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Topo Designs Mountain Briefcase Review

This messenger bag is so much more: it transitions seamlessly from backpack to messenger to briefcase.
Topo Designs Mountain 13L
Top Pick Award
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Price:  $169 List | $119.20 at Backcountry
Pros:  Versatile, durable, stylish, fun to use
Cons:  Not weatherproof, less classic messenger design
Manufacturer:   Topo Designs
By Lyra Pierotti ⋅ Review Editor  ⋅  May 1, 2018
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78
OVERALL
SCORE


RANKED
#2 of 10
  • Comfort - 25% 9
  • Packing & Organization - 25% 8
  • Electronics - 15% 8
  • Ease of Use - 15% 7
  • Wear & Tear - 10% 7
  • Volume Weight Ratio - 10% 6

The Skinny

The Topo Designs Mountain Briefcase challenges the limits of what a messenger bag can be. It keeps pace with this evolving category of personal bags by adding backpack straps and briefcase handles. Instead of trying to make the side strap system more comfortable with a cross-body strap in traditional messenger fashion, deploy the backpack straps and ride in comfort. The bag is suited to many uses, from your daily commute to light hiking. It is durable and well organized for your many adventures, in many modes of travel, over many miles of terrain.

The lack of water resistance is what kept this model from our top spot. The Patagonia Black Hole 24L takes home our coveted Editors' Choice Award with its excellent performance overall, including impressive wet weather applications. When it comes to looks, though, the Mountain Briefcase lacks many rivals among its competitors.


Compare to Similar Products

Our Analysis and Test Results

Performance Comparison


The Mountain Briefcase is a messenger bag first but transforms into a backpack in a flash for impressive versatility and comfort.
The Mountain Briefcase is a messenger bag first but transforms into a backpack in a flash for impressive versatility and comfort.

Comfort


The Mountain Briefcase redefines comfort in a messenger bag category by morphing into a backpack or briefcase to fit the occasion. If you're hopping on a bike or trotting up a trail, unclip the shoulder strap and deploy the backpack straps hidden in the sleeve on the back of the bag. Instead of fussing with a cross-body strap in typical messenger style, the backpack straps allow you to toss the bag on your back and carry on in balanced comfort. Moving through crowded public transport? Grab the briefcase handles to reduce your bulk and slip through the masses at your train stop.


The straps, whether shoulder or backpack, are very comfortable. They are wide and the padding slender but soft. The back of the bag has a padded sleeve for your laptop or tablet and makes the bag comfortable on your back or side. It is firm enough to give it structure, like a soft briefcase, and supportive enough to carry well while molding to your body and padding your electronics.

Scoping our next adventure on the map with the Topo Designs Mountain Briefcase.
Scoping our next adventure on the map with the Topo Designs Mountain Briefcase.

The messenger bag category is far from purist in modern designs, but our bike commuting reviewers increasingly prefer the standard backpack design for comfort on their ride. The Topo Designs messenger bag/briefcase/backpack addresses the needs of the modern messenger bag enthusiast, giving you one bag to replace them all.

The bag transitions easily from messenger to briefcase to backpack for customized comfort according to the activity at hand. Our only quibble is the somewhat awkward buckle attachment at the bottom of the backpack straps.
The bag transitions easily from messenger to briefcase to backpack for customized comfort according to the activity at hand. Our only quibble is the somewhat awkward buckle attachment at the bottom of the backpack straps.

Packing/Organization


Topo Designs provides a well-balanced array of packing and organization features in their Mountain Briefcase. It has a padded laptop sleeve with a velcro strap to keep it in place, and several internal pockets to organize your cords, pens, and small notebooks. The internal pockets are relatively minimal and maximally useful. There are enough and not too many.


The only other pocket is a large zippered pocket on the front of the bag. There aren't any dividers or pockets within pockets here, making it useful for a variety of things. This pocket worked best when the bag wasn't overstuffed, and it was always easy to access with the extra large, smooth zippers.

The Topo Designs bag is rectangular in shape but soft and large enough to handle most of our Test Load. We also liked the external straps for those bulky items like jackets.
The Topo Designs bag is rectangular in shape but soft and large enough to handle most of our Test Load. We also liked the external straps for those bulky items like jackets.

Topo Designs created this model to allow you to be organized without overwhelming you with choices and excess features. They thought through and tested this bag extensively to refine the features, making it simple, streamlined, useful, and fun.

The Topo Designs bag has thoughtful  useful features throughout like the laptop-securing strap and the external attachment points for bulky items.
The Topo Designs bag has thoughtful, useful features throughout like the laptop-securing strap and the external attachment points for bulky items.

Electronics


This messenger bag is ready for all of your electronics needs. The padded laptop sleeve accommodates most laptops up to 15 inches, and the internal pockets work well for pens as well as small charger cables. Larger laptop charging cables fit in the main compartment or large external zippered pocket.


