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Buyers Guide

Backpack or Messenger?

by , December 2, 2009


How do you choose between a backpack and a messenger?

If you want a larger version of the poster click [HERE]

We’ve been stalking a few conversations in tweet world, and realised that many crew are struggling to determine which format of bag will suit their carry needs.

So we had a quick jam, and have come up with a few core principles to shape your decision. Have a read, see if you agree, and maybe even bang us some of the factors that make a big difference to you.

We’ll then try and update and revise this puppy as we learn more about what you guys rate as important factors.

Happy viewing!




Carry Optimised: Heavier loads, dynamic activities, longer trips

Message: Backpacks announce that your primary need is in carrying. That’s why they can feel funny in a workspace (”how I got here is more important to me than being here”).

Environs: Backpacks thrive in outdoors, diverse travel, & sports settings. Hmmm… and schools (which hasn’t really done much to help the image of backpacks).

Contents: They work really well with diverse contents (backpack formats allow for better pocketing efficiency). And there’s that heavy loads thing.

Shape: Go with a shape that resembles your primary contents (squarer for folders & laptops, rounder for clothes).


Access Optimised: Lighter loads, hotter climates, shorter trips

Message: Messengers say that you hop between places, accessing on the go. That’s why they look great on bike couriers & uni students.

Environs: Yep, these are urban tools that never get too remote (it would hurt to carry them there). They thrive in hot climates (less body contact).

Contents: They’re reasonably accomodating, but you’re better with fewer items as organisation can throw them out (other than those hideous computer bags that sales guys carry around). If you have loads, go with a backpack (like many couriers have begun to).

Shape: Go squarer & structured for just work, or softer & wider to look like you have a life.

  • http://www.empireave.com Lincoln

    some great points in there. gotta remember tho one of the major decisions most people would face when deciding between the two would be image/lifestyle

    personally, I ain’t never going to rock a satchel (unless i was stunt doubling Allen)…
    It’s just not what I’m into, it’s not a part of my lifestyle, etc…

    The same probably goes for satchel lovers…

    just a thought..

    • http://www.bellroy.com ando

      Great call Lincoln.

      And I think that ‘image’ is probably the single main reason people choose which bag team to play for.

      Reminds me of a funny song getting tweeted around about a Canon boy and a Nikon girl

      You’re never really sure which childhood experience made you one or the other, but it seems to have stuck, and it would take something pretty interesting to get you changing.

      Hmmm, I wonder how we get Freud in there…?

      • geiko

        So what does it mean if I rock both of them equally? Right now I’m on a backpack stint. My laptop was making my messenger a bit too heavy. And both of them are Timbuk2 bags. I actually want to try out the Swig now. That bag looks really nice and functional. On the same hand, I want to try other bags besides Timbuk2.

        • http://www.bellroy.com ando

          It means you’re probably well on your way to becoming a Carryologist 🙂
          There’s no such thing as a perfect bag for every occasion, and so it makes sense to swap around a little. It only starts to become an issue when you have a whole cupboard put aside for your bags, and then they start overflowing into the garage…
          Just call me Imelda.

  • euan

    I bought a satchel a couple of years ago (http://bagaboo.hu/) in the hope that it would make my back and shoulders sweat less when i ride my bike. A chat with a bike courier friend also convinced me you could carry more in a satchel than in a rucksack.
    Nowadays i don’t use my satchel as much because they have become a bit of a cliche here in London. Except when i go to the supermarket as it feels (not tested) i can carry more in it than my eastpack rucksack.

    • http://www.bellroy.com ando

      Yeah, satchels have been kinda overdone.

      I think the size of the bag has more to do with carrying capacity than whether it a satchel or backpack (trekking packs fit 3 kitchen sinks). While your chiro will tell you satchels suck for heavy loads, the biggest issue with some large backpacks for loads is if they run a reasonably rigid frame with a waist-belt. When you lock your torso to your hips, riding starts to suck pretty quick.

      If you want to see a pretty epic backpack that can carry your friend and his satchel, check out Chrome bags for their Rolltop packs: http://www.chromeindustries.com/us/en/yalta-2

      These look pretty rad, and get around the London satchel cliche thing.

  • http://www.backsac.fr Dakine

    I love backpacks to care my laptop and other stuff. The mains problem is that it’s don’t looks professional, I look like a teenager when I’m wearing a backpack.

    • Ando

      I hear ya Mr Dakine. School bag associations have been the biggest hurdle for backpacks to get around. The coolest cats are now busting out some pretty stylish courier packs, or there’s the clean lines of Incase’s chiselled packs, but it can still feel awkward.
      If you’re keen to check our ‘least schoolbag like’ recommendations, have a look at another post: http://carryology.com/2010/01/18/our-favourite-versatile-backpacks/
      Or stick with a messenger. They’re getting better all the time too 🙂

    • Jake

      I prefer backpacks since they feel better when I carry stuff, but I also agree that they didn’t seem to look professional enough.

