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Radley Stories

Style Notes

Backpacks in Fashion: How to Choose the Best Affordable Backpack?

11 July 2023

Everyone needs one. A fashionable backpack is the kind of bag that will keep you feeling prepared  every day. If you were hoping to find out more about them, you’ve come to the right place. Our guide explores the history and trends, how to pack a backpack, and also explains where to buy backpacks for work and school.


What’s the Difference Between a Rucksack and a Backpack?

The terms ‘backpack’ and ‘rucksack’ are sometimes used interchangeably, but the main difference is how each style is used. 

‘Backpack’ is the more common term, used to describe the practical and fashionable backpacks for school, work, college, weekends and fashion. 

The term ‘rucksack’ is more often used to describe those worn on adventures, for activities such as camping or hiking. These tend to have padded, adjustable shoulder straps, a chest strap and a waist strap, as it is likely you’ll be carrying more items.


Are Backpacks Unisex?

They’re a wardrobe staple for men as much as they are for women. This is true of all ages as trendy backpacks for school are a popular choice for both boys and girls. 

While the bag itself is generally gender neutral, backpacks in fashion are each designed to focus more on either men or women. These versions are worn as style statements, rather than solely for practical purposes. 

Differences between those for girls and those for boys can be seen in their size: fashionable backpacks for women in particular tend to be slightly smaller and may come with more colourful designs, whereas backpacks for men tend to be larger, darker and more simplistic. 

The History of Backpacks

They were first invented as a way to evenly distribute weight across both shoulders, and reduce the risk of back, neck and shoulder pain. This innovation was particularly helpful for those who needed to carry lots of items, like hikers and those in the military. These first versions of this style meant wearers could have more hands-free movement, as practical features included dual straps, a harness and hip belt to keep it securely in place.

It is Henry Merriam who is believed to have made the first backpack for the US military in the 1800s, originally using sheet metal and calling it a ‘knapsack’. Since then, many have redesigned the backpack using different materials, including leather, nylon, canvas and wood. One of the most unique combinations of materials was pioneered in the 1920s, when Lloyd F. Nelson tried redesigning a backpack used by indigenous people of Alaska, using sticks and seal skin.

But it was Asher “Dick” Kelty and his wife Nena who are thought to have invented the equipped travelling style we know today. These backpacks were made with a welded aluminium frame and fabric exterior. Fabrics mean the bag can be filled easily while also feeling fairly lightweight, but this material can get dirty. So can you put a backpack in the washing machine? We look into how to clean a backpack later. 

Are Backpacks Still in Fashion?

The simple answer: Yes. Backpacks are still in fashion.

The simple answer: yes. But let’s start at the beginning. After it was invented, this bag quickly grew in popularity. People began to use the backpack for school as it was a comfortable and easy way to carry heavy books. By the 1980s, new styles had emerged to accommodate the exact needs of students. With new advances in technology and education, these bags no longer needed to be as large. Learning was becoming increasingly more digital, so stylish laptop bags and smaller versions for school began to emerge. This trend led to a rise in sales for women’s backpacks in fashion - a modern style that was then adopted into fashion.

Brands may now have many women bags for everyday use, with most offering multiple compartments and exterior pockets. Some may even have laptop sleeves and padded, adjustable straps, making them some of the best backpacks for work and school.

On the other hand, backpacks for travelling will be more equipped to carry heavier items with greater comfort. They might have more technical components that will make the user’s life easier, such as heavy-duty adjustable straps, a contoured fit and compression straps. Over the years, these have also become more advanced with new features, such as extra pockets on the exterior, a more contoured shape, water bottle pockets and even protective rain covers. These are things you need to consider when choosing a rucksack for travelling. And if you’re thinking ‘what’s the difference between backpacks and rucksacks’, we answer this question above.

What are the Different Types of Backpacks

Travel: Used as an alternative to a suitcase as it gives the wearer the ability to walk and move more freely. They’re measured in litres and are designed to hold the same (if not more) than a suitcase. Extra straps keep it securely and comfortably in place, even when full, and help to evenly distribute its weight. If you’re jetting off for an adventure and are wondering how to pack a backpack, keep reading to find our tips. 

Commuter: This is a big and lightweight version that is both durable and waterproof in order to keep items safe while the wearer is walking or cycling into work. It’s likely to have a padded pocket inside for your laptop, a top zip fastening for easy access, and a loop for a bike light, among other standard features.

Mini: One of the most popular styles in fashion. It gives you all the benefits without any of the bulk, as this smaller design is made to carry only your daily essentials. Making these the best women backpacks for everyday use. They also make the perfect mini-me style for girls. 

Hiking: Made for hiking, this is something you are likely to wear for long periods of time, so it’ll be large, lightweight and have a lot of practical features. Some are fitted with a frame for extra comfort and stability. They also have multiple compartments that are easy to access, a back panel for ventilation, many attachment points, hip belts, sternum straps and shoulder straps.

Hydration: Often used for hiking too, this is fitted with a system that allows the user to drink hands-free. It holds a pouch that attaches to a long tube, which means the wearer can stay hydrated while hiking, without removing the bag to access a water bottle.

Weekend or Overnight: These styles are similar to travel backpacks in that they are designed to hold everything you need for any overnight stay but come in much smaller sizes. An overnight version will be large enough for daily essentials, as well as a change of clothes and wash bag. If you’re heading away, 

Day: This could be a trendy backpack or a practical one. It’ll be large enough to hold daily essentials without being too bulky and may come in lots of designs. Another one of the best women backpacks for everyday use. 

