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The Best Buy It for Life Backpack (Please Don’t Call It Tactical) in 2023

Dec 28, 2023Dec 28, 2023

The prospect of buying a backpack that can last you for the rest of your life is a tempting one. Such bags do exist: They’re made of durable materials and backed by warranties that promise to repair or replace them no matter what happens. They’re also frequently marketed with the unfortunate label of "tactical," and they carry with them a fetishization of armed forces and militaria—which masks the fact that they’re often great (but expensive) bags.

Not everyone needs a backpack so tough that it will survive decades of abuse. But for those who do want—and can afford—such a bag, it can travel with you to the office and to any corner of the globe, for any activity, year after year. These daily-carry bags are meant to be flexible enough in their design that even as your needs change, your backpack can change with you. A regular backpack is cheaper and just as ergonomic as anything in this guide. But our picks, while more expensive, are built to withstand conditions beyond what an average bag can.

Although many people have their own criteria for what makes a great buy-it-for-life backpack, every bag we recommend here is spacious enough to hold a laptop, comfortable to carry over long distances, and backed by a lifetime repair-or-replace guarantee. We have a backpack that's durable and designed to fit in anywhere, a waterproof pick for withstanding the elements, and a lightweight and (yes!) inexpensive pick. For photographers we also have a pick built to protect your gear from the worst rain and knocks.

I’ve reviewed bags at Wirecutter for five years. In that time, I’ve interviewed many bag designers, fabric specialists, brand executives, and general bag obsessives. These interviews, and years of testing, have earned me at least a journeyman's understanding of how a good bag should feel and what makes it work in a given situation. But backpacks have always been a central concern of mine: I lived out of one, moving from couch to couch, for a year in New York City, and that experience made me hyper-attuned to backpack organization and construction.

This bag is simple, tough, and backed by a well-tested repair-or-replace program. Short of purposefully slicing into it, there's little you can do to it that it can't withstand. But it comes with militaristic undertones that aren't to everyone's taste.

*At the time of publishing, the price was $265.

Get this if: You want a bag that will last your whole life but is low-key enough to fit in with whatever adventure you’re on—whether you’re trekking across a foreign country or commuting to the office.

Why it's great: The GoRuck GR1 is a hell of a tough bag that looks at home in an office, on a trail, or dragged through a muddy pit. Although a few companies made expensive backpacks before the GR1, GoRuck more or less invented (and now defines) the tough, buy-it-for-life pack. The GR1 stands apart for its detailed construction, a flexible but simple organization that adapts to nearly any situation, and comfortable straps that mold over time to your shoulders. The GR1 is available in a 21-liter version, which is 18 inches in height, and a 26-liter one, which is 20 inches in height. If you’re over 6 feet tall, I suggest the 26 L backpack (unless you’re sure you’ll never need the extra space) since it will feel more proportional to your height.

Every seam and stitch of the GR1 is sewn with the strength of the bag in mind. The top handle, for instance, feels great in the hand. Stiff but still pliable, and reinforced beyond reason, it's something of a GoRuck signature. Stress-tested for up to 400 pounds, the handle is ostensibly for hoisting your partner over an obstacle or wall. (GoRuck organizes obstacle runs where people carry weights in their backpacks and run along beaches and over mountains … ridiculous, I know.) Made from 1,000-denier Cordura, a minimum standard for this kind of bag when it's made from nylon fabric, the GR1 will withstand almost every type of abrasion besides a razor or knife cut. The YKK zippers aren't waterproofed or sealed, but they do use a design, called reverse coil, that makes them stronger and tends to keep out more dirt and grime than a conventional zipper design. In my testing, the thick nylon fabric was fairly resistant to rain during a light shower.

The GR1 is designed around a main compartment with a pleasing lay-flat clamshell design, which means you can open the entire bag up to reveal its contents—a handy feature if you’re packing and unpacking often. Inside the front flap are two pockets, one mesh and one covered. The front of the bag has a thin front pocket for holding slim books and the like. These three pockets provide some organization but not that much. The outer pocket is fine to use if the bag isn't overpacked but difficult to use when it is. On the side of the bag that sits against your back, GoRuck has built an impressively sturdy laptop sleeve that is cushioned at the bottom from drops.

