is the location of the laptop storage compartment within the pack. It's important to find options that place the laptop next to the back and away from the ground. All models did this, with the Thule Pack n' Pedal having the biggest buffer zone to prevent hard put-downs and potential damage.
Equally as important is whether the back support is rigid enough to absorb the blow of the bag landing on the ground. Some of the packs that feature suspended compartments lack this element, thus nullifying the advantages of the suspension design. In a few of the tested bags, the side edges or top corners of the laptop were much too close to the edges or zippers of the bags, where there is no padding, making the computer vulnerable to an impact from the side or top.
In the end, none of these backpacks do a perfect job of protecting a laptop. Regardless of which bag you use, the best protection is a keen awareness of how you move with your pack on and how you set it down. Although there are refinements we would like to see, we deem the Thule Pack n' Pedal to be the most protective.
Perhaps the most critical component of any backpack is how comfortable it is to carry. After all, if you can't stand to put the bag on your back for more than a couple minutes, how effective will it be for carrying things all over town, or the world? To test comfort, we wanted to make sure that we mimicked real-life conditions. We loaded these bags up with our around-town necessities and carried them everywhere we went. We also wore them almost empty to see how each felt without a laptop or much else. Testers and friends of different shapes, sizes, and genders donned each model to determine how they fit and how comfortable each is for everyday wear.
The two most critical features in regards to comfort are the design of the shoulder straps and the design of the backplate. The amount of padding in the shoulder straps is not nearly as significant as the width of the straps and how far apart they are where they attach to the top of the pack.
When the straps are further apart, they don't generate as much friction, and they don't bite into the neck or armpit. Just as important is how wide the strap material is to disperse the weight of the load. We also found that packs with a sternum strap (versus those without) do a better job at distributing the force of a load. The North Face Borealis and Thule Paramount are two of our favorites because of its comfortable shoulder straps and hip belt that helps to distribute the weight of a load evenly.
Equally important, as far as comfort goes, is the construction of the backplate. Some of the backpacks we tested have super stiff trays or plastic sheets to add rigidity and protection to the laptop. While these may do a better job of protecting your computer (a key factor), they are not as comfortable. Packs like the Incase Icon that incorporated soft padding in the backplate were the most comfortable in our tests, both for walking and bike riding. We also appreciate it when a backplate is nice and breathable, just like The North Face Borealis.
Organization and Storage
What use is a backpack if it can't store everything that you need to carry? We determined that two factors are most important when comparing storage: 1) How much can it hold? 2) How well does it stay organized? While there is certainly a fine balance between a backpack's volume and organization capacity, backpacks come in all shapes and sizes. Each is designed to carry specific items like important papers, pens, wallet, passport, sunglasses, iPad or other electronics (and even an attachment for a skateboard). While some are a little too small to fit everything we could imagine carrying (like food, water, or a jacket), others allow you to take it all with you. Those that did best in this metric offered a perfect combination of high volume and organizational capabilities. The Incase Icon exemplifies all that is awesome in organization and storage, earning it a Top Pick.
A few of the bags we tested, like the Timbuk2 Rogue, Thule Paramount, and the Patagonia Black Hole are top-loading style, similar to a classic rucksack, and while they carry enough for us to be happy, they include few features to help us stay organized. These are great options as the top-loading style adds versatility for what you put in your backpack. The Thule models offer the opportunity to expand the volume with its roll-top design that other packs in this review don't have.
For those who are interested in the exact breakdown of volume for each bag, consult the specs. While the manufacturer may state the volume, some packs aren't constructed to hold as much as they say they do. The North Face Borealis is said to hold the most stuff with a capacity of 28L, but because of its narrow profile and a large pocket inside, The North Face Kaban feels like it holds more. Be sure to look at the shape and size of the back to get a relative idea of how much each can hold.
Another important consideration is the number of compartments and types of pockets. Some folks prefer a backpack with an open compartment and fewer pockets, like the Mystery Ranch Urban Assault 21, while others prefer many pockets for optimal storage like the Incase Icon. In the specs table, we break down the division of compartments that each pack has — large pockets, small pockets, external side pockets, and zippered pockets. A compartment refers to the number of separate large (textbook or bigger sized) storage spaces the pack has. Use this to help you find the best storage options for your needs.
Ease of Use
While all of the backpacks listed here are designed to carry laptops, we also wanted to compare how well they hold everything else and how well they handle everyday use of other items besides laptops. We specifically addressed different contexts and activities and measured how easy it was to perform these tasks. Is the bag big enough to carry water? Can it carry a jacket, climbing shoes, and harness for a session at the gym, or even a full change of clothes? How about picking up groceries for dinner on your way home from work? Most importantly, we look to see which can allow you to access your laptop the easiest when the pack is fully loaded.