      However, I’ve recently seen a few that might work with a suit and tie.

      For example,


      These actually look okay.

  • http://www.tonkydesigns.com/ Tonky

    Hey cool site.

    Your breakdown of messenger bags as not fit for large loads does not match my experience. I have a large Manhattan Portage messenger – it has a huge capacity and I load it up for hauling a week’s worth of groceries and my installation gear around NYC.

    It also fit to tote just a laptop and notebook. And serves as my only bag when traveling light.

    Minimal black work for client meetings too.


    • Ando

      Tonky, can I have your back? Please?

      You must be one of the lucky ones, who was built resilient enough to haul on one shoulder and not suffer for it.

      Having said that, Manhattan Portage generally use Cordura or their trick new waxed canvas. Both have the advantage of good friction, so they grip your back reasonably well and take some of the burden off your shoulder.

      Still, it’s interesting watching the couriers evolve their tools, and many are now shifting to a hybrid strap system (a backup strap that converts their messenger into a quasi backpack for big loads), or a straight up 2 strap backpack.

      But your point stands – if you’re robust, a good messenger really can be your ‘one bag fits all’.

  • Dobie

    I’ve had plenty of use, using large and small variations of both styles. I can say after years of trying the messenger bag, I find it insufficient for anything large. Sure I can carry alot, but with that weight concentrated on one shoulder and a typically weak waste strap, they are no good. Plus, with all that weight, they have a bad tendency to shift around too much. If you’re on a bike this can be dangerous.
    Backpack all the way. The only messenger style bag I use is small for when i go into the city. And really its just a glorified man-purse.
    And as far as backpacks not being “professional”, grow up. Stop being concerned with how you look.
    For bike messenger level carrying capacity, and pure utility, check out the Ortlieb backpacks. Plus they’re totally waterproof.

    • Ando

      You’re a champion, and you’ve worked a confession from me:

      If I could get over caring about how I look, I’d be sporting a waistbag!
      It would be like your man-purse, only more form-fitting.

      But I can’t. I’m weak.

      One of our main contributors here (Hadrien) would probably also wear a waistbag if we wouldn’t rag him out about it (but he’s French, so he’d have an excuse). But alas, most of us are insecure enough to carry backpacks and messengers instead.

      And yes, we agree that Ortlieb have some tasty and really water resistant gear. Their pocketing can be a bit underdone, and their access a little clumsy, but for water-tightness, few come close.

      Thanks loads for jumping in there.

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    • Ando

      And will the bag be big enough to carry those alligators out of the swamps when you’re done!

      Besides, as Jerry does, just explain “it’s European!”

  • http://www.creativehedgehog.com Al

    I’m a uni student, and I carry 3 kinds of bags to uni:

    My backpack: it looks daggy, sure, but I can fit my notebooks, some reading, my laptop, my tap shoes, a spare set of clothes, my lunch… Go to sleepover bag, has been around the world.

    My messenger satchel: for days I’m just getting in and out. I can’t lug too much but I still need to carry “stuff”- not carrying anything doesn’t work. Also works for when I’m going to meetings and stuff for the other stuff I do.

    My Hiking pack: clearly, for hiking. The superior support means that it is also my go-to bag when I have lots of library books to return, after that big term paper. (I like to max out my take-out limit. 🙂 )

    Great blog, got here via lifehacker.

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  • Leather Purse Link Request

    Hello there, I couldn’t find any means to email you, and so I really hope that you see this comment. I have a website about leather purses, and wondered if you might like to exchange links with me. I have submitted my contact address in case you would like to get in contact. Thanks.

    • http://www.bellroy.com ando

      I’m sorry, we don’t really do ‘link exchange.’ We just post on reasonably unique content that we think our readers will like. If you have some good insights in to wallets and purses, or carrying in general, we’d certainly like to share those?

  • gucci

    I love backpacks to care my laptop and other stuff. The mains problem is that it’s don’t looks professional, I look like a teenager when I’m wearing a backpack.

    • Ando

      Heya Dakine, I see you’re back as Gucci now…

      Nice of you to visit again. There’s an answer to your comment up above under the first time you posted it. Let us know if you’d like some more guidance.

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  • All man bag Tony

    I’m more of a messenger bag guy. I live a big city and it’s convenient to have a light weighted bag I put across my shoulder and ride my bike. The wide shoulder strap for comfort. Love the article on this topic.


