Are you on the hunt for the perfect messenger bag? Do you know what to look for and consider when choosing one? If you have these or similar questions, keep reading. Our testers used nine different models on daily commutes, international ventures, and miscellaneous adventures. They learned a thing or two about which styles of bags work best in specific scenarios, plus the handiest features. This article highlights who messenger bags are for and when they are most useful. We also discuss our favorite features to look for so you can end up with the best bag for your needs.
Two Styles: Messenger & Briefcase
Simply put, a messenger bag is an over-sized purse with a single, cross-body strap. Within this product category, there are two general styles: messenger style and briefcase-style. Messenger style bags are best for biking because they sit higher on the back; generally, they have very comfortable straps, large capacities, few pockets, and quick release buckles. Briefcase style bags tend to have semi-rigid back panels, many storage options for small items, built-in laptop sleeves, and top grab handles. Their straps are designed for walking, and they are most comfortable sitting lower on the hip or low back.
The easiest way to tell the difference between the two is to look at the strap design. Vertically oriented straps, some of which are removable, are best for walking, while angled straps are meant for biking. The former will position the bag more like a purse near your waist, and the latter will sit nearly vertical and high on your back. The average American who goes directly to and from work will probably prefer a briefcase-style because they're superior for walking and organizing office essentials while also being more versatile and comfortable than a standard briefcase.
Five Use Scenarios
Moving on from how these bags work for walking vs. biking, the next question you should ask yourself is what you plan to put in your bag. Below, we outline a few different ways we like to use these bags and our recommendations on things to consider for each use. We also point out which bags stand out above the rest for certain applications thanks to their unique features.
The Mobile Desk
While writing this review, we used our bags as mobile office organizers. If you work remotely and frequent libraries and coffee shops, then a messenger is an excellent choice for you. Pick a bag that has the organizational capacity for all your things. It's not just about carrying your stuff from point A to point B; your belongings should also be accessible when your bag is on the ground beside you. Getting a bag that has a laptop sleeve is highly recommended. Otherwise, you'll need an after-market laptop sleeve, which tends to be a less efficient use of space than an integrated sleeve. We also prefer bags that have pockets big enough for a power supply. Pen/pencil slots are a must. Another thing to look for in a mobile office bag is the ability to keep papers from wrinkling with features like separate document pockets. The feature-rich Topo Designs Mountain Briefcase is great for this use scenario, as is the wildly affordable Mobile Edge ECO.
The Bike Commuter
Fourteen-mile bike commute? No problem. You will want a bag that carries your stuff comfortably and securely while on the move. You may not need extra organizational features or fancy laptop sleeves, but you do need something ergonomic that carries weight well. If you live in a rainy climate, we also suggest choosing a waterproof bag. The ease of adjustment of the shoulder strap is essential for the long-distance bike commuter. You want to look for a strap that can be adjusted one-handed and is padded enough to keep your shoulder from getting sore. You need to be able to tighten the strap quickly, but you also need to be able to lengthen or unclip the strap to take the bag off. Chrome bags feature an eject button that makes taking the bag off almost too easy.
If you're a bike commuter, seek out a great stabilization strap. There are two main designs: those that clip to the shoulder strap perpendicularly (T-strap) and those that are worn across the body like a hip belt. The best design depends on your personal preference. On the one hand, we love the hip belt style because it keeps bags secure and takes some of the weight off the shoulder. However, some people find anything around their waist uncomfortable for biking long distances. If that's you, go for a T-strap. Several bags we tested can have stabilizing straps that can be used either way. The Timbuk2 Classic is a solid example.
The other important aspect of messenger bags designed for biking is the fit against your back. Visualize someone hunched over while riding a bike and notice how their back is somewhat curved. Now picture strapping a flat piece of plywood to their back. One of two things happens, either the person's back straightens, or the board rests against the person's shoulder blades and one or two unfortunate vertebrae. Either scenario will be quite uncomfortable for our imaginary commuter. Replace the board with a laptop and the straps with a messenger bag, and you can see why some models aren't that comfortable for biking. Good choices for biking have flexible back panels that contour to a rider's back, or they have substantial padding (for the sake of protecting your laptop and your back). If you don't carry rigid objects like books or a computer, this will be less of an issue for you.
Head to any airport, and you'll see folks with messenger bags as their "personal item." If you plan on traveling with your bag, focus on durability, good organization, and laptop/tablet protection. For more security, stabilizing straps make a bag more difficult to steal, and minimal external pockets help reduce pick-pocket opportunities. Flaps that are difficult to open are nice too. Some bags we tested have secret pockets for keeping money or a passport safe. The Tom Bihn Daylight Briefcase is compact and convenient for airport travel. If you opt for the integrated cache to protect your tablet or Chromebook, you get excellent laptop protection in a TSA friendly compartment. This reduces the hassle of removing your laptop for security, as well as the chances of you dropping your laptop or forgetting it at security checkpoints.
Carry a heavy load of school books every day? You're going to want a bag with max storage space and max comfort. You'll also benefit from a laptop compartment and a place to keep papers safe from wrinkling. The Topo Mountain Briefcase is a great choice for this when carried as a messenger bag, but it also converts to a backpack for those days when you have extra heavy books with you. Another solid option to consider is the Arc'teryx Granville 10 — it works well both on and off a bike and is highly water-resistant. We tested the 10-liter size, which is likely a bit small for most students, but it also comes in a 16-liter for not much more money.
