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Head to head

Head to Head | Backpack vs Messenger

by , December 19, 2011


We team with Timbuk2 to battle backpack against messenger

One of our most popular old posts at Carryology is Backpack vs Messenger; a look at which bag format suits which needs. After a bit of jamming with the folks at Timbuk2, we thought it would be fun to bring that post to life via their custom bag program…

The starting point was a typical Carryology reader; think smart, sexy, intelligent… mixes work and play, cycles, carries a laptop, likes long walks and bathes in unicorn tears. With this user in mind, we spec’d a backpack and a messenger with as similar specifications as we could manage: Black (of course), waxed canvas, 15″ laptop, waterproof TPU lining, kinda understated.

Our orders were taken, Santa’s workshop got busy (it’s in San Fran if you didn’t know), and we soon had ourselves 2 fancy new bags to make war with.

So how did they stack up? We’ll do more indepth reviews in coming weeks, but here’s a bit of a summary of our findings so far…

Timbuk2 backpack vs messenger

Look and Feel – Messenger 1, Backpack 0

This one is down to personal taste, but we loved being able to spec the whole outer of the messenger with waxed canvas. The backpack asks you to leave the body in ballistic nylon – customising the flap and construction details. For crew that live under mountains of bags on a daily basis, we’re loving a move back to (slightly more) natural fabrics.

backpack volume

messenger volume

Space & Volume – Messenger 0.5, Backpack 0.5

Wow, this one surprised us. We were sure the messenger was going to win this battle, but we were wrong. With our highly calibrated office-material-volume-off, it was a dead heat (we share an office with the amazing baby wear brand Oishi-M, hence the fabric). They fit the same volume exactly. However it is worth mentioning that the backpack took us about 6 times longer to get all that fabric in and out, where the messenger was super quick.

Timbuk2 internals

Internals Timbuk2 messenger

Laptop Sleeve Access – Backpack 1, Messenger 0

Sweeet, we scored one for the backpack. The backpack sleeve is larger (that’s a 17″ and a 15″ in the above backpack image, vs a 15″ in the messenger shot). It’s faster to slip a laptop straight in to the backpack, and there’s even a side access zip for getting to it on the go.

But you know what? We’re now at the crux of our Head 2 Head, where the messenger lays down it’s trump card…

The Timbuk2 Custom Laptop Messenger does what very few messengers do, but all should. It puts the laptop sleeve on a ‘floating wall’, which lets you cram more or less stuff on either side of it. Other than being more versatile in load ability (push it back for a helmet or split it for work and play separation), it lets you put soft stuff between the laptop and your bent back.

All of a sudden…



…the messenger can fit your back!

Laptop Transport – Messenger 1, Backpack 0

We’ve moaned about ‘if backs bend, then why are packs flat‘, but few bag companies understand this fundamental issue. The Timbuk2 Swig backpack is guilty like most laptop bags, but the Timbuk2 Custom Laptop Messenger fixes this admirably, getting a big thumbs up (and a point) from us.

Timbuk2 backpack access

Timbuk2 messenger access

Accessibility – Messenger 1, Backpack 0

Whether on the go, or on your bed, the messenger just let’s you get at stuff better. The landscape format gives you a massive wide opening for large volume stuff, and the single strap is easier to swing the bag around to your front. The downside is that the pocketing is maybe not as good for lots of small things, where backpacks almost always win at this.

Timbuk2 Rear Comparison

Comfort on the go – Backpack 1, Messenger 0

Even with the laptop issue, backpacks just end up more comfortable when carrying heavy loads or loads for long periods. Spreading weight between two straps just works better for demanding carrying. Now if only they fixed the laptop carry…


Price & Value – Backpack 1, Messenger 0

The price as we spec’d it for the Swig Backpack with waxed canvas was $155, and for the upspec’d medium Laptop Messenger it was $195. That gives a win to the backpack, as it feels like less than $40 difference.

Timbuk2 fabric

Overall – Messenger 4.5, Backpack 3.5

So when you bring it all together, how did we go?

Yep, the messenger just pipped the backpack. For those of you that are pretty good at adding, you’ll realise that a mystery point appeared on the Messenger’s tally. That point was for the fact that despite normally being backpack people, we’re using the Messenger more. The floating laptop section is awesome, the access is better, and it just looks better in a workplace setting.

Both bags have some great points, and some things that need a little work (we’ll get to those in later reviews), but for now, we’re giving this one to the Timbuk2 Custom Laptop Messenger. Oh, and a big thanks to Timbuk2 for providing the bags and working through it all with us.

