28 Essentials All Students Need in Their College Backpack

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Last Updated on February 11, 2024 by Alexandra Markin

Always being prepared is the key to success, especially in college. You have enough stress already without worrying if all your necessary college essentials are in your backpack as you rush out of the house.

As an online diploma college graduate, I’ve learned the hard way what essentials need to take up residence in our backpacks.

This post covers all the basics you’ll need on a daily basis. 28 items may seem like a lot, but going to university requires a lot of stuff. Use this list as a basis and add or subtract as necessary.

Wondering which backpack is best for college? Skip to the bottom of this post for some frequently asked questions I often receive about college backpack essentials!

Backpack Essentials for College

The goal of packing the perfect backpack is to have everything you could possibly need while keeping the total weight of the bag as low as possible. Think document folders instead of binders, flexible index card holders instead of rigid ones and e-Textbooks instead of hardcovers.

Although every item on this list may not apply to you, use this as a template for your college backpack essentials.

1. Wallet

You may wonder why this even needs to be on the list, but if you change bags (or purses) a lot, you know how easy it can be to forget your wallet.

You don’t want to be caught driving to a library study session without your driver’s license. Or even worse – being caught at the coffee bar without your credit card.

2. Student ID

You never know when you’ll need your ID – student deals are everywhere and you don’t want to miss out on any opportunity. The cafe you pop into for lunch may offer a discount upon presentation of a valid student card.

3. Keys and/or Fobs

Heading to study at work or the university and have a key or fob to access special buildings? Don’t forget it!

Going to study with friends from a different college? Ask them if they have their building fob before you leave. I once travelled 45 minutes with a friend to study at a special building at their university, only to get there and realized we were locked out because they forgot their fob.

Of course, also check you’ve packed personal keys – house, car, garage door opener, etc.

4. Phone & Phone Charger

When you have so many college backpack essentials to remember, it’s no wonder we sometimes forget our phones. But most often it’s our phone charger that ends up being the most important item that gets forgotten!

5. Laptop or iPad & Charger

Depending on the subject you’re studying, you’ll need either your laptop or iPad, or in some cases, both.

If you don’t have a backpack with a laptop compartment, use a padded laptop case to protect your valuable investment.

TIP: If you’re looking for a new laptop and anticipate a lot of studying outside your home, consider a lightweight option with a smaller screen. Check out Apple’s education pricing and Microsoft’s education discounts to save while you’re still a student!

I’ve been asked countless times by other students if they can borrow my laptop charger because they forgot theirs. Don’t be that student.

6. Earbuds & Corded Headphones

Why both? Because the charge on earbuds only lasts so long, especially if you don’t have time to fully charge them before you leave the house. Watch as many YouTube tutorials as you want with your corded pair without running out of charge.

Double-check you have the correct corded headphones that work with your laptop or iPad. The connector for the headphones that work with my iPhone isn’t the same type of connector that works with my Microsoft Surface laptop.

Don’t forget to throw in the charger for your earbuds so you can listen to a podcast on your commute back home!

7. Portable Power Bank

Not all places you study at will have access to an outlet. Think coffee shops, restaurants and those oddly placed tables at the library. When shopping for a portable power bank, the smaller and lighter it is, the better. In this case, it’s worth the extra cost.

Grab a power bank that supports charging all your electronics: phone, laptop, iPad, earbuds, etc.

8. Textbooks and/or Course Materials

Pack any necessary textbooks for the subject you’ll be studying. You may need other course materials as well, such as printed readings, workbooks, etc.

If you have an e-Textbook or access to the online version, you can save carrying around up to 5 pounds!

9. Portable Book Stand

When taking notes from a textbook, using a portable book stand to hold your book upright makes the task so much easier! It’s much more ergonomic and saves you from hunching over your desk. My upper back and neck get really stiff from studying long hours, and I found using a book stand helps ease stiffness. I highly recommend getting a portable one for study session away from home.

10. Course Binder

If you keep your course materials in a binder, you can take it with you but only if you have room.

Instead of packing your entire binder, what worked well for me is taking what I needed for that particular study session and put it all in a clear document folder. It was much lighter and more flexible than carrying a bulky and heavy binder.

11. Notebook

If you take your notes in a notebook, pack it. If your notebook is almost full, pack an extra one.

12. Loose Leaf Paper

For some subjects, taking notes on loose leaf paper is a better choice. Carry a stash of lined paper and/or graph paper for math notes in a clear document folder.

13. Flashcards

Flashcards are great for vocabulary, math formulas or any subject that requires you to memorize a large amount of information.

Bring extra flashcards, metal rings and and a single hole punch for study sessions that include flashcard creation. You could also store your un-punched flashcards in a flexible index card holder – perfectly lightweight to carry around in your backpack.

14. Planner or Bullet Journal

No matter how you plan, whether electronically or on paper, bring your planner.

15. Course Syllabus

No college backpack essentials list is complete without your course syllabus. Print it out or save it electronically to have a productive study session.

16. Writing Utensils, Accessories & Pencil Case

When selecting a pencil case, get one big enough to hold everything you need and to keep everything in one place. It’s annoying to have to keep digging into multiple pockets to haul out your supplies.

