The Best Messenger Bag Review

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Amanda and Jess test the Patagonia Half Mass and the Osprey FlapJack Courier side by side.
Credit: Jeremy Bauman
For three months, school was in session for nine of the best messenger bags on the market. We tested their aptitude in the categories of comfort, style, storage, water resistance, and laptop protection. We also did a bonus round giving each bag the opportunity to highlight its unique features. Some bags graduated at the top of the curve and are ready to be put to work for a myriad of uses. Others are more specialized and fantastic for specific applications. After rigorous competition, we identified the top shelf bags and gave awards for our Editors' Choice, our Top Pick for Bike Commuting, and our Best Buy.

If you're looking for a two-shoulder bag designed specifically to carry your laptop around town, you'll want to make sure that you also check out our Laptop Backpack review.

Read the full review below >

Review by: ⋅ Review Editor, OutdoorGearLab

Top Ranked Messenger Bags

Displaying 1 - 5 of 9 << Previous | View All | Next >>
Our Ranking #1 #2 #3 #4 #5
Product Name
Timbuk2 Command Messenger
Timbuk2 Command Messenger
Read the Review
Chrome Buran
Chrome Buran
Read the Review
Osprey FlapJack Courier
Osprey FlapJack Courier
Read the Review
SealLine Urban Shoulder
SealLine Urban Shoulder
Read the Review
Timbuk2 Classic
Timbuk2 Classic
Read the Review
Editors' Awards  Editors' Choice Award  Top Pick Award      Best Buy Award 
Street Price Varies $125 - $149
Compare at 7 sellers
$160
Compare at 2 sellers
$90
Compare at 5 sellers
Varies $139 - $170
Compare at 2 sellers
Varies $71 - $109
Compare at 7 sellers
Overall Score 
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Editors' Rating
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User Rating Be the first to rate itBe the first to rate itBe the first to rate itBe the first to rate itBe the first to rate it
Pros Excellent laptop features, stylish, superb organization, adjustable and ambidextrous strapVery comfortable for biking, ultra burly, waterproof, simple yet functional, easy to adjust strap, unique styleExcellent laptop pouch, ample pockets and organization options, easy to adjust shoulder strap, inexpensiveMost waterproof, best and easiest shoulder strap design, innovative fabricsDurable, inexpensive, works equally well for biking or walking, simple but well thought out storage, super stylish, customizable, great shoulder strap
Cons Not fully waterproof, no flap straps for bulky items,Not great for walking, bulky, heavy, unique styleNot the best for biking, not waterproof, less stylish than othersLimited storage options for medium sized things, bulky and stiff outer fabric, limited laptop protection.Poor laptop protection, difficult to see at night
Best Uses Traveling, mobile office, bike commuting to work, carrying a laptopBike commutingEveryday bag, laptop bag, infrequent commutingBike commuting in wet environmentsBike commuting, waking, briefcase, carrying school books
Date Reviewed Apr 03, 2015Apr 03, 2015Apr 03, 2015Apr 03, 2015Apr 03, 2015
Weighted Scores Timbuk2 Command Messenger Chrome Buran Osprey FlapJack Courier SealLine Urban Shoulder Timbuk2 Classic
Comfort - 20%
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8
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7
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Organizing - 20%
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Laptop Protection - 15%
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Style - 15%
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Water Resistance - 15%
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Features - 15%
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Product Specs Timbuk2 Command Messenger Chrome Buran Osprey FlapJack Courier SealLine Urban Shoulder Timbuk2 Classic
Volume (L) 22 26 20 23 21
Dimensions (inches) 17.1x14.4x5.1 18x12.5x8 16x13x7 18x15x5 18.1x12.2x7.1
Weight (lbs) 2.7 3.8 1.8 2.5 2
Size tested Medium Standard One Size Large Medium
Shoulder preferance Either Left only Left Left Left
Number of Compartments 1 2 2 1 1
Number of Large Pockets 4 4 2 1 1
Number of Small Pockets 5 2 5 6 7
Number of Zipper Pockets 5 2 4 2 3
Key Clip? No No Yes Yes Yes
Reflective Material? Yes Yes Yes Yes No
External Side Pocket Yes No Yes No Yes
Sleeve Fits Laptop 15 in 17 in 17 in 17 in 15 in
Stabalizing Strap Removable Removable Removable Removable Removable
Available Sizes 3 2 1 (Women's has 3) 2 4
Available Colors 5 2 5 5 10

