Messenger bags have evolved dramatically from their original inspiration, the powerline workers' tool bag from the mid 20th century. We've analyzed over 60 bags before putting the best 10 through our side-by-side comparisons. We assembled a collection of the industry's leading models, across a wide variety of types and uses, specialties and niches. Then we set out on foot, bike, airplane, and public transit to see how well they held up—and how well they held our stuff. Companies have expanded (and contracted) to include 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. Also, check out our laptop backpack review for alternative options.
The Best Messenger Bags of 2018
|Price||$89.00 at REI|
Compare at 3 sellers
|$149.00 at Backcountry||$74.73 at REI||$80 List||$228.00 at Amazon|
|Pros||Durable, easy to use, great value, useful size||Versatile, durable, stylish, fun to use||Excellent laptop pouch, ample pockets and organization options, easy to adjust shoulder strap, inexpensive||Compact, lightweight, customization options, simple||Nicely made, durable, organized, good for electronics|
|Cons||Less volume overall, shoulder strap anchor on bag gets twisted||Not weatherproof, less classic messenger design||Not the best for biking, less stylish than others||Too small for large laptops, no padding, must purchase laptop/tablet protection separately||Pricey, less versatile|
|Bottom Line||The Black Hole Mini is a simple, streamlined, durable, and very useful, if small, messenger bag.||This messenger bag is so much more: it transitions seamlessly from backpack to messenger to briefcase.||Osprey makes great packs, across many categories – here we find out that messenger bags are no exception.||This messenger bag is very small and lightweight, and useful for trips with a tablet and a few items.||This is a great messenger bag for casual business use.|
|Rating Categories||Black Hole Mini Messenger 12L||Mountain Briefcase||FlapJack Courier||Daylight Briefcase||Timbuk2 Proof|
|Packing & Organization (25%)|
|Ease Of Use (15%)|
|Wear & Tear (10%)|
|Volume Weight Ratio (10%)|
|Specs||Black Hole Mini Messenger 12L||Mountain Briefcase||FlapJack Courier||Daylight Briefcase||Timbuk2 Proof|
|Measured weight (pounds)||1.3||2.26||1.97||0.99||2.34|
|Measured volume (L)||10||13||20+1||8||12|
|Available Sizes||One Size||One Size||One Size||One Size||Small, Medium|
In this update, we swapped in the Patagonia Black Hole 12L for the old 18-liter version, which has been discontinued. It may be a fraction of the old size, but it is still full value.
Patagonia Black Hole Mini Messenger 12L
The updated version of the Patagonia Black Hole Mini Messenger 12L messenger bag is much smaller than the last version we tested—half the size, in fact. But this was hardly a detriment to its performance in our updated round of testing. The Black Hole, as its name suggests, still disappears your gear in a way that is difficult to understand, much like a small child with a large appetite and a grandparent who accuses them of having a hollow leg. This bag makes us feel like a messenger bag grandparent in disbelief. The sizing is so carefully calibrated that, despite its "mini" look, it still can hold large format magazines without folding them. And the organization, while simple, is totally adequate; in fact, found the streamlined design to be easier to use and more versatile.
The bag is smaller, all of this said; it is no longer the bag to cram your laptop for work, gym clothes for after, and lunch for whenever for a full day mission away from home. However, this smaller size also made it much more pleasant to use, and far less cumbersome for daily use. The Mini ended up being more versatile, in the end, as we found ourselves using it for more quick trips and as an accessory to a travel backpack for flights. Another great design from Patagonia.
Read review: Patagonia Black Hole Mini Messenger 12L
Best Bang for the Buck
Osprey FlapJack Courier
The FlapJack boasts more pockets and organizational features than most products in this review, which is in line with Osprey's style. If you like having organizational features and pockets, this is one of the best. It is a great all-rounder, also proving to be quite rugged and weatherproof for a variety of commuting or travel situations. In a world where models cost up to $300, this bag is affordable without skipping a single performance beat.
This bag balanced its performance well across our metrics, and follows closely after the Patagonia Black Hole, with only a couple of points docked for a pocket that didn't quite work for us, and a comfort feature that could be improved. Messengers are typically unisex, but Osprey breaks this mold. Geared toward women, the FlapJill Courier, is a bit smaller, lighter, and found in alternative colors. Note that the Flapjack Backpack is our Editors' Choice laptop backpack and might be a better option for you.