The laptop sleeve is no more waterproof than the main zipper, which is not weatherproof at all. If it's raining heavily, your electronics will get wet after a few minutes in this bag. This is likely a side effect of a company that hails from Colorado instead of the Pacific Northwet. But if you keep a compact umbrella in the bag (which fits comfortably), or if it's just a few drops of rain, you will be fine with this bag. For those who commute in the rain with a laptop, this might not be your top pick.

The Mountain Briefcase handles electronics and office supplies well but also accommodates gym clothes and other bulkier items.
The Mountain Briefcase handles electronics and office supplies well but also accommodates gym clothes and other bulkier items.

Ease of Use


The Mountain Briefcase redefined ease of use in this review. It transitions between briefcase, messenger bag, and backpack, allowing you to adapt to changing travel conditions in a few moments and a couple of clicks of a buckle. Once loaded up for travel, the bag is also effortless to put on your back or over a shoulder, and the pockets make it easy to access your items. Topo Designs uses high-quality materials, including large and smooth zippers with extended zipper pulls that add to the style as well as the utility of the bag. The main zipper has two zipper pulls, allowing you to open it from either end.


The one feature that wasn't effortless was the buckle that attaches the bottom of the backpack straps to the pack when you transition to backpack mode. These have a metal loop that hooks over the plastic but is fiddly and difficult to open and close. Overall, the Mountain Briefcase is a useful and easy to use bag due to its carrying options and streamlined features.

A highly versatile model with stashed backpack straps and a removable shoulder strap.
A highly versatile model with stashed backpack straps and a removable shoulder strap.

Wear and Tear


This bag is built to last. Their products have a lifetime warranty, and the company has a repairs program for damaged goods to be rehabilitated. We didn't envision a time when we would need to take advantage of it, however. Topo Designs claims to "overbuild" their products, and we saw this to be true. The craftsmanship is outstanding: simple and robust. The zippers, materials, stitching, straps, and clips are all extra burly without sacrificing style.


For our weather test, we put the Mountain Briefcase, fittingly, out in the mountain environment. We let it sit on a snowbank during a springtime rain-and-slush-storm in Alaska. The zippers were not waterproof at all, which was not surprising, and the contents got wet around the zippers. We docked some points here for this reason.

The Topo Designs bag is not suited for wet environments -- the zippers leak readily. Otherwise  it is a very durable bag.
The Topo Designs bag is not suited for wet environments -- the zippers leak readily. Otherwise, it is a very durable bag.

The material, however, proved to be waterproof and very durable. After over a month of testing in rugged urban, rural, and mountain environments, the bag still looked sharp. The implementation of 1000 denier Cordura nylon and thick leather help this bag stand the test of time. As it ages, we look forward to the leather on the pack earning a bit of character and a unique look of its own.

Volume/Weight Ratio


This messenger was not the lightest bag for its capacity in this review, weighing 2.3 lbs on our scale. This stems from the leather and rugged 1000 denier Cordura. The manufacturer claims the volume of this bag is 13 liters, and our measurements confirm that. The bag didn't get severely penalized in this category, but it wasn't its strongest metric.


Best Applications


The Mountain Briefcase is a versatile messenger bag with great application in urban and mountain town settings. It's so adaptable that it crosses over into other bag categories such as briefcase (with its dual carry handles) and backpack (with its shoulder straps and removable shoulder strap). The materials are rugged enough to withstand rugged mountain travel and durable enough to last for many trips through the city and suburbs without losing style. In fact, with the durable leather version that we tested, the bag gains character the more we use it and the older it gets. This company designs bags to become a part of the family, not to be discarded because it wore out or went out of style. Timeless design, solid craftsmanship, and durable materials ensure this bag will stick around for a while.

This model is more rectangular than a classic messenger bag  making it well suited to electronics and office or school supplies. It is large and supple enough to accommodate other items as well.
This model is more rectangular than a classic messenger bag, making it well suited to electronics and office or school supplies. It is large and supple enough to accommodate other items as well.

Value


The Mountain Briefcase is more expensive than many messenger bags in our review, but its ability to switch into a backpack, function like a briefcase, and its durability make it an investment worth the cost. This is a pack that will last a lifetime if you keep it going with Topo's lifetime warranty and repair programs. Only the navy version comes with the leather sides and bottom. If you opt for the other color options with just the front leather accents, you'll save $20 without missing out on this bag's great style.

Conclusion


The Mountain Briefcase is stylish  versatile  and durable.
The Mountain Briefcase is stylish, versatile, and durable.
The Topo Designs Mountain Briefcase is an excellent messenger—and so much more. It morphs into a backpack and moonlights as a soft briefcase. We gave this bag a Top Pick Award for a solid performance across all metrics and its unique versatility. It is not a classic messenger, but who needs to be put in a box? Topo Designs took the best of the messenger style and added features to make it more comfortable and broadly useful without detracting from the utility of the messenger as a simple over-the-shoulder courier bag.

Lyra Pierotti