When I started to consider my back-to-the-office essentials, I had nearly every category on lock—a new reusable coffee cup, an oversized blazer, a fresh white shirt, chunky dad sneakers—but I was due for a refresh in the bag category. (I was using an old vegan leather diaper bag that was giving me unpleasant flashbacks…)
I wanted the hands-free benefits of a backpack, but with a sleeker profile and functional features that would make my hour-long train commute from the ‘burbs into the city as seamless as possible. And with many of us shifting back to in-person work—a 2022 Ipsos poll showed 74 per cent of Canadians have returned to their pre-pandemic working conditions—I thought others might be facing a similar plight.
Once I started looking for the best and sleekest backpacks out there, the category seemed endless—did I want waterproof fabric, trolley straps to allow it to perch atop a suitcase, leather-trimmed shoulder straps?
I set out to test a wide range of backpacks, and evaluated them with the following criteria: Did the backpack provide a safe, cushy home for my laptop? Was it comfortable for longer walks? Roomy enough to fit things like drink bottles, chargers and lunch? Did they have extra special features, like a comfortable top handle for crowded train exits, or trending neutral hues to match my desire for monochromatic dressing. Did it have easy-to-access pockets for brisk extraction of my phone or Presto card when I exited the train terminal? And if I were headed to a nice dinner with friends after work, would it make me look like I’m studying for university exams?
Here, the very best backpacks I 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 one outing with the brand’s slightly more functional Everyday Backpack 2.0 23L to convert me to its brilliant design. I was entranced by the rounded rectangular shape, with its billowy front pockets and silky nylon fabric. The extra thick tonal zippers blend with the water-repellent fabric, and unzip with zero effort. Seemingly endless interior pockets make for easy access to snacks and lip balms through mesh windows, and the two exterior bottle sleeves meant I never stressed over water bottle or coffee cup carnage inside the bag. I loved the way the straps felt in my hand. The interior body boasted plenty of room for sneakers and gym gear, while the exterior laptop sleeve made it easy to pull out my laptop without rearranging my other bits and pieces. When the bag was emptied, it was nearly weightless. It was great for office jaunts and beyond—the Burnt Caramel colour was so alluring, I couldn’t help but take casual snaps of it on my phone.
Best backpack for the eco-minded: Everlane
Everlane ReNew Transit Backpack, $152, everlane.com SHOP HERE
At first glance, the recycled polyester material didn’t impress. It felt too casual, as if I was heading to a festival instead of the office. But after a few Go Train jaunts, this backpack and I fell into a rhythm, and it made my packing become more intuitive with each trip. The bag boasts two bottle holders and enough space to store a 15-inch laptop, plus interior slip pockets for smaller notebooks and books. But the true test of our relationship was when I packed two laptops inside and walked 20 minutes in a brutal snowstorm, never once having to re-adjust a strap or pause to catch my breath. Another delightful feature is its unstructured shape—when packed, it puffs up to hold a shape (without looking overstuffed!), but once empty, it can lie flat inside a suitcase and doesn’t take up too much real estate.
Best luxury backpack: Want Les Essentiels
Want Les Essentiels Kastrup Nylon Backpack, $595, wantlesessentiels.com SHOP HERE
A luxe, Canadian-designed backpack that comes as close as possible to having a personal assistant in backpack form; you’ll want this Want Les Essentials carryall made of Italian nylon. Nary a detail has been missed, from the weighty lock to the signature YKK excella silver and gold zippers, which are an experience to use—unzipping the bag feels akin to stroking a designer purse. The internal laptop pocket kept my laptop in a private cabin, and the chic key strap saved me from those end of night panic sweats when you can’t find your keys and briefly consider sleeping on the porch. I felt proud to bring this to post-work drinks in a chic hotel lobby. I wouldn’t mind if it was a teeny bit lighter, as it weighs in at 3.5 pounds when empty, but it’s a small price to pay for leather straps and luxe finishes.