Recommend writing utensils and accessories to have with you at all times:

  • Black pens
  • Coloured pens
  • Mechanical pencil
  • Mechanical pencil lead refills
  • White eraser
  • Wite-out tape
  • Highlighters
  • Page flags
  • Permanent marker for writing on page flags
  • Sticky notes
  • Paper clips
  • Rubber finger (for frequent page flipping)
  • Dry erase marker in black and at least one other colour

17. 6″ and/or 12″ Ruler

Depending on your study needs, a small 6″ ruler might be all you need. But keep in mind if you’re highlighting all the way across an 8.5″ x 11″ page, a 6″ ruler isn’t long enough. Even if you’re not using it to highlight, you never know when a straightedge will come in handy.

18. Calculator

Finance or mathematics students know any study session is useless without the required calculator.

Pack extra batteries and a small screwdriver to be able to change the batteries yourself. Some calculators are rechargeable now, so if you have one like that don’t forget to bring the charger.

19. Refillable Water Bottle

Everyone has their preference when it comes to refillable water bottles. Plastic is the lightest weight option, but metal insulated bottles like S’well keep water cold for much longer and also accommodate ice cubes without creating outer condensation.

20. Hot Drink Tumbler

It’s a good idea to carry a reusable hot drink tumbler instead of relying on the paper ones. Depending where in the world you’re studying, some cities like Vancouver, Canada, now have bylaws in place where you pay a fee for each paper cup – at the time of writing this post that fee is $0.25. Every dollar counts as a student!

Reusable tumblers also keep your beverage warmer for longer, so you can enjoy your hot coffee, tea or matcha latte at leisure.

21. Study Snacks

Feeling hungry when you study is normal. Your brain needs calories to study effectively! I kept a supply of energy bars in my backpack and they allowed me to keep studying an extra hour or two when I would have otherwise needed to take a meal break.

Energy or granola bars are portable, non-perishable and don’t create a mess, smell or noise if you’re studying in a quiet space like a library.

22. Gum or Mints

These are great for after eating or drinking coffee or tea, or some students find chewing gum helpful for improving concentration.

23. Seasonal Weather Accessories

Weather and time of year will require you to pack a few extra things to keep warm or dry. These could be:

  • Umbrella
  • Sunglasses & case
  • Gloves
  • Toque/beanie
  • Scarf

24. Money – Both Cash & Card

It’s best to always carry a credit and debit card and cash in both bills and coins. You never know when you’ll need them.

There are still vending machines you might come across that only take cash, or the electronic payment terminals might be down. Always be prepared!

25. Antibacterial Surface Wipes

These are now a necessity, especially in our post-covid world. Study tables everywhere are not cleaned throughout the day, which result in fingerprints, germs, food crumbs and liquid spills left behind by other students. It’s gross!

Before you start unpacking, wipe down the table with an antibacterial surface wipe.

26. Hand Sanitizer

Speaking of covid, having hand sanitizer is also now a required essential. Keep a mini bottle in your backpack at all times.

27. Personal Items

Travel size isn’t just for trips – these items are important college backpack essentials.

Make your time studying as comfortable as possible by packing a pouch with these items:

  • Tissues
  • Band-Aids
  • Safety pins
  • Over the counter medication (headaches, upset stomach, allergies, heartburn, etc.)
  • Hair ties
  • Bobby pins
  • Q-tips
  • Feminine products
  • Floss
  • Stain remover stick
  • Nail file

28. Hand Lotion, Lip Balm & Eye Drops

These are essential for dry climates or long study sessions. Places like libraries can be very dry and irritating to your skin and eyes, and long periods of paper handling will have you reaching for lotion.

I have very dry cuticles, so I also carry a small bottle of cuticle oil.

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs) About College Backpack Essentials

Do You Really Need a Backpack for Online College?

Yes, you really do need a proper backpack for online college.

When I first became an online student, I thought my trusty Michael Kors Jet Set tote bag would suffice. It even had a padded pocket that fit my 13″ MacBook Air. I very realized quickly I was wrong.

Even though we aren’t on campus hiking from class to class, a tote bag isn’t big enough to hold everything you need, nor is it a suitable ergonomic choice.

One of the major advantages of online learning is the freedom to study from anywhere you want, so invest in a proper backpack.

Which Backpack is Best for College?

The best backpack for college is the one that best fits your needs. The main goal is to make your backpack weigh the least amount possible while still having all your study essentials close at hand.

What works for your friend may not work for you. If you’re not sure, here are a few questions to ask yourself before buying a backpack:

  • Will you be carrying more than one textbook?
  • Do you have a large size screen laptop (14″ or larger)?
  • Or, will you be leaving the house with just the bare essentials?

If you’re big on carrying water and coffee, make sure your backpack has two outer pockets to accommodate these.

Is a 25L Backpack Good For College?

The size of backpack you carry depends on what you need to carry. If you need to carry a binder a 20L backpack will be too small. My backpack is about 20L and measures 16″ tall x 10″ wide x 5″ deep Fits my 13″ MacBook Air in a padded zipper case, one textbooks and my pencil and personal items case. If in doubt, buy a size bigger than you need.

What college backpack essentials do you carry? Share in the comments below!

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