There are a plethora of backpacks to choose from in the current market, so much so that it can be overwhelming to sort through website after website in hopes of finding the right information (especially when a new Instagram ad pops up everytime you think of a bag).

However, finding the right backpack is all about knowing what you’re looking for in a bag, both functionally and aesthetically. Certainly there are other factors that come into play, like price and brand names, but a good way to approach discovering the perfect backpack for your need is to first understand what differentiates one type of backpack from another.

This ultimate guide is meant to be broken down into two categories, the first being a resource on backpack anatomy of types, and the second being how backpacks differ based on use case and lifestyle.

Here’s a summary of the sections covered in this guide:

Backpacks 101

What Size Backpack Do You Need?

Finding a Backpack Shape

Types of Materials Backpacks Are Made Of

Anatomy of a Backpack

Backpack Lifestyles

Minimalist Backpacks

Lightweight Backpacks

Work Backpacks

Travel Backpacks

Gym Backpack

What Size Backpack Do You Need?

Finding the right backpack starts with making sure it fits you when it’s on your back. While most bags come in 3-5 standard sizes, knowing the perfect size for your internal frame is a great starting point:

The Backpack Size Chart

This backpack size chart breaks down 5 possible backpack sizes depending on your torso length and hip measurement.

How To Measure Your Body for a Backpack

Measuring your torso length and hip size might sound tedious, but just like if you’re tailoring a suit or dress, being precise with these measurements can give you an idea of how a bag might fit, especially if you’re buying a backpack online and are going off of the measurements listed on a brand’s website.

1. Measure Torso Length

The distance between your C7 Vertebra and Iliac Crest.

2. Measure Hip Size

Use a measuring tape to find the widest part of your hip and the uppermost point of the Iliac crest.

Best Backpack Size for Your Items

Depending on what your use case for a backpack might be, whether it’s a backpack for work, gym, or travel it’s useful to think about the main items that will go inside of the bag and plan a backpack’s measurements/size around those items, like a laptop or shoes.

Finding a Backpack Shape

After knowing what size backpack fits your body the best, the next helpful step is to identify the desired shape of your backpack.

While form and aesthetics can be subjective depending on taste and preferences, the thousands of backpacks available today are still derived from 10 types of backpack shapes, many of which have been used by humans for centuries (like the historical significance of leather).

Simply put, backpacks, like many other fields in design, are a category in which form does indeed follow function. The 10 types of backpack shapes are:

1. Classic U-Shape

2. Roll Top

3. Lids / Rucksack

4. Drawstring

5. Clamshell

6. Splayed

7. Satchel

8. Knapsack

9. Randoseru

10. Central Zipper

Types of Backpack Materials

The primary material that a backpack is made of plays a big role in the overall aesthetic and function of the bag itself, as a Nike designer said: “when I design anything, my first instinct is to think about the materials and the properties of these materials.”

While each material type can also have different levels of quality and function, like the grades of real leather, knowing whether you’re looking for a leather bag versus a canvas versus a neoprene bag will help narrow down the buying process.

Here are the 7 most commonly used materials that bags are made of, primarily for their outer shell.

1. Leather

Real Leather is a great material for a backpack that’s timeless, chic, and professional. A leather backpack can range from a full leather backpack to a backpack with a mix of materials (like nylon and leather) or even a primarily cloth material bag with leather trims.

Advantages of a leather backpack

A well made, high quality leather backpack will last for years and age well. Wearing a leather backpack also showcases a certain aesthetic and style that is hard to replicate with other materials.

Disadvantages of a leather backpack

A full leather backpack might be heavy due to the volume of leather necessary to make the backpack. Real leather is also more expensive than other types of bag materials and so a leather backpack will err on the mid to high end price ranges.

Additional Resources on Leather

How is Leather Made?

What are Common Leather Types?

Vegetable Tanned Leather or Chrome Tanned Leather?

The Grades of Leather and What They Mean

What are the Five Types of Leather?

Full Grain Leather or Top Grain Leather?

How to Care For Your Leather Bag

2. Cotton Canvas

Advantages of a canvas backpack

Canvas bags are lightweight and easy to clean since they often have a layer of water resistance or coating on top of the canvas (like coated canvas or waxed canvas). They’re also cheaper than other types of bag materials and make for affordable backpacks for any occasion.

Disadvantages of a canvas backpack

While canvas backpacks can be versatile in colorways, the lighter colors can also attract lint and dirt more easily than other materials like nylon or leather. Most canvas also have a thinner thread count which makes them more susceptible to wear and tear.

