Backpacks are unsung heroes of the modern wardrobe. They’re a constant companion when you’re going about your day to day, they keep your everyday essentials safe and sound, and they never complain, no matter how much you dump on (or into) them.

We continue our Check Before You Buy series with a list of things to look for when hunting for a new rucksack. These days there are many, many options to choose from, so as is the case with all new purchases, it’s important to consider exactly what you need before you go splashing your cash.

For the sake of this story, we’re going to assume you’re looking for an everyday bag to get you from A to B - if you’re going to be hiking through rainforests or leading an arctic expedition then we suggest you look into dedicated outdoors bags.

Zippers

There are two kinds of zip you want to look after in life: the one on your pants and the ones on your backpack. If either of them goes, you’ve got an awkward situation on your hands. It might seem like one of the least important elements of a bag’s design, but it’s essential that zippers keep working day in, day out - after all, if you can’t properly open or close your bag, then it’s pretty much useless.

Needless to say, this is one area where you want quality, reliable components, and nine times out of ten that means YKK. As the market leaders in zipper technology, this Japanese company produces around seven billion zips a year - roughly half the world’s supply - and they didn’t get to that stage by making an inferior product.

EXCELLA is YKK’s flagship line, but also look out for Swiss company RiRi, who polish every tooth in their premium range of zips for a staggering 18 hours to ensure faultless operation every time. Talon zips are also highly regarded in the industry.

Straps

There are times when your travels feel like summiting Everest, and you wouldn’t drag something up a mountain that size without some decent straps. Scoping out a bag’s level of padding before making a purchase is a no-brainer, but here’s something you might not be aware of: the strongest muscles in your body are your legs (unless you’ve been seriously biased with your workout regime), so this is where the majority of weight should be carried.

By choosing a rucksack with waist straps, you can avoid painful shoulder tension by diverting weight to your hips. Likewise, a sternum strap allows your pectoral muscles to pick up even more of the slack, meaning all that heavy gear won’t be a strain on your spine. If you’re simply looking for a lightweight, easy daypack for a few essentials, then you’ll probably be fine with just the two straps, but if you carry heavy loads around on the regular then you should really think about investing in something a little more supportive.

Pockets

 

They say that less is more, but when it comes to stashing all your necessities, a healthy supply of pockets is much, much better than the chaos of a single compartment. Things are easier to find, less likely to break, and you won’t feel like you’re venturing inside a black hole every time you need something.

Side pockets make it easy to keep a drink handy, a thin front pocket is great for storing documents, penholders do exactly what they’re supposed to and compartments on the back panel will allow access while you’re wearing the bag itself.

If you take a laptop around with you, make sure your bag has a dedicated interior pocket that actually fits your computer (hot tip: the clue is in the name. 13”,15” or 17”). Finally, if you want to keep the water out, make sure any external zippers are reverse-taped or shielded with a layer of fabric, otherwise rain will seep straight through and really ruin your day - especially if you’re carrying any electronic gadgets with you.

Waterproofing

 

You might think the lining of your bag is up to the task of keeping your laptop and assorted essentials dry, but you’ll never know for certain until you’ve been caught in the midst of a torrential downpour.

Most entry-level daypacks are constructed from canvas, nylon or Cordura (which, technically speaking, is also nylon). All three fabrics will do you fine if you’re just looking for something to keep your essentials safe in light showers, but if you’re going to be exposed to some really foul weather (and/or carrying really expensive gear) then you’ll need to invest in something a little more water-resistant. Rains and Eytys’ Void sub-label - both brands from the perpetually drizzly Nordic countries - specialize in water-repellant fabrics, and their bags would be a good place to start if you need to keep your essentials dry in really wet conditions.

Something else that's important to bear in mind: unless it’s been specially treated, leather and suede, as great as they look, are not waterproof and will not only allow water in, but can easily stain when wet. Synthetic alternatives, however, often repel water due to their high plastic content, so if you’re really looking for a leather backpack then this might be one time in life where the more affordable option actually pays off.

Find the Brand For You

If you’re just looking for a daypack to carry your day to day essentials, then entry-level labels like Jansport, Eastpak and Herschel Supply Co. will do you just fine. Herschel recently expanded into premium territory with the innovative ApexKnit series, which engineers backpacks out of a high-performance knitted fabric. The North Face has a wide range of utilitarian luggage solutions, too - including a high-end Access bag that can be opened one-handed, with ejector tabs giving the user even easier access to its contents.

Dedicated cycling brands like Mission Workshop and Lexdray specialize in bike-born luggage solutions, while Vancouver label Nocturnal Workshop produces fully reflective backpacks, ideal for safety-conscious night owls and cyclists alike.

If you need some next-level tech to survive anything your rigorous lifestyle will throw at it, then you’ll most likely have to venture into the upper end of the market. High-performance label Outlier’s Ultrahigh backpack has a magnet closure that can be opened with one hand, and will gradually mould to the wearer’s body. If you’d like to occasionally keep things a bit more formal, then OG Japanese luggage label Head Porter’s Tanker series contains an innovative three-way briefcase that can also be worn as a backpack.

At the end of the day, we advise just getting out there and trying some backpacks on for size - see how they fit, check out the features and think about how much of your stuff you’ll be able to cram into it. Happy shopping!

For more expertly-researched consumer guides, take a look at the rest of our Check Before You Buy series.

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