Messenger bags have evolved dramatically from their original inspiration, the powerline workers' tool bag from the mid 20th century. We analyzed over 60 before purchasing the best 8 for our side-by-side comparisons, representing some of the industry's leading models across a wide variety of types and uses. We set out on foot, bike, airplane, and public transit to see how well each one handled our stuff and the test of time. Companies offer everything from micro shoulder bags for your techy toolkit, dressed-up versions ready for the office, as well as the big gear-hauling, bike-friendly traditional models. Check out this review of the modern messenger bag to see which one is right for you.
The Best Messenger Bags of 2019
|Price||$119.98 at Backcountry||$169.00 at REI|
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|$80 List||$43.99 at Backcountry|
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|$120.00 at REI|
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|Pros||Versatile, durable, stylish, fun to use||Waterproof, comfortable, lightweight, highly durable, ambidextrous shoulder strap||Compact, lightweight, customization options, simple||Durable, comfortable, simple but thoughtful storage, customizable||Durable, weatherproof, comfortable|
|Cons||Not weatherproof, less classic messenger design||Tips over easily when set down, doesn't have very many pockets, expensive||Too small for large laptops, no padding, must purchase laptop/tablet protection separately||Minimal features for electronics||Heavy for size, no top grab handle, less versatile|
|Bottom Line||Transitions seamlessly from backpack to messenger to briefcase.||This sleek, comfortable, and lightweight bag is highly durable and weatherproof with minimal yet thoughtful features.||This messenger bag is very small and lightweight, and useful for trips with a tablet and a few items.||A great messenger bag but has a lot of thoughtful competition in the industry.||This is an excellent, rugged, and stylish messenger bag that is on the heavier and bulkier side.|
|Rating Categories||Mountain Briefcase||Arc'teryx Granville 10||Tom Bihn Daylight Briefcase||Timbuk2 Classic||Chrome Mini Metro|
|Packing & Organization (25%)|
|Ease Of Use (15%)|
|Wear & Tear (10%)|
|Volume To Weight Ratio (10%)|
|Specs||Mountain Briefcase||Arc'teryx...||Tom Bihn Daylight...||Timbuk2 Classic||Chrome Mini Metro|
|Measured weight (pounds)||2.26||1.15||0.99||2.19||2.39|
|Measured volume (L)||13||10||8||16||14|
|OGL Volume/Weight Ratio||5.75||8.69||8.1||7.3||5.85|
|Dimensions (inches)||13 x 11 x 4.5 in||16 x 10.5 x 5||14 x 10 x 4||14.6 x 12.2 x 7.1||20 x 12 x 7|
|Shoulder preference||Either & both w/ backpack straps||Either||Either||Either||Left|
|Number of Compartments||1||1||1||2||1|
|Number of Large Pockets||1||2||5||6||2|
|Number of Small Pockets (i.e. sleeves for pens, thin items)||3||0||0||4||3|
|Number of Zipper Pockets||2||2||3||3||1|
|Reflective Material?||No||No||No||No||Yes on straps|
|External Side Pocket||No||No||No||No||No|
|Sleeve Fits Laptop||Yes - 15 inch||Yes - 12 inch||Yes - 13 inch||Yes - 15 inch||Yes, not padded|
|Stabilizing Cross Strap||No, has backpack straps||Yes||No||Yes||Yes|
|Available Sizes||One Size||10L and 16L||One Size||XS, S, M, L||One Size|
|Size tested||One Size||10L||One Size||Medium||One Size|
Topo Designs Mountain Briefcase
The Topo Designs Mountain Briefcase is an excellent messenger bag with a twist — it has shoulder straps you can deploy to convert it into a backpack! This is a divergence from the pure concept of a messenger bag, but one that makes it a highly versatile option, appropriate for a lot of different people and scenarios. We like this bag for international travel as it can handle hiking and still have a nice casual look for around-town use. It gets very high marks for its durability and simple, easy-to-use features.