Work: This style might be large enough to carry technology and will usually have separate, padded pockets to keep these items safe. Continue reading to find out more about work and school backpacks. 


Backpacks for Work and School

Thought to be the best bag option for work and school, this style easily stores a laptop and charger, books, stationery, a calculator and more. 

The best women backpacks for work will also have multiple compartments inside, offering enough space for essentials and giving you the ability to keep them organised. If they are laptop bags or briefcases, they will also have one dedicated pocket for your technology, that is padded and protects it from bumps on your commute.

How to Pack a Backpack

We’ve all been there. When you’re packing for a trip and are struggling to fit all those outfit and accessory options in your bag or case. And that’s before we even get to our carry-on. Whether you’re going on an exotic holiday or are about to go travelling for several months, it’s great to know how to pack a backpack. Here are our tips: 

  1. Heavy items should be kept at the back, so they sit closest to your body and you can maintain your centre of gravity. If they’re at the top or front, you could lose balance.

  2. The lightest items should be packed at the bottom.

  3. Roll up your clothing and use packing cubes. These organisational tricks mean your items can be packed more compactly, giving you more room. This is also a handy tip for packing suitcases too. 

  4. Use exterior pockets to store items you need regularly - that might be a water bottle, energy snacks, your phone and a guide book.


Does a Backpack Count as a Carry On?

Often yes, it may be a carry on, but you should always check the airline’s baggage allowance to be sure. Mini backpacks and day bag sizes are very likely to fit within these limits and can be used as carry-on luggage. However, a bulky travel backpack may not meet the size limits. 

If you’re travelling with a very large bag, we’d recommend taking a smaller everyday style that you can take on-board the plane with your in-flight essentials. This will also come in handy once you’ve checked into your hotel and are eager to explore the area. You can leave your heavy luggage in the room and head out with a canvas tote bag or smaller leather cross body bag on your shoulder. 


Can You Wash a Backpack?

If it’s your trusted, everyday bag, you may think about washing it. But can you put a backpack in the washing machine? That all depends on the material it’s made from. A nylon, polyester or canvas backpack is likely to be washing machine-safe, however it’s always best to check the label and care instructions. 

If you have a leather backpack, or one made with suede, you will need to use special cleaning techniques. Leather is in our DNA, and we always use sustainable, gold-standard leathers, and as experts, we have a few options to help you keep your favourite bag clean. Our leather care products can be used to remove scuffs and stains, and will create a protective layer across the leather. You can find out more about what leather is made of and its benefits in our leather guide.  

How Should a Backpack Fit?

They can be one of the most comfortable bags to carry, but this is only true if they’re being worn correctly. Wearing one that’s too heavy or doesn’t sit evenly on your shoulders may cause muscle strain across your neck, back and shoulders, and lead to poor posture, muscle imbalance and increased risk of long-term injury. To avoid pain or muscle damage, make sure you follow these steps:

  • Always wear both straps on your shoulders. 

  • Adjust the shoulder straps so it sits high on your back.

  • Ideally, when filled, your bag should always weigh less than 10% of your body weight. If you do need to carry more, the weight should never exceed 20%.

  • Use the waist straps for more support and to keep the bag stable as you move. 


How to Choose the Best Backpack for You

What are you using it for?

Trekking, running chores, school, work or something else, they’re  used for lots of occasions. If you’re wearing a backpack during exercise, a more lightweight style will be ideal. Look for one that has adjustable straps and multiple compartments, including one for your water bottle.

Or, if you are looking for an accessory for casual days, a trendy backpack will be perfect as it’s likely you will only need to carry your daily essentials. 

How much will you need to put in it?

Consider what you need to carry. If your bag is going to be heavy and full of lots of items, it’s better to go for a backpack with thicker, padded straps that will distribute the weight comfortably across your shoulders. 

If you only need to carry a few things, a mini backpack is a lightweight and bulk-free choice. Alternatively, the best bags for work will have enough room for technology, lunch and perhaps your gym clothes too. For this, you may want a stylish laptop backpack.

Try it on

Make sure it suits your needs and feels comfortable by trying it on. Adjust the straps to the perfect length and make sure it can support the weight of the items you need to carry, while still feeling comfortable. 

Where are you taking it?

If you’re going to be wearing your backpack outside often, you may need a waterproof version or even a water-resistant design that will be protected from rain or snow. 

If you will only be using it for short trips and won’t be spending much time outside, you might consider a more fashionable backpack material, such as suede.


If you have a backpack for travelling, there might be additional elements to consider. Do you need a rain cover? Perhaps a hydration reservoir or extra straps to attach items? Consider all the things you need to carry and make sure your backpack is equipped for all your needs.

Fun Facts about Backpacks

  • Before the word backpack was invented, the terms ‘knapsack’ and ‘packsack’ were used.
  • This style is much better for your back and posture compared to carrying a handbag on your arm or across the body.
  • Astronauts use this style of bag on space missions.


Now you know everything there is to know about backpacks, how about reading up on more of our accessory styles? For guides on Trendy Designer PursesHow To Pack A Suitcase and All About Fun Umbrellas, head over to Radley Stories. You can also head to our work bags collection if you’re wondering where to buy a backpack for school or work.