You're on your way to work to present your proposal to upper management at the end of the first quarter strategy meeting. But you get a flat tire on the way and are now running ten minutes late. You sneak into the meeting right as the presenter makes a joke that has everyone laughing, and no one notices you — success! You then open your bag with the loud rip of the velcro flap just as the room gets quiet; all of a sudden, all eyes are on you. Situations like this illustrate why considering all use cases and the features a bag offers is so important. Things like Velcro silencer strips are a superb addition to messenger bags used in professional business environments. Or, search out a bag that has buckles and zippers instead of velcro for an even more straightforward solution.
Another feature you might want to look for in a career-minded bag is a comfy carry handle so you can use it as a briefcase when walking around the office. If you enjoy hitting the gym over lunch, extra space for a change of clothes is nice. Roominess is also essential if you want to be able to pick up groceries on the way home after a long day. You'll probably want some laptop protection and a good place for papers as well. Finally, don't forget style. Flashy colors are fun, but a more subtle look tends to be preferred in professional environments.
Features to Consider
It's easy to make a waterproof bag — just use waterproof materials, yes? While the right fabric and lamination go a long way, there are a few other things to consider. If there's a flap, look for wings that cover the fold at either edge where moisture might be able to sneak. Make sure that these wings will funnel water out, not in. Most of the products we tested include this design feature, and when the bag is cinched properly, the inner compartments will be pretty impervious to rain. Next, assess the external pockets as these can be a weak point, especially if the zippers themselves aren't waterproof — another thing to look for. Waterproof zippers will be coated with small teeth that are far less exposed. Finally, you will want to take note of stitching and seams. Taped seams are a great indicator that the manufacturer took care to keep water out at every point.
If you want to use your bag to carry around a laptop, be sure it has a protective compartment designed for that purpose or that there is enough room for your computer to fit when inside its own case. Going case or padding-free is not ideal for obvious reasons. Floating laptop compartments that are sewn to a rigid or semi-rigid back panel will keep your laptop completely off the ground and are highly recommended. Thick padding all around the compartment will also protect it against accidental falls on the sides of the bag.
Shoulder strap padding and design are important. Decide if you're primarily going to use your bag for walking or biking. Straps that have more padding are typically more comfortable, but factors like adjustability are also important to consider. Some straps are designed to be set once and are difficult to adjust on the go. Others are made to be tightened or loosened with one hand. Bags that have ultra adjustable straps usually favor one shoulder. Some of our testers loved being able to switch the bag between the left and right shoulders, while others were creatures of habit.
A stabilizing strap is designed to keep a bag tight on your back for better balance and from swinging around while you're biking. Many people opt out of using stabilizer straps when walking. These straps either connect horizontally across your hips or stomach like a backpack's hip belt or they connect to the shoulder strap and go under your arm like a "T". Horizontal straps take a bit of the weight off your shoulder and can often be more comfortable. When riding a bike, however, many people don't like having anything around their waist and are more comfortable with T-strap designs.
Before dawn or after dusk, you'll want to do everything you can so that cars see you. Most manufacturers include some reflective material on the back of their bags, but if your plan is to ride in the dark often, you should also plan to use bike lights — many bags will also offer light attachment points for this purpose. Style is the biggest thing that suffers when there are a lot of reflective strips, but if you're biking every day, it is a small price to pay for safety.
Bags with flaps often have a two-part closure system using Velcro and a clip of some sort. The most common design uses plastic buckles, which are simple, quick, and intuitive. Hooks also get used sometimes and can be more durable as they're frequently made from metal instead of plastic. Keep in mind that Velcro is loud to open and close — depending on your profession it may not be the best choice. Bag companies are always experimenting with alternate designs and closure systems; just be sure to consider both ease of use and security.
Messenger bags can be as simple as one main compartment, or they can have pockets in all shapes and sizes. The pockets you need will depend on your use and the stuff you like to carry. Our favorite bags had a range of pocket sizes and shapes. For example, flap pockets are a nice place to store small items like keys. Back pouches make a great place to keep papers safe. If you don't carry your own separate pencil bag, then slots for pens are highly useful as well.
Messenger Bag Alternatives
Messenger bags are a great addition to your bag line-up because they provide quick access to your stuff, are ultra-portable, can take a beating, and are typically much more water-resistant than other bags. Some are quite stylish, too. They are, however, neither as comfortable as most backpacks nor can they carry as much stuff. They cost more on average than laptop bags and are heavier than purses. It's best to think about what you carry around on a daily basis, how you get to work, what role aesthetics and style play in your purchasing decisions, how quickly you need to access the contents of your bag, and the weight of what you carry before deciding what type of bag or pack is right for you.
Many of our colleagues report having gone from bag, to pannier, and finally settling on a simple backpack for their bike commutes. As such, we believe that the classic "messenger bag" has bigger shoes to fill in the modern world. It may need to be a casual briefcase for a reluctant business person or a do-it-all mobile office for a remote worker or student. It needs to be comfortable for a variety of commuting methods, from cycling to walking to crowded subways, and bumpy buses. And it's best if it can hold a few other random items like gym clothes, a rain jacket, climbing shoes, or a water bottle.
We see the messenger bag being supplanted by backpacks for many urban bike commuters and, in turn, the messenger bag seems to be replacing the formal briefcase. This is likely for the casual style and increased carrying comfort they can offer — a softer-sided bag is nicer to carry and handle. We liked to use our bags as a carry-on or "personal item" on flights because they are comfortable to carry and also easy to quickly stash essential items or pull things out in a crowded airport.
If a messenger bag doesn't fit your lifestyle, but you are still seeking optimal carrying power in some form of bag or sack, here are some alternatives that might suit you better:
Probably the biggest reason to choose one over the other comes down to your priorities and personal preferences. Do you value comfort and capacity or quick access and style? If you commute long distances, you'll probably prefer a backpack. If you just use your bag to carry your laptop around, you'll probably do better buying a messenger bag.