We've been able to purchase and test 33 unique messenger bags over the past 9 years in our quest for the best. For 2020, the leading 13 products were bought for comprehensive, side-by-side testing. Messenger bags have come a long way from the original powerline workers' tool bag, but the countless versions today should nonetheless be highly functional and versatile. Our testers wore them on foot, bike, and while riding public transit in order to feel and see how each performed. Whether you're looking for a classy bag for the office or a gear-toting bike companion, we've tested each contender for quality, durability, and even style to better help you choose the right bag for the job.
The Best Messenger Bags of 2020
Best Overall Messenger Bag
Timbuk2 Especial Stash
The Timbuk2 Especial Stash is a comfortable, lightweight, and highly functional messenger bag. If you're looking for something that's designed for cycling and impervious to weather, this is it. A completely waterproof laptop compartment means you can forge ahead with confidence, even when the skies open up and let loose. The brightly-colored interior makes it easy to find what you need quickly, and the pockets are plentiful without being excessive. An ambidextrous strap and magnetic buckles, which can be operated one-handed, make the Stash extra user-friendly and efficient. Smart features like an external water bottle pocket and plentiful accessory loops mean your essentials are never hard to access.
If you like to carry your bag on one shoulder as you stroll casually, this may not be the choice for you. The Stash is optimized for commuters that prefer a more traditional messenger designed to hug the back snugly while zipping through town on a bike or a scooter. The tapered shape isn't as conducive to sitting upright when set down on the ground, and because there's no Velcro, you will have to commit to clipping the magnetic buckles every time to keep the front flap secure (though you won't have to make a loud ripping sound every time you want to get inside!). All of that aside, if you value durability and weatherproofing in a bike-friendly package, this is an excellent option.
Read review: Timbuk2 Especial Stash
Best Bang for the Buck
Not everyone's commute is the same every single day. If you bike to work some days, walk others, and drive the rest of the time, the Timbuk2 Classic may be a brilliant choice. It's great for those that like the option of carrying their belongings on one shoulder for short distances or cinching everything up securely across the body for longer trips. The straps are easy to use, the pocket options are numerous, and the material is water-resistant and robust. On top of it all, the Classic is available in four different sizes, all at very reasonable price points. Tried and true, this bag has been around for decades for a reason. As a bonus, it comes in lots of fun colors!
The serious bike commuter will notice that the Classic isn't as ergonomic for cycling. Though still quite comfortable, it doesn't hug the body as tightly or aerodynamically as some models. It also doesn't have any outside pockets, so you'll need to get under the flap to access your gear. While there is a laptop compartment, the padding is extremely minimal, so some mindfulness is required. However, if simple, straightforward, and affordable are key points in your bag search, this Best Buy winner is a clear contender.
Read review: Timbuk2 Classic
Best Buy on a Tight Budget
Mobile Edge ECO
The Mobile Edge ECO blows the majority of other bags out of the water when it comes to affordability. It's a fraction of the price of most in our fleet and is incredibly useful. Other models scored higher overall, but the Mobile Edge deserves to be recognized for its stunningly low price and impressively high functionality; a winning combo for one of our Best Buy Awards. This bag is easy to use, is lightweight, and offers excellent organizational features.
The ECO is on the small size, lacks durability, and is not the most formal-looking for business use. However, packing and organization are top-notch, 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
Best for Design
Chrome Vale Sling 2.0
The Chrome Vale 2.0 is a uniquely attractive and highly functional sling bag that's great for the commuter with changing needs. Smart straps on the sides allow the bag to lay flat when all you need is a laptop or notebook and then expand and fill out when you have bulkier items like gym clothes or a water bottle. The material is durable, and the price tag is reasonable, making this a great pick for a more minimalist urbanite.
Be sure you like having your bag on the left shoulder before committing to the Vale, as it doesn't have the ability to swap. And while the top zipper is waterproof, other areas aren't, so you need to be careful if it's pouring rain. The redesigned 2.0 also ditches the iconic seatbelt buckle on the strap, opting for a slide buckle instead. It's a nice system, but it's evident in online customer reviews that many people miss the old buckle. To exit the bag with the redesign, you now have to pull the whole bag over your head. Which, to be fair, is entirely normal for 99% of messenger bags, just not for Chrome, a name that has become synonymous with the seatbelt buckle.
Read review: Chrome Vale 2.0
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, and trained botanist. She lives in the Rocky Mountains, where she rock climbs, hikes, bikes, practices yoga, cooks a whole lot, and also works for a specialty coffee roaster.
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 over 60 potential bags to test, then selected the most promising 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.
Related: How We Tested Messenger Bags
Analysis and Test Results
The modern messenger bag has evolved dramatically from the original 1950s design. Powerline workers used to need a durable bag to carry their heavy, bulky, and awkward tools while climbing utility poles. Once they reached 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 like 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 a 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 around town and beyond.
