Best Laptop Backpack of 2020
Best Overall Laptop Backpack
The Incase Icon is a sleek and stylish laptop backpack with excellent organization and protection. It's no wonder it's our favorite among the competition. It holds 17 liters of your stuff, while also keeping it padded and protected from daily abuse. Load up a laptop, tablets, lunch, books, binders, and your after-work clothing in one backpack. It has three main compartments for exceptional organizational capacity and easy access to all your items. Its urban style is a superb choice for work, school, or even travel.
While we love this pack, some don't love an overly organized bag. While the three compartments allow organized access to all contents, some prefer to throw their stuff into one compartment, which can't be done with this backpack. This option is best for those that love to compartmentalize their things in a beautiful, stylish package.
Read review: Incase Icon
Best Bang for the Buck
The North Face Borealis
The The North Face Borealis offers spacious storage that holds oodles of books. We love it for its easy-to-use pockets, separate computer access, and voluminous interior. 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 versatility level, it is a fantastic pack for work, school, travel, or running errands. It's durable and water-resistant, performing well through most weather.
While we don't mind this pack's outdoorsy style, some might find it more appropriate in a mountain town than a professional urban setting. Though the back panel is breathable, we think the material is a bit scratchy when placed directly on the skin. For the price, though, it's our favorite amongst the contenders offering, what we think, is the best value.
Read review: The North Face Borealis
Best for a Tight Budget
The Tzowla Travel surprises us with its low price and surprising performance. While many of the other laptop backpacks out there can be quite expensive, this one is the exact opposite. It's loaded with features such as a charging station, great pockets, beefy zippers, and organizational storage. The pack sits high on the back and distributes weight well, even when loaded down. It fits thinner 15"-inch laptops and will carry all your necessary items. We appreciate the lightweight appeal that makes it easy to carry daily.
While it has a charging station, it does not come with a battery pack, which let us down. While it is stylish and affordable, it also doesn't have the most high-grade craft. Though, after one full year of continuous use, this high-value contender is still doing well for our testers. We were drawn in by its price, and its year-long performance continues to over-achieve.
Read Review: Tzowla Travel
Best for Bike Commuting
Thule Pack 'n Pedal Commuter
If you're looking for a protective laptop backpack that'll stay dry in all types of weather, the Thule Pack 'n Pedal receives our highest accolades. It has a place to stash your helmet, sunglasses, and even comes with a protective rain shell. It distributes the weight nicely and can take quite a heavy load while the back panel and straps offer comfort and breathability, even while you sweat. The protective sleeve is removable and padded on all sides to protect from hard set-downs. We appreciate the volume, which allows you to easily fit your gym clothes, a binder, a couple of textbooks, and your lunch with ease. It also doubles as a regular backpack if you simply remove the laptop sleeve, providing more storage.
While it is difficult to find anything wrong with this top performer, we can say that it's not the most stylish with its roll-down top and reflective tape. The price is also relatively high, though, this is a bag that we've been using for over a year, and it still looks fresh. If you seek a bag that's excellent for bike commuting, take a look right here.
Read Review: Thule Pack 'n Pedal
Best for School and Campus
Jansport Right Pack
It's not surprising that you'll find the Jansport Right Pack happily sitting on the backs of school children, college kids, and academics. The voluminous interior is a classic designed to carry a lot of binders and textbooks. Simple in its design, it comes with an enormous amount of space (31L), which can fit multiple binders, textbooks, a 15-inch computer, a water bottle, and gym clothes. It's super easy to use, and we appreciate the lower price compared to other backpacks on the market.
Unfortunately, the laptop sleeve is less protective than others we tested, so you'll need to slip it inside foam protector if you intend to throw your backpack around. It's also far from waterproof, and the bottom picks up dirt quickly. Aside from these caveats, if you're seeking a bag that'll lug all your things to and from school, be it K-12 or college, this is a classic and worthy choice.
Read Review: Jansport Right Pack
Best for Travel
Cotopaxi Tasra 16L
The Cotopaxi Tasra 16L 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. 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 unique backpack.
While this bag is one of our favorites, mostly because of its functionality during travel and cool patterns, it certainly has its downfalls. The most significant is the lack of protection and structure. The collapsible design features little to no padding, forcing us to use an additional padded sleeve (which does work inside the bag) to keep our laptop safe. While the fabric offers some water resistance, the zippers leak, so it's not the best option for poor weather. The last caveat is the lack of structure. All that aside, it is one of our favorites for traveling.
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 taught elementary science for several years before starting up an educational non-profit. She works remotely, dropping into different co-working spaces while traveling and exploring the globe. Katherine bike commutes daily with a laptop in tow. In addition to Amber and Kat, we asked 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 with binders and textbooks to see which are more comfortable. We wore each while riding a bike to see which fare best for cycling commuters, and we even threw them in the shower to test how they'd do in a downpour.
Related: How We Tested Laptop Backpacks
Analysis and Test Results
We tested a wide range of laptop backpacks to provide a great overview of the current market. Each was objectively scored across a few metrics to determine relative levels of performance. We compare each across the metrics to give you a glance at which bags are best for specific applications.
Related: Buying Advice for Laptop Backpacks
When considering a laptop backpack, the price is a significant factor for most of us. Some of us can't afford the fancy construction and features that you'll find in more expensive backpacks. Of the selection, two stand out above the rest in value. The North Face Borealis offers the best quality for the best price. You can depend on it to last for many years, and it has exceptional storage and protection. The Tzowla Travel pack is a super inexpensive option that functions well enough for most folks. Between the two, the Borealis is to be trusted for use for many years. However, the cost of the Tzowla Travel Pack truly can't be beaten. While it may not be as durable, it has got a more stylish outer appearance and offers a more sleek design than the Borealis for a much lower price. Both are recommended if you're simply looking for the best value.