Many contenders did well in this metric, as manufacturers seem to put a lot of thought into the architecture of the pack. Perhaps the simplest and easiest packs to use are those with large openings and fewer pockets like the Thule Paramount. Its open voluminous compartment in addition to its well thought out storage makes it a fantastic option for commuting to the office. Computer access is simple, even when loaded down as you can use the side-access zippers to get at your electronics.
The Thule Pack n' Pedal is another one to consider with a similar roll-top design and simple organization. What's unique is the laptop sleeve comes out of the pack, allowing you to use this bag for many other reasons when you don't need to carry a laptop. You can take it hiking and load it up with 25L of gear, making it super versatile and easy to use for many purposes.
Another feature that we really like is the separate compartments for both a laptop and tablet. The Incase Icon earns a high score because it features a separate zippered compartment for both a 15-inch laptop and a tablet. This arrangement is convenient when your backpack is full of other stuff, and you need to get at your electronics --another reason why it earns an award.
The Cotopaxi Tasra 16L offers a more unique set-up that looks more like a briefcase. It is accessed by unzipping the zipper all the way around the backpack. This opens it up like a story-book, allowing you to see everything that is in your backpack. While this takes a little more time to organize, we really appreciate this organizational property.
If you seek a pack that is versatile enough to take from work to the trails, our Best Buy winner, The North Face Borealis, makes the transition very well. It has many features, including the option to use the laptop pocket as a hydration bladder. You can also easily put your helmet on this pack for storage, with the ability to easily access your laptop! Cool huh?
While we didn't expect any of these bags to be completely waterproof, it is nice to know that if you get caught out in a rainstorm, all of your precious and expensive gadgets will not end up water damaged. For that reason, we tested these bags for water resistance. We put each backpack under a shower for five minutes to see if any water leakage occurred. We also dunked the backpacks in a tub to see if the bottoms would hold up, similar to being put down in a puddle. Not only did we use these objective tests, but we also ran out in the rain to see how the materials would hold up. The importance of water-resistance in your consideration of a laptop backpack is specific to the climate surrounding you. If it's raining all the time, this metric is important, but if it's hot and dry, it may not be a top priority.
The test results were predictably all over the board. We noticed that two things in particular made for an exceptionally water-resistant bag: a durable water-resistant (DWR) coating and covered zippers. DWR coatings are applied to the fabric of a bag and help it to shed water upon contact, rather than absorb water. It's worth noting that over time and with wear, these DWR coatings will break down and wear off, and require reapplication if the original amount of water resistance is to be maintained. Zipper quality is important, as it is the main point of water entry into a backpack.
The best in water resistance goes to the Mystery Ranch Urban Assault 21, Patagonia Black Hole and Thule's Pack n' Pedal. On its own, the Pack n' Pedal is just as water-resistant as other packs, allowing some moisture inside with a torrential downpour. A cool feature it comes with is a rain shell, that, when in use, renders the pack completely waterproof, thus keeping your laptop safe. The Black Hole has much more water-resistant fabrics and zippers that are more durable, offering an exceptional level of water resistance through the construction of the pack alone. The Mystery Ranch is outfitted with much thicker fabrics, that helps to avoid water penetration with zippers that are completely waterproof as well. All three are great options if you seek a laptop backpack that will do well in the rain.
"Style" is a subjective term. We rated each bag according to how well it meshes with the look of today. Essentially, this metric rates how well each pack fits in with the rest of your attire. Because style is objective, you might want to ignore this rating anyway and make the call for yourself. Style makes up 10% of the final score.
While many of the backpacks in this review offer a style that can be worn in both the city as well as the country, the Cotopaxi Tasra 16L is our favorite. While it's not a favorite for all, we love it's unique and vocal colors that shout "one of a kind" from the tops of the mountains. Every single one of these packs is 100% unique in its design.
If super bright and loud isn't your thing, and we seek a more formal and sleek look, be sure to check out the Incase Icon instead. It features solid colors in its design with a reputable square shape for a more urban look. The rest of the bags in this review all have their own styles. It's important when considering what to buy, which you prefer and what looks good to you.
Shopping for a laptop backpack is a fun adventure! It's a great piece of gear that will protect your beloved laptop while you tool around town. While on the hunt, make sure to consider what factors are the most important for you. We hope that our recommendations and advice proves to be helpful for you in your search for the perfect laptop backpack.
— Katherine Elliott and Amber King