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We've purchased and tested 33 unique messenger bags over the past 10 years in our quest for the best. We bought 8 of the leading products available today for our 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 to see and feel firsthand 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 design to better help you choose the right luggage for the job.
Editor's Note: Our messenger bag review was updated on May 18, 2023, to ensure our lineup is up to date and available for purchase. We also updated the individual review for the Arc'teryx Granville to share updates to that product.
The Buran III is a tech-centered take on Chrome's classic weatherproof messenger bag. It is designed with an emphasis on ease of use, comfort, and rugged durability. It has one of Chrome's iconic seatbelt buckles for easy on and off, and an easily accessible pocket for your U-lock under the front flap. The fabric is weatherproof with a tarpaulin-lined 1050d fabric on the exterior and a second layer of tarpaulin inside of that. This is essentially a bag within a bag, giving you extra weatherproofing for big rainstorms or extra storage for your sweaty gym clothes — depending on your climate and lifestyle. The pockets and storage are well-conceived and easy to use. The shoulder strap is ambidextrous for left or right shoulder carry, and the padding is generous, making the bag comfortable on and off the bike. The padded laptop pocket can accommodate up to a 17" naked laptop, the biggest in our review.
There are very few downsides with the Buran III, and for the right person, these might be inconsequential. It is the heaviest of the bags in our review, but with the comfort and high ease of use it provides, it doesn't feel heavy while wearing. The padded laptop pocket is on the back of the bag, and there is a burly hood on the zipper, but the zipper is not waterproof. This likely won't be an issue since your computer will be protected by the rest of your bag (as well as your back), but it still seems like an oversight. Finally, this bag is among the more expensive in the review, but it makes up for the steep price in terms of quality of design. If you're a tech professional, student, or urban user of an e-bike for commuting, we think you'll appreciate this rugged and well-conceived bag for moving your gear around town.
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 robust material is water-resistant. This bag is offered in four different sizes, all at very reasonable price points. Tried and true, it's been around for decades for a reason. As a bonus, it comes in lots of fun colors, and for a little extra cash, it is fully customizable.
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 other models. It also doesn't have any outside pockets, so you'll need to get under the main flap to access your gear. While there is a laptop compartment, the padding is extremely minimal, so some mindfulness is required when handling it. Unlike some of the other bags in the review, this bag is optimized for left-shoulder-only carry, so leftys may want to request a custom right-shoulder bag — which Timbuk2 can accommodate. If simple, straightforward, and affordable are critical points in your bag search, this is a definite contender.
Tapered shape causes it to fall over easily when set down
Shoulder padding can bunch up
The Timbuk2 Especial Stash is a comfortable, lightweight, and highly functional messenger bag. If you're looking for a highly water-resistant bag designed for biking with your electronics, then this is a great option for you. A waterproof laptop compartment means you can forge ahead with confidence that your gear is protected even when the skies open up. The brightly-colored interior makes it easy to find what you need, and the pockets are well-designed without being excessive. An ambidextrous strap and magnetic buckles, which can be operated one-handed, make the Stash user-friendly and efficient to carry. 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 while walking (as opposed to cross-body), this may not be the best choice for you. The Stash is optimized for commuters that prefer a more traditional messenger design intended to hug the back snugly while zipping through town on a bike or a scooter. The tapered shape also isn't as conducive to sitting upright when set down on the ground. 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 weather resistance in a bike-friendly design that provides some of the best protection for your electronics, then this is the bag for you.
Cargo pockets don't perfectly accommodate a U-lock
Shoulder strap is not ambidextrous
The Mission Workshop Monty is a great weatherproof messenger bag with quality construction and intuitive design. It has just enough pockets for easy organization without unnecessary extra storage features. The body-hugging design and vertical orientation of the bag are optimized for bike commuting, but it is comfortable to wear while walking or using public transit as well. You can use it in the traditional flap-down mode, or close the bag with the roll-top configuration for more space. The laptop pocket is fully waterproof — accommodating up to a 15" laptop — and the flap-down closure provides an extra layer of security. The burly 1000d fabric and weatherproof liner make this bag a great option for anyone who's tough on their gear and needs protection from inclement weather.
