Best Backpacks for School, Travel, and Adventure for the Whole Family

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Forget about the days where a backpack for school had to be boring and be used JUST for carrying books and pencils.

Today, with just a little bit of effort you can find one backpack that does it all.  A pack that you can take to school or work, out on your mountain adventures, and even on your world travels.

Best All-in-one Backpacks for School, Travel and Adventure

Confession time…I really love backpacks.  I didn’t realize how bad my problem was until our most recent move when we were sorting through all our things.  Our family had well over 30 backpacks (and that’s not even counting shoulder bags or duffels), which seems a bit absurd.  So from now on, we vowed that we would only buy backpacks that we can use for EVERYTHING (though I’m still completely in love with my favorite hiker from Osprey…even if it is the worst at carrying my laptop…)

We’re going to break down what you need to look for in a pack for every member of the family from toddlers up to adults (even though I still believe that EVERY pack that fits a toddler is the most adorable thing ever and I REALLY want to buy them all!)

So what do you need to look for to choose the best multi-use backpack?

Backpack Durability

If you’re buying a backpack that’s going to be getting everyday use, make sure that it’s sturdy and durable.  Remember that if you or your kids are going to be putting books into it every day, dropping it on the floor as soon as you get inside, possibly throwing it to the side of the playground, AND taking it for a hike to the waterfall on the weekend or on a family trip, it’s going to be put through A LOT!  Avoid packs that say things like “ultralight” or “lightweight” since they probably won’t be able to stand up to what your kids will throw at it.  If you can find a pack with a reinforced bottom, that’s even better!

Exterior Water Bottle Pockets

Even if you don’t always carry a water bottle, having these external pockets can be a lifesaver in so many different situations.  You can use them to carry snacks, extra pencils, or even as a personal trash bin for the day.  A good water bottle pocket has elastic at the top to hold in different items.

Water Resistant

No, your pack does not need to be 100% waterproof.  However, finding a backpack with waterproof coating is a good idea.  Not only will that save your gear (or laptop computer and expensive school books) in a drizzle, but it will also come in handy if your water bottle leaks a bit, so you don’t come home with everything soaked.  Want to know how waterproof a backpack is?  Pour a cup of water on it and see what happens.  If the waterproofing is adequate, it should all just run off, if the material just soaks it up either keep looking or treat the fabric with a good waterproofing spray like this one.

Multiple Compartments

girl hiking with backpack

If you’re looking for a backpack that can do double (or triple) duty, make sure to invest in a backpack that has several compartments.  At a bare minimum, have a large and a small compartment, but having three can sometimes work even better.  Personally, I feel like having more than 3 compartments is just too much since it breaks everything into areas that are too small to be functional.

Hydration and/or Laptop Compatible

Some backpacks will say that they are laptop compatible, and others will say that they are hydration bladder compatible.  Either way, that handy pouch at the back of the pack can usually pull double duty (depending on the size of your laptop).  If you’re looking for a backpack from about ages 10 and up, make sure that it has this feature.  That way you can carry your school or tech supplies whenever you need, but when you hit the trail for a hike simply put a hydration bladder in the same pocket (obviously without the laptop…water and laptops are a horrible combination!).

Chest Strap

A chest strap is a feature that I now consider absolutely necessary for any backpack (even for toddlers).  When a chest strap is adjusted correctly, it not only keeps the backpack in place, but it also helps to evenly distribute the weight on each side.  This was once a feature that was considered only for hiking packs, but now as kids carry more and more in their school bags, brands are including chest straps on many more backpacks.

Waist Belt

A waist belt is a great feature that comes in especially handy if you’ve got a heavy load to carry or if you’re wearing your backpack for a long time.  When worn properly, a waist belt helps to distribute the weight in the backpack down onto your hips, so your back and shoulders can get a bit of a break.  This feature can be a bit harder to find (especially for younger kids), but if you do find a pack with it, it’s a great feature (even if you don’t use it daily).

Front Loading Pack

kids hiking with backpack

Although there are a lot of good looking packs out there that are top loading, if you want a pack that works for school, travel, and adventure, skip over those.  The best option for a pack that you want to do multiple things is a front loading pack.  Those are the packs that unzip at least halfway down in a U shape.  The reason you want a front loading pack is because it’s so much easier to get things in and out and especially to stay organized.  Top loading packs tend to be a bit of a bottomless pit, which is just a recipe for disaster when you’re using one backpack for EVERYTHING!

Padded Shoulder Straps

This might seem like kind of a no brainer, but it’s REALLY important that you get a pack with padded shoulder straps.  The good news is that almost all packs that meet our other requirements ALSO have padded shoulder straps.  Packs in the ultralight category often just have mesh or nylon straps, but like we mentioned above, those packs are usually not durable enough to be an all in one backpack.

