How To Shop For A Backpack You Can Wear To Work

The latest packs are both minimalist and stylishly kind to our spines.

Travel sacks go in and out of style. Briefcases, messenger bags, fanny packs, and duffel bags have all taken their turn. Luckily, the fashionable choice right now happens to be the most ergonomic and healthiest for your body.


The backpack—thank the lords of chiropracty—is back.

Sure, knapsacks sometimes still conjur images of lopsided elementary schoolers or sweat-soaked outdoorsy types, neither of which is a look you want to emulate while carrying your laptop to and from work. Never fear—we’re going to show you what’s on trend in stylish, comfortable office wear. When Fast Company set out to recommend a work-ready pack, we took many variables into account, which is why we won’t recommend one bag for everyone. We can, though, connect the threads to help you find a bag that you find stylish, comfortable, and practical—no matter what aesthetic you’re going for.

Why Backpacks?

Why a backpack over other commuter bags? “I like the idea of backpacks,” says Dr. Suken A. Shah, associate professor of orthopedic surgery and the division chief of the spine and scoliosis center at the Nemours/Alfred I. duPont Hospital for Children. Shah has written about the importance of picking out the right backpack for children, but he says the risks are mostly the same for adults—and then some. “Adults typically have a higher incidence of degenerative neck problems like disc disease and arthritis,” he says. “If they don’t pay attention to backpack use, they’re going to have similar problems to children in terms of neck pain, but at some point it’s going to be pretty debilitating.”


Bags that throw all your weight to one side, such as briefcases or tote bags, force you to twist and strain against the weight, placing stress on specific sides of your body. With normal loads, that’s not going to cause major back problems, says Shah, but it’s definitely going to aggravate them. Single-strap bags, like messenger bags, are bad, too. “I think the one-strap messenger bag is a problem,” says Shah. “It can cause neck pain, shoulder pain, and it can cause problems with the brachial plexus.” The brachial plexus is a large array of nerves that runs right under the muscle in your shoulder that the single strap of a messenger bag rests on. Long-term weight in that spot can cause serious nerve problems.

A backpack doesn’t have that problem. “It’s more balanced, doesn’t tip you off to one side or another, and it’s more ergonomic,” says Shah. But that doesn’t mean all backpacks are created equal, and it doesn’t mean a backpack can’t cause you problems. Shah recommends carrying less than 20 pounds regularly. This may not sound like a lot if you’ve never weighed one of your work bags before, but a laptop, a change of clothes for the gym, and even a full water bottle should be well under 20 pounds in total. And since the kinds of backpacks we’re talking about, for aesthetic reasons, don’t always have the sorts of chest and waist straps (to help distribute excessive weight) that you’d find in, say, a hiking pack, staying under 20 pounds is a smart threshold.


There are certain basic elements you should always look for. Make sure the shoulder straps are well-padded and fairly wide; unpadded canvas or leather straps, though handsome, can do nasty things to your shoulders. And make sure the straps don’t drift outwards on your shoulders, an effect which can lead to undue pressure on sensitive areas. Hiking or biking bags typically use a front strap that clips the shoulder straps together, but for the sort of sub-20-pound loads we’re aiming for, a simple two-strap backpack will do just fine.


Oh, and take a clue from the 21 Jump Street movie: double-strappin’, it is fashionable again. And even if it weren’t, you should wear your pack balanced and cinched comfortably.

Weight Distribution

The bag itself should be fairly well-structured. A lot of the safe pack game is about balancing weight. You should definitely look for a pocket that will hold your laptop directly against your back, and the panel that rests on your back should be padded as well. Some packs feature special suspended sleeves inside to keep the laptops snug and easy to access. Keeping a relatively heavy object as close to your center of gravity as possible is a great way to avoid that heavy laptop pulling you backwards, forcing you to exert yourself to stay upright and forward. Pockets and pouches inside the bag are also good, allowing you to distribute the weight of various objects, rather than letting them settle in the bottom of the bag.