Best backpack for ultra-organized types: Away
Away F.A.R Backpack 26L, $160, awaytravel.com SHOP HERE
If you subscribe to the “every item has a home” ethos of many organizational wizards, this backpack will scratch that itch. With compartments from front-to-back, there’s no wasted space in this abrasion-resistant backpack. I baptized a forest green one with a visit to the passport office with three children in tow, testing its ability to house handfuls of Hot Wheels and plush stuffies, three days’ worth of snacks and all of my important documents (alongside my own patience). It made short work of extracting any demanded item with its fuss-free zippers and lightweight material—even the kids liked carrying it around. Made with recycled polyester, it’s on the sporty side so it’s not the chicest backpack to bring to a post-work cinq à sept; for that, the brand’s sleeker sister, Front Pocket Backpack, would be a slam dunk.
Best backpack for minimalists: Monos
Monos Metro Backpack, $240, monos.com SHOP HERE
Lean and chic, this beautiful backpack masquerades as a clean, structured tote. Of all the backpacks I tested, this was the only one boasting removable storage, care of the QuickSnap™ Modular Kit System (which can be snapped onto the Monos duffel bag, too). The nylon twill fabric and vegan leather trim is water-resistant and the smart design includes a trolley strap and separate laptop sleeve, for speedy security clearance at the airport or when you’re arriving late for that meeting and churning out cortisol. It offers less storage than some of the others, so best suited for those who travel lightly.
Best for the backpack-averse: Uniqlo
Uniqlo Utility 2Way Bag, $50, uniqlo.com SHOP HERE
For those allergic to backpack life (a vocal group, I must say), I present this savvy solution from Uniqlo, Japan’s purveyor of essentials. In a millisecond, the polyester bag converts from tote to backpack, lying completely flat, and despite its variety of pockets and zippers, feels as light as a croissant. While it doesn’t include a laptop pocket, it contains ample room to tote one around (I slipped mine into my padded case first). The genius addition is the zippered lower compartment, which I used to stow a wet bathing suit after a spa visit.
Best value backpack: Muji
Muji Less Tiring Backpack, $39, muji.ca SHOP HERE
For a shockingly reasonable price, this thoughtfully designed backpack can manage a load of 20 kg while reducing the pressure on your shoulders, thanks to its cushy anti-fatigue shoulder straps. It’s a popular pick amongst my pals who bike around the city. The neutral shade offering (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 kept my laptop in place, and the water repellent polyester fabric shockingly kept all my items 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 marries many good qualities—it’s lightweight, has enough pockets to keep things sorted (there are 12), and has shoulder straps you can easily adjust while the backpack is on. The fact that the fabric made of recycled water bottles is wipeable and water-resistant came as a relief when I brought it to a work lunch date, toting it by the leather handle, and when my tomato soup sloshed all over it, it wiped off in seconds. One thing that took some getting used to was the lack of a large main interior section, because of all those aforementioned pockets (including a snug one for a laptop). The biggest draw for me was the iPad-sized interior command centre, with card-sized slots and a handy key strap.
Best for back support: The North Face
The North Face Isabella 3.0 Backpack, $120, thenorthface.com SHOP HERE
I wish this backpack existed a decade ago, when I was toting a 17-inch brick-like Dell Laptop and clunky textbooks around my college campus. The back panel and strap positioning are engineered to hug a woman’s frame while cradling extra weight. Such ergonomically designed bags used to share the same silhouette as said bricks, but this sleek egg-like shape with a bias-cut exterior pocket felt fresh, and the fabric is very modern recycled polyester ripstop and nylon. The cozy, fleece-lined top pocket was the ideal home for my phone, a delightful sensorial experience each time I went looking for it, which was about 100 times an hour.
Best waterproof backpack: Fjällräven
Fjällräven Kånke backpack, $140, fjallraven.com SHOP HERE
With a firm grip on the backpack category (there are 70+ styles, with 34 designed to tote laptops) I was keen to try the Fjällräven I’ve seen on the backs of many Torontonians. One friend who recommended it told me she appreciates how the shape never leaves her feeling like a turtle. The unique waterproof “Vinylon F” fabric is a man-made material that, exposed to water, will tighten to prevent water entry. This keeps everything inside nice and dry, which I tested at home under my kitchen faucet (living on the edge for journalism!). The rainbow range of hues (I die for the smoky navy and terracotta brown) brings a personalization and joy to backpack-wearing.
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