Fashion for high schoolers is an extremely fine line to walk. On the one hand, teenagers have reached the stage where they’re trying to establish their own identities and push their boundaries, which means that they want to resist conformity. On the other hand, fitting in is a vital part of the socialization process. In other words, they want to stand out without being singled out.
This conflict extends to every aspect of a high schooler’s outward appearance. This includes their school supplies, especially their school bag, which is the most outwardly visible school accessory they’ll have. And on top of everything else, their school bag needs to be functional as well as fashionable. The tried-and-true backpack has served students of all ages for generations, and there’s certainly nothing wrong with the design, with one minor exception: it’s predictable. Conventional. BORING.
So here’s the conundrum: high school students want a bag that stands out in the sea of mundane, cookie-cutter backpacks, but it still needs to have all the convenience of a backpack. It may sound like a lot to ask for, but it’s not really such a tall order. There are some quirky options out there, and most of them are relatively easy to find as well as affordable. Below are my suggestions for the Best Backpack Alternatives for High School Students.
Okay, so messenger bags have been popular for a few years now and are almost as mainstream as backpacks. However, they do have a certain flair and stylishness that backpacks lack. Messenger bags come in a variety of styles and materials, from a contemporary look in inexpensive polyester ($19.99 at Target) to a vintage look in rugged leather ($228 at Fossil), and everything in between. They are relatively comfortable to wear (slinging them over the chest helps distribute the weight evenly) and are spacious enough to carry several books and binders. Most have additional pockets with compartments for pens, pencils, calculators, cell phones, etc.
Sling bags also hit the scene several years ago, and, like messenger bags, are entering the mainstream. However, they combine many of the attractions of backpacks and messenger bags into a distinctive style that sets them apart from both. They are commonly found in sporting goods stores (like this model, emblazoned with my own beloved WSU Cougars logo, available at Sports Authority for $28.99), and come in a variety of different motifs. They usually have a roomy main compartment for books and binders, and have additional smaller compartments for various school supplies. Target offers this interesting variation on the sling bag for only $14.99.
Military Surplus or Army/Navy stores usually have a wide (but unpredictable) assortment of bags, including shoulder bags and field packs, as well as more unusual choices like map cases, insulated carriers, and hard-shell containers. Although they don’t usually have as many organizational features as other bags, they certainly rank high in durability and have a unique, distinctive appearance. The military standard-issue look is even seeping into civilian goods, such as this Maxpedition LAST RESORT™ TACTICAL ATTACH bag at Walmart. At $136.99, it is considerably more expensive than what you’ll find at most military surplus stores, but it does have a lot more of the smaller compartments that will come in handy at school.
Designed to protect fragile and expensive equipment, camera cases tend to be extremely durable, and should even be up to the task of surviving 4 years of high school-level abuse. They come in a variety of sizes and the internal compartments are usually customizable, so inserts can be removed to make room for books. Smaller compartments for lenses, film, and other accessories are ideal for pens, pencils, etc. They are available in soft or hard shells, but they are on the pricey side and tend to be rather plain and utilitarian in appearance.
Most luggage manufacturers make rolling tote bags that are spacious enough for books, and also have smaller pouches that could be used to hold pens, pencils, calculators, etc. They are extremely durable and have carrying handles, shoulder straps, and wheels with a retractable rolling frame. TravelPro has a number of excellent models. Another option that you’re likely to find in your local luggage store are BigMouth bags by Kiva. Similar in design to the old-fashioned doctor’s bags, these bags open wide for easy access to the contents. Prices on luggage vary greatly, so it’s difficult to put any sort of price range in for this category. They are pricier than the run-of-the-mill backpack, but expect to get several years of use out of them. You might also consider buying this as part of a luggage set, in preparation for the day that you push them out the door towards college…
Vintage Bowling Ball Bags
If your high schooler is deep into retro fashion, you might consider a vintage bowling ball bag. I specify “vintage” because modern bowling ball bags are indistinguishable from regular gym bags. The vintage designs are distinctive and really evoke a bygone era. This one in particular makes me think of Tiki bars and Les Brown, for some reason. The main compartments in these bags are usually just large enough for schoolbooks, and there is usually at least 1 smaller pocket (intended for socks) that can be used for smaller school supplies. This option is more funky than functional, but will certainly stand out. Check online or at your local thrift store.
As you can see, backpacks are not the only game in town. Hopefully this gives you a few ideas. Be creative while school shopping, and keep your eyes and your mind open!