The Mountain is not weatherproof, so we don't recommend traveling or commuting in rainy climates with this bag. And it does not have a cross-body stabilizing strap, so if you're commuting on a bike, you'll likely want to wear it as a backpack. More and more, people prefer a backpack for cycling anyhow. Bottom line, it's an awesome pack that is very well made and pleasing to use daily. Overall it performed the best of all current offerings in our review.
Read review: Topo Designs Mountain Briefcase
Best Bang for the Buck
Tom Bihn Daylight Briefcase
The Tom Bihn Daylight Briefcase is an excellent mini messenger bag for daily use, especially for the price. At only eight liters, this isn't a high volume messenger, but it makes up for its small size with its daily utility. The Daylight is lightweight, durable, and modular, making it a great choice for your regular everyday commute — so long as you carry compact electronics and just a few other items. For the right individual that doesn't have a lot of large items to contend with, this is a great bang for your buck.
The small size and narrow profile of the Daylight Briefcase mean it's hard to stuff with extra gear and it doesn't accommodate odd-shaped items — your typical office or school kit of flat notebooks and small electronics will be the best fit. It also doesn't have any stabilizing straps like a messenger bag geared toward biking. But if you're looking for a simple, light, durable bag to sling over your shoulder and walk to work, school, or the coffee shop down the street, this is a reliable option at a friendly price.
Read review: Tom Bihn Daylight Briefcase
Best Buy for a Tight Budget
Mobile Edge ECO
The Mobile Edge ECO blows every other bag out of the water when it comes to affordability. It's a fraction of the price of the other bags in our review while still being more useful than most of them. Other models scored higher overall, but we wanted to highlight the Mobile Edge for its stunningly low price and impressively high functionality — a winning combo for one of our Best Buy award winners.
The ECO is not the most formal-looking for business use, and it lacks durability. However, it has impressive organizational features, the cotton canvas handles like a pair of soft sweatpants, and the price is more than fair. This is an excellent bag for a small investment.
Read review: Mobile Edge ECO
Top Pick for a Convertible Sling
Timbuk2 Mission Sling
Many people don't love their bag always being across the chest and one shoulder. Enter the Timbuk2 Mission Sling, a fun and functional bag that can be worn either messenger-style or as a fanny pack. Although only 10 liters, it swallows belongings like Mary Poppin's magic bag and can accommodate many different sized and shaped items. The roll-top design and sturdy zipper allow you to cinch everything down compactly or stuff to the gills with no problem and a rear zipper gives easy access to the main compartment at all times. If you want something adaptable and low profile without spending a fortune, this is a fun option with a lot of useful features.
The large buckle on the Sling isn't the most comfortable, and it's really only meant to be worn on the right shoulder. There's also no cross-body stabilizer strap, so the fanny pack configuration is much better for biking. And while small electronics fit inside, there's no dedicated sleeve or padding to help protect them. This probably isn't going to be your one-and-only everyday bag, but it's a fantastically lightweight option for smaller loads when increased versatility is desired.
Read review: Timbuk2 Mission Sling
Why You Should Trust Us
The masterminds behind this review are Lyra Pierotti and Penney Garrett. Lyra is a rock guide, mountaineer, and AIARE avalanche instructor undergoing further training with the American Mountain Guides Association. About six months each year, she is pursuing objectives in mountain ranges all over the world. The rest of the time, you'll find her at home in the northwest, coaching rock climbing on a Puget Sound island. Penney is a certified nutritionist, clinical herbalist, trained botanist, rock climber, and cyclist. She lives in the Rocky Mountains where she works for a specialty coffee roaster, practices yoga, and bakes a lot of sourdough bread.
Before any straps were slung over shoulders, planning for this review began with lots of internet research and many personal conversations. We made an initial cut of 60 potential bags to test, then selected the most promising 8 of those to include in the review. We categorized the most important things a messenger bag does into named testing metrics, then developed a specific test protocol for each one. For example, Packing and Organization were tested with a consistent "test load" that each bag was subject to. In the end, we think you'll find this review to be comprehensive and useful in selecting the right bag for your daily needs.