  • Review Photos
  • Editors' Choice Winners

OutdoorGearLab Editors' Hands-on Review



Selecting the Right Product


Messenger bags were created as a niche product that satisfied the needs of bike couriers. Since their inception, they have been adopted by bike commuters, students, travelers, and pretty much everyone else who wants a stylish way to carry their stuff. They are great for a variety of uses like carrying a laptop, groceries, school books, documents, or packages. When we talk about messenger bags, we are referring to the style of bag that has a flap that folds over the main compartment and a single shoulder strap that is worn across the body. There are many differences between messenger bags including which shoulder they can be worn on, padding, laptop protection, organization features, and sizes. While they are certainly popular, they may not be the best choice for everyone. Below we discuss several alternative types of bags before jumping into our findings from the review.

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These bags come in all shapes and sizes. They are great for quick access to your stuff and are typically more water resistant than laptop bags or backpacks. Top (L to R): Osprey FlapJack, Chrome Buran; Middle (L to R): SealLine Urban Shoulder, North Face Base Camp, Manhattan Portage NY; Bottom (L to R): Patagonia Half Mass, Timbuk2 Classic, Chrome Metropolis
Credit: Jeremy Bauman

Laptop Backpacks


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Laptop backpacks are the most popular substitutes for messenger bags. Typically, they are much more comfortable, especially for longer distances and can often carry more stuff. However, they generally aren't as stylish or waterproof, and they aren't as easy to get into on the go. Messenger bags let you reach all your items without even taking the bag off your shoulder. Because they cover less surface area on your back, they also keep your back drier on hot summer commutes.

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 basically just use your bag to carry your laptop around, you'll probably do better buying a messenger bag.

Laptop Bags


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If you're buying a messenger primarily to carry your laptop, keep in mind there are a number of laptop bags for under $30 that may serve your needs well for a lot less money than the bags in this review. Although laptop bags may not be as waterproof, durable or stylish, they usually offer more laptop protection than messengers. They are also lightweight, slide under an airplane seat easily, and provide immediate access to your most reached for items. While not waterproof, they often fit easily in a waterproof backpack or bag, which gives you even more protection. The founder of OutdoorGearLab has been using the Case Logic 17.3-Inch Laptop Case for years even though he has the option of holding onto many of the tested bags in this review. It only costs $23.50 and holds all the essentials for a lightweight mobile office. See our article Mobile Office - Best Laptop Travel Set Up With External USB Monitor, Mouse and Keyboard.

Want the protection of a laptop bag, but the style and features of a messenger bag? You can always purchase an inexpensive laptop sleeve! Laptop sleeves are a fantastic and cheap way to keep your laptop safe in any bag.

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Laptop sleeve, iPad pouch, and internal storage enough for our things. It would be nice if the Base Camp Messenger also had a dedicated place to store a power supply.
Credit: Jeremy Bauman

Panniers


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Panniers are basically saddle bags for your bike; although they are frequently used by cyclists on bike tours, they are also a fantastic way to carry your things on an everyday basis. They have capacity for quite a bit of stuff and are especially great for groceries. In the summer, you'll stay much drier keeping the load on the bike and off your back. Panniers aren't as versatile because they are more difficult to carry around when not riding. Also, some people don't like the feeling of added weight on their bikes, citing reduced mobility. If this isn't an issue for you and you don't need to walk far once you reach your destination, panniers are tough to beat.

Types of Messenger Bags


Versatile and loved by many, messenger bags work well for a wide variety of uses. When choosing the type of messenger that's right for you, begin by identifying whether you'll be primarily using it for biking or walking. Once you've established that, you may want to consider the specific uses for the different types.