3. Nylon

Advantages of a nylon backpack

Nylon backpacks are a popular material with a few different synthetic variations like Nylon Packcloth, Ripstop Nylon, and Ballistic Nylon. As a water resistant material, nylon is durable and has a sleek and stylish feel to it, which makes it a favorite woven material for many designer backpacks, like the Prada backpack.

Disadvantages of a nylon backpack

Depending on the type of nylon and thread count, the durability of nylon can vary. They can also come in a million colors and assortments which is great for having choice, but the downside of that is it’s hard to have a standard consistency with colors across brands and products.

4. Cordura

Advantages of a cordura backpack

Backpacks made with cordura are very durable since cordura is a fabric that was originally created by DuPont for their own line of products. It’s great for backpacks that need to withstand weather conditions or will go through a good amount of usage.

Disadvantages of a cordura backpack

Cordura backpacks are more expensive than regular nylon or other woven materials because of the high cost of the cordura fabric. It’s also a certain aesthetic that is more of a preference.

5. Denim

Advantages of a denim backpack

Denim backpacks are very wearable in that they’re made from the same material as denim jeans or jackets. They can be made to be light and go great with casual outfits and uses, making them a good fit for an everyday backpack.

Disadvantages of a denim backpack

A denim backpack is more limited in terms of use case than other materials since it’s not as appropriate for travel or work. Additionally, color way options are limited since most denim backpacks come in a washed blue color, similar to that of jeans.

Denim is also a lighter color which means it can get dirty easily. Real denim (made from cotton) is also not waterproof without coatings to protect it.

6. Neoprene

Advantages of a neoprene backpack

Neoprene backpacks have been trendy in the last few years due to their breathable fabric and sporty aesthetic appeal. They go well with backpacks that are more casual and are easy to carry since neoprene is a lighter material.

Disadvantages of a neoprene backpack

Similar to denim, neoprene backpacks are a bit restricted to certain type of everyday backpacks and are less seen in travel backpacks or work backpacks.

Neoprene is also a very heavy material and is quite expensive to produce which means that neoprene backpacks will be more expensive than the standard materials used. Neoprene is also a bit more limited with colorways options as compared to other materials like nylon or polyester.

7. Vegan Leather

Advantages of a vegan leather backpack

Vegan leather is a type of synthetic leather and is therefore animal free. For people interested in a vegan lifestyle, they make a great alternative to a leather backpack as they can achieve a similar aesthetic at a fraction of the cost and without harming animals.

Disadvantages of a vegan leather backpack

The main disadvantage of vegan leather is its durability and quality in the long term. Since it’s made out of plastic (Polyutherane), most vegan leather backpacks will last about one to two years and there’s a high possibility of leather chipping in certain areas, like the corners of the backpack.

Additional Resources

What is Vegan Leather & Why Do Bag Designers Use It?

Anatomy of a Backpack

When researching backpacks online, you may come across terms that are unfamiliar or seem technical. We’ve put together a list of the 30 most common terms with backpacks and what they mean, everything from zipper pullers to sternum straps:

Anatomy of a Backpack – 30 Terms to Know

Minimalist Backpacks

With minimalism and the art of doing less with more being a global trend recently, there’s also been an increase in interest of minimalist or Scandinavian style backpacks:

What defines minimalist backpacks aesthetically?

What kind of functionality can you expect in a minimalist backpack?

Lightweight Backpacks

Lightweight backpacks are increasingly in demand, especially in travel, as more people are electing to go with one bag for all of their travel and carry needs:

What materials make a backpack lightweight?

What features contribute to a lightweight backpack?

Work Backpacks

Another trend in the backpack category is the rise of backpacks for work life. From males trading in their briefcases for a sleek and professional backpack to females keeping their shoulders happy by upgrading from a tote, work backpacks have and seem to continue to rise in popularity:

What materials to look for in a work backpack?

Features and functionality in a work backpack

Travel Backpacks

The rise of the one bag for travel movement stems from a number of factors including a more conscious and minimalist approach to travel as well as increased costs in checked in bag fees by airlines. Finding a great travel backpack depends on certain use cases:

What to look for in a travel backpack as a business traveller

The rise in packing cubes and decline in duffle bags for travel

Gym Backpacks

Finding a great active backpack depends on how you plan on using the bag and where you’re located (e.g. if you’re going to be commuting to the gym on a subway in NYC or driving in LA). Most gym backpacks today have shoe compartments or internal organization built inside:

Finding a gym backpack with a shoe compartment


The process of finding your perfect backpack is really just about understanding your lifestyle and preferences and searching for a backpack that fits those needs. With this detailed guide on backpack anatomy and types as well as lifestyle applications, you should have all the knowledge needed to go out and find the perfect backpack you’ve been waiting for.