Seeking high school backpack that won't fall apart
May 9, 2023 8:18 AM   Subscribe

My teenager has gone through two backpacks from The North Face in less than a year. The North Face replaced the first one under warranty, and I expect they'll replace the second one, but we'd like to have something more durable.

We purchased The Borealis from The North Face because I think of them as a reputable company that makes quality gear. After about nine months, though, my kid showed me that both the shoulder straps were shredding and pulling away where they were attached to the top of the backpack.

We returned it to The North Face and they gave us a store credit which we used to buy another Borealis. We hoped it was an isolated manufacturing incident. This time, though, one of the straps itself is starting to split from the weight of daily use.

My teenager has typical high school backpack contents. It's not extraordinarily heavy. They usually carry it on both shoulders, but sometimes they carry it over one shoulder. (Note: the current splitting strap is not on the side they use for one-shoulder carry.)

So, we're giving up on The North Face and would like to get something else. Can anyone recommend a high school / college backpack that will last more than a year? It needs to carry a laptop, iPad, and some other assorted items. Two pocket minimum, three preferred. Chest strap (for clipping the two shoulder straps together) is a hard requirement. We are on a budget, but are able to spend more for something rock solid.
posted by Winnie the Proust to Shopping (29 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
I only get Jansport and they last for years and years. I still use my college one for travel, and I'm in my late 40s.
posted by fingersandtoes at 8:21 AM on May 9, 2023 [12 favorites]

I have a JanSport backpack that's lasted over a decade. My kid also has one that's gotten her through college. I don't know if a chest strap's available, though. Mine doesn't have one.
posted by Spike Glee at 8:21 AM on May 9, 2023 [2 favorites]

I've had my LL Bean Deluxe Book Pack for 23 years now. The only reason I haven't had it longer is because my first one got stolen out of my car in college, so I had to buy a new one. I'd had the one that got stolen for four years at that point, everyday use in high school and college. I finished college with the new one and I've had it every since. Before WFH, I used it as my man-purse, carrying it every day to work, and I also bring it along when I travel, which is frequent. I've never been particularly gentle with it, but it's never had a problem. I had a zipper skip out of the track on one of the front pockets, and just recently there have been some loose threads, but otherwise it's been a tank. It's one of my most valuable possessions, in terms of the benefit I've gotten from it.
posted by kevinbelt at 8:27 AM on May 9, 2023 [7 favorites]

I use a backpack from REI for hiking, travel, and work (I teach in higher ed). All their backpacks have chest straps I think. My newer one replaces a very old model from REI that I got over 10 years ago - the stitching on one of the straps eventually came undone.

If you are a member of REI (which is basically free - they often have a deal where if you pay the $30 member fee, you get $30 store credit) you can access their used gear page - they often have very lightly used packs for sale.
posted by coffeecat at 8:38 AM on May 9, 2023 [2 favorites]

I picked up this JanSport Hatchet Backpack at a thrift store recently and use it when I need to go into the office -- it's got a padded laptop sleeve and a chest strap. I don't use it a ton but really like it.

And the more basic JanSport bags are how I got through high school/college so nthing JanSport as the brand you want to be looking for.
posted by jabes at 8:45 AM on May 9, 2023

I'm not a fan of TNF because I've always found that their stuff wears out extremely quickly.

Bags I've owned that are extremely well made and have lasted ne at least 10 years:

- Jansport. Had this one since 2005, still awesome.
- Patagonia Black Hole, take this everywhere, it's never had a problem
- Timbuk2 Authority, most used bag, also fantastic
posted by coldbabyshrimp at 8:46 AM on May 9, 2023

They're on the pricier end, and their style isn't for everyone (think very utilitarian), but Red Oxx makes an American-made backpack that is guaranteed for life and built to last.

I don't have the K-12 bag linked above, but I have several of their bags including a suitcase, a laptop bag, and a mini-rucksack, and they're built like tanks.

Good luck breaking it—but if you do, all accidental damage is warrantied.
posted by vitout at 8:47 AM on May 9, 2023

I think of them as a reputable company that makes quality gear.

TNF was bought by VF in 2000, and, while they've produced some innovative designs since then (and they still make halo products like the himalayan suits), they're not dependable like they used to be, and they haven't been for a long time.