There are a couple of drawbacks to this otherwise well-designed bag. For starters, the Monty does not have a padded laptop compartment; you can use a laptop case, but then you will need to store your computer in the main compartment of the bag. The cargo pockets are the perfect size for a mini U-lock, but the flap is too tight for a perfect seal over the lock (we used an old mini ABUS U-lock), causing the flap to close asymmetrically over the top. Not a deal-breaker, but a little clunky for an otherwise flawless bag. We wish the shoulder strap was ambidextrous, but it's designed for right-handed folks. Finally, the Monty is a bit short on organizational features and pockets compared to some of the other bags we tested. Regardless, this made-in-the-USA bag is perfect for the minimalist bike commuter seeking a durably crafted and weatherproof messenger bag.
Peak Design is a company that prides itself on designing user-friendly products for carrying camera equipment and electronics with ease. The Everyday Messenger is no exception. This feature-rich bag has ambidextrous carrying capacities and provides great organization for camera equipment and other electronics. It is weather-resistant (though not waterproof), mounts easily onto the trolley handle of wheeled luggage for travel, and sits upright for easy access to your gear. For the right person or photographer, this bag is an exceptional option.
Some of the features of the Everyday Messenger seem over-designed, and there is a learning curve to figuring out how to sort all your gear in the bag. For an average commuter — rather than a photographer — some of the storage features will be superfluous. The patented MagLatch closure system is a bit tricky to use, and while it is silent compared to velcro, it takes some time to get used to it. This bag is not ideal for bike commuting and provides somewhat average comfort for regular use, but for someone who needs well-conceived features for carrying camera equipment or myriad electronic components, this beautiful bag is ideal.
We started our review process with inquisitive conversations with our bike-commuting friends to determine the essential elements of a functional messenger bag. Then we logged many hours of online research and made an initial cut down to 60 potential bags to test. We selected the most popular – and most promising – to test side-by-side for this review. We categorized the most important messenger bag performance features into a series of rating metrics and developed a specific testing protocol for each one. For example, we tested our Packing and Organization metric by subjecting each bag to an identical "test load." With all our bags in hand, we loaded them to the gills and commuted all over – on folding electric bikes, foot, or by public transit – to put these bags to the test.
Our messenger bag testing is divided across six different metrics:
Comfort (25% of overall score weighting)
Packing & Organization (25% weighting)
Electronics (15% weighting)
Ease of Use (15% weighting)
Wear & Tear (10% weighting)
Volume to Weight Ratio (10% weighting)
The masterminds behind this review are Mary Witlacil and Penney Garrett. Mary is a lifelong bike commuter who lived without a car for over a decade. She is working on her PhD in Environmental Politics at Colorado State University, so she is no stranger to riding her bicycle in inclement weather while commuting to class. Outside of school, she spends the majority of her time climbing alpine granite and sandstone splitters in the desert. Penney is a certified nutritionist, clinical herbalist, and trained botanist, so she has spent many years commuting — both on a bike and by foot — with books, papers, electronics, and random plant specimens. She lives in Tahoe, where she rock climbs, hikes, bikes, practices yoga, and cooks a whole lot.
Analysis and Test Results
The modern messenger bag has evolved dramatically from the original 1950s design. Initially, powerline workers needed a durable bag to keep their heavy, bulky, and awkward tools easily accessible while climbing utility poles. This type of design later caught on among bicycle messengers and became a classic style that lives on in models from companies like Timbuk2, Chrome, and Mission Workshop.
To honor the history of the messenger, we decided it was appropriate to rank both Comfort and Packing and Organization as our two most important performance metrics. Electronics, Ease of Use, Wear and 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 design while 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.