What Is the Best Size of Backpack?

Honestly, there is no best size for everyone.  If you’re planning on doing carry-on only travels with this as your bag, make sure not to go too big.  I’ve found that personally, a 45L pack is a great size for me since it can carry everything that I need for a few days, holds my laptop and a few other necessities well, yet it still doesn’t feel too big or cumbersome when I’m out for a day hike or just strolling around town with a few things.  If you go extra light, you might want to go as small as 30L, or if the pack is just the right dimensions, you could even go up to 50L and still have it fit (always check with your airline first!).  For kids, you’ll obviously want a smaller backpack, which I break down below.

What size backpack should kids carry?

little boy hiking with backpack

While there is no best size for an adult backpack, that’s not at all the case with kids.  All too often, we have kids carry backpacks that are WAY too big and heavy for them.  The National Safety Council recommends the following, when considering what backpack to get your kids:

  1. Backpacks shouldn’t be wider than a kids torso and they should never hang more than 4 inches below their waist.
  2. Shoulder straps should be padded and adjustable.
  3. Chest and waist straps when possible to help evenly distribute the weight.
  4. Backpacks should include reflective material for increased visibility.

Best Backpacks for Toddlers to use for school, travel and adventure

Like I mentioned earilier, I am a bit obsessed with toddler backpacks.  With all those cute packs, how do you choose the best backpack for your 2-3 year old?  While I strongly recommend that backpacks are front loading for older kids and adults, top loading packs are often easiest for toddlers, since they don’t have to worry about doing up the zipper.  Keep in mind though that these are very small backpacks and will likely not fit a regular notebook.  As you can see from the list below, we really like Deuter backpacks (our son is wearing the older bird version of the Deuter Kikki in the photo above).  Each of our kids has one in their size and they’re all around some of the best kids backpacks we’ve ever found!  Here are our favorite all in one backpacks for toddlers:

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Best Backpacks for Preschoolers to use for school, travel and adventure

Once your kids are in the 4-6 age range, they take their first steps towards independence.  While it’s tempting to get them the cutest backpack you can find, remember that function really does start to matter even at this young age.  No, they won’t be carrying a laptop, but they might carry a hydration pack out hiking.  They probably won’t be carrying their own backpack on a trip through Europe, but you better believe that they will stuff it full of every toy they possibly can for a trip to the playground (and you’ll be so thankful that you bought one with padded straps and a chest strap too).  We have used several Camelbak packs throughout the years that have all performed amazingly, and I don’t feel like you can ever go wrong with Osprey either since they offer a lifetime warranty.

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Best Backpacks for Elementary School Age Kids to use for school, travel and adventure

Choosing the best backpack for your 7-10 year old is actually a lot easier than for smaller kids.  Most of that is due to the fact that as they get bigger, there are more and more backpacks on the market that offer the features that they need.  Around this age, kids can start fitting into some adult size small packs as well.  Our 9-year-old daughter currently has this Columbia pack and it’s a good, solid, basic pack.  As she get’s older, I know she’ll want more features, but at this size it’s a great option.  The Burton and Osprey packs are also fantastic because of the lifetime warranty that they carry.

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Best Backpacks for Teens and Tweens to use for school, travel and adventure

When your kids hit the junior high school years or about from ages 11-15, you should realistically be looking for a backpack that they can keep until they are adults.  If you buy a backpack that’s high quality, this is completely realistic and exactly what you should expect from a multi-use backpack.  Depending on their size, you may not want a full size adult pack, or it might also work to have an adult pack with a smaller volume.  For most kids that I know who are this age, a pack that’s about a 30L size tends to be good though this varies from kid to kid.  We’ve got an older version of the Outdoor Products backpack below that our oldest has used for a few years and it’s been really wonderful (and it’s a great price with a lifetime warranty).  We’ve also had similar packs (but older) from each of the other manufacturers below that have lasted for years and years!

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Best Backpacks for teens, men, and women to use for school, travel, adventure, and work

When you’re buying a pack for an older teen or an adult, it’s worth investing in a high quality backpack that will last for decades.  I got a Kelty Redwing when I graduated high school 20 years ago and it’s still one of the best backpacks I’ve ever bought (it was even my backpack of choice for our family gap year).  My husband has an Osprey Ozone (now discontinued) that he has used almost every single day for years for everything he needs for travel and work.  When you find a good backpack that works for you, you’ll want to use it over and over again!

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About Jessica Averett

Hi, I’m Jessica, a mom of 5 kids and married to my favorite adventure partner. I love to bike, ski, camp and hike. We've visited over 40 countries with our kids, but are equally happy on the road as we are exploring our home state of Utah.

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