Buying a new laptop backpack: which features to look out for

Buying the right laptop backpack is a pain. Why? If you’re a commuter or someone who travels for work a lot, you want to use your backpack for at least the next 2 to 5 years. Every day. Some of us expect to get a good 10 years out of our backpacks.


But worry not: there is a booming market of laptop backpack startups, brands and designers online doing their best to make the best urban backpack for your commute and global travel. And, since you last bought a backpack, there are new design features, different ideas that are changing the face of the rucksack for good.


Yes, it’s got to be black and smart, but what other designs and features are available now that you should be looking for in your laptop backpack? And which ones do you need?


Laptop compartment in your backpack

It feels obvious, but if you’re carrying around a laptop - which 60% of us still are - then you should get a backpack which is made to handle this. For years I carried a laptop around slipped inside my old backpack without a laptop compartment. This damaged the laptop because the base of the backpack was so thin, it was slow to remove at airport security and just more difficult to find everything else next to my laptop in my backpack.


If you’re carrying a laptop for work by foot, bike, train or plane, make sure to choose a backpack which has a zipped padded laptop compartment. This means, you have a standard place to put your laptop, it’s quick and easy to remove and store again, when your backpack is empty your laptop is still strapped down and won’t rattle around causing damage to itself and misshaping your bag.


Laptop compartment size

The largest group of commuters and international travellers move around with 11 inch, 13 inch and laptops up to a 15 inch screen. But even knowing this isn’t always that helpful. Because that “13 inch” line is simply from one corner of the screen to the diagonal opposite. It doesn’t consistently tell you how wide and long the laptop is, or how much casing there is around that screen.


When you’re buying a laptop backpack online, there’s no way around it. Grab a ruler and measure it out. Your laptop is not a standard size. So measure the long side, the short side and the depth and make sure your laptop fits inside the measurements you find.


Backpack capacity

Measuring backpacks in litres is like measuring living rooms in gallons. It’s a very precise way to tell you about how the water would fill every nook and cranny, but most of us find it difficult to imagine how big 25 litres really is.


Think of 10 x 1 litre bottles of water. Then think of 20 or 30 of those bottles. The vast majority of us need a backpack which is big enough to carry a laptop and then a few extras like a jacket, headphones, lunch and book. Amazingly, that actually fits in a 10 litre backpack. It’s a slim backpack, but that’s often a good thing on a commute. On the other hand, since many of us want to use one backpack for work and all the other stuff like holidays, running daily errands, it makes sense to increase to 15 litres for a general purpose backpack.


For serious frequent flyers who hating checking in luggage, you’re going to have to make the most of your hand luggage allowance. That means going for a larger backpack than the standard daypack. Whilst there are large backpacks which are designed to fit within the strict hand luggage sizes, there are also convertible backpacks. These switch between a slim laptop for the commute, but they fold out to a large backpack size for longer journeys and international travel.


Anti theft backpack

Back in 2013 the closest you could get to an anti-theft backpack was a) buying a backpack with a net around it or b) getting a backpack with padlocks through the zips. Whilst (b) is definitely better than (a), (b) seems to defeat the point of a zip. Zips are amazing: you can really quickly open and close any compartment which would normally hang open and require a buckle or some other tie. By adding a lock, you’re killing the point of a zip: speed.


In 2014, a commuter in the United Kingdom invented a new kind of backpack. It’s a sealed unit to the outside world. The new backwards backpack only has zips against your back. When you’re wearing the backpack, the zips are hidden by your back. That means, no one can access your backpack whilst you’re wearing it. Great in a busy city commute, or visiting a new city on holiday.


This anti theft, secure design works on two levels: 1) You dramatically decrease the chance of losing items from your backpack, whether you drop them by leaving the zips open, or someone opens the zips and steals from your backpack. 2) All the extra time and worry spent thinking about whether your zips are done up, checking your belongings are safe, and being stressed about security is over. You get all your travel time back to relax, think and enjoy your surroundings. Your stuff is safe, your zips aren’t open and no one expect you can get into your backpack. This is a really important design feature to look out for if you travel in cities regularly, or if you’ve had something stolen from your bag before.


Mobile phone holder on a backpack

Our smartphones are one with us. Well, whilst they will be in the future, they currently need a place to live. Most of us opt to put our small, expensive lumps of metal and glass on which we rely to keep our lives functioning in our pockets. Whilst this scores high for ease of access for us, it’s too easy for other people to access and with all the standing up and sitting down we do, dropping and losing your phone is too easy from a pocket.


Remember those backpacks which have those tiny mobile phone holders right at the front of the strap so your phone can see too when you’re commuting? That wasn’t a very elegant design solution at the time, because it’s a little too easy to guess where the mobile phone is hiding. They don’t really work today because smartphones, phablets and the like range in size from handy to massive these days.


Instead, the new solution is a secure, zippable pocket at the base of the backpack. It means your phone is securely zipped away, it isn’t obvious to anyone else where it is and when you’re walking along and you need it, you can reach back, unzip and remove whilst on the go.


Laptop backpack for women

Depending on whether you work in an office, a hospital or a construction site day to day, you will know what laptop backpack design is most appropriate for your work attire and environment. Whilst the old fashioned backpack companies have traditionally aimed laptop backpacks at men, startups and newer brands understand that in 2018 - news just in - women work and commute with laptops too. However, the best backpacks for men tend to be the same for women.