Read review: Osprey FlapJack Courier
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. At $50, it's a fraction of the price of the closest competition — and double the usefulness (or close: the Mobile Edge scored 68 out of 100, and the next most affordable model was $90 and scored 45 out of 100). We skipped over the Timbuk2 Classic, another great bag, to single out the Mobile Edge for its stunningly low price and impressively high functionality — and because it is half the price of the Classic, and only six points lower on our overall scoring.
The ECO is not the most formal for business use and lacks durability. It has, however, impressive organizational features, the cotton canvas handles like a pair of soft sweatpants, and the price is stunning. This is an excellent bag for the price.
Read review: Mobile Edge ECO
Top Pick for Combo Comfort
Topo Designs Mountain Briefcase
The Topo Designs Mountain Briefcase nearly dethroned our long-standing champ, the Patagonia Black Hole. It is an excellent messenger with a twist—it has shoulder straps you can deploy, converting the bag into a backpack. This is a divergence from the pure concept of a messenger bag but one that makes this a highly versatile bag. We liked this bag for international travel—it could 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.
This is not a weatherproof bag, so we don't recommend traveling or commuting in rainy climates (or months) with this pack. And it does not have a cross-body stabilizing strap like a traditional messenger, so if you're commuting on bike, you'll likely want to wear it as a backpack. Several testers prefer a backpack for cycling anyhow. Bottom line, it's an awesome pack that is very well made and pleasing to use on a daily basis.
Read review: Topo Designs Mountain Briefcase
Top Pick for Business
The Timbuk2 Proof is an excellent, dressed up version of the classic messenger. Where other models stand out, this one's neutral looks help it blend into more professional settings. It looks professional and carries your laptop, tablet, and notebooks with ease. It has ample pockets, but not too many, and is carefully crafted to secure and protect your electronics. The Proof is relatively weatherproof and highly durable, ensuring your electronics stay dry if you get a little rain on your walk to a meeting or coffee shop.
The Proof is not a large bag, nor can it be overstuffed with your gym clothes or running shoes, and is designed as a twist on the classic and (at times) overly formal briefcase. Specially designed for business casual bag needs, it handles professional life better than the rest.
Read review: Timbuk2 Proof
Top Pick for Compact
Tom Bihn Daylight Briefcase
The Tom Bihn Daylight Briefcase is a very modern version of a "briefcase." It is very light and compact, making it easy to use for daily use with a tablet and a few items. This is a great bag for urban missions, light commutes to the office, and evenings out on the town with friends. It is simple and streamlined but has several thoughtful organizational features.
The Daylight is not big enough to stuff your gym clothes or shoes inside, making it less versatile for commuting, and it's not optimized for bike commuting since it doesn't have a cross-body stabilizing strap, but it is useful for a lot of light day missions around town.
Read review: Tom Bihn Daylight Briefcase
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 easy to access. This design caught on among bicycle messengers and became a classic design 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 most appropriate to rank Comfort and Packing & Organization as our first two scoring metrics. Ease of Use, Wear & Tear and Volume-to-Weight therefore also factor into our ratings. We added Electronics as our third priority, which ensures the spirit of the traditional bag remains intact in our modern context: we want to be sure it carries your tools comfortably and safely for your varied urban adventures.
Value is a tricky thing to measure without spending some quality time with a product. In our tests, we spent that time, assessing the performance of the messenger bags according to common uses. Here, we relate their overall performance to how much each of the bags cost. If you're looking for an outstanding messenger bag with all the features, then perhaps you're okay paying more for it. But this chart is especially helpful if you're looking for the most bang for your buck, or 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 bike messengers. A wide shoulder strap improved single-shoulder carry. With improved backpack designs, however, bike commuters are now sometimes opting instead for two shoulder straps instead of one. These don't swing around quite as quickly as the messenger, but if you're just making one stop or two, and you're not delivering something quickly, it might be a more comfortable option for you.
To keep up with the shifting needs of urban cyclists, some messenger bag companies are even offering backpacks and shifting some of the designs of the messenger to be more of a soft, casual briefcase. To assess Comfort, therefore, we took these packs out for a variety of trips and focused on the activity that each bag was optimized for. Still, we took each back out on the bike to see how well it did in that traditional setting. We did not climb powerlines, however, that would have been cool.
