Best running backpack 2020: the ultimate run-commute companions
Whatever your distance, these running backpacks span all budgets.
Running is one of the cheapest and most accessible types of exercise. You can set your own pace, distance and incline depending on the kind of workout you’re after, and planting one foot in front of the other makes for the ideal lunchtime escape. It’s also a great way to outrun bumper-to-bumper traffic, which is why the popularity of run-commuting has rocketed in recent years.
Given the amount of clutter we tend to drag to and from work (clothes included), there comes a time when investing in one of the best running backpack really pays off.
But with so many shapes and sizes on the market, how do you choose which to get? The only foolproof way is to don a pair of trainers and hit the pavement with a bunch of them. And that is exactly what we did.
Want the short version? The best running rucksacks for value is the The North Face Chimera 24. The best running rucksack overall for women is the Sweaty Betty Icon Running Backpack and our top pick for men is the Gregory Miwok 18.
- In the market for the best running headphones around? Take a peak at the best running headphones around.
Best running backpacks: best buys
The North Face Chimera 24's vibrant colour means you’ll be visible whatever time of day you run, while the Flashdry back panel and sweat wicking fabric avoid leaving you with a clammy back. It has fewer internal pockets that some, but there are several external ones, alongside elasticated elements for added carrying power. Padding is thinner than the Sweaty Beatty Icon's, but sliding chest straps mean it’s one of the easiest to adjust, whatever your chest size.
Sweaty Betty’s Icon Running Backpack is the perfect blend of style and substance. It is sleek and has added padding across the shoulder straps and back. The hip and chest straps are easily adjustable too, ideal for all heights and body shapes. There's space for a hydration pocket if required, and pockets - plenty of pockets! It’s ideal for anyone looking to run-commute. And there's no need to hide a rucksack this smart under your desk when you reach the office.
The Gregory Miwok 18 is light has enough padding to make a marathon run with a full pack feel like a breeze, for your shoulders at least. Its neutral colour scheme should appeal to just about everyone, and 18-litre capacity means it can fit everything you’d need on a run-commute (and then some). At £80 it’s relatively affordable, and the 3D back panel ensures decent airflow so your pack won't require peeling from your sweaty back when you arrive at your destination. It’s pretty much the ultimate multi-tasker.
We also tested bags from big brands like Lululemon, Osprey and Nike to name but a few. Read all about them below.
- Looking for some trainers to go with that? Discover the best running shoes we’ve tested.
Our expert's view
We tried to cover a wide range of prices in this test, with rucksacks from £19 to over £140. And we looked a little beyond the runners in ShortList's staff too. We consulted two marathon runners - one who regularly uses a running backpack and a second who doesn't normally run with a pack. Our aim was to get you advice and recommendations from the people who might actually use them.
Best running backpacks
1. Lululemon Fast and Free
This sleek dark blue bag, with its distinctive shape, pretty much makes you look like the ultimate ninja turtle. It’s a snug fit, which is ideal, and padded straps ensure comfort is great. The only thing that lets it down somewhat is its capacity - but if you’re sticking to the essentials and not trying to fit the kitchen sink into your backpack, you’ll be ok.
2. The North Face Chimera 24
Simple in its design, this Chimera 24 backpack from The North Face is ideal for fitting everything you need into one bag. Added elasticated elements handle extra scarves, jumpers or equipment that needs carrying, while its vibrant colour ensures you’re seen by nearby traffic.
3. Proviz Reflect 360
High-vis is the name of the game with this Proviz reflective offering. It is less padded than some others but with plenty of zip pockets and mesh panels, there are countless places to pop gels, wallets and keys. They'll be easily accessible too. Complete with a decent capacity, it’s a great, affordable bag.
4. Osprey Duro 15
This backpack is definitely the top pick for hardcore runners. The Duro 15 fits comfortably and comes with an integrated 2.5L Hydraulics LT reservoir, meaning you can stay hydrated on-the-go without the need to reach into your pack to find that water bottle. Its capacity is a little less than others on the list, 15L, primarily down to the integrated hydration tubes and bags. Ideal for long distances and trail runs.