This analysis is about preppy brands, and it could be read as kind of elitist, but the arc it describes is fairly common. I might caution you to take recommendations of brands based on their products of twenty years ago with a grain of salt--often as not, the new stuff isn't the same.

Mystery Ranch is a good bet these days, though some of their stuff is a little paramilitary-looking for my tastes. Patagonia and Fjallraven are still reliable, and the latter is fashionable, at least among high school/college people around me.
posted by box at 8:49 AM on May 9, 2023 [6 favorites]

I went milsurp in high school - at the time it was a frameless ALICE but the current ones are MOLLE. Chest strap, tons of pockets, no back pain despite all the AP class books. No refunds for surplus but it holds together.
posted by cobaltnine at 8:52 AM on May 9, 2023

Bear in mind that anything anyone bought ten years ago/in college/in the nineties is made to a much, much higher standard than the same brand is now. Contemporary Jansport backpacks are not made to the standards of the early 2000s, and I can say this because I've handled both vintage and new bags.

If you really want to sink money into something that will last, a possibility would be a bag from a small maker like ReLoad. I've purchased from them and their bags are extremely, extremely high quality.

Patagonia or REI are probably fine.

Other brands I'd look at for really long wear - Duluth Pack, Rickshaw, Mission Workshop (although I find their bags a little too buckley). There are other small makers out there if you google around for Mission, etc.

Seriously, if your kid thinks that they can pick out something that they won't hate for college and the very long haul, I'd get a RE Load backpack.
posted by Frowner at 8:56 AM on May 9, 2023 [11 favorites]

Jansport bags are indestructible and my last one hung on for more than a decade after college, before it was stolen in a break-in. I've upgraded to a Tortuga bag that I use for work and as a carry-on bag.
posted by emelenjr at 9:02 AM on May 9, 2023

Confirming the L.L. Bean (Deluxe) Bookpack as being fairly indestructible, if unfashionable (IMO, sorry). Had one for many many years of school. I will say I also had an L.L. Bean messenger bag for a couple years since I'm an inveterate one-shoulder-bag-carrier — not sure they make it anymore? — but it didn't hold up as well as the Bookpack so I went back to the original after it died.

Currently as an adult I've been carrying a Chrome bag for almost 10 years, including as a carry-on on many flights, on long bike rides, and to lug stupid amounts of groceries, and it still looks, feels, and functions great so if that style is appealing I would recommend. I have the classic messenger bag, but they have more traditional backpacks as well.
posted by sparkling at 9:10 AM on May 9, 2023 [2 favorites]

Binh is another small maker, I’ve found their stuff sturdy. I wore one out but I had slid down more rock slopes with it than I considered reasonable for a daypack.
posted by clew at 9:37 AM on May 9, 2023 [2 favorites]

Count me in as another vote for "they don't make them like they used to". However! You can get lightly used (or even new old stock!) vintage jansport (or Kelty, one of my fav) on ebay, for now at least. I'm seeing lots of nice-looking 90s jansport backpacks right now, currently only a beltpack that is NOS but that changes daily.
posted by SaltySalticid at 9:41 AM on May 9, 2023

We have had janasport and ll bean backpacks for years. I bought my latest janasport 5 years ago - it is a kids' backpack with zebra stripes and used for every school day.
posted by mutt.cyberspace at 9:58 AM on May 9, 2023

Patagonia stuff can handle being repeatedly thrown down the mountain, but it also looks like it can too. So, not sure if the kids still like it, but it will certainly outlast anything your teenager can throw at it.

Timbuk2 has versions of their stuff that wouldn't look out of place in a serious business setting, so they aren't just for bike messengers. I have one of their Especial series bags that over the last 12 years has survived thousands of miles on bikes/motorcyles/feet and has endured snow/wind/rain/sun/sand, and yet it barely looks worn.
posted by Back At It Again At Krispy Kreme at 9:59 AM on May 9, 2023

Eagle Creek is our go-to. And they really hold to the lifetime guarantee. We’ve had them replace broken fasteners after twenty years.
posted by rikschell at 10:04 AM on May 9, 2023