Related: Buying Advice for Messenger Bags
Value is a tricky thing to measure without spending serious quality time with a product, which is why our testing period spans months and assesses the performance of each item 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 constantly paying attention to how overall performance relates to cost. If you're looking for an outstanding bag with a ton of features, perhaps you're okay paying more for it; however, if funds are tight, our Best Buy Award Winners can be especially helpful in your search for the perfect bag.
The classic design of the messenger bag is a close-fitting shoulder bag that swings around to the front of the body easily and has a 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 to the front quite as quickly as the messenger style, but if you're just making one or two stops and you don't need to be super fast about getting things out of your bag, it's undoubtedly a more comfortable option.
Related: The Best Laptop Backpacks of 2020
To keep up with the shifting needs of urban commuters, more and more bag companies are offering backpacks, soft, casual briefcases, or eclectic messenger-hybrids. The classic messenger style is less popular than it once was, but the benefit of this is that the options that are out there tend to be quite thoughtful and well-executed. In assessing comfort for our contenders, we took each bag out for a variety of trips, focusing on all manner of activities. Each bag has a setting in which it's most appropriate, and we made sure to use it in that application, and, of course, we took a bike ride with every model to see how it fared in that classic scenario. As we biked, we took notes on the carrying comfort of a variety of load types and weights. We also made sure to max out every bag and report on its optimum load size before becoming unwieldy or uncomfortable.
In our initial rounds of testing, we asked a few essential questions: how does this bag feel on the back and shoulder(s)? How is the padding? And most importantly, how does it handle a variety of load types and weights? After that, we considered the various design features of each model and paid attention to whether they helped or hindered overall comfort.
No surprise, the strap design of a bag factors heavily when considering comfort. Companies are increasingly creative with how to improve the feel of shoulder straps, but comfy straps aren't necessarily the whole story. The way a bag rests on your back and how closely it sits to your body are also very important and the Arc'teryx Granville 10 is an excellent example of this. Supple and body-hugging, this bag is highly comfortable and customizable. The strap can easily be used on either shoulder, and there are tons of secure adjustment points for the cross-body stabilizing strap.
Quite a few bags came in just behind the Granville as close runners-up. The Timbuk2 Especial Stash, fits like a glove with good padding and lots of easy adjustment options. Similar in design to the classic Chrome Mini Metro, this bag rests more angled (or vertical) on the back to help your belongings stay snug, secure, and compact while moving around.
If you consider a less bike-specific shape to be more comfortable than the Timbuk2 Classic or Topo Designs Messenger Bag are both excellent choices. These bags are more rectangular with a bit less tapering near the base and have straps that are more conducive to a casual one-shoulder carry (especially the Classic) because they're not aggressively angled and the padding can be centered. Both work great for cycling, but they have a boxier feel and tend to sit lower on the back. Much of this is personal preference, but if you spend more of your day walking around than on a bike, ergonomic considerations such as these are essential to consider.
Finally, our review contains a couple of sling options for those that prefer a smaller, tighter package on their back. The Chrome Vale 2.0 delivers classic Chrome comfort across the shoulder, and compression straps allow it to transform pretty dramatically depending on your load. The Timbuk2 Mission Sling is another excellent option with the unique capability to be worn either cross-body or as a fanny pack. It's not as comfortable as the bags mentioned above when worn across the shoulder, but around the waist, it's so cozy you can practically forget it's there (as long as you don't overpack it, that is).
Packing and Organization
Two factors are top priority in the packing and organization category: effectiveness and efficiency. A bag should improve and support daily commuting with a broad array of attributes: comfort, of course, but also an ability to hold, secure, and facilitate easy access to the items inside. To be effective, a bag needs to address diverse circumstances that may change from one day to the next. Second, it needs to be efficient. No one wants to be slowed down, weighed down, or in any way hindered by their belongings; we all want a bag that allows us to feel free and nimble. An intelligent design will enable straightforward organization without the user having to overthink anything.
The Especial Stash, offers a plethora of great features for easy and intuitive packing, including a brightly colored interior for added visibility. A large zippered external pocket with a key clip is great for fast access to essentials, and the inside offers just the right amount of options for electronics and small items without going overboard. There's also a mesh water bottle pocket and myriad webbing options for bike lights or other small accessories on the outside of this highly weatherproof bag.
The Mobile Edge ECO is our other favorite for this category. It will please those who prefer lots of pockets for small items. While it trends toward pocket overload, it remains in the realm of fun and functional organizational features, especially for individuals that love having a dedicated spot for every little thing.
The Timbuk2 Classic is another very decent option with just enough pockets to be effective and user-friendly without going overboard. It does not have any exterior pockets, though (it would have scored higher in this category if it did), so you need to get under the main flap to access anything. The Topo Designs Messenger Bag also leans toward minimalism but with a few additions. There's a zippered exterior pocket on the back, another zippered pocket on the underside of the main flap, and two water bottle straps inside. It does not, however, have many smaller pockets, and no sleeves for pens or pencils.