5. Sweaty Betty Icon
While its colour scheme is simple (black with rose-gold detailing), this Sweaty Betty backpack is as comfortable as they come. Like most on the list, it is not designed to fit winter coats and countless pairs of shoes, but for that run commute or trip to the gym, this might just be the ideal bag. The pockets and top handle are also big bonuses.
6. Gregory Miwok 18
Well-padded shoulders are the basis of any good running pack, and you definitely get them here. Comfort is a top Gregory priority. Paired with the padding and mesh Airwave panel on the back, it's a hit for both weight distribution and breathability.
7. Nike Run Backpack
Nike claims this design minimises movement, while mesh panels improve breathability. Unlike most other bags there is only one chest strap, but a single central compartment means shoving your belongings in is easy. External compartments have been kept to a minimum, mind.
8. Columbia Unisex Essential Explorer
The Columbia Unisex Essential Explorer not only comes in at a reasonable price but has pockets aplenty. There's a handy external front zip for easy-access to your belongings and it holds a handy 20L, making it ideal for shoving everything from a laptop to trainers in. Neutral colour schemes are also a bonus, with this monochrome design hitting all the right notes.
how we selected our running backpacks
With so many function, size and design variations from backpack to backpack, we first looked into which features you'd want in the perfect running rucksack.
We began by checking out several of the most popular brands on the market. Major names line the shelves of big high street running stores like Runners Need and Decathlon, while online outlets tend to also offer niche brands you might not find elsewhere. We tested both kinds, including those with specialised equipment such as hydration packs.
This means the backpack has space for a water bladder, with a drinking nozzle that's easy to reach while you run. Not every commuter requires one of these "hydration systems", but those who want to use their backpack for both short and long runs may find one useful.
You can spend anything from £19 to £200 on a running backpack. It was important to ensure our selection included both low-cost models and top-tier products. After all, not every first-time runner wants to fork out on a top-of-the-range bag that may be relegated to the cupboard after a few outings.
We also tried to ensure all our test rucksacks had similar overall storage capacity. Weight distribution plays a vital role when it comes to comfort, and by levelling the playing field we could tell the great designs from the duds.
Only dedicated running rucksacks were allowed in our test too. Don't miss our best travel backpack test if you want an all-rounder bag.
Those that made the cut include backpacks from Lululemon, The North Face, Sweaty Betty, Osprey, Proviz and Karrimor.
how we tested the running backpacks
We went the extra mile with these backpacks. And a little more than that, actually. Each pack was worn for at least 20km as part of our testing process.
Each of the key test categories - comfort, capacity, functionality and price - were scored out of 10. The backpacks' aesthetics were scored out of 5, as looks play a less vital role than ease of use.
We understand not everyone runs a solid 10km in one go, so alongside a 10km run with each pack firmly secured on our backs, we wore them for separate 7km and 3km runs.
This mixed things up and allowed us to see how each bag fared over shorter distances. And the differing lengths let us see how easily accessible items were, how easily adjustments could be made and whether accessing our phone to check the route was a feasible feat.
We also looked at storage. Although we chose models with fairly similar capacities, some bags' storage is split into multiple interior sections, where others have one main internal compartment and multiple external pockets. We tried to keep things simple by sticking to the same contents with each run to see what each rucksack could hold and how easy it was to access the contents.
What did we carry around? A single light coat, pair of shoes, wallet, laptop, water bottle and keys. The laptop was a standardised 12.3-inch Chromebook: fairly light and not too large. These are everyday items we’re likely to carry to and from work, and several often need to be accessed quickly mid-run for hydration or functional reasons.
The Chromebook? Not so much.
We also ensured all routes were pavement-based. We love running cross-country, but sticking to pavement-pounding was a reliable way to ensure an even playing field when it came to movement, impact and overall comfort and stability.
Last, but not least, we considered looks. If this bag is something you’ll wear from street to boardroom, chances are it needs to be minimalist. However, given not everyone will be so focussed on aesthetics, this element was scored out of 5 rather than 10 to ensure fair weighting.
Best running backpacks: the test results
The backpacks tested all have a wide range of features, but some stand out.