  • luke

    I really like this Head2Head for many reasons, one being my love for Timbuk2, but maybe more so being able to post this comment. The one and only downfall (as you mentioned here) with the messenger bag is the lack of pocketing choices. I bought my first Timbuk2 messenger bag in the early 90’s after the first week of use, I quickly cut off the front pocket set from an old backpack and then sewed it into the inside of my messenger bag. Done and Done! Why has no one ever seen this design flaw and fixed it??? Or is the messenger bag”such a purist thing as the ‘fixie bike’ that nobody will touch it even if it’s ineffective and unusable??? At least the ‘fixie’, in some cases, got a hand break and a freewheel.
    That being said, I must get back to my bath. My unicorn tears are evaporating. . . . . . .

    • http://www.bellroy.com ando

      Haha, thanks Luke.
      Yeah, pocketing for irregular shaped items is an issue with 99% of the messengers on the market. I guess traditional bike messengers didn’t carry around many cameras/chargers/mini disco balls, and so it was never thought an issue.
      We’d love to see the side zones made better use of in messengers, as there’s almost always little dead spots there. But good thinking on the pocket hack! Nice stuff.

  • http://www.dogcalledmu.net/ Arnfinn Pettersen

    According to Timbuktu themselves, the backback does not fit a 17″ MacBook Pro. I suppose they have been proven wrong here. I must confess I’m a bit skeptical to the side opening for the laptop pocket. It seems a bit … unsecure.

    • http://www.bellroy.com ando

      Yeah, the 17″ only just fits, so they may feel it doesn’t provide enough room for error, but I was certainly comfortable carrying the big book around in it.

      And the side opening has a few benefits, but doesn’t feel 100% resolved or secure. It’s like when you have an ensuite bathroom with doors on both sides. You can never fully relax 🙂

    • http://www.timbuk2.com Timbuk2

      @Ando – Love the scientific review. After 23 years of making custom messengers in San Francisco, we’re happy to hear they’re still getting it done. And we look forward to learning why backs bend when packs insist on remaining flat.

      @Luke. Stoked you’re a fan! We redesigned our Classic Messenger in 2010 to update the fit and pocketing. Our 3-zip front organizer now has a zippered Napoleon pocket behind it that you can fit your whole hand into without opening the flap. We also have a rather epic, semi-secret because some users doesn’t even know it’s there, zipper pocket along the front lip of the messenger that is the width of the entire messenger and has a few small slash pockets inside. AND, we have our standard organizer with pen pockets and a fuzzy phone pocket sewn into the front wall inside the messenger. So, our messenger have a shocking amount of pockets, but they’re a bit covert at a glance. We’d love to know how you use your hacked pockets – well done btw! Our designers obsesses over where pockets should go and why.

      @Arnfinn & @Ando – Our SwingAround access is totally secure *if* you remember to zip your pack back up. We *love* that feature in the office and many of us carry our MacBooks in custom Swigs, but we do realize that zipping up your pack can be hard to do 🙂 The custom Swig holds *some* 17″ laptops, but per Ando’s point, it’s super snug. So it does hold some big 17″ machines, but it’s not designed to do so.

      • http://www.dogcalledmu.net/ Arnfinn Pettersen

        Zipping up is hard to do … I do remember most of the time, though. But it’s not what I’m worried about here. It is rather whether it would be easy or not for someone to open it and steal the computer in, say, a crowded subway.

        • http://www.timbuk2.com Timbuk2

          Interesting. I’ve worn a custom Swig with SwingAround access for the last two years in/around San Francisco and I’ve never thought about that zipper as an opportunity for theft. Maybe I’m just lucky? Any suggestions for if/how we could make it feel more secure?

          • http://www.dogcalledmu.net/ Arnfinn Pettersen

            Ah, San Francisco, you peaceful hippie heaven … A simple clip lock would do the trick, I believe. And it would be extra security should the unfailable zipper ever fail.

  • Tom

    The issue I have is that a ready made bag such as the Snoop camera or Stork bag both taper up on each side and have Velcro to pull the sides in when you close it to keep water out. If you order a custom bag, it has the standard sides that poke out when you close it that can let water in. Timbuk2 needs to update the custom bags with this feature to make as good at keeping water out as ready made bags. This design should be the new standard for their bags. It’s hard to pay almost double for a custom bag with an inferior design.

