Backpacks for teens by High Sierra

Back to school season is a little bit different every year. From current events to classroom change-ups, students have a new set of challenges to tackle each fall. As parents, the best that you can do is try to send them back with all the tools they’ll need to conquer the day and trust that they’ll come out alright each time!

The right back to school backpack will vary depending on your child’s specific needs. Every kid has their own unique sense of style, but school requirements come into play too. Some districts use laptops in class; others, tablets, or even just pen and paper. Making sure your young child, teen or young adult has room to carry their books along with their tech tools is an important part of setting them up for success.

Keep in mind that backpacks aren’t just for kids: those who commute to/from the office, especially using public transportation or cycling, as well as those who travel often for business, might prefer a backpack over a briefcase.

Table of Contents

1. Select the right-size backpack based on age and needs
2. Features to look for in a backpack
3. The best laptop backpacks for back to school
4. Backpacks for university
5. Backpacks and laptop bags for travel
6. Protect your critical tech with the right case

Selecting the right backpack based on age

The right backpack truly depends on the age of the child, the grade they’re in, and what their studies entail.

Kids Avengers backpackThe right backpack for grade school kids

When it comes to grade school kids, they’ll need a smaller sized backpack to fit their smaller frames. For preschoolers, kindergarteners, and those in first grade, there are child-sized backpacks designed to fit them. These usually have a single compartment inside to fit essentials like an extra pair of clothes, pencils or crayons, and a lunch bag. Some even come with matching lunch bags and even clips at the front for securing them on the outside to leave the interior free for other items. These should also have a pocket on the side for holding a small child-friendly water bottle. They usually come in fun designs with themes like popular TV show or movie characters, so involve your child in the process so they can pick one that fits their interests. While it’s tempting to grab the cheapest kids’ backpack you can find, look for one with a strong zipper closure, as kids tend to stuff things inside and pull up versus to the side, so it will need to withstand getting scuffed, pulled, dropped, and dragged.

As the child gets into higher grades, usually from 4 and above, computers, typically Chromebooks, are added to the equation. While most schools have Chromebooks there that children can use, if you opt to buy your child their own (it’s a good idea if you can afford it and trust them to take care of it), you’ll want a bigger backpack with a padded laptop compartment to keep it safe and secure. They will also have things like pencil cases, notebooks, and more, so a spacious interior is helpful. You’ll want a larger backpack with a larger water bottle pocket as well since kids will require more hydration throughout the day.

Jansport Recruit backpackThe right backpack for high school kids

Come high school, kids have bigger needs and will be bringing more along. This might include not only notebooks, pencil cases, textbooks (yes, these still exist!), and lunches, but also a smartphone, wallet, and larger laptop. Look for something with tons of pockets so they can keep cash and small items secure. Built-in charging cords or sections to run headphone wires are useful as well so they can pop on a pair of headphones to relax during their free periods. Something made of waterproof material is useful, especially if they walk to and from school. The laptop compartment should be large enough to accommodate the laptop they have. Look for padded straps: some backpacks even have a chest or waist strap for added stability when they are carrying a heavy load. Being trendy and fashionable is a big deal in high school, so let them shop with you to find a backpack they will be proud to carry that meets all of the above criteria and fits in your budget.

College backpackThe right backpack for college and university students

A college and university student has the same needs as high school, though they might require a larger backpack to accommodate more textbooks and other study materials for each class they take. These are the same types of backpacks a younger worker might require as well. They’ll want to have items like charging cables to keep devices powered up through the day as they move through campus, as well as headphones for quiet listening while on breaks or in study hall. Waterproof design is important as well, especially if they will be navigating a large campus to go from one class to another. You’ll want to spend a bit more here as the young adult will likely be looking to use the backpack through their entire college/university career, which can be up to four years, even more with extended studies.

Features to look for in a backpack

Back of man with backpack

Breaking it down further, here are the key features to look for in any backpack.

Proper size

The backpack should be of the proper size for the child. If your grade one child is much taller than the other kids, for example, you might be fine upgrading to a larger backpack, even if they don’t necessarily yet have things to fill it. Whatever you think the child will be taking with them, get a bag with a bit of extra room so they aren’t fighting to stuff things inside.


Comfort is critical for a school backpack, especially for high school and college/university where the bag will be carried around a lot. But this is true for grade school as well, Targus backpack with waist strapespecially for older kids who might walk home on their own, or with a parent or guardian. Look for comfortable straps, vented back for keeping cool in the summer, and an extra chest or waist strap if the child has a lot to carry or suffers from back pain or sore joints.

Laptop compartment

Laptop compartments are useful even if your child doesn’t travel to school with one. they can also come in handy for a tablet or even to separate important notebooks or file folders from other items, like lunch and clothing. For those who are carrying an expensive computer or younger kids who tend to throw their bags around, make sure it’s heavily padded.


The material should be waterproof and resistant to tears. It’s never fun to end up with a backpack with a hole in the bottom from the child dragging it along the pavement outside. The zipper closure should be secure so if the child is caught in the rain, their items inside won’t get drenched. And, as noted, a strong zipper is critical, not only for young ones but also those who will be opening and closing it often, and filling the bag to the brim. A vented back is also useful, especially during the hotter months.

Backpack pockets compartmentsWater bottle holder

Some backpacks have side pockets for holding a water bottle, but they are very narrow, and difficult to get a larger bottle inside, especially when the interior is full. Check the size of the holder relative to your child’s water bottle to ensure it will fit nicely. For large water bottles, higher pockets will ensure they don’t come tumbling out.

Extra pockets

Extra pockets are useful for kids of all ages. They can store smaller items and keep everything neatly organized. The pockets should be easy access yet secure, and sizeable enough to reasonably accommodate the items the child is bringing with them.