Certain designs, like the Sweaty Betty Icon Running Backpack, excelled in terms of capacity. Not only did this bag store all of our contents easily (and with room to spare) courtesy of its main interior compartment, it looked the part doing so.
The padded black and rose-gold design looks less sporty and aerodynamic than others, but a simple colour scheme means it is the ideal bag if you’re looking to run direct from the pavement to the board room while retaining a smart edge.
TheLululemon Fast and Free rucksack came in close behind in terms of aesthetics. Its aerodynamic shape and simple block colour scheme keeps things smart and sleek.
However, having tried the bag's previous incarnation in the past, which was ideal for commuting, this new version seems to have been made narrower (or at least feels that way). Fitting items like a laptop becomes that bit trickier. It did fit, but only just.
That being said, the Lululemon Fast and Free did have among one of the best internal pocket layouts of any backpack we tried, featuring plenty of smaller elasticated pockets for stashing keys and wallets.
The North Face Chimera 24 excelled in terms of capacity, with 24 litres of storage space. However, an angled zip (as opposed to all-around zip) made inserting larger garments like coats and laptops a little harder.
Its bright blue block colour design either a draw or a little off-putting depending on what it is you’re looking for. If incognito, ninja-mode running is your thing, this might not be for you. However, if you’re looking to be seen during those night runs, consider this alongside the likes of the smaller capacity Proviz Reflect 360.
Most designs tested, like the Proviz, Sweaty Betty and Lululemon, have one main internal compartment and several pockets, accessible via an all-around zip.
This is useful for removing and inserting larger items. Bags like The North Face Chimera 24 have an internal compartment accessed through an angled zip, rather than an all-round zip, and the Osprey Duro 15 has a somewhat reduced capacity thanks to the built-in hydration pack (useful in its own right).
The reflective finish of the Proviz Reflect 360 is ideal for those regularly running at night and during winter. It is great for those on a budget too, or new runners who don’t want to spend a small fortune in order to cart around their items.
That being said, if comfort or capacity are your priority, it’s probably worth going for one of the other models tested - notably the Gregory Miwok 18, the Sweaty Betty Icon Running Backpack or the North Face Chimera 24.
The Osprey Duro 15 was a bit of an anomaly - primarily due to its specific run tailoring and that hydration equipment is in-built into the design. The padded back panel is a definite selling point, and - much like the Gregory bag - air circulation is a key priority. Not to mention a decent level of comfort across the shoulders.
The Icon’s padded straps ensured little-to-no movement that could result in chafing during the warmer, summer months when we all get that bit more sweaty.
That being said, Gregory Miwok 18’s heavy padding was among the most comfortable tested - and paired with the Airwave back panel, which adds breathability, this backpack is a joy to wear. And let’s not forget the Lululemon Fast and Free Backpack, which fits the curve of your back seamlessly. We could not fault its fit, which causes minimal movement.
The best mens and womens backpacks reviewed:
Best overall for women: Sweaty Betty Icon Running Backpack (RRP £90)
With its sleek, quilted design and added padding across the shoulder straps and back, Sweaty Betty’s Icon Running Backpack is the perfect blend of style and substance. It adapts to the shape of the back well, so pressure placed on the lower back is minimised and your shoulders don't feel overloaded. Its sleek shape almost makes it look part of your clothing.
The adjustable hip and chest straps are another selling point. There are three height options across the sternum, and it's easy to adjust and personalise - even while on the move. This adjustability is handy for different heights and body shapes. After starting a test run we decided to change up the height of the strap, something that was easy to do without the need to even take the backpack off.
Sweaty Betty’s Icon does come in at the top end of the price scale, which gave it a mid-range value score. However, the host of integrated features (including a useful top handle) boosted its final points tally.
And while Sweaty Betty is not a brand always associated with running (it's a favourite of gym and yoga fans), the integrated space for a hydration pocket, alongside magnetic side pockets capable of holding both water bottles and keys, made it practical. It’s an ideal bag for anyone looking to run-commute - ensuring you arrive in the boardroom looking smart and with no need to hide your backpack under the table.