We take several months to test each of these bags. This extended testing period allows us to spend quality time with each product and fully evaluate its performance. We dig into the nitty-gritty details of every bag to produce a comprehensive review, with the hope that it inspires confidence in your buying decision. We always pay attention to how performance relates to cost. If you're looking for an outstanding bag with a ton of features, perhaps you're okay with paying more for it. However, if funds are tight, you may be looking for a better balance of performance and affordability.
The Timbuk2 Classic earns high marks across each of our performance metrics and has a more reasonable price tag than many other bags in our review. Alternatively, if you don't need a bag with a large volume, the Chrome Kadet Sling is a smaller bag that earns respectable overall scores and fetches a lower price than most.
The classic messenger bag design is a close-fitting shoulder bag that easily swings around to the front of the body and has a stabilizing strap to keep it secure while you're moving. This design provided powerline workers with easy access to their tools, and, in more modern times, became a popular design for bike messengers. The shoulder straps have widened over the years to increase comfort for single-shoulder carrying. With improved backpack designs, however, bike commuters often opt for two shoulder straps instead of just one. Backpacks don't swing around to the front quite as quickly as messenger bags, but if you're just making one or two stops and you don't need to grab things from your bag super quickly, it is likely a more comfortable option.
To keep up with the shifting needs of urban commuters, more and more bag companies offer backpacks, casual briefcases, or eclectic messenger hybrids. The classic messenger style is less popular than it once was, but the benefit of this is that most of the options that remain tend to be well-executed and thoughtfully designed. To assess the comfort of each model in our review, 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 on a bicycle as well. As we biked, we took notes of 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, as well as the tipping point when the bag became unwieldy or uncomfortable.
In our initial rounds of testing, we asked a few essential questions: how does this bag feel on the back and shoulders? How is the padding? And most importantly, how does it handle various load types and weights? After that, we assessed each model's design features and considered whether they helped or hindered overall comfort.
No surprise, a bag's strap design 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; the Chrome Buran III, Chrome Kadet Sling, and Arc'teryx Granville 10 are all excellent examples of this. The Granville is highly comfortable because you can customize the fit, and it is well padded, supple, and hugs the body while you ride.
The Buran III and the Granville both feature ambidextrous shoulder straps as well — so lefties can catch a break without breaking the bank for a custom bag. The Buran also has ample padding on the shoulder straps, and the cross-body strap guarantees a stable and secure fit while riding your bike or just walking around.
The Timbuk2 Especial Stash has an ergonomic fit with good padding and lots of easy adjustment options. It is another bag optimized for bike commuting in that it sits vertically on the middle of the back, rather than riding low along the waistline.
If you prefer the comfort of a less bike-specific shape, then the Timbuk2 Classic or the Peak Design Everyday Messenger are both excellent options. These bags sit horizontally on your back and are more rectangular, with less tapering near the base of the bag. The shoulder strap is more conducive to a casual one-shoulder carry because it is not aggressively angled, and the padding can be centered on the strap for however you prefer to carry it. These bags can work great for cycling too, but they do sit lower on the back, so they tend to be less comfortable on a bike. Much of this is a personal preference, but if you spend more time walking around than biking, ergonomic considerations such as these are essential to consider.
Finally, a sling bag can be great for those that prefer a smaller, tighter package on their back. The Chrome Kadet Sling delivers classic Chrome comfort across the shoulder and has their iconic seatbelt buckle for easily taking the bag on and off.
Packing & Organization
A high-quality messenger 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. A bag's storage design also needs to be efficient. No one wants to be weighed down or hindered by their gear or daily essentials; we all want a bag that allows us to feel free and nimble. A well-designed bag will enable straightforward organization without the user having to overthink anything.
The Especial Stash offers an assortment 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 multiple webbing options for bike lights or other small accessories on the outside of this highly weather-resistant bag.