Built-in wheels are useful so the child can use the backpack for other events, whether it’s school trips, family outings, or travel. But only if the backpack has traditional straps as well. While it’s preferred to have a traditional backpack style as kids can easily trip over rolling bags, having the roller option is a bonus to use when appropriate.

Anti-theft features

Anti-theft properties are also useful to consider when getting a backpack for a student that will house valuables. Some anti-theft options include straps made of slash-proof materials (so a potential thief can slash them so it falls from your back and grab the bag and run), hidden or even lockable zippers. Some even come with RFID blockers so if the child is entrusted with a credit card or has other personal ID inside, thieves can’t scan the bag to get the information.

Best laptop backpacks for back to school

Targus Voyager 17.3" Laptop Day Backpack - BlackOne decision that you’ll need to make when purchasing the right backpack for your child is the type. Some will need a regular backpack; others, a laptop backpack. A regular backpack is great for general use, but laptop backpacks provide functionality that your older child can choose to use or not use. (It’s often handy to have the option, even if you aren’t planning on using it!) Their built-in padding and sleeve functionality give you and your student somewhere safe to slide a laptop in, so it’s protected from minor falls and scratches.

Make sure to select a laptop backpack that fits the size of your student’s laptop. Other handy features include separate pockets and zippered sections for things like books, water bottles, and power cords. Having a separate section for a wallet is especially helpful if your teen takes public transit to school—it makes finding their bus pass easier than ever.

What should you look for in a laptop case or tablet sleeve?

Herschel Supply Co. Heritage 15.6" Laptop Sleeve - Raven CrosshatchIf there’s a stylish backpack that’s caught your eye but it doesn’t have the kind of laptop pocket you want, it’s not the end of the world! Try adding a padded laptop sleeve after the fact. Sleeves aren’t worked in to the bag itself, so they’ll offer slightly less drop protection. However, they still do a fantastic job of providing protection from drops and scratches overall.

As a separate accessory, a laptop sleeve gives you or your child the option to safely transport a laptop on its own—for instance, in a weekend tote bag.

Non-laptop backpacks often have 1-2 large, unstructured compartments. This can be a great thing, creating a more casual structure and making the bag itself lighter. But with everything jumbled together, your child’s more fragile items can be scratched or damaged.

That’s where a laptop case or tablet sleeve comes into play. The ones with a soft, inner felt or microfibre lining, helps prevent scratches on the surface of your more fragile electronic devices, and it works with an outer layer (usually something like neoprene) to deliver shock-absorbent drop protection.

Look for a case in the right size for the device, with a secure closure or tight fit. Then, pick a design that your teen loves—there are tons to choose from!

The best messenger bags to take your child back to school

Kenneth Cole 15" Laptop Messenger Bag - BlackAnother great option for back to school is the classic messenger bag. Messenger bags are (please excuse the pun) a mixed bag: they’re stylish and convenient, but don’t distribute their weight as evenly as a traditional backpack. While a typical two-strap backpack or laptop bag spreads the weight of your bag across your shoulders and back, a messenger bag rests only on one shoulder. Over time, if your bag is too heavy, this can create back pain or slouching.

Messenger bags are stylish and sleek, and are often office-ready for students who are headed to college or university soon.

Backpacks for university 

Herschel Supply Co. 13" 18L Laptop Commuter Backpack - Ash Rose TonalIf your teen will be graduating this year, looking at what they’ll need next year is worth the extra time and effort. High-quality backpacks made from outdoor-grade materials cost a little extra, but should last for years—giving your kid a stylish piece that they can depend on for some years to come. Having the ability to take a bag from school to a professional environment will pay off quickly, and it’ll help you create less consumer waste overall too.

Professional backpack styles can accompany your teen to their future first day of work or college. The sleek laptop bags and messenger bags are good option for older students: they’re cool enough to go to high school, but are also professional enough to take to a summer internship. Laptop bags are a perfect choice that come with a lovely silhouette and colour options ranging from serious greys to whimsical roses.

Backpacks and laptop bags for travel

Targus Balance EcoSmart 15.6" Laptop Day BackpackAs a deviation from sleek lines, sporty day backpacks are a small, lightweight way to carry many items with great weight dispersal. Day backpacks can give your teen the option of multiple pockets made from ripstop materials, with padded shoulder straps and hip strap weight dispersal. They’re an excellent choice for smaller kids who struggle to take all of their books to school, and they’ll really last—which is perfect for future day hikes and family beach days.

For school use, look for day packs that have a smaller pocket for things like lunch and their keys, as well as a laptop pocket or built-in sleeve for note-taking and study sessions. Your teen’s bag will help set them up for each day, so get them involved with choosing a style that will work for their needs!

Targus backpack interiorProtecting critical tech with the right case

These days, laptops, tablets, and smartphones are all part of the school experience. After spending hundreds, potentially thousands, of dollars on a laptop for a student, you’ll want to make sure they protect that investment. Critical to that is finding the right bag.

The laptop compartment is more than just a slot for the laptop. It should be padded on both the back and front. Padding on the back ensures that if the bag is thrown to the ground, the laptop won’t feel the impact. Meanwhile, padding on the front protects the laptop from grazing against items in the main interior, from headphones to sharp pens or learning utensils, spilled lunch, and more. Some laptop backpacks even have a separate zippered laptop compartment on the back to keep the computer or tablet completely away from anything else inside. This also makes for easy retrieval since you don’t have to open the main interior to get it.

If the bag is large enough and you have extra concerns, consider getting a laptop sleeve for the laptop that fits into the backpack laptop compartment for even more protection. If you’re worried about thievery, a bag with anti-theft features is worth investing in.

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