people watching

The Backpacks 200 Manhattan High-School Students Wore

Two students in their Herschel (left) and JanSport (right) backpacks. Photo: Lauren Ro

Sometimes, a place that draws a specific kind of crowd — from a sample sale to an office lunch spot — can yield a wealth of shopping intel. What are these like-minded people all into right now? What sneakers are they wearing? What is that pants brand? For this edition of People Watching, we checked in at arrival one Friday morning at the Beacon School in Manhattan to see what backpacks high-school students are wearing. 

You can easily identify a high-school student by the way they carry their backpacks: low on their bodies, casually, as if they don’t feel the dead weight of notebooks, binders, and water bottles dragging them down. (They don’t need to schlep too many textbooks these days, thanks to PDFs and Google Classrooms.) One crisp Friday morning, I left Brooklyn at 6:45 a.m. to make it in time for 8 a.m. arrival at the Beacon School in Manhattan to see exactly what the kids were packing on their backs. A few even stopped to chat with me in the principal’s office.

Ilana Cope, a senior on the volleyball team (favorite subject: history), described Beacon as “a really lively school”: “I love showing up here. Whenever I’m having a bad day, this is the place where I usually want to be.” Junior Simone Blayloc-Shand (favorite subjects: astronomy and dance) agreed. “It’s very chaotic, but in a fun way. I like the vibe here. I am always meeting or seeing new people,” she said. As far as the school’s style goes, Blayloc-Shand said that 2000s fashion and streetwear came back, “so I see a lot of baggy jeans, bootcut jeans, flared pants, and graphic tees.” Cope added, “Backpacks are one of the ways that kids like to express their style here.”

Photo: Lauren Ro

When I asked students why they chose their backpacks, functionality was their top priority. Their bags had to have “a lot of pockets” and, in a sign of our hydrated times, a dedicated spot for their water bottles. I was comforted to observe that things haven’t changed too much since I was in high school two decades ago: JanSport was still, far and away, the brand I saw the most. Something else that surprised me was that most of the students I spoke to have had their backpacks for several years instead of opting for a new one at the start of each grade. Here’s what else I saw on 200 students as they shuffled through the double doors.

Black JanSports ruled the hallways

According to my rough tally, 60 students, or about 30 percent of them, had on JanSports, most of them in black or another dark color like navy, in the classic one-pocket style, larger suede-bottomed pack, or the extra-large one with two main compartments. (A tenth-grader with the largest size admitted that it got pretty heavy and also hurt his back because “at the most, I’ll have five binders in there.”) One ninth-grader, Trú Laws (favorite subject: English), switched back to her old backpack, a galaxy-printed JanSport she got last year, because her new one wouldn’t fit her binder. When I asked her why she chose this particular print, she answered, “I was into galaxies last year. I’ve always been into the stars, so I got this one.”

Herschel came in a close second

Photo: Lauren Ro

I counted around 30 plain Herschels, too, and like the JanSports, most of them came in black or other standard colors. But Cope got a red one “because my best friend of 13 years has a bag that’s a similar color and I really liked it,” she said. “Also, I want a couch that’s red when I get my own apartment. When I saw this red, I was like, ‘This is the color I want my couch to be.’” Besides the color, Cope loves that it’s really big and has a lot of storage with strong straps that don’t give her back pain, and she likes the double top handles. “Usually bags only have one, and they end up breaking on me. But these are really built on there, and because there’s two of them, there’s more support. I throw everything in there like lip gloss, pens, things that are just in my pockets. And of course, water bottles. All of my volleyball stuff is actually in here, too,” she said.

Nike, Adidas, North Face rounded out the pack

Backpacks from athletic and outdoor brands, including Nike, Adidas, and North Face, were also very popular, with each showing up about 25 times. I saw a lot of this particular Nike backpack in a bunch of colors. It’s got a slightly puffy effect, ample pockets, and shoulder straps with air-cushioned pockets that I imagine would be comfy for hauling heavy loads. As for Adidas and North Face, I couldn’t identify a style from each that stood out as the brand favorite, but here’s a couple I saw. (Bags from Patagonia, L.L.Bean, Swiss Gear, Under Armour, and High Sierra were also well represented.)

Photo: Lauren Ro

Regardless of brand, I also noticed a couple of tactical backpacks. Junior Logan McCall (whose favorite subject is English “because I’m creative and I like poetry”) has been carrying around this pack from Mil-Tec for about five or six years. “I’ve had it since I was in Boy Scouts,” he told me. “I used it to go camping, so I just carry it around as a cherished memory of that camping trip.” He likes its dark-green color, which he said “pops,” and the fact that it’s large enough to carry his books as well as his basketball shoes.

Some students were not afraid to go bold

Lauren Ro.
Lauren Ro.

Even though the overwhelming majority of backpacks I saw were black, some students were definitely not afraid of color or pattern. Besides Laws’s star-themed JanSport and Cope’s crimson Herschel, I saw a lovely peachy number on freshman Yahaira Guaman that she got a few years ago from Target, and a Betty Boop–adorned book bag that Blayloc-Shand said she saw on the boardwalk in Atlantic City a week before school started. “It just caught my eye. I thought it was cute,” she told me. (Cope loves Blayloc-Shand’s bag: “Simone’s bag looks like a cartoon threw up on it. It’s sick.”)

There were some status totes, too

I saw at least one of the following designer totes from Marc Jacobs, Longchamp, Telfar, and even Louis Vuitton. And only one messenger bag. (Supreme also made an appearance.)

The Strategist is designed to surface the most useful, expert recommendations for things to buy across the vast e-commerce landscape. Some of our latest conquests include the best acne treatments, rolling luggage, pillows for side sleepers, natural anxiety remedies, and bath towels. We update links when possible, but note that deals can expire and all prices are subject to change.

The Backpacks 200 Manhattan High-School Students Wore