The commuting population is on the search for a high quality, smart, black, functional and secure backpack which fits as hand luggage on a plane and holds up to a 15 inch laptop. Remember to look for a large handle to grab your backpack whilst travelling, something washable to keep it looking good over the years, with a serious base to protect your belongings from hitting the ground too hard and to make sure whatever’s on the ground - rain, snow, grit and all the other delightful things on our streets - don’t get into your backpack.


The best backpack laptops for women are, in the main part, the same as the best ones for men. They are smart, functional, high quality - but what’s crucial is that the backpacks are easily adjustable for different body frames, heights and sizes. So look out for chest straps that are not only adjustable in width but up and down too. This is important because when your backpack is heavy, using the chest strap at armpit level will help to distribute weight and maintain good posture. However, if you’re breasts are the way, you’ll just have to shift those chest straps a little - up or down - to make sure you’re comfortable.


Laptop backpack for men

The commuting population is on the search for a high quality, smart, black, functional and secure backpack which fits as hand luggage on a plane and holds up to a 15 inch laptop. Remember to look for a large handle to grab your backpack whilst travelling, something washable to keep it looking good over the years, with a serious base to protect your belongings from hitting the ground too hard and to make sure whatever’s on the ground - rain, snow, grit and all the other delightful things on our streets - don’t get into your backpack.


Buying backpacks online

Should I buy a backpack online? Had you asked this question 10 years ago, the answer would most likely be no. But these days, buying online is just the same as going into a shop, it’s just the shop comes to you. And, if you don’t like it, you just send it back.


Know your rights. Every company in Europe - by law - has to allow you send physical products bought online back within 14 days of receiving it for a full refund of the cost of the product and the original shipping you paid. Thank you lawmakers. As long as your bank account can safely cover it, you can buy every backpack available online, try them all on in front of the mirror at your own leisure, and then send the ones you don’t want back. Although, you’d be surprised how much room 10 backpacks take up. So you might want to head back to the post office with a small trailer.


Going into a few shops on the high street used to be the way to find the best backpack. However, arguably the world’s most exciting brands and designs are no longer in the big department stores. They are online, making small production runs, asking for customer feedback and never talking to the high street stores who pass on little of the money you pay to the actual designer. So if you’re looking for a new design, do some searching online for the features you want. If the company is in Europe, you can buy from them without even risking the price of shipping to your house. Just know, if you want to send it back - just because, no reason required - you can. In most cases you may have to pay for return shipping. Why? These are often very small companies, with just one or two people in them. They don’t have anywhere near the scale that a 600 billion dollar business like Amazon does. But you’ll find yourself with something unique, created with the features you’re looking for and most likely with an amazing story behind it.


Black laptop backpacks

Which is the best colour for a work backpack? Without a doubt, the commuting population is wearing black. It’s practical, goes with everything, smart and can easily double up as a holiday backpack. Whilst kids opt for bright colours, our backpacks are black. When you’re walking through a city you’d never been before, with your work laptop, passport and visa, wallet and important client documents, not many of us have a desire to stand out. Keeping smart but low key, elegant and inconspicuous is a good decision. Accessorise with colour rather than making your key components - like your backpack and coat - the items that shout: look at me.


Best backpack materials

The all time best backpack material is a nylon called Cordura. In its 1000D form (that’s how heavy the weave is) it is strong, can be scuffed plenty without problems and it’s washable - crucial for the long term user. There are waterproof versions of 1000D Cordura too. With the sturdiness comes a little extra weight. So it’s up to you if you’re looking for a very light backpack, or if you prefer to have a strong and sturdy backpack that can be hurled around whilst travelling.


What are the best zips to have on a backpack? The ones to look out for are YKK zips. They are designed to be used about 10,000 without problem. In fact, when you have double zips on your backpack, that means the distance the zips go is only half. So you should be able to use the zips for double as long.


Strap materials you should be looking for should combine EVA and, if you’re looking at Cordura backpacks, the Cordura should continue on the strap.


Waterproof backpacks

The most waterproof backpacks are not those that are stitched together. If you’re buying a backpack that is stitched together, the stitches create thousands of tiny holes in the material, meaning it’s possible that some water will get in at the seams. That’s even true for waterproof materials.


100% waterproof backpacks use a different manufacturing method. Thermo glues are used to seal two waterproof panels together. When done correctly, this prevents any water getting in or out of the compartment. If waterproofing is top of list, look for backpacks which manufacture in this way only.


Convertible backpacks

There is a new trend to buy backpacks that change from small capacity to large capacity depending on what you’re carrying. This can either be achieved by having buckles on the side that release a few extra litres when you let them out. Or there are origami masters that turn a slim laptop backpack into more than double the size. So if you want one backpack for the commute and global travel, it could be worth investing a little more. But make sure the maximum size backpack still is airline safe.


Backpacks and back problems

Shoulder bags and handbags are not the way to go if you have back and shoulder problems. Backpacks are recognised to be the right choice if you are carrying heavier items like a laptop every day. Why? Because you evenly distribute the weight you are carrying straight down the back, down both sides.


Extra positives you should look for are an adjustable chest strap and a waist strap. When you are carrying more weight, using both straps will enable you to reduce the movement of the backpack on your body. Instead, strapping the backpack to your torso enables you stand up straight, makes better use of a wider range of muscles to carry the weight and stops you getting into bad habits that can aggravate back problems down the line.


See if you can find backpacks which have removable waist straps. You may not always need the strap, but for the times you require a bit of extra back support when you’re carrying heavier stuff, having waist strap handy that you can attach takes the weight off your shoulders and on to your hips and legs.