The Egoelife is similar, with lots of useful pockets including two zippered ones on the outside, but no small skinny pockets for a pen or pocket knife. However, if you are someone that likes to have your own pencil/accessory bag for small items, any of these bags will likely feel just right and easily suit your needs.
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 room, let alone in a single 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 — that is: allow easy access to one's tools. Most of our top-scoring bags include padded laptop sleeves and pockets that are useful for cords and tablets because let's face it, electronics are the tools of the age.
The Especial Stash takes top marks here. This bag offers something none of the other models do - a fully waterproof laptop compartment. The sleeve is closed via a zipper that's covered by a thick flap, and it fits up to a 15" computer, though that's a tight squeeze. If you don't need to use the waterproof sleeve, your laptop will also fit just in front of that in a second padded area, and there are useful pockets for cords and various accessories. Not only is the laptop area waterproof, but the entire bag is also highly impervious to water. We sprayed every bag with a garden hose, and the Stash stayed bone-dry inside.
Another highly weather-resistant model is the burly Topo Messenger Bag. The corners are strategically-shaped to create protective barriers on drippy days, and the entire bag is lined with a water-resistant truck tarp. The designated laptop area fits up to a 15" computer and is padded and secured via a Velcro strap. There are two front pockets suitable for smaller items like a phone charger or keys. The front flap has a zipper on its underside to create a large flat storage area, great for a larger charging cord or a tablet, and there's another large flat zippered pocket on the backside. All in all, this bag is well-designed and effective where it counts.
Some other great options are the Mobile Edge ECO and Arc'teryx Granville 10. The 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 Granville is minimal but sufficient. It fits a 13-inch laptop with no problem and sports 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 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 when navigating something like airport security.
Ease of Use
A bag needs to keep up on a rigorous commute, whether by bike, foot, subway, skateboard, rollerblade, 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 is to pack, as well as how quickly the contents can be accessed. Our attention to these details spanned humdrum daily errands, epic urban adventures, airport travel, and even a hike or two.
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 performs the basics easily and efficiently without going overboard. Some designs try to do too much, and you end up with a product that looks good on paper but is a royal pain to use in real life.
Our Best Buy winning Timbuk2 Classic is about as user-friendly as it gets. The pockets and compartments are conveniently placed and straightforward. Generally, the most complicated part of a bag is the front closure system and/or the process of adjusting the shoulder strap, and each company likes to try something a little bit different and unique. The Classic is simple with male/female buckles; it has Velcro on the front and a "CAM" buckle on the shoulder strap that adjusts easily and quickly. Our other Timbuk2 model, the Mission Sling, is also a breeze to use, ideal for those that don't have a lot of stuff and like having the option of carrying just the essentials across either shoulder or around the waist, fanny-pack style.
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.
Both the classy leather Komal C Buffalo Hunter and the casual Egoelife Canvas are also worth mentioning here. They aren't technical, fancy, or weather-resistant, but they are simple, effective, and affordable. If you don't need a technical bag with features designed for cycling or stiff material meant to weather a storm, then these bags are worth consideration. Nothing about using either of them is complicated or requires practice; just toss your things in and go.
Wear & Tear
If comfort is number one for a bag, and packability is second, perhaps durability must be third. After all, what good are the first two without longevity? We examined the construction quality, materials, and weatherproofing of each of the bags in our review. We also checked for signs of wear and tear at the end of our multi-month testing period.
The Especial Stash, easily receives high marks. This bag is high-quality with excellent craftsmanship but manages to stay relatively lightweight. The material is weather-resistant and durable, and the interior laptop compartment is completely waterproof. Even after all our rounds of rigorous testing, the Stash barely looked used.
The iconic Chrome Mini Metro also steals the show in this category due to 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. There's a reason you still see these workhorses on the backs of many-a-cyclist.
The Topo Designs Messenger is another highly sturdy model. Made from 1000D nylon with a weather-resistant truck tarp liner and waterproof zippers, this bag is meant to last over the long haul. The Arc'teryx Granville, with its laminated weatherproof fabric and taped seams and zippers, is a keeper of a bag. On top of that, it's half the weight or more of all the previous mentions.
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 that, in most respects, also excel in our other testing categories. The clear winner by a large margin is the Mission Sling, an exceedingly light bag for its volume and capabilities. Runners-up are the Timbuk2 Classic, Cotopaxi Chuspa, and Especial Stash. If you want the most volume out of your bag, the Classic is 21 liters, and the Stash is 20.
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. They are urban to the core and tend to mirror their hard-working and badass owners.
Though the shape and design of the messenger bag have 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. For daily commuters, it's all about comfort and intuitive packability.
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 made just for you.
— Penney Garrett & Lyra Pierotti