I have a Jansport backpack I got for school in 1996 (!) and it’s STILL usable. In fact I only replaced it for daily wear (with a new Jansport, the same one Orange Cassidy carries around in AEW) a year ago.
posted by macdara at 10:14 AM on May 9, 2023

I got my kid a backpack from Pottery Barn and it's holding up really well about five years later with consistent use. They always have several styles on sale for a nice price, too.
posted by Pater Aletheias at 10:15 AM on May 9, 2023

I'd suggest something from Freitag. I have a Hazzard and a Voyager and love them.
posted by dobbs at 11:12 AM on May 9, 2023

Another vote for regular LL Bean backpacks. I got one in 1991 with a lifetime warranty and they replaced it for free maybe ten years later, and its replacement is still in excellent shape. Little e has a backpack from them as well, purchased maybe 3-4 years ago, and it appears equally sturdy, although of course we await complete follow-up data :). Fashionable it may not be, but on the bright side, it's covered in sharks.
posted by eirias at 11:51 AM on May 9, 2023 [1 favorite]

I bought a Jansport backpack with laptop sleeve in 2003 and still use it most days - in fact I'd quite like to sell it, as I want something that looks nicer! So Jansport, or whatever the equivalent recommendation is these days, if their quality really has deteriorated, or a vintage Jansport.
posted by altolinguistic at 12:04 PM on May 9, 2023

I'm pro jansport (I'm sure no one has mention Tom Bihn bc of the price but if he really wants it to last forever, it's expensive, but a Brain Bag with and or without the accompaniments, will take your child through a terminal degree.
I bought mine for evening law school while I worked full time. Almost 10 years later, after a ton of metro commutes, etc, it looks like the day I bought it. No regrets.)
Other not mentioned super quality options one can find on sale are osprey. For work, I use a really good looking osprey backpack that was clearly made for professoinal commuters, not backpackers (found it on an REI clearance!) but my daily bag is also an osprey messenger. Quality work, nice styling, also warrantied for life.
posted by atomicstone at 1:19 PM on May 9, 2023 [2 favorites]

Another L.L. Bean vote here; my deluxe is from 1997 and I use it every day for work. I also bought a tote 2 years ago and it’s my tennis/beach bag and gets used several times per week and it’s holding up just fine, so while it’s probably not *as good as the 80s-90s* stuff, everything I’ve bought from them over the past few years is still in great shape.
posted by sara is disenchanted at 1:26 PM on May 9, 2023 [1 favorite]

I got an Ogio backpack as a gift ten years ago. It's still going, has been used as a daily driver for most of that time, and hasn't so much as broken a zipper.

I never knew the model name, but looking at their website today the renegade rss and gambit ones are close. The strap design is such that there's larger fabric pieces where the strap meets the body, top and bottom, spreading the load on both the joins and your body.
posted by How much is that froggie in the window at 3:27 PM on May 9, 2023

> Bear in mind that anything anyone bought ten years ago/in college/in the nineties is made to a much, much higher standard than the same brand is now.

Seconding this. My kids' got the LL Bean backpacks in the past 15 years and while they did last a long time -- longer than any other brand we tried -- they're not immortal, unlike my ancient EMS backpack. I'd recommend getting the LL Bean ones but accept that they're going to last years, not decades.
posted by The corpse in the library at 4:39 PM on May 9, 2023 [3 favorites]

Agree that for durability, design, and some style you should check out Osprey and look for deals on REI, Backcountry, Moosejaw, eBay, etc. Transporter Laptop Pack and Comet 30 for example have sternum straps and 3 pockets and are in the $100-$150 range, compared to Borealis at $99.
You can also add a sternum strap to any backpack if needed.
posted by eyeball at 8:27 PM on May 9, 2023

Tom Bihn do a range of very well made, durable backpacks starting at $100. And they have a good repair policy if you need it.

posted by chariot pulled by cassowaries at 11:05 PM on May 9, 2023

Response by poster: Thank you for all the recommendations. We checked out the Jansport, but unfortunately the recent reviews mention a lot of problems with zippers, so I'm worried their quality is declining. we ended up going with one from LL Bean. It had all the features kiddo was looking for, and strong reviews (including recent ones).
posted by Winnie the Proust at 7:47 PM on May 22, 2023 [1 favorite]

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