Inside the main compartment, GoRuck added four rows of webbing for MOLLE-compatible gear. MOLLE (Modular Lightweight Load-carrying Equipment) is a standard attachment system adopted by the US and British militaries and subsequently used across a variety of equipment and manufacturers. Although any MOLLE pouches can attach to this inner webbing of the GR1, GoRuck does make padded pockets ($75 each), which fit very nicely into the overall backpack if you want the extra organization. If you truly want to customize your pack, you can replace the plastic backplate of the GoRuck, which can be a little too flexible for some, with a stiffer plate ($35) that provides a comforting brace and seems to place the weight of the bag higher up on the shoulders. If you want a sternum strap, GoRuck sells one for an additional $10.

When I needed a backpack for a particularly confusing part of my life, when I wasn't sure where I’d be from one month to the next, the 26 L GoRuck GR1 was the bag I picked. The same bag has been with me for over eight years now. It is the only backpack I’ve ever washed with a hose and hung out to dry in the sun repeatedly. Over those years the bag has aged nicely, molding to the shape of my back, and if I keep taking care of it in the same way, it will last much longer on this earth than I will. If anything does go wrong with your bag, GoRuck has a famous (among backpack-obsessive circles, anyway) repair program with an excellent online reputation.

The GR1 also has three rows of external MOLLE webbing and an armed-forces-style Velcro patch decal (not to mention GoRuck's origins and firearms training courses), which together advertise a certain comfort with (some might say fetishization of) the steady militarization of the public space. Whether that's a dealbreaker for you depends on how you perceive it. As for the bag itself, unlike some of our other picks the GR1 doesn't have a breathable mesh back panel or any kind of air channelling. In hot or humid climates, you will perspire against your bag. It's unavoidable. Personally, I tend to sweat a lot, and I didn't notice too much of a difference between this bag and other designs while hiking in Hawaii, but it may be a frustration for some people.

Material: 1,000-denier CorduraSize: 21 liters, 26 litersWeight: 2.9 pounds (21 liters), 3.5 pounds (26 liters)Warranty: lifetime repair or replace

Triple Aught focuses on lightweight gear with plenty of compatible first-party accessories, which are easy to switch in and out depending on your situation. The scrunching of the lightweight ripstop material, while not as loud as that of some other bags we’ve tested, may get on some people's nerves until it breaks in.

May be out of stock

*At the time of publishing, the price was $380.

Get this if: You prefer a waterproof daybag with plenty of customization and compatibility with gear panels and add-ons.

Why it's great: The midsize Triple Aught Design Axiom 24 is a touch smaller than our other picks (except the 21 L version of the GR1), but its minimal looks hide a very adaptable and comfortable-to-carry backpack.

The main compartment of the Axiom offers a lay-flat clamshell design for access, while the front panel opens up to reveal a well-organized "admin" panel of multiple sleeves, pouches, and pockets. Made with ripstop laminated nylon, synthetic rubber, and YKK reverse-coil sealed zippers (which are sealed better than those on the GoRuck GR1), the Axiom 24 is well protected from the elements, capable of withstanding anything from a light rain to a heavy downpour. During testing, I dunked the bag very briefly in a bucket of water, and the interior barely got wet.

Instead of mounting water bottle holders to the outside of the backpack, Triple Aught built a long zippered side pocket. If you carry a water bottle there, it takes space away from the main compartment, but the secure storage is nice to have—no more worrying about your water bottle bouncing out of an elastic sleeve. Of course, you can use the pocket for anything you like. If you prefer to customize the internal organization of the Axiom 24, it has two small rows of webbing for small MOLLE pouches, which Triple Aught makes if you prefer the company's gear, or item clips. Instead of adding a large panel of webbing to the back of the bag like GoRuck did, Triple Aught built in clips for panel organizers (some of which include webbing for MOLLE gear) and tech sleeves. But all of this extra organization comes at a fairly steep price: Usually these additions cost anywhere from $50 to $100 per item, on top of an already expensive backpack.