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  • Zeusman

    When I’m in a more urban environment where I’m walking and stopping and lighter loads I go Messenger bag. When I’m traveling, backpack ALWAYS!

    Nothing worse than being weighed down by your bag on a single shoulder and still have a few hours ahead of you carrying that load. At that point, you don’t care what you look like, just make sure the pack is comfortable.

  • Gabriel

    easy! just get the QWESTION weekender or office bag.. BOTH a messenger AND a backpack!!

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  • http://tinyurl.com/fueldoor50312 http://tinyurl.com/fueldoor50312

    Thanks a lot for posting “Backpack or Messenger?
    | Carryology”. Imay undoubtedly wind up being back for much
    more reading and commenting here soon enough. Many thanks, Gudrun

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  • http://www.newfeel.com alex


    We have the solution. We invented the Backenger:

    It’s a messenger which become a backpack in one step. And “vice et versa”.


  • http://www.newfeel.com alex

    the previous link didn’t work.
    So, another one to explain how the Backenger works:

  • http://mens-health-tips.com Kevin

    To me, it doesn’t much matter what I use when I take the bike. Whatever fits the contents. A backpack tends to stay put. But the employer just bought another small company and is trying to fit us all into the same offices. So, smaller cubicles and narrower aisles. No more room to park a bike. Suddenly I’ll be doing all my 5-mile commutes on foot.

    So, the big question is what is the very best pack for jogging (or if I ever develop the stamina) for actual running?
    I don’t usually have to carry a laptop anymore, but there’s still the change of clothes, lunch, phone, wallet, keys, glasses, etc. Sometimes a camera or a tablet.
    Need to avoid abrasion under the arms. Or on the nipples.
    Need to avoid constricting the chest (breathing, y’know).
    Need to avoid pinching shoulder nerves or cutting off the blood supply to the arms.
    Need to avoid asymmetry of load and placement. As an “Olde Guye”, I already have enough physical grief from stuff I thought I could shrug off when younger – turns out I wasn’t shrugging stuff off, just delaying.
    Need to keep the package close to the back with minimal swaying as I run… ok… jog… ok…. slog.
    I’ll be all sweaty and puffing, so pack appearance is not a big deal. Function is prime.

    What is suggested, and why?
    I see some people with packs that look like the shrunken version of expedition packs. They have a stiffener up the back, they have padded hip belt, they have all sorts of tie-on and tie-down loops and straps and bungies, and they have moulded mesh to provide a little air between pack and sweaty back.

    Then I see other people with boxy little packs that ride up between the shoulder blades, with no hip-belt at all.


    • Ando

      Ummm, wow. Sounds like your employer is missing something about staff satisfaction 🙁

      Chuckle – we just had a surfboard rack installed next to the bike storage, so that our crew’s wax wouldn’t melt keeping their boards in their cars!

      There are loads of running packs emerging, just check our favorite outdoor retailers: http://www.carryology.com/2013/02/21/carry-retail-segments-outdoor/
      Or hit up google. Thankfully all the crazy trail runners are now developing packs that should be able to deal with the loads you are shooting for (it’s the laptops that get tricky).

      Your list is a good start. The most important aspect is stabilising your load so it doesn’t bounce (vertically especially). You can either do that with internal strapping, or great external compression straps.

      For lighter loads, a waist belt is more about stability than load bearing, so it’s often more about great sternum straps and broad shoulder straps that increase friction while spreading load.

      And yep, a skinny vertical profile stops those arm rubs.

  • http://www.azo-equipment.co.uk Azo Equipment

    Have been following carryology for a couple of years – everyone here at Azo Equipment loves the site.

    We launched our first ever backpack, the Bashilo, very recently and would love to get some feedback on it.

  • Locke42

    I’m all about the messenger. I just don’t find backpacks to be that versatile. The fact that they are vertically oriented versus horizontally oriented means I have to dig through a ton of stuff to get at something, even if it’s minimally packed, whereas with a messenger, I can lay out all of my things in a single layer. It’s also easier to partition a messenger than a backpack.

    That’s not to say that backpacks don’t have their place. I prefer to use backpacks for travel and transport, but when it comes to EDC, I always prefer a messenger bag. When I fly, for example, I’ll bring three bags: a rolling carryon, a backpack, and a messenger bag. Then I stuff the messenger bag INSIDE the backpack, and when I get to my destination, I’ll use the messenger bag when I go around. (Another benefit of this setup is that if I get souvenirs or anything, I can check-in my carryon and just use my backpack and messenger bag as my two carryon bags.)

    • http://www.carryology.com/ ando

      Isn’t the diversity of the carry world awesome 🙂

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  • pukoh

    backpack all the way. messengers aren’t good for long periods of carrying, or carrying heavy stuff.

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