The best backpacks for commuting to work with laptop in tow
By the time I started thinking about my back-to-the-office essentials, I had almost every category locked — a new reusable coffee mug, an oversized blazer, a crisp white shirt, chunky dad sneakers — but I should refresh myself in the bags category . (I used an old vegan leather diaper bag that gave me awkward flashbacks…)
I wanted the hands-free benefits of a backpack but with a slimmer profile and functional features that would make my hour-long train ride from the suburbs to the city as seamless as possible. And as many of us are transitioning back to personal work — a 2022 Ipsos survey found 74 percent of Canadians have returned to their pre-pandemic working conditions — I thought others might face a similar plight.
When I first started looking for the best and most stylish backpacks, the category seemed endless – did I want waterproof fabric, trolley straps so they can sit on top of a suitcase, leather trimmed shoulder straps?
I set out to test different backpacks and rated them based on the following criteria: Does the backpack provide a safe and comfortable home for my laptop? Was it comfortable for longer walks? Enough space for things like water bottles, chargers and lunch? Did they have special features like a comfortable top handle for crowded train exits or trendy neutral hues that suit my desire for solid color clothing? Did it have easy-access pockets for quickly grabbing my phone or Presto card when exiting the train terminal? And if I went to a nice dinner with friends after work, would I look like I was studying for college exams?
Here are the very best backpacks I’ve found.
The winner: Lululemon
Lululemon Everyday Backpack, $98, shop.lululemon.com. SHOP HERE
While Lululemon’s simple City Adventurer Backpack is a bestseller, it only took a trip with the brand’s slightly more functional Everyday Backpack 2.0 23L for me to be won over by its brilliant design. I was smitten by the rounded, rectangular shape with the puffy front pockets and the silky nylon fabric. The extra thick, tonal zips harmonize with the water-repellent fabric and can be opened effortlessly. Seemingly endless interior pockets allow for easy access to snacks and lip balms through mesh windows, and the two exterior bottle sleeves meant I never felt stressed about having water bottles or coffee mugs in the bag. I loved how the straps felt in my hand. The inner body offered plenty of room for sneakers and gym gear, while the outer laptop sleeve made it easy to pull out my laptop without rearranging my other odds and ends. When the bag was emptied, it was almost weightless. It was great for office outings and beyond – the burnt caramel color was so alluring I couldn’t help but snap the occasional snap of it on my phone.
Best backpack for the eco-conscious: Everlane
Everlane ReNew Transit Backpack, $152, everlane.com. SHOP HERE
The recycled polyester material didn’t convince at first glance. It felt too casual, like going to a festival instead of the office. But after a few Go-Train trips, this pack and I got into a rhythm, and my packing became more intuitive with each trip. The bag has two bottle holders and enough space for a 15 inch laptop as well as inner pockets for smaller notebooks and books. But the real test of our relationship came when I packed in two laptops and ran for 20 minutes in a brutal snowstorm without once readjusting a seatbelt or pausing to catch my breath. Another appealing feature is its unstructured shape – when packed it puffs up to hold a shape (without looking overstuffed!), but when empty it can lie flat in a suitcase and won’t take up too much place.
Best Luxury Backpack: Want Les Essentiels
Kastrup Nylon Backpack, $595, Wantlessentiels.com. SHOP HERE
A luxurious Canadian-design backpack that’s as close as possible to a backpack-style personal assistant; you will want this Want Les Essentials travel bag made of Italian nylon. No detail has been overlooked, from the heavy lock to the signature silver and gold YKK zips in Excella, which are an experience – opening the bag feels like stroking a designer handbag. The internal laptop sleeve kept my laptop in a private cubicle, and the snazzy lanyard saved me from the late-night panic sweats when you can’t find your keys and briefly consider sleeping on the porch. I was proud to bring this to an after work drink in a swanky hotel lobby. I wouldn’t mind if it was a bit lighter as it weighs 3.5 pounds when empty, but it’s a small price to pay for leather straps and luxe finishes.