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. The Incase Icon also provides ample protection but utilizes a heavily padded foam compartment that sits right on the back of the user instead. Both offer great protection, with the Pack n' Pedal offering more. Also, it is far more water-resistant, protecting your laptop from rain and snow.
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. 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. The Jansport Right Pack (Best for School or Campus) has a huge amount of volume that would fit a thicker 15" laptop and its case.
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. 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 protected from weather and hard landings. The most protective options have separate padded inserts like the Thule Pack n' Pedal or separate padded pockets like those found in the Incase Icon and Fjallraven Kanken 15".
Bags with suspension systems are also to be sought after. Essentially, the laptop sits in the main compartment with the sleeve suspended above the ground. The Mystery Ranch Urban Assault 21 has this feature, which adds protection from setting the bag down too hard.
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 of weather and other impacts.
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 Pack n' Pedal 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 incorporate 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.
Another key performance metric is comfort when the backpack is completely weighted down. Any student knows what it is like to lug around several textbooks and binders, class to class. Those that distribute weight well, like the Thule Pack n' Pedal and the Incase Icon, will be more comfortable when weighted.
Those that sit higher on the back won't sit in the small of your back. We appreciated this with smaller backpacks like the Fjallraven Kanken 15" and the Tzowla Travel Pack. The Kanken does lose points in this category because of its narrow straps that are quite close together, unlike the Tzowla Travel Pack and the Thule Pack n' Pedal.
If comfort is your most important deciding factor, look at the North Face Borealis, Incase Icon, and Thule Pack n' Pedal. All have wider shoulder straps with a breathable backplate. If you prefer a lightweight backpack, check out the Cotopaxi Tasra 16L or the Fjallraven Kanken 15", but be aware that these are more comfortable when filled with less weigh.
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. 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.
We also love the Jansport Right Pack with its 31 L of storage, capable of fitting more gear, books, and gadgets than most of the competition. It's our favorite for school because of its voluminous design. The Icon doesn't feature the same volume, but it offers unparalleled organizational capacity. It has three compartments, whereas the Jansport only has one. If you prefer to put everything in one place, the Jansport might be for you. But if you like having a home for each gadget or item, the Incase Icon is a better choice.
Top-loading bags are easy to use and allow you to see their internal contents at a glance. Of the many we tested, we appreciate the Timbuk2 Rogue, Patagonia Black Hole, and the Fjallraven Kanken 15" the most. While they carry enough for us to be happy, they include few features to stay organized. These are great options as the top-loading style adds versatility for what you put in your backpack. The Thule Pack n' Pedal offers the opportunity to expand the volume with its roll-top design that other packs in this review don't have. This expanding option adds protection but makes it harder to get in and out of the pack.
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 Icon.
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 Pack n' Pedal, Jansport Right Pack, and Patagonia Black Hole, and Fjallraven Kanken 15". The open voluminous compartment allows you to put all items into one place, so you can simply access them. Simplified storage makes it easier to load up as well.
Backpacks with simple one-zipper access, like the Jansport Right Pack, Tzowla Travel, among others, makes getting at things simple. While we appreciate the protection of roll-top designs or multiple zippers, these backpacks take longer to get into and can be a pain when accessing items.
Separate compartments for the laptop allows you to access it without having to rifle through all your stuff. Many laptop backpacks like the North Face Borealis have this feature.
Though, the one that does it best is none other than our top-scoring, Incase Icon. Instead of one zippered compartment for the laptop, it has an additional one for your favorite tablet as well. Not only does it add protection, but it makes its accessibility super simple, especially when you're in a meeting and need to access your electronics, notebooks, and portfolio quickly.
Other Cool Features
Those that offer a briefcase carry like the Cotopaxi Tasra 16L open up like a storybook, allowing you to see everything that is in your backpack. While this takes a little more time to organize, we appreciate this organizational property.
Backpacks with water bottle holders are awesome! But, we also learned that many manufacturers ignored how easily (or difficult) a bottle fits when the bag is packed. The backpacks with the best water bottle holders are the North Face Borealis and the Thule Pack n' Pedal. These are mesh-based with lots of storage capacity to fit larger diameter water bottles, as well as thinner canisters.
We also love backpacks with an attachment for bike helmets and the like. Bags with bungee systems like the North Face Borealis easily go from the office to the trail. We also love the Thule Pack n' Pedal for its numerous features that are geared towards bike commuting, such as effective helmet storage and a rainfly.
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. 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 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 Thule 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 help avoid water penetration with zippers that are completely waterproof. 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, lifestyle, and life-vibe. You might want to ignore this rating anyway and make the call for yourself. That said, we took the time to get feedback from friends, family, strangers, and co-workers to evaluate this metric.
While there are many stylish options out there, the most colorful is the Cotopaxi Tasra 16L. 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.
The Fjallraven Kanken 15" is another super popular and stylish option. Its boxy style is petite and small, with many color offerings for many different tastes. If you're looking for a cute school bag or one that'll do well for travel, this is a great consideration.
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, Timbuk2 Rogue, or Tzowla Travel instead. All feature a more urban look, with a sleek look that'll do well both in the office and at school. Despite our recommendations, be sure to take a look at the pictures and decide which you think is the snazziest of them all.
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. Whether it's style, comfort, fit, or protection, we've got great recommendations to help you find one that'll suit you best.
— Katherine Elliott and Amber King