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7 Tips for Choosing the Best Gym Backpack

Buying Guide

Your workout backpack needs to be tough, durable and fit all your gear. You want it to look good, too. Make the right choice by following this guide.

Last updated: October 21, 2021
7 min read
7 Tips for Choosing the Best Gym Backpack

The right workout backpack keeps your clothing and gear organized, dry and odor-free, ensuring you're prepped and ready to hit the gym at any time.

Choosing a high-quality gym backpack comes down to several factors. Ideally, it’ll have multiple compartments inside and out so you can easily store then grab smaller items, such as your glasses and phone. It might also have pockets for your water bottle and a separate compartment for your sweaty workout clothes and shoes.

In addition to being functional, the material should be durable (and weather-proof if you’ll be training outside). Lastly, you want it to look cool. With so many types of workout backpacks to choose from, start by prioritizing the features that matter most to you.

1. Decide What Features Fit Your Training

When it comes to backpack features, what matters most is what you need the backpack to do. As you shop around, choose one based on the following criteria:

  • Durability: How frequently will you use the bag? And how rough are the conditions you’ll be using it in?

  • Compartments: Beyond the basics, do you also want a separate space for your laptop, shoes, or toiletries?

  • Protection: Is it made from high-quality materials and strong zippers that will protect your items from the elements?

  • Packing style: Do you tend to overpack? Or are you a minimalist? This may help you choose what size backpack to get or which extra features you need.

  • Style: What kind of colors, fabrics, and textures do you like? Do you have specific gear you need to tote around that requires a separate compartment (yoga mat, soccer ball, cleats, etc.)?

  • Ventilation: Ventilated backpacks are constructed with breathable materials and can quickly evaporate moisture from sweat and help cool you down faster.

2. Consider All the Ways You’ll Use It

The functionality of your workout backpack mostly depends on how and where you're training as well as where else you’ll be hauling it.

For example, are you walking or taking public transport to the gym? Then you may want more padding in the straps, pockets to access keys, wallet.

If you want a gym bag that travels well, you might opt for a larger size to fit a few toiletries and extra clothes.

Or if you’re taking it to the office, you may want to consider a more polished backpack with a more buttoned up look (as long as you’re not also taking it to the football field).

But if you’re only planning on using it for gym sessions, you can go with a more casual backpack that’s made of lightweight materials like polyester or nylon.

3. Evaluate the Material

Speaking of materials, for workout backpacks, common materials include leather, canvas, and nylon, as they’re durable and can hold up better in harsh weather and rain. You may also find packs made from vinyl or neoprene.

  • Polyester - Polyester is extremely durable, water resistant, and comfortable against your skin. its thermoplasticity means polyester can be shaped in a ton of ways, which leads to more style options. That said, on a humid day, it will retain moisture and feel a little sticky.

  • Leather - Leather is durable and biodegradable, and it has a truly unique aesthetic look. On the down side, it’s expensive, heavy and can be subject to water damage.

  • Canvas - Easy to clean and relatively inexpensive, canvas backpacks are flexible and expand with a lot of items. Canvas also gets caught on surfaces and creates risk of tearing.

  • Nylon - Nylon backpacks offer a wide range of colors and styles, and because they come in various synthetic versions, give you a lot of options to choose from. But not all nylon bags are made equally, and some are less durable than others.

  • Vinyl - Durable, stylish, affordable, and sustainable, vinyl bags have a few advantages over other materials. However, many wearers find vinyl bags uncomfortable and nearly impossible to repair when they rip.

  • Neoprene - Neoprene is light, water resistant and breathable. It’s also expensive and much less common in gym bags, meaning fewer styles and colors are available.

If you need a backpack that will stand up to the elements, look for the denier measurement on the product description, which refers to the thickness of the individual threads. A higher value indicates the bag is thick, more durable and potentially padded. A lower count meanwhile means it’ll be softer and more sheer.

7 Tips for Choosing the Best Gym Backpack

When choosing a backpack, what matters most is what you need the backpack to do.