Related: How We Tested Messenger Bags
Analysis and Test Results
The modern messenger bag has evolved extensively from the original 1950s design. Powerline workers needed a durable bag to carry their heavy, bulky, and awkward tools while climbing utility poles. And once they climbed to the top, they needed those tools to be easily accessible. This design caught on among bicycle messengers and became a classic that lives on in its purest form in models from companies such as Timbuk2 and Chrome.
To honor the history of the messenger, we decided it was appropriate to rank Comfort and Packing & Organization as our two most important metrics. Electronics, Ease of Use, Wear & Tear, and Volume-to-Weight make up the rest of our testing criteria. We focused on ensuring that our testing process and subsequent review retained the spirit of the original messenger bag while also keeping our modern context in mind. The result is a diverse selection of options that are excellent — in different ways — for carrying your tools comfortably and safely in town and beyond.Related: Buying Advice for Messenger Bags
Related: The Best Laptop Backpacks of 2019
Value is a tricky thing to measure without spending serious quality time with a product. This is why our testing period spans months and assesses the performance of each bag according to common uses and scenarios. We dig in and get familiar with every contender to deliver a comprehensive and confidence-inspiring review. Within that process, we are always paying attention to how overall performance relates to cost. If you're looking for an outstanding bag with all the features, then perhaps you're okay paying more for it. But if funds are tight, our Best Buy award winners can be especially helpful — particularly if you're trying to decide between similar bags.
The classic design of the messenger bag is a close-fitting shoulder bag that swings around to the front easily and has a cross-body stabilizing strap to keep it in place while moving. This is the design that allowed easy access to the contents for powerline workers and, in more modern times, bike messengers. The shoulder straps were widened over the years to increase comfort for single-shoulder carrying. With improved backpack designs, however, bike commuters are now sometimes opting for two shoulder straps instead of just one. These don't swing around quite as quickly as the messenger, but if you're just making one stop or two and you don't need to be super fast about getting things out of your bag, it might be a more comfortable option for you.
To keep up with the shifting needs of urban cyclists, more and more bag companies are offering backpacks and shifting some of the designs of the messenger to be like a soft, casual briefcase. Therefore, part of our process for assessing comfort involved taking every bag out for a variety of trips and focusing on the activity they were optimized for. We still made sure, however, to take them all out on a bike to see how well they fared in that traditional setting. We stopped short of climbing powerlines though!
As we biked, we took notes on the carrying comfort of a variety of load types and weights. We made sure to max out every bag and report on its optimum load size before becoming unwieldy or uncomfortable.
In our first round of testing, we asked: how does this bag feel on our back and shoulder? How is the padding? And most importantly, how does it handle a variety of load types and weights? Then we considered the design features such as a cross-body stabilizing strap, or, in some modern twists, the addition of backpack straps.
The strap design of a bag factors heavily when considering comfort, and there continue to be more and more creative takes on how to improve the feel of shoulder straps. But comfy straps aren't necessarily the whole story — the way the bag rests on your back and how closely it sits to your body are very important also. The top score in this metric goes to the Topo Designs Mountain Briefcase. Topo took a different approach to comfort: they have a nicely padded shoulder strap, but also feature stowable backpack straps for longer carries.
We have several runners-up in the comfort category; the Timbuk2 Classic and Chrome Mini Metro are functionally similar products that rest more angled (or vertical) on your back like a traditional messenger design. They are both easy to adjust with supple fabrics that hug close to the body and move with you, whether on foot, bike, subway, or skateboard. The Arc'teryx Granville 10 is also supple and body-hugging and offers a strap that can be adjusted for either shoulder. Finally, our Top Pick-winning Timbuk2 Mission Sling is excellent for those that love a fanny pack. While it's not as comfortable as the afore-mentioned bags when worn across the shoulder, around the waist, we found it comfortable enough that we could forget it was there. Another notable is the Tom Bihn Daylight Briefcase because it is small and light, which functionally makes it comfortable to carry around on a daily basis.