Messenger Bags for Biking


For a one-shoulder bag to excel while biking, it needs to be able to be worn high on your back and it should contour to the curve of your back. Ever ridden a bike with a poorly designed messenger bag? We have. As if on queue, the bag tends to swing around to the front at the most inopportune moments. Bags designed for biking fix this problem in two ways. First, they are designed with adjustable shoulder straps that can be clinched up tight keeping the bag high on your back. The best shoulder straps for biking are asymmetrical and let the bag ride a few degrees off vertical. When the bag is tight, there is less freedom in the system and it's more difficult for the bag to swing around. Second, they have a stabilizing strap that keeps the bag from shifting along the x-axis. When the bag is secure against your back, it rotates with your upper body when looking behind you or over your shoulder. Wearing a bag high in this fashion will feel much more natural and mobile while bike riding than wearing a bag down low.

The other important aspect of messenger bags designed for biking is that they have the proper 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 as tightly as you can. 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 backs that contour to a riders back, or they have substantial padding (for the sake of protecting your laptop and your back). If you don't carry rigid objects like laptops, this won't be an issue for you.

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The Timbuk2 Classic is a fantastic bag for bike commuting that is also comfortable walking.
Credit: Jason Chang

The best bags for biking have shoulder straps that secure the bag high and tight on your back.

Messenger Bags for Walking


Unless you're a competitive power walker, walking is a much more casual affair than biking. Keeping the bag high and tight on your back will have almost no advantages because bag won't have as much of a tendency to swing around to the front when walking as it does when biking. If the bag does manage to swing around, the consequences will be negligible. Also, wearing the bag lower on your back or against your hip feels less restrictive and doesn't get as sweaty. Further, the comfort tax of putting a rigid laptop against the back of the bag will be nil since your back won't be curved like it would be when biking. Padding along the back of the bag is a nice feature, but isn't as critical as it is when biking. The style that's best for you depends on what you think you're going to do the most.

All messenger bags can be worn while biking or while walking but not all are best for either activity. The best bike-specific models we tested are the Chrome Buran and Chrome Metropolis. The best walking-specific bag was the Osprey FlapJack Courier.

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With a secret pocket and luggage handle sleeve, the Base Camp is a great bag for travel.
Credit: Matt Sizemore

Messenger Bags for Specific Uses


Originally designed for biking, these bags are a great companion for your daily commute. If you plan to use your bag for its traditional purpose - bike commuting - we suggest choosing a model with an ultra comfortable shoulder strap and superior weather protection (especially if live in a rainy area). Looking for a great way to carry your laptop as part of your mobile workstation? Pick a bag with superior laptop protection and organizational features. If you travel, you'll appreciate features like secret pockets, TSA-friendly laptop compartments, and luggage handle sleeves. If you're a student, pick a bag that's big enough for all your books and has a super comfortable strap. Head on over to our How to Choose the Best Messenger Bag buying advice article for a more in depth discussion of what to look for before you purchase.

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Worn high on the back, the Metropolis is super comfortable for bike commuting.
Credit: Jeremy Bauman

Criteria for Evaluation


We assessed each bag based on its comfort, storage and organization, laptop protection, style, water resistance, and extra features. We rated comfort and storage slightly higher than the other metrics because we believe these are the two most important criteria for choosing the best messenger bag.

Comfort


This metric takes into account how comfortable each bag was at all stages of capacity and during various activities. We gathered input from eight testers, many of whom have already been using some of these bags for years. We used them nearly every day while riding bikes and walking to and from work. Specifically, we looked at shoulder straps, back padding, and stabilizing straps.

The shoulder strap is critical to comfort and the more padding the better. The difference between a quarter inch of foam padding on the shoulder strap and a bare two inch wide piece of webbing is stark. Most of the bags in the review have a decent amount of padding but one - the Manhattan Portage NY - wasn't padded at all (however, padding is available for separate purchase). The Chrome Buran and Chrome Metropolis have super comfortable padded straps that are asymmetrical and great for biking. However, when worn low on the back for walking, the metal buckles on these bags can be uncomfortable against your clavicle. The Patagonia Half Mass, like most of the other bags in the review, has padding that slides around so that the bag can be worn high or low without pressure points.