4. Pick the Right Size Gym Backpack

There are generally a couple ways to measure the size of a backpack. One is by measuring a backpack's dimensions, and the other is based on volume.

With dimensions, consider the height, width, and depth of the backpack. Then measure that against the length of your own back. Measure from the point where your neck meets your shoulders to the point on your back aligned with the top of your hips.

Choose a backpack that fits within this space comfortably. Most Nike backpacks range from 13 inches for kids packs to more than 21 inches for adult bags.

When it comes to volume, think about what items you’ll be packing, such as clothing, gear, a laptop, shoes, toiletries, and chargers. A common way to measure backpack volume is in liters.

A medium-sized bag will suffice for most gym goers. These range from about 30 to 40 liters, which should easily hold a pair of sneakers, a change of clothes, water bottle, small toiletries kit, and some gym accessories such as gloves or wristbands.

If you plan to use your gym backpack for travel or hiking, it may be a good idea to look for something bigger. A 50-liter gym bag ought to give you a bit more flexibility here, fitting all of the items mentioned above plus some extra clothing or gym gear.

While you browse online, always look for photos that show a model wearing the backpack to give you a better understanding of the actual size.

5. Think About How You’ll Organize Your Gear

The best workout backpacks provide plenty of pockets and zippered compartments to organize your workout clothes, shoes, and gear.

Smaller, zippered or hook-and-loop fasteners pockets made from mesh help you see what’s inside so you can quickly find essential items like your keys or wallet. Separate compartments are also great for storing your dirty clothes, sweaty shoes, and towel.

If you plan on carrying your laptop with you, make sure the backpack can accommodate at least a 15-inch size and comes with padding to protect it and hold it in place. Here are some features and components to keep in mind:

  • Main compartment - As mentioned above, you’ll need an ample main compartment to fit everything you plan to carry.

  • Shoe compartment - Some backpacks offer a pocket designed to fit a pair of athletic shoes and keep them separate from the other items.

  • Bottom compartment - A pocket on the bottom of the gym bag is often a good place to carry bulkier items.

  • Side pocket - How many smaller, side pockets do you need?

  • Shoulder strap - Do you need to carry your backpack on its side like a duffel bag? If so, look for a bag with a shoulder strap or versatile strap options.

  • Sleeve or laptop compartment - A padded laptop pocket is especially handy if you’re trekking to the gym to and from school or work.

  • Front-loading compartment - A front-loading pocket typically comes with an easy access zipper to open and secure items quickly.

  • Top loading compartment - Some backpacks come with a pocket or sleeve that allows you to slide items directly in from the top.

6. Choose a Design That Fits Your Training

Many workout backpacks and bags are designed for a specific activity. Look for a gym bag that was designed for your sports and fitness needs. Here are some examples:

  • Yoga - Compartments for rolled up yoga mats
  • Soccer - Enough space to hold a soccer ball
  • Basketball - Duffel style lets you lay it on the side of the court
  • Running - A design that reduces movement while you run
  • Training - Spacious main compartment to accommodate more clothing

Also take into account how you prefer to carry your bag. Some backpacks have one large cross-body strap, rather than two that go over your shoulders. The amount and weight of the items you carry will dictate the type of strap you should choose. If you know you need to carry a lot (or the gear you carry is heavy), go with double straps rather than single.

Some backpacks also convert into a bag you carry like a tote. This might interest you if you’re hitting the town after a workout or want to use the backpack for the office but a duffel on the court.

7. Don’t Neglect Cleaning and Care

When searching for the perfect workout backpack, you’ll want to consider durability and lifespan. You want your gym bag to last several years, even after many washes. Look for materials that are easy to clean, especially if you know you’ll keep dirty clothes in there.

Read the label for washing instructions, as some backpacks should only be cleaned by hand while others can go into the washing machine and then air dried. Nylon and canvas can typically be thrown in the washing machine while backpacks with leather or leather trim should be washed by hand.

Washing by hand may entail getting an old toothbrush or wet hand towel and wiping down the bag with gentle soap or detergent.

To extend the time between washes, consider a deodorizing agent for your backpack or your gym shoes or throw a few dryer sheets into your bag.

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