Coming in at a close second is the Buran III. This messenger bag has a sufficient number of pockets to stash your essentials without encumbering you with surplus features. Underneath the flap is a dedicated, easily accessible U-lock pocket, allowing you to lock your bike swiftly. Additionally, you'll find slots for travel mugs and water bottles, electronic cord storage, and zippered pockets to secure your wallet and phone.
The Mission Workshop Monty and the Peak Design Everyday Messenger performed well in this category for opposite reasons. The Monty is simple, straightforward, and intuitive. The storage features are minimalistic, so you don't have to sweat over where you're going to store all your bits and bobs. On the flip side, the Everyday Messenger has a plethora of pockets, slots, and storage options. There are internal dividers that velcro in place to separate your camera body from lenses, or to organize your lunch and beverages. It has a key leash on shock-cord with a removable key fob, so you always know where to find your key, and large and small zippered pockets and slots of all varieties. It is an ace for organization if you prefer a bag with countless compartments to house all your essentials.
The Burley Transit is another solid option for packing and organization. It has three zippered pockets, a number of small pockets for stashing essentials, and two large pockets — one that could be ideal for documents — and three compartments so you can keep your lunch, clothes, and electronics separate from one another.
Back in the 80s, when these 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. 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 this era.
The Especial Stash takes top marks here again. This bag has a padded and fully waterproof laptop compartment. The sleeve is closed via a zipper covered by a thick protective flap and fits up to a 15" computer. 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.
The Buran III also earned top marks in this category because it can accommodate up to a 17" laptop — the largest in our review. The laptop pocket is also padded and lined with waterproof material. On top of that, it has several pockets well-poised to stash your chargers and other smaller electronics. The only reason it didn't earn full marks in this category is that it doesn't have a waterproof zipper. That said, with the laptop pocket situated against your back, it is highly unlikely that water could find its way into this pocket, and if you're concerned about this, you could always stash your computer in the main compartment, which is fully weatherproof.
Some other great options include the Mission Workshop Monty, the Burley Transit, and the Peak Design Everyday Messenger. The Monty has a fully waterproof pocket for up to a 15" laptop, though this pocket isn't padded. By contrast, the Transit has not one, not two, but three(!) padded electronics pockets — none of which are waterproof, but all are decently water-resistant. Then, the Everyday Messenger has two sleeves for storing a tablet and your laptop, as well as countless features for safely storing and organizing your other electronics or camera equipment.
Ease of Use
A bag needs to keep up on a rigorous commute, whether by bike, foot, subway, skateboard, rollerblade, motorcycle, or Vespa. The messenger is a bag for many traveler types, from the urban athlete to the reluctant business person. We assessed how logical, intuitive, and easy each bag is to pack, as well as how quickly we could access the contents. Our attention to these details spanned humdrum daily errands, urban adventures, airport travel, and even a hike or two.
Chrome and Mission Workshop soared above the competition in this category. It's not surprising that the industry leaders would design the most user-friendly messenger bags. 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 can be a pain to use in real life. The Buran III is the easiest bag to use, with the Kadet Sling and Monty coming in next. Chrome's iconic seatbelt buckle makes it easy to put on and take off both the Buran and the Kadet. The combination of zippers, velcro, and plastic buckles means there aren't any over-designed features for opening or closing the bags. The storage and organization features are sufficient without being excessive.
The Monty is just about as user-friendly as it gets. Although, you do have to lift the bag over your head to take it off, which can be more difficult if you're packing serious weight. Aside from that, we dig that you have options on how you close the bag. Whether you're utilizing the roll-top or flip-down configuration, you can either expand for more storage space or enjoy more accessible gear. Adjusting the strap length is a breeze, and the features are intuitive, so you can load up and get on with your day.