Best backpack for ultra-organized guys: Away
Away FAR Backpack 26L, $160, awaytravel.com. SHOP HERE
If you subscribe to the “every item has a home” ethos of many organizing wizards, this backpack will scratch that itch. With front-to-back compartments, no space is wasted in this abrasion-resistant backpack. I christened a forest green with a visit to the passport office with three kids in tow and tested its ability to fit a handful of Hot Wheels and stuffed animals, three days’ worth of snacks and all my important documents (besides my own patience). . With its no-fuss zippers and lightweight material, pulling out any item you wanted was a breeze – even the kids loved carrying it around. Made from recycled polyester, it’s sporty, so not the fanciest backpack to take to a cinq à sept after work; The slimmer sister of the brand, the Front Pocket Backpack, would be a hit.
Best Backpack for Minimalists: Monos
Monos Metro Backpack, $240, monos.com. SHOP HERE
Sleek and chic, this beautiful backpack masquerades as a clean, structured tote bag. Of all the packs I tested, this was the only one with removable storage and the QuickSnap™ Modular Kit System (which also snaps onto the Monos duffel). The nylon twill weave and vegan leather trim are water-resistant, and the smart design includes a trolley strap and separate laptop sleeve for a quick airport security check or when you’re late for a meeting and punching out cortisol. It offers less storage space than some of the others, making it best suited for those who travel light.
Best for backpack averse: Uniqlo
Utility 2Way Bag, $50, uniqlo.com. SHOP HERE
For those allergic to backpacking life (a vocal group, I must say), I present this clever solution from Uniqlo, Japan’s essentials supplier. The polyester bag converts from tote to backpack in a millisecond, lies completely flat and feels as light as a croissant despite its multitude of pockets and zippers. While it doesn’t include a laptop sleeve, it has enough room to carry one around (I put mine in my padded bag first). The brilliant addition is the zippered bottom compartment, which I used to store a wet bathing suit after a spa visit.
Backpack with the best value for money: Muji
Less strenuous backpack, $39, muji.ca. SHOP HERE
At an amazingly affordable price, this thoughtfully designed backpack can handle a 20kg load while relieving the pressure on your shoulders thanks to its comfortable, anti-fatigue shoulder straps. It’s a popular choice among my friends who ride their bikes around town. The range in neutral tones (olive, navy, soft mocha) is versatile and on trend for spring, with a trolley strap for suitcase compatibility. Speaking of straps, I loved the vertical one that held my laptop in place, and the water-resistant polyester fabric kept all my stuff shockingly dry during an unexpected freezing rain episode.
Best Backpack for Smaller Items: Bugatti
Bugatti Reborn Solid 15.6″ Laptop Designer Bag, $99, bestbuy.ca. SHOP HERE
This minimalist backpack combines many good qualities – it’s lightweight, has enough pockets to keep things organized (there are 12) and shoulder straps that you can easily adjust while the backpack is on. The fact that the fabric, made from recycled water bottles, is wipe clean and water resistant was a relief when I took it to a work lunch, carried it by the leather handle, and when my tomato soup spilled it wiped clean in seconds. One thing that took some getting used to was the lack of a large main interior due to all of the aforementioned pockets (including a snug one for a laptop). The biggest draw for me was the iPad-sized interior command center with card-sized slots and a handy lanyard.
Best for Back Support: The North Face
Isabella 3.0 backpack, $120, thenorthface.com. SHOP HERE
I wish this backpack existed a decade ago, when I was lugging a 17-inch Dell laptop and clunky textbooks around my college campus. The back panel and strap positioning are engineered to hug a woman’s body while supporting additional weight. Such ergonomically designed bags used to share the same silhouette as the stones mentioned, but this sleek, egg-like shape with a slanted outer pocket had a fresh feel, and the fabric is very modern recycled polyester ripstop and nylon. The snug, fleece-lined top pocket made the ideal home for my phone, every time I looked for it, which was around 100 times an hour, a delightful sensory experience.
Best Waterproof Backpack: Fjällräven
Fjallraven Kanke, $140, fjallraven.com. SHOP HERE
Having a firm grip on the backpack category (there are over 70 styles, including 34 designed to carry laptops), I was dying to try the Fjällräven, which I’ve seen on the backs of many Toronto residents. A friend who recommended it to me said she appreciates that the shape never makes her feel like a turtle. The unique waterproof “Vinylon F” fabric is a man-made material that contracts when exposed to water to prevent water ingress. This keeps everything nice and dry that I tested under my kitchen faucet at home (living journalism on the edge!). The rainbow palette of hues (I’m dying for the smoky navy and the terracotta brown) adds a personalization and joy to carrying backpacks.
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