Fully packed, the Axiom 24 is a dream to carry. That might be due to its smaller size—less stuff in the pack means less weight, which means a more comfortable bag. However, the Axiom 24 is also equipped with notably sturdy straps and a solid frame plate that adds a comforting bit of rigidity. Borrowing from hiking backpack designs, the Axiom 24 includes load-lifting straps, small straps that connect the top of the backpack to the shoulder straps. The design is unique among the bags we tested; cinching these straps, after you’ve loaded the bag onto your shoulders, draws the weight a little closer up and across your back muscles, which helps distribute the weight of the load more easily. Triple Aught also designed an adjustable sternum strap for a bit more personalized placement. Although the Axiom 24 isn't large enough to get extremely heavy, the adjustments from these straps do make the bag more comfortable to carry, especially over long distances.

The Axiom 24 is the most expensive bag we recommend here. Many people don't need a bag that is both this organized and this hardy, but for those that do, it's the best possible pick. The Axiom 24 is also covered in customizable details; the main compartment has two rows of attachment points for Triple Aught gear, two rows of webbing attachment for nylon loops to secure gear, and two PALS webbing panels (similar to MOLLE).

The ripstop material of the Axiom 24 takes a while to break in, but once it does, it takes on a soft and nearly supple texture. Until then, though, it's stiff and liable to make a rustling noise with each movement, which may bother some people. We also wish the main compartment's walls were a bit higher, which would make it easier to pack.

The Axiom 24 is designed around Triple Aught's proprietary series of attachments and accessories. Although this means that the accessories fit extremely well and are well suited to the bag, it also means you are locked into one ecosystem. And the add-ons aren't cheap.

The Axiom 24 has a separate sleeve that (just barely) fits a 16-inch laptop. Unfortunately, this sleeve isn't padded and lets the computer edge meet the bottom of the bag. If you’re using this backpack and carrying a laptop, our advice is to pack the computer in its own protective sleeve beforehand. Usually, this problem would be a dealbreaker for a bag at this price, but all the other aspects of the design, from the waterproof shell to the multiple integrated add-on panels, make us willing to overlook the issue. But the design could be better.

For a bag of this price, we’d like to see just a little more quality control on the detail work, especially the stitching—although it has held up through our testing, it has been showing a little fraying and some loose ends at points.

Triple Aught, like many of the other brands we recommend in this piece, is a small company with limited production capabilities. During the COVID-19 pandemic, the company's factory has been temporarily shut down, and much of its stock is low or unavailable. We believe that products will come back sooner or later, and you can set up email alerts to catch them when they do.

Material: VX-21 ripstop shell, VX-03 lining, synthetic rubberSize: 24 litersWeight: 2.7 poundsWarranty: lifetime repair or replace

Topo is known for good-quality gear that adheres to a certain mountaineering aesthetic. Despite cutting a couple of corners—plastic hardware, for instance—this bag is nearly as strong as any of our other picks yet nearly half the price.

*At the time of publishing, the price was $170.

Get this if: You want the durability and warranty of our other picks but don't want to break the bank.

Why it's great: The Topo Klettersack is a well-made bag, made of 1,000-denier Cordura just like the GoRuck GR1. Why not always go for this bag over the GoRuck? Fabric isn't the beginning and end of a bag's durability and performance. To keep this bag light in weight and relatively low in price, Topo did cut a few corners in comparison to what the makers of our other picks did on those bags—it's unavoidable. However, if you can see past these compromises, what you’re left with is an excellent, affordable buy-it-for-life backpack with a well-respected lifetime warranty.

This bag has no heavy YKK zippers. Instead, it's a top-loader—essentially, a cinch sack with a hinged lid held shut with two plastic clips. The design is a clever workaround if you’re Topo and you’re designing a bag without expensive components (like zippers) that you want to remain closed to the elements. However, this design also makes the interior harder to access and organize than on other bags we tested, especially the models with clamshell openings.

The Klettersack has an internal sleeve that fits a 15-inch laptop. Unlike on some of our other picks, this laptop sleeve isn't padded or reinforced. Instead, Topo sews the sleeve so that it doesn't extend to the bottom of the bag. It's an inexpensive workaround that's protective enough with a little careful packing.

The Topo is noticeably lighter than our other picks (a full pound less than the GoRuck), and even when fully packed it's comfortable on your shoulders regardless of the distance you carry it. I’ve spent days carrying the Topo around with my work computer, a full set of clothes, and the various sundries I needed for a day and never felt overloaded.