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You'll appreciate the Command's comfortable shoulder strap when you're waiting for the train.
Credit: Jason Chang

Back padding is a super great feature especially if you carry rigid items like laptops. During the cadence of walking, bags tend to bounce along your back a little bit. The cyclical tap of a hard laptop against your back isn't the most pleasant experience and is increasingly noticeable on longer walks. Padding against the back of the bag eases the strain on your back and adds comfort. If you carry a laptop while biking, back padding is especially nice because it helps the bag rest against a larger surface area and distributes force more evenly.

Finally, we examined how each bag's stabilizing straps contributed to comfort. While some are designed to be used across the chest, others can be used as hip belts. Generally, we found the latter design to be the most comfortable because it kept the bag very stable and it took some weight off the shoulder. Keep in mind that some bike commuters don't prefer horizontal stabilizer straps because they don't like having things around their waist. If this sounds like you, look for a model with a T-strap that goes across the chest.

Overall, the Chrome Metropolis was the most comfortable bag to hang from our shoulders. It was especially comfortable for biking. The lusciously padded and comfortable shoulder strap is very easy to adjust but works better for biking than walking. As a result, it was not as comfortable for walking as the SealLine Urban Shoulder, which has a more adjustable strap and works well for biking and walking. The SealLine also has a unique ventilated and padded back panel. The Manhattan Portage NY was the least comfortable bag in the review because it lacks any padding on the shoulder strap and doesn't have very good padding along the back.

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The Metropolis is fantastic for bike commuting and is large enough for all your stuff. It remains stable while whipping around turns.
Credit: Jeremy Bauman

Storage & Organization


For this metric, we looked at each bag's ability to carry our everyday items. Focusing on both quantity and quality, we ranked each bag based on how much and how well it held our stuff. In order to score well, the bag had to fit a typical day's worth of stuff, keep things organized, and offer quick accessibility for key items. Having more pockets than not wasn't necessarily an advantage as too many pockets can make it easy to lose stuff. Bags with a simple main compartment avoid this problem but often do so at the expense of easy organization. Picking the bag with the right storage and organization features for you will depend on your preferences and the types of things you usually carry. Some bags have dedicated pockets to put everything from papers, power cords, keys, phones, wallets, books, pens/pencils, laptops, and water bottles while others are pretty much just a large sack where you can throw everything into one compartment. The latter is a great design if you frequently carry things like groceries or work out clothes for after work.

Size was another important consideration in this metric. Its usually best to pick a size that's just big enough for your things. Too big and the bag will flop around and carry poorly. Too small and you'll have to lash stuff to the outside. For day-to-day use as a bag to carry our laptop, bike pump, spare tube, bike tools, a couple of books, some documents, and a few more small things, we found a 16-20 liter size to be perfect. If you need to carry an extra jacket or some groceries, you should consider something a bit bigger.

Many bags have flap straps that can double as a great place to stuff a bulky jacket or mailing tube. The Timbuk2 Classic is a great example of this design and the winner of our Best Buy award.
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The flap straps on the Classic continue all the way to the back of the bag. This allows you to cinch the bag when there are only a few items, or store bulky items like jackets or mailing tubes.
Credit: Jeremy Bauman

The Timbuk2 Command scored the highest in our Storage & Organization metric: all our things stayed organized and within reach. The new 2015 model that we tested has fewer pockets than the old one, but they are better sizes and in better locations. One tester referred to this bag as his "mobile office." Its ample pockets carried our stuff like a traveling personal assistant and always gave us quick access to the essentials. The Osprey Flapjack Courier scored nearly as high and has excellent pockets of various sizes.

If you typically carry a lot of bulky items and want a lot of space, the Chrome Metropolis will haul a whopping 40 liters worth of your stuff. Though it can carry a lot, it lacks great pockets. Staying organized with this bag was more difficult than others unless you like throwing all your stuff into one compartment.