Best overall for men: Gregory Miwok 18 (RRP £80)
Lightweight and with enough padding to make a marathon run with a full pack feel like a breeze on your shoulders, the Gregory Miwok 18 is the perfect blend of form and function.
The shoulders aren't quite as padded as the Sweaty Betty Icon's but are still a more than adequate for a good running pack. High levels of comfort are sustained when the bag is fully loaded too. The reason this particular model was chosen as the best for men is we noticed it slipped upwards slightly mid-run for women (there are specific models for women that navigate this issue).
Decent padding and a mesh Airwave panel on the back make this design comfortable in terms of both weight distribution and breathability. The air circulation element really does make a difference - similar to the Osprey Duro 15 - and it means you don’t end up stuck to your pack when you come to arrive at your destination.
A variety of colour schemes ensure it appeals to all, while its 18-litre capacity means it can fit everything you’d need on a run-commute (and then some). There's one central compartment, which is ideal for bigger coats during colder months, and the pockets are virtually limitless - the waist straps also provide space for keys and wallets. At £80 it’s relatively affordable for those looking to undertake regular runs. It’s pretty much the ultimate multi-tasker.
The best value backpack reviewed: The North Face Chimera 24 (was £110 now £55)
The Chimera 24's vibrant colour scheme means you’ll be seen whatever time of day you run - great for some, but not ideal if you’re looking to rob a bank and get away with it anytime soon. Given the length of the British winter, however, the bright colours of the North Face Chimera 24 will definitely come in handy.
The air circulating Flashdry back panel - similar to the Airwave concept seen on the Gregory Miwok 18 - is a functional feature worth noting. Its sweat wicking fabric is also ideal for those not wanting to end up a clammy mess at their destination.
First and foremost, this bag (if purchased in the sale) comes in at a pretty affordable price. Although it has fewer internal pockets than some of its competitors, there are a number of external pockets and elasticated elements for adding items when needed.
It does, however, have thinner padding than bags like the Sweaty Beatty Icon Running Backpack and Gregory Miwok 18. That being said, this model’s sliding chest straps mean that it’s one of the easiest to adjust - whatever your chest size.
The rest compared:
Each of the remaining backpacks excels in its own areas - making them great for someone, if not everyone.
Starting with the Lululemon Fast and Free Backpack, the price of £98 is on the higher side but it’s a quality piece of equipment. It ranked highly on looks, with a simple, sleek exterior. However, it fell down on functionality.
External pockets are kept to a minimum, meaning keys, wallets and phones aren’t the easiest to access. The chest strap is a little fiddly too. Unlike the Sweaty Betty Icon, whose chest strap height can be adjusted on the move, this model has to be taken off entirely due to the clips hooking around the shoulder straps in a rather specific way. Once changed it's a dream, just not ideal for on-the-move adjustment.
The Osprey Duro 15 is the ultimate distance running back, that much is for sure. Its padding makes comfort a priority and its mesh aerated back panel means that if you find yourself a hot mess, it’s more likely to be down to your running than the backpack.
Storage isn’t the greatest, as some space is taken up by the build-in 2.5L hydration equipment - something you might find a little annoying on shorter run-commutes due to the additional tubes and equipment getting in the way.
The Proviz Reflect 360 was the cheapest of the test picks. While less comfy and less capable, it shouldn’t really be called a "one to avoid". It is ideal if you’re looking to get into running for the first time, don’t run that often or are worried it’s likely to be relegated to the cupboard.
We like the price, and the built-in high-vis element is ideal if you will run during nights or those dark winter late-afternoons. The pockets around the midsection are also extremely useful. That being said, there are definitely comfier backpacks on the market. The Proviz Reflext 360 feels thinner and more rigid than the other bags on test.
One to avoid:
We wouldn’t tell you to avoid any of those tested because each is a solid option for at least one kind of rucksack shopper.
The Proviz Reflect 360 was the weakest of the lot, but this is offset by the lower price. As mentioned, there are definitely comfier offerings on the market, the Proviz Reflect 360 feeling a little thinner and more rigid than the other models we considered.
It didn’t feel as though it adapted to the contours of your back as well as competitors, but as we say, for under £50 this is a sound budget buy.