Another easy-to-use option is the Especial Stash. Like the Buran III, the Stash is fully ambidextrous, and it is easy to switch between left and right shoulder carry. The shoulder strap is easy to adjust, though you do have to lift this bag over your head to take it off. Our only complaint is that the velcro strap minder is not ideal for stashing excess strap if you have to fully tighten everything down. The magnetic closures can be undone with one hand, though there is a minor learning curve to figure them out, and the neon interior makes it easy to find your gear inside the pack.
The affordable standout, the Timbuk2 Classic, is pretty user-friendly as well. The pockets and compartments are conveniently placed and straightforward. Generally, the most complicated parts of a bag are the front closure system and 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 — just make sure to close the camming mechanism, or it will continuously open, a major reason this bag didn't perform better in this category.
Wear & Tear
What good is a well-designed bag without longevity? We examined the quality of construction, materials, and weather resistance of each model we tested. We also meticulously examined each bag for any noticeable signs of wear and tear at the end of our multi-month testing period.
Receiving high marks yet again is the Especial Stash. This high-quality bag features excellent craftsmanship while managing to remain relatively lightweight. The material is both weather-resistant and durable, while the interior laptop compartment is fully waterproof. Even after all our rounds of rigorous testing, the Stash looked practically unused.
The Buran III and the Monty are also notable here. The Buran boasts incredibly durable 1050d nylon fabric, a tarpaulin lining, and impressive construction. This model is essentially two bags — a liner and a durable outer shell — which ensures excellent weather resistance and stellar durability, though it does add some weight. There's a reason you still see these workhorses on the backs of many-a-cyclist. One reviewer used a similar model from Chrome as a daily commuter for well over a decade. The Monty boasts a similarly rugged 1000d nylon fabric with a tarp liner for weather protection and durability. The bag is made in San Francisco and designed to keep up with your commute for the long haul.
The Timbuk2 Classic is another high performer in this category, as is the Arc'teryx Granville. The Classic is made from a TPU-lined Cordura fabric which, like the models above, makes it weather-resistant and very durable. Add to that a sensible design without any flimsy components or materials, and you have a bag that is not only affordable but will last a long time. The Granville is highly weather-resistant with strategically taped seams, so it can go the extra mile.
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 liters of capacity you have per pound carried. Since we always want to lighten the loads on our backs and shoulders, a bag with excessive features might lose points in our overall ranking if those features start to add unnecessary weight. However, bear in mind, some features that add to functionality, organization, or comfort can add extra weight to the bag without translating to unnecessary weight on your back.
A higher number is better for this ratio, which is a simple equation of volume divided by weight. The higher the number, the more space you get for each pound of weight on your back.
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 winner is the Timbuk2 Classic, followed closely by the Granville and the Especial Stash. If you want the most overall volume out of your bag, our measured volume of the Classic is 18 liters (the advertised volume is 21 liters), and the measured volume of the Stash is 15 liters (the advertised volume is 17 liters). The bags with the largest capacity — the Buran III (22 liters measured volume, 24 liters advertised volume) and Monty (21 liters measured/advertised volume) — are also the heaviest in the review at 2.71 pounds and 2.78 pounds respectively. This is why these bags did not fare as well in this metric.
What About Style?
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 workers' bags from the 1950s. In the 80s, this style was updated, adjusted, and reappropriated for bicycle messengers, and the category has since exploded. These bags have an urban flair and a toughness that tends to mirror their hard-working owners.
Though the shape and design of messenger bags have evolved and expanded dramatically over the years, the original concept remains the same. It's a bag to carry your daily toolkit wherever you're going and however you plan to get there. For bike messengers, the volume, balance, and ease of access are critical. 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 steady, 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.
GearLab is founded on the principle of honest, objective, reviews. Our experts test thousands of products each year using thoughtful test plans that bring out key performance differences between competing products. And, to assure complete independence, we buy all the products we test ourselves. No cherry-picked units sent by manufacturers. No sponsored content. No ads. Just real, honest, side-by-side testing and comparison.