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Organization features on the FlapJack Courier: Top Left: flap pocket. TR: internal organization. BL: organizer and front compartment. BR: front zipped pocket.
Credit: Jeremy Bauman

Laptop Protection


If you don't carry a laptop regularly, this section won't be very applicable to you. However, keep in mind that laptop pouches are also a great place to keep documents. We used this variable to measure how well the bag protects one's laptop from accidental drops. Some bags have ultra padded laptop pouches while others don't have any dedicated laptop space. The best laptop compartments float above the bottom of the bag, meaning that there is a space between the laptop compartment and the bottom of the bag. The Patagonia Half Mass, The North Face Base Camp Messenger, Osprey FlapJack Courier, and SealLine Urban Shoulder all utilize this design.

The thickness or absence of padding obviously contributes a great deal to laptop protection. At a basic level, we liked to see padding at the bottom and back of the bags. Side padding is also nice, as is padding in between the laptop compartment and the main compartment. If you carry a tablet around, you'll appreciate that a few of the bags we tested have tablet pouches. These are usually right next to the laptop compartment and provide quite a bit of protection.

After assessing each product, we can safely say that we'd look to the Patagonia Half Mass to keep our laptop the safest. It features a laptop compartment that floats above the bottom of the bag thanks to stiff and thick foam used in the back. The sides and inner enclosure of the compartment are generously padded and a small clip keeps your laptop from accidentally falling out. On the other end of the spectrum, the Chrome Metropolis and Manhattan Portage both lack padding and a laptop compartment of any kind.

For added laptop protection in any of the messengers we tested, pick up a cheap laptop sleeve.
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The Command has three external pockets and a laptop compartment that can be accessed from the outside, this is is a superb bag for quick access to mobile workstation essentials
Credit: Jeremy Bauman

Style


Beauty is in the eye of the beholder, and we may have beheld these bags differently than you. We mixed our subjective opinions about style with hundreds of reviews we read online to get a pretty broad feel for these bags' style. In the individual reviews, we tried to mention the persona we typically associated with each one as well. Some look like they belong riding fixies in Portland while others look more like they're on their way to an important business meeting. Generally speaking, Patagonia, The North Face, Osprey, and SealLine all made bags that look outdoorsy. The bags from Timbuk2, Chrome, and Manhattan Portage have more urban appeal.

We found the Timbuk2 Classic the most stylish because of its clean design and variety of color options. Timbuk2 also has a customization feature that'll let you style your own bag with over 24,000 unique combinations. You can be sure this bag will match your style.

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With many options to match your style, you're sure to find a bag that looks right for you. L to R: Osprey FlapJack, Chrome Metropolis, Timbuk2 Classic, Patagonia Half Mass, North Face Base Camp, SealLine Urban Shoulder
Credit: Jeremy Bauman

Water Resistance


Unfortunately for our testers - who toted these products through California, Florida, Colorado, and Utah - we didn't encounter much rain during our three months of testing. But that didn't stop one tester from taking the bags through a waterfall in northern California. While certainly far more extreme than the average commute, we were able to determine which bags were the most waterproof and which ones might as well be carried with the flap completely open.

The two most crucial factors contributing to water resistance are flap design and fabric material. An example of a bag sewn with a good outer material that scored poorly in the water resistance metric is The North Face Base Camp. The flap didn't fold over the main compartment well enough to completely cover the openings on either side. Corner wings under the flap tried to prevent water from entering, but the ones on this bag were too small to be of much use. Larger wings would have significantly increased the water resistance of this bag. The Chrome Buran had huge wings under the flap and subsequently was quite water resistant.

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When rain hits the strap on the Half Mass, it is funneled into the main compartment.
Credit: Jeremy Bauman

The most water resistant bag was the SealLine Urban Shoulder followed closely by the Chrome Buran and Timbuk2 Classic. These bags all have completely waterproof and seamless flaps that did a great job of shedding the wetness. The small wings under the flap did a good job of covering the main compartment along the sides. The least resistant bags were the Patagonia Half Mass and Manhattan Portage NY. Neither of which have waterproof materials and both suffer from poor flap design.