On our OGL Ride Test, we took notes on the carrying comfort of a variety of load types and weights; and in our OGL Load Test, we maxed out every bag and reported on its optimum load size, before the bag became unwieldy and 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 designs factor in heavily to the Comfort metric, and there are more and more creative takes on how to make the shoulder strap more comfortable. But comfortable straps aren't necessarily the whole story—the way the bag rests on your back and how closely it sits factor in also. The top score in this metric goes to the Designs Mountain Briefcase. Topo Designs took a different approach to comfort: they have a nicely padded shoulder strap, but feature stowable backpack straps for longer carries.
Runners-up in the comfort category were the Timbuk2 Classic and the Chrome Mini Metro, which are functionally similar products. These two rest more angled (or vertical) on your back like a traditional model (after all, these two companies define the messenger for purists). They are easy to adjust with supple fabrics that hug close to the body and move with you, whether on foot, bike, subway, skateboard, etc.
Some bags were surprisingly comfortable for their niche design, such as the Timbuk2 Proof which is a dressed up, business-oriented bag. The Tom Bihn Daylight Briefcase also scores well because it is small and light, which functionally made it comfortable to carry around on a daily basis.
Additionally, two of our award winners, the Patagonia Black Hole and the Osprey FlapJack did not score as highly in this category mainly due to the lack of cross strap (Patagonia) or a weird and quasi-functional stabilizer strap (Osprey). This is important to mention because if you are not someone who does a lot of long-distance bike commuting, this cross-body stabilizer strap shouldn't factor heavily into your purchase decision. If that's the case, these two contenders are still above average in the comfort metric.
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 intelligently designed organization scheme will allow us to be organized, but not require us to overthink it.
These two broad attributes, effectiveness and efficiency, aligned in the Patagonia Black Hole. It did not have the most pockets: that would detract from efficiency. Instead, it had just enough organizational options, not too many that we got lost in a labyrinth of pockets, sleeves, and zippers. Topo Designs takes a similar approach with the Mountain Briefcase, offering streamlined but handy features.
The runners-up will please those who have a preference for lots of pockets: the Osprey FlapJack and the Mobile Edge ECO were trending toward pocket-overload, but remain in the realm of fun and functional organizational features.
Both of the Timbuk2 products also score well. The Timbuk2 Proof is the best for business and office use, with features well tuned to its user type. The Timbuk2 Classic also has just enough pockets to be fun and functional, but not too many. This would have been a stronger competitor, but it lacked a few easy-access features that made it, overall, slightly less versatile and required a bit more thought to pack efficiently.
We also really liked the extremely simple 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, not many users were toting around computers the size of a notebook, small space-age touchscreen gadgets, and they certainly didn't have cell phones. All that technology could barely fit in a small room at that time, let alone in a bag that slings over your shoulder. Today, however, things have changed—and most manufacturers have evolved with the times.
Most of the models in this review have kept true to the spirit of the messenger, even in modern times: to allow ease of access to one's tools. Most of the top scoring bags include padded laptop sleeves and pockets useful for cords and tablets.
The Topo Designs Mountain Briefcase has a streamlined and straightforward electronics-friendly design, while the Timbuk2 Proof offers a refined take for your casual business needs.
We had several runners-up, all award winners of some sort, but all for slightly different reasons. The Osprey FlapJack features myriad organizational options, and the Mobile Edge ECO also had a distinct and thoughtful approach to toting around laptops, tablets, and phones. The Patagonia Black Hole kept a straightforward and streamlined approach which was enough, not too much, and as a result, an easy bag to adapt to our changeable needs.
Tom Bihn takes another approach to toting around electronics. The Daylight Briefcase is too small for a standard laptop, and since many people have a case for their tablet already, you might not need a padded sleeve. Additionally, if you stuff a jacket in the back pocket, you can add padding without adding unnecessary weight or bulk to your bag. But if you do want a tablet sleeve, you can purchase their "cache" which attaches to rails for easy access and storage in the bag.
The Timbuk2 Classic was less remarkable for our electronics storage, but still well above average. To earn an average score in this metric a bag had to have a secure and padded laptop sleeve, at a minimum.