The Klettersack includes two side water bottle pockets and a top pocket for organization. That isn't much. If you want to organize this bag further, you need to add a few pouches or packing cubes to keep your gear manageable. But if you want a simple backpack with a decent capacity at a lower cost than our other picks, this bag's lack of organization may not be too much of a drawback.

Topo's designs lean toward a specific, boldly colored, retro-mountain-climber aesthetic. It can be a bit much for some people, but if you get the bag in a solid color such as black or gray rather than any of the dual-color options, the look is a little less glaring.

Material: 1,000-denier Cordura, 420-denier nylon pack cloth linerSize: 25 litersWeight: 1.9 poundsWarranty: lifetime repair or replace

This is the toughest camera bag we’ve tested. It was a bit finicky when we tried attaching the internal camera pouches, but if you want a bag to carry your expensive gear and you need it to survive some of the toughest environments and weather, this is the one to pick.

*At the time of publishing, the price was $184.

Get this if: You want a bag that will survive a hurricane while still protecting your camera, or you prefer a bag with tons of loading and access options for any kind of scenario.

Why it's great: The Wandrd Prvke is an especially sturdy and stylish camera bag built to withstand the elements. The bag is built around a large roll-top flap, two small side access doors that align with Wandrd's camera cube (not included) when it's in place, and a back panel that opens in a clamshell fashion—it's quite a bit of flexibility, and the design offers the most openings of any bag we tested. This bag is versatile enough to accommodate you and your equipment whether you’re going to a photo shoot across town or preparing a one-bag travel setup for flying to another continent. The Prvke is available in 21 L and 31 L models. The 21 L bag feels more like a daybag, one that can work as a camera bag or a daily-carry backpack, or if you prefer a smaller bag for travel. The 31 L bag is better suited for long trips and one-bag traveling, especially if you have a large torso.

Carrying and testing the Prvke, we realized that it's easy to become spoiled (some people could feel overwhelmed) by all the packing layouts and options. Depending on how you’ve packed the bag, you can access your tech gear and laptop from the back panel, find your clothes stashed under the roll top, pull out your camera from its own cube through either side pocket, or open the clamshell back completely to access the main compartment. Or you can secure your valuables in the hidden stash pockets (one against your back and one under a cinch strap). Wandrd even included several strap-attachment points so that you can carry the backpack flat in front of you, like a hotdog vendor at a ballpark, to get inside the backpack on the go or to use it as a makeshift work surface. The bag is adaptable, and the way you use it can change for nearly any circumstance.

What does all that mean? The Prvke is a fairly heavy backpack—one of the heaviest we tested—and that's without the added camera gear and cubes that you’ll inevitably put in it. But Wandrd has obviously put a lot of thought into the shoulder- and hip-strap setup, as the straps are very wide and reassuringly rigid without biting into your shoulders or hips. Although I wouldn't want to carry this bag all day, I found it remarkably comfortable for how heavy it could get. The back of the bag also has a thick molded foam panel with horizontal channels, which allow for a surprising amount of airflow. I still perspired, but that's not unusual for me; even so, I could feel a difference with the Prvke design over the more minimal back designs of other bags.

The Wandrd Essential Camera Cube, an extra purchase on top of the bag itself, is customizable to fit your gear and lenses. Naturally, the 21-liter cube ($60) fits less (a single DSLR and a lens or two depending on the size and the camera batteries), while the 31-liter cube ($70) is practically a small backpack in and of itself. The 31-liter cube can strap across your shoulder as a standalone carrying pouch; though I didn't find it that comfortable, I could see how the flexibility might come in handy. Wandrd also makes two larger cubes, the Pro Camera Cubes, which fill all the available space in the backpack. We didn't have a chance to test these cubes, but if you want to carry the maximum amount of camera gear you can, they are a good option.

The Prvke is designed first around the camera cube it is built to carry. The cube itself is fine, if a little lightly padded in comparison with other cubes we’ve tested. However, the way it attaches to the inside of the Prvke is fiddly and somewhat frustrating to manage. Once in place, it stays there, and it's built with side panels for accessibility even while you’re on the move. But we wish the camera cube itself were easier to place or remove within the backpack. For a bag this large, we also wish it offered just a bit more "admin" organization—a place for our notebooks and pens that was easy to access. Note too that the Prvke is an eye-catching bag, which might be a worry to some people once they’ve loaded it with thousands of dollars’ worth of camera equipment.