It’s this author’s opinion that ventilation is nice but unnecessary for a simple, stylish work bag. This was a matter of some debate in our office, though. So if you bike to work or live in a warmer climate, bags that keep the pack off your back, either through ventilation channels or a mesh suspension, are worth considering. These bags will tend to look a little “sporty” though, so bear that in mind.


Aesthetically, there are a few different styles of bag out there that could all be considered modern and stylish. These do, despite themselves, have some common threads.


A backpack should never be larger than it needs to be. This is not a hiking bag, nor is it a replacement for a carry-on suitcase. What we’re talking about here is a daypack: big enough to carry everything you’d need in an ordinary day, and nothing else. Carrying a huge backpack makes you look like you’re heading off to second grade. Size is the key: you don’t need anything bigger than, say, a 25-liter capacity, depending on how big of a human you are.

Another important point that’ll help you keep your backpack looking adult is to maintain minimalism. That means no crazy patterns, for one thing, but it also means no extraneous features. Style is cyclical and personal, of course, but at the moment, simple, unadorned backpacks are in fashion. Technical or adventure-oriented packs made of ballistic nylon are rugged but clash with workwear; even features like outboard mesh water-bottle-pouches are uncommon in a fashionable pack. Understatement defines the adult backpack. And please don’t get a backpack with wheels. If you want a suitcase, get a suitcase. We’re talking about backpacks here.


A quick word on prints: there are some very cute prints happening in backpack-land these days. And if your spirit is moved by one, by all means, enjoy your print. But do keep in mind that print styles tend to go out of fashion more quickly and can often look “younger” than you might be aiming for in a professional office. A good compromise: many modern packs have a color-blocked design that gets you some uniqueness but should age more gracefully.

Fjallraven’s Kanken packs

Going for the hipster-y look? If your work allows you to wear jeans and sneakers, there’s no need to go formal on the bag. Herschel’s Heritage Backpack ($50-$70 on Amazon, in a variety of prints), kicked off the whole simple backpacks trend. Jansport’s Right Pack ($58) is the Converse All-Stars of daypacks. Fjallraven’s Kanken packs (around $60 or so on Amazon, depending on style) offer some Scandinavian quirk with the still-somewhat-fashionable fox patch, and Topo Design’s daypack ($150) is a great all-arounder. Japanese retailer Uniqlo offers a very simple but decent backpack for just $30. (We especially like the Keith Haring edition.) These modern designs are callbacks to the simpler designs of the ’70s and ’80s, and can even be worn with suits and dresses.

For more spartan, laptop-bag-evolved type packs, the Incase Icon ($130 on Amazon, in a very attractive beige) is streamlined only on the outside. Jansport’s Broadband Daypack ($80 on Amazon, in Member’s Only black) is a great cheapie, and the Filson Journeyman backpack ($270, for the fly-fishing vibe) offers a conservative shape. Some of these cases are inspired by the high-tech packs worn by motorcyclists and bicycle commuters who need secure fasteners with no flapping straps and shapes that cut through the wind. Necessary for your walk to the bus? Not at all. But the angular shapes often look modern and go with nearly any outfit, especially in basic black.

Hard Graft’s Old School Rucksack

Once you leave those prices behind and get into the realm of designer backpacks, you will, strangely enough, be looking at less comfortable options. Leather packs, though they look great, are heavier, require more maintenance, and are often less structured and thus less ergonomic than packs made of nylon. Many leather backpacks also come with beautiful, but deeply uncomfortable and marginally unsafe, unpadded leather shoulder straps. Still, there are some great options: the Hard Graft Old School ($600, depending on exchange rates) is a beautiful take on an old shape, and the Uri Minkoff Bondi ($300) has great reviews.

There have never been more options available for the commuter who wants to save their spine. We should embrace the backpack in the workplace the way only backpacks make possible: with open arms.


About the author

Joel Johnson used to be a writer.