Ease of Use
A bag needs to keep up on a rigorous commute, whether on bike, foot, subway, skateboard, rollerblades, Lyft, Vespa, etc. The messenger is a bag for many traveler types, from the urban athlete to the reluctant business person. We put these products to the test on our humdrum daily errands, as well as our epic urban adventures, airport travel, and even pushed the boundaries a bit on hikes.
In our OGL Load Test, we assessed how logical, intuitive, and easy the bag was to pack and how quickly we could access the contents.
There was no perfect 10 in this category, but several of our award winners came darn close. The Tom Bihn Daylight Briefcase is very easy to use due to the 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.
The Topo Designs Mountain Briefcase was so well built, easy to access, and thoughtful in its pocket design that it was one of the most natural packs to use on a daily basis—and the backpack straps ensured it was even more versatile. And the Timbuk2 Proof is a well-focused business casual messenger bag that is well suited to office use, and while it is less versatile, it is very clearly optimized for trips to the office or meetings, easily accommodating everyday items for those trips.
The Osprey Flapjack got knocked down slightly by small details or relatively inconsequential design flaws. The FlapJack has an odd cross strap that is difficult to turn useful.
The updated Patagonia Black Hole Mini Messenger was a significant upgrade to its larger cousin. We found this size to be much easier to use for a broader range of activities. It is no longer the go-to bag for a full day out at the office and then to the gym, but the smaller size made it much easier to use on a more regular basis and for short trips. It is also a better size to use as a personal item on flights. And, the smaller size forces you to really consider what you're toting around rather than just throwing everything inside and calling it good. This translated to a more pleasant messenger bag experience because it forced us to carry only what we needed, keeping the bag compact and light—a major plus for a bag that slings over one shoulder.
Wear & Tear
The trifecta: if comfort is number one for a bag, and pack-ability 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. We also checked for signs of wear and tear at the end of the multi-month testing period.
Our runners-up, however, achieved a level of durability that was more than satisfactory, while still keeping the bags lightweight and supple. Our next favorite models for durability were, again, our award winners, the Patagonia Black Hole and the Osprey FlapJack. The Black Hole is especially good for rainy climates, just don't put your electronics in that outer (non-waterproof) zipper pocket in a driving rain unless you have a Lifeproof case.
We also were impressed by the durable fabrics and excellent accessories and buckles in the Topo Mountain Briefcase as well as the basic and sturdy, small-but-burly Tom Bihn Daylight.
The Volume/Weight Ratio is a simple calculation. A higher number tells us that we get more functional capacity out of less overall weight—an excellent feature because this means the bag itself is contributing less of the heft resting on your left (or right) shoulder. For this metric, we first measured the weight of each bag, then filled the bags and measured the volume that said filler material took up in liters. We divided the capacity by the weight to give us how many ounces of bag you carry per liter of capacity. Since we always want to lighten the loads on our backs or 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 went to several of our award winners: the Tom Bihn Daylight is small but very light for its weight. In this update, the Patagonia Black Hole Mini Messenger competes more directly with the Tom Bihn but is still a bit more spacious. The Osprey FlapJack makes excellent use of its space without accumulating unnecessary weight. Check out our calculations if this category is of the utmost importance to your purchase.
We Gave Style a Pass
Style is not a metric in this category because it's so subjective. However, there is a strong argument to be made for the style and 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 power line worker's bags from the 1950s. In the 80s, this style was updated, adjusted, and reappropriated to bicycle messengers, and the style has exploded and expanded from there. It is urban to the core. And they mirror their hard-working, physically fit, and very badass owner.
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're getting 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 were 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 it's more comfortable for the long haul, and remains versatile when they're on foot or public transit. Two straps, after all, tend to be more comfortably balanced on your shoulders than one.
The traditional messenger bag, we've observed, it turning more into a statement of style, or a casual briefcase or shoulder bag. The bags in this review fill these needs very well, offering a balanced blend of function and fashion. The sizes of messenger bags also seem to be trending smaller as well, especially as our technological toolkits get smaller and increasingly pocket-sized. This is also great for carrying comfort and simplicity—at least in terms of bags. If you're thinking about technological simplicity, that's more the realm of our sister site, TechGearLab…
There is more to a messenger bag than we originally may have thought, so 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 allows 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.
— Lyra Pierotti