Material: 1,680-denier ballistic nylon, waterproof tarpaulinSize: 21 liters, 31 litersWeight: 2.8 pounds (21 liters), 3.7 pounds (31 liters)Warranty: lifetime repair or replace

In truth, very few people need a backpack this tough or this pricey. Packs like these, especially models from the most expensive brands, are almost exclusively the realm of obsessives or people who find a certain comfort in being vastly (some might say ludicrously) overprepared for most moments in life, whether they’re commuting, hiking, flying, or running an obstacle course.

There's an allure to buying the "one good thing" and never having to think about it again. Still, a $60 JanSport backpack is, to some extent, also a buy-it-for-life backpack. Although the durability of a JanSport bag doesn't come close to that of our picks above, the company has a well-respected lifetime replacement warranty. Buying a backpack from JanSport is a guarantee—if you don't mind navigating the warranty process and you act in good faith—that you will own a string of backpacks, each replacing the last as they wear out. But a true buy-it-for-life backpack should not wear out except in the toughest of circumstances. Something failing on one of these bags should be a surprise, not an inevitability.

We considered 25 bags with a reputation for rugged and tough construction. We also required them to be comfortable, not overly militaristic or covered in MOLLE webbing (so as to fit into most activities without drawing too much attention), able to carry at least a 13-inch laptop in a dedicated sleeve, and covered by a lifetime warranty (ideally a repair-and-replace warranty). It has become shorthand to call these types of backpacks "tactical" or "mil-spec," though we try to avoid those terms. At best, the terms are meaningless, words meant to conjure the strength and mystique of military gear. (Ironically, such so-called military-grade gear is often famously disparaged within the armed services.) At worst, these terms imbue these bags with a form of militaristic worship that is grotesque within a democratic society. These are tough backpacks built to last a lifetime. That's all they are.

We narrowed the field of considered bags to 10 for testing by looking at online reviews, reputation, and price. In the course of working on this guide, and over the many years we’ve spent covering bag design, we’ve also leaned on the general information we’ve picked up while reading group forums and sites dedicated to buy-it-for-life items or EDC (everyday carry) enthusiasm, such as r/BuyItForLife, r/backpacks, Carryology, Gear Patrol, and Matterful.

To test the bags, I packed and unpacked them and used them as much as possible in my day-to-day life. Admittedly, for this first round of research some of that testing was hampered by the COVID-19 quarantine, so I did much of this testing by hiking around the mountains and beaches of Hawaii and doing things that more or less emulated real-life situations—a trip to the office, for example, became a trip to a waterfall.

While living with each bag, I tried to take a careful look at every aspect that contributes to a well-made backpack. Specifically, I focused on the following:

Construction and materials: Most bags in this category are made from a strong nylon Cordura or ripstop composite fabric. I paid special attention to the material's weight, weave, and heft, as well as to any special modifications such as TPU or other waterproof coatings.

Ease and accessibility: How easy is the bag to pack, unpack, and otherwise access while you’re on the move and in everyday situations? What if you’re unpacking it at your desk, say, or reaching inside it to get something while it's sitting beneath a table? Does the bag have external pockets? Are they well organized and well placed for most people as they carry the bag? In addition to asking these questions, I paid close attention to the main compartment's layout and access.

Comfort: Most of these types of bags are so heavily constructed that they take a while to break in. For some people, this process of wearing in a bag is part of the appeal. That said, all the bags we chose should be comfortable enough to carry over long distances straight out of the box. We liked any shoulder strap system that was simple to adjust—an uncomplicated design with few extra buckles or components to break. However, none of the bags we tested are as adjustable as a traditional hiking backpack; these are still basic backpacks in that sense. Also, not all backpacks are built to fit every torso, so we appreciated any brand that offered more than one size of the same model of bag.

Weight: Often, the stronger a bag is, the heavier it is. We found no exceptions to this rule among the 25 models we considered. That said, we tried to find bags that weighed less than 4 pounds empty.