Packing and Organization
Two factors stand out in the packing and organization category: effectiveness and efficiency. A bag needs to improve our daily commute with a relatively broad array of attributes: comfort, of course, but also in the way it holds, secures, and allows access to our belongings inside. To be an effective model means that it addresses our needs, as diverse and changeable as they may be from one day to the next. Second, it needs to be efficient. We don't want to be slowed down, weighed down, or in any way hindered by our accessories; we want a bag that makes us feel more free and nimble. An intelligent design will allow us to be organized without having to overthink everything.
These two broad attributes, effectiveness and efficiency, align in the Topo Designs Mountain Briefcase. It strikes that crucial organizational balance between just enough organizational options but not so many that you get lost in a labyrinth of pockets, sleeves, and zippers.
The Mobile Edge ECO will please those who have a preference for lots of pockets. While it trends toward pocket-overload, it remains in the realm of fun and functional organizational features.
Both our contenders from Timbuk2 fare decently here as well. The Classic has just enough pockets to be fun and functional without going overboard and the Mission Sling, while limited in some respects, offers a lot of versatility for irregular-shaped loads. The Granville is also clean-lined and straightforward, though it may be overly minimal for those that love a lot of pockets. Finally, we really like the straightforward yet thoughtful pockets and additional add-ons from Tom Bihn's Daylight Briefcase.
Back in the 80s, when bags started to take off among bicycle messengers, no one was toting around notebook-sized computers, small space-age touchscreen gadgets, or tiny cell phones. All that technology could barely fit in a small room, let alone in a shoulder bag! Today, however, things have changed dramatically, and most manufacturers have evolved with the times to fit people's needs.
The majority of models in this review have kept true to the spirit of the original messenger — to allow ease of access to one's tools. Most of our top-scoring bags include padded laptop sleeves and pockets useful for cords and tablets because let's face it, electronics are the tools of the age.
The Mountain Briefcase has a streamlined and straightforward electronics-friendly design. Its padded laptop sleeve fits laptops up to 15 inches and the various pockets both inner and outer work well for everything from pens and small sundries to larger charging cords.
We had several runners-up, all for slightly different reasons. The Mobile Edge ECO has excellent padding, Velcro keeper straps to secure the internal sleeves, lots of pockets, and can accommodate up to a 17-inch laptop in the main compartment. The Arc'teryx Granville 10 is minimal but sufficient, fitting a 13-inch laptop with no problem and sporting a stretchy mesh pocket for cords and accessories.
The Tom Bihn Daylight Briefcase takes a different approach entirely to toting around electronics — it doesn't have a built-in padded sleeve, opting instead to accessorize this feature. Tablet and laptop "caches" are sold separately in all different sizes and attach to nylon "rails" for easy access and storage in the bag. This makes for more versatility and greater ease navigating things like airport security.
Ease of Use
A bag needs to keep up on a rigorous commute, whether by bike, foot, subway, skateboard, rollerblade, Lyft, or Vespa! The messenger is a bag for many traveler types, from the urban athlete to the reluctant business person. We put our bags through a lot of tests, all the while assessing how logical, intuitive, and easy each one was to pack, as well as how quickly we could access the contents. Our attention to these details spanned humdrum daily errands, epic urban adventures, airport travel, and even pushed the boundaries a bit on hikes.
The Daylight Briefcase is very easy to use due to its simple, lightweight design. It has a few organizational features, but not a lot — you can order separate sleeves and pockets if you want them, but the simple design ensures you have what you need and not what you don't. We love it when a bag does the basics easily and efficiently without going overboard. Some designs try to do too much, and you end up with something that looks good on paper but is a pain to use in real life.
