The Best Messenger Bag Review
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.
Read the full review below >
Test Results and Ratings
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Analysis and Award Winners
Best Overall Messenger Bag
Timbuk2 Command Messenger
Best Bang for the Buck
Top Pick for Bike Commuting
Analysis and Test Results
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Messenger bags are convenient to bikers, travelers, and students alike. They are great for carrying a laptop and other devises while providing easy access to your things. After taking all of the variables into account, we hope that this review has helped you to decide if this is type the bag for you. Read our Buying Advice guide for more detailed information on what to keep in mind when searching for the best bag for you.
— Jeremy Bauman
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