Warranty: Many bag companies offer a "lifetime" warranty, but not all companies stand by those guarantees equally. For bags this expensive—items that you might "buy for life"—we expected a true lifetime commitment to replace (or, ideally, repair) any model we considered. Where possible, we researched customer complaints or success stories of filing a warranty or repair claim, and we stuck with companies that had a track record we trusted. We also gave extra attention to companies that repaired their own work, bringing bags back to their manufacturing center to fix them.

We tested and picked the Futures Passport backpack for this guide, but before this article reached publication Futures let us know that the bag was in the process of being redesigned and that the COVID-19 pandemic had slowed production. However, if you can find one of the last of the current Passports, it's an excellent daily-carry backpack. We’re looking forward to evaluating the redesign when it becomes available.

In this price range, nearly every bag we tested is a good, if not great, bag. Although we are confident in our top picks and believe that they stand above the competition, we realize that we are splitting hairs in picking the overall best models in this category. If any of the bags below catch your eye, and you don't mind the drawbacks we mention, your bag of choice should serve you well.

Black Ember Citadel R2: The Citadel R2 is a tough bag made with precision and great attention to detail. However, the extremely complex design, though tuned to a specific aesthetic, gives us pause—with so many straps, attachment points, zippers, and adjustments, it just has too much that could break, malfunction, or otherwise cause a headache while in use. For a bag to last a lifetime, it needs to be tough, adaptable to many tasks, and built in such a way that it has very few things to break over time. The Citadel R2 achieves the first two criteria well enough but falls far short on the last. That said, if you like the look and don't mind a little extra complexity, the Citadel R2 is a good pick overall.

Evergoods Civic Panel Loader: The Civic Panel Loader is resoundingly fine, but we found ourselves wanting a bit more from the bag every step of the way—a bit more support in the straps, a bit more capacity, a bit more durability. Of those drawbacks, the most concerning was the overall capacity. We do like the internal organization options; if you tend to not carry that much in your life and like the minimal look of the Evergoods bag, it might be a good choice to consider.

Mission Workshop Sanction: The Sanction is let down by its lack of access, as it has just a single roll-top flap that opens into a frustratingly small central compartment. For the price, there are plenty of bags that offer the same amount of space and durability, plus better access, and although the Topo Klettersack is likewise hindered, it's substantially less expensive. Mission Workshop makes a startling number of bags, and we’re going to continue to test other options throughout the year.

Osuza Canvas: An unusual contender, the Osuza opens up completely—like four petals on a flower or the expansive maw of an alien facehugger—and each flap is covered internally with pockets or MOLLE webbing for plenty of customization. However, the entire design is debilitatingly complicated and unfocused. Ostensibly built for makers and artists, this bag is too specific for most people.

Peak Design Everyday Backpack: We’re fans of Peak Design gear; it's well made, backed by an honest lifetime warranty, and uniquely designed. The Everyday Backpack is designed first for photographers to customize a backpack around their photography kit—with Velcro panels that you can adjust throughout the main compartment—and as an everyday-carry backpack second. We like the access, as it's top-loading, with two zippers running down either side, all opening to the main compartment. If you want a lightweight camera backpack, this one is okay, but despite Peak Design's lifetime warranty, we’re not convinced that this model has the durability to be a backpack you can expect to drag through tough environments.

Tortuga Outbreaker Laptop Backpack: Like all Tortuga gear, the Outbreaker appears to be built first for travel—in this case, as an underseat personal item. It's more or less a diminutive version of the company's larger travel backpack. Tortuga makes most of its gear with ripstop nylon, a strong but crinkly fabric that makes a bit of noise, which is fine for travel gear but might get irritating with something you’re opening and closing multiple times every day. The Outbreaker does have the most "admin"—built-in organizational panels for pens, paperwork, and other small items—of any model we tested for this guide. The shoulder pads are well padded, too, as you might expect on a bag meant for travel. Ultimately, we just didn't want to carry this bag every day.

Kit Dillon

Kit Dillon is a senior staff writer at Wirecutter. He was previously an app developer, oil derrick inspector, public-radio archivist, and sandwich shop owner. He has written for Popular Science, The Awl, and the New York Observer, among others. When called on, he can still make a mean sandwich.

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