The Arc'teryx Granville is a minimal but focused option well suited to a lot of scenarios. While it is less versatile than other bags in our review, it is very clearly optimized for efficient and comfortable travel and is also highly water-resistant. The Mobile Edge ECO is another easy-to-use bag at an excellent price point. The soft fabric and simple, straightforward design make it both pleasurable to handle and a cinch to interact with.
The Topo Mountain Briefcase and Timbuk2 Mission Sling are two others worth mentioning. The Mountain Briefcase is extremely well built and thoughtful in its pocket design. It's one of the most natural bags to use daily, and the addition of backpack straps ensures versatility and comfort. The Mission Sling is simple but effective: the main compartment can accommodate surprisingly varied items, and the roll-top closure system means you can keep everything secure whether you have just a couple essentials or the bag is packed to the gills. Being able to wear it as a fanny pack also increases its usefulness and ease of use in a lot of situations.
Wear & Tear
The trifecta: if comfort is number one for a bag, and packability is second, then durability must be third — after all, what good are the first two without longevity? We examined the construction quality, robustness of fabrics, and weatherproofing of each of our bags. We also checked for signs of wear and tear at the end of the multi-month testing period.
The iconic Chrome Mini Metro stole the show in this category with its impressive (though bulky and heavy) double engineering. This model is essentially two bags — a liner and a durable outer shell — which ensures excellent weatherproofing and stellar durability. If we could have given this product an 11 out of 10, we would have.
The Arc'teryx Granville isn't far behind with its laminated weatherproof fabric and taped seams and zippers. On top of that, it's half the weight of the Mini Metro. It can handle an active and varied lifestyle without showing practically any wear. And while the Mountain Briefcase isn't weather-resistant, it's a burly and highly durable option as well.
Volume to Weight Ratio
This ratio is a simple calculation of volume (liters) divided by weight (pounds). A higher number is indicative of a bag that offers more functional capacity for its weight — how many ounces of bag you carry per liter of capacity. Since we always want to lighten the loads on our backs and shoulders, a bag that has excessive features might lose points in our overall ranking if those features start to add unnecessary weight.
The top scores in this metric go to a solid group of bags — almost all award winners — that, in most respects, also excel in our other testing categories. The clear winner by a mile is the Mission Sling, an exceedingly light bag for its volume and capabilities. Runners-up are the Daylight Briefcase and Granville 10 though neither is quite as versatile as the Mission Sling. The Timbuk2 Classic is also a solid choice — it's much heavier but can hold a whopping 16 liters.
We Gave Style a Pass
Style is not a metric in this review because it's so subjective. However, there is a strong argument to be made for the statement you make with your bag. Over-the-shoulder bags have been around for a long time, at first adapted from military map bags for the broader public. The messenger, as we tend to think of it, has its roots firmly planted in powerline worker's bags from the 1950s. In the 80s, this style was updated, adjusted, and reappropriated for bicycle messengers, and the style has exploded and expanded from there. It is urban to the core, and they tend to mirror their hard-working and badass owners.
Though the shape and design of the messenger bag has evolved and expanded dramatically over the years, the original concept remains the same: it's a bag to carry your daily toolkit with you — wherever you're going and however you plan to get there. For many, it's the style of the messenger bag that they're attracted to. For bike messengers, the volume, balance, and ease-of-access are key. But for many cyclists commuting to work on their bike, they may not need the easy on/off or swing-around maneuver distinct to the messenger style. We've noticed more and more bike commuters switching to backpacks because they're more comfortable for the long haul and they remain versatile when on foot or public transit. Two straps, after all, tend to be more comfortably balanced on your shoulders than one.
The bags in this review fill the needs of the modern urban commuter very well, offering a balanced blend of function and fashion depending on your needs and preferences. We hope this review has helped direct you to the best bag for your daily gear. In the end, the spirit of the traditional messenger bag holds strong: a durable bag that allows freedom of movement in a variety of urban environments and easy access to your toolkit. Whether you're carrying wrenches and hammers up a powerline or tablets and gadgets up the elevator, there's likely a modern messenger bag for you.
— Penney Garrett & Lyra Pierotti