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This bag was the second least water resistant that we tested. Water that hits the shoulder strap is funneled into the main compartment. This is a poor design if weather resistance is a priority.
Credit: Jeremy Bauman

Features


This was the bonus round category. Bags that scored poorly on other sections of the test could make up for it with stellar features that just make life better. This metric includes things like the ease of adjustability of the shoulder strap, bike light attachment points, places to attach accessories, the design of the flap closures, travel oriented features, durability of the fabrics, grab handles, and reflective patches.

Shoulder strap adjustability was the most important feature we looked for in the features section. The SealLine bag had the best shoulder strap design for quick one handed adjustments. However, extra strap material dangled around. The Timbuk2 bags had super adjustable straps with no excess strap, thanks to an innovative z-pulley design. Meanwhile, the Chrome bags were very easy to tighten, but more difficult to loosen than others. The bags from Patagonia, The North Face, and Manhattan Portage had the least adjustable straps that required that the bag be taken off for adjustments to be made.

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The strap on the Command adjusts in two places so that you can set the maximum length of the strap. This is especially handy when it comes time to take the bag off. Just pop the cam lock buckle while holding the bag and slide the strap over your head.
Credit: Jeremy Baman

Overall, we found the Editors' Choice Timbuk2 Command to be the best featured product in our review. It combines an adjustable shoulder strap with several stellar travel-specific features. If you fly often, you will love the luggage handle sleeve and TSA-friendly laptop pouch. Other bags forwent features and opted for simplicity. If this is what you're looking for, the Manhattan Portage NY may be just the bag for you.

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The SealLine was the easiest to adjust shoulder strap design. The only slight issue is that excess strap dangles. The small plastic slide lets you adjust the maximum strap length.
Credit: Jeremy Bauman

Editors' Choice Award: Timbuk2 Command Messenger


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The shoulder strap on the Command is removable. If putting bags on statues is your thing, this will be a greatly appreciated feature. If you are a child as small as this statue, you might want a smaller bag. Size Medium is shown.
Credit: Jeremy Baman

The Timbuk2 Command Messenger once again wins our highest award because it excelled in nearly every category. Superb storage options and nifty features set this bag above the rest. If you travel frequently, you'll love some of its travel-specific features, including a luggage handle sleeve and TSA-friendly laptop compartment. The old version of this bag was already one of our favorites, and then Timbuk2 released an even better new and improved version. They improved almost everything we didn't like about the previous model, making the new one much more stylish and comfortable with better pockets and better laptop protection. If you want a super versatile bag with an excellent set of very well thought out features, it's tough to go wrong with this bag.

Best Buy Award: Timbuk2 Classic


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The Timbuk2 Classic is a fantastic bag and a great value. Notice the bike light attachment, hidden flap buckles, reflective material, and padded shoulder strap.
Credit: Jeremy Bauman

The Timbuk2 Classic, is the recipient of our Best Buy Award. It is the most stylish bag we tested and has excellent features for the price. It narrowly beat the Osprey Flapjack for Best Buy because it carries much better when biking, is more stylish, and it is much more waterproof. Both bags are excellent picks and are impossible to beat for the price. The Classic is the bag many of our testers wanted to keep because of its sleek style, relative simplicity, and great mix of features. If it had better laptop protection and padding on the back, this would be a no brainer.

Top Pick for Bike Commuting: Chrome Buran


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A match made in heaven: the Buran pairs with our classic Bianchi bike for a great commuting combo.
Credit: Jeremy Bauman

The Chrome Buran is the burliest bag we tested and has excellent features for bike commuting. The super thick shoulder strap keeps the bag vertical when riding, while the stabilizing strap secures the bag tightly against your back even when zipping around turns or hopping over fallen light posts. It was also one of the most waterproof bags we tested thanks its thick tarpaulin inner lining. It was a little bulky for many of our uses, but if you spend a lot of time on a bike, this bag out cycles the competition by miles.

Jeremy Bauman
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