    • Ando

      That feels like a good call Tom. We weren’t super stoked on the ‘Prince Charles Ears’ either. I’m betting Timbuk2 will reply soon. They’re better at hearing feedback than almost any other company.

    • http://Www.timbuk2.com Timbuk2

      Tom – nice to jear you like the Velro “ears” we have added to our ready-made messengers. They certainly help keep water out of messengers during a solid rain, but if you close any of our messengers properly, water does not get into them, with or without ears. Nevertheless, it’s a fair call-out that we should add that feature to our custom bags. Introducing pattern changes to our custom products requires updating our San Francisco production line so it won’t be a quick fix but know that the request has been passed on to our design team. Thanks for your feedback and cheers.

  • Don

    Another point for the messenger over the backpack is how the swig is designed. Fill both of them up and set them down on a table or the floor. The swig will topple over with your valuables inside, where as the messenger stands upright.

    I like Timbuk2 and I’ve always loved backpacks so my first purchase was the swig, the toppling over drove me nuts so I bought a medium messenger bag and it has been my EDC since then and will probably continue to be for a long time.

    I’ve gotten away from buying bags with integrated laptop sleeves, instead buying a bag and then buying a well padded sleeve for my laptop. It allows me to pack my bag how I want, and is comfortable for me.

  • Kevin

    I’ve been following Carryology for several months ever since I decided I want to replace my Northface Recon. I’m a grad student and spend most of the day sitting in a chair, but moving from chair to chair or home to school is where the bag comes in. I primarily drive but I’m planning on doing more biking in the near future. Therefore I want a bag that works especially well just walking around but also for biking. My problem with my current backpack is the shape of the main compartment is poor for books–squarish footprint and tall but not deep. I think a messenger offers more useful space. This review has been pretty helpful as I had been looking at a number of different messengers especially the MW Rummy and the Timbuk2 Classic. I’m concerned that the MW is so designed for the cyclist that it may not be comfortable for a pedestrian.

    Now my question directed to this post: Timbuk2 offers several fabric types but nowhere on there website do I see a comparison or evaluation of them (pros/cons). You chose waxed canvas for this review. Could you provide such a comparison between the waxed canvas, ballistic nylon, x-pac and polybond. Thanks!

    • http://www.bellroy.com ando

      Thanks for writing Kevin.

      A couple of quick thoughts…

      The main difference between a bag that’s good for cycling vs one that’s good for walking is in how vertical and straight your body is. Walking you are quite vertical and so weight should come down onto a good waist belt. In cycling, your back is arched (so your pack should bend), and the weight should be help across your back with friction (a waist belt usually just stops you bending).

      Regarding fabrics, here’s a post using Cordura as an example (but it’s broadly relevant):

      You can start with almost any woven (cotton or synthetic) and make it very water resistant by backing it with something water-resistant. Most bags we review do this, using a laminate or spray. So that means if you are not particularly demanding on a pack, you should more make the choice about what you like the look of. Haha, just don’t let the tech contributors read me saying that!

      • http://www.timbuk2.com Timbuk2

        While we’re a bit biased, we think you cannot go wrong with a Timbuk2 classic messenger, particularly if you’re going to be walking *and* riding.

        Our Classic Messenger has a waterproof TPU liner, so whatever fabric you choose, your bag will be extremely water resistant. We cannot say it will be waterproof because it’s not submergible (i.e. don’t go swimming with your messenger), but light rain and period downpours will *not* get into your bag. All our custom bags are made to order in San Francisco and like all Timbuk2 product, come with a lifetime guarantee. They’re designed to last a lifetime and the messenger’s utilitarian shape makes it functional for many different usage occasions. On fabrics:

        *Waxed Canvas – Heavy-duty cotton canvas with a natural wax coating that makes it water resistant. Matte finish with a classic rather rugged look.
        *Ballistic Nylon – Timbuk2’s bread-and-butter fabric. A coated nylon fabric that’s very water resistant, extremely durable — it was developed by the US military for use in flak jackets — in very saturated colors with a slight sheen.
        *Polybond – Fabric-backed tarpaulin fabric with an almost rubbery finish on the tarpaulin side (exterior) 100% waterproof but not particularly lightweight.
        *XPac – Super lightweight, tear resistant sail cloth.

        To emphasize again, any Timbuk2 custom messenger you make will have the waterproof TPU liner, so you’re covered on water resistance no matter which fabric you choose. If you want a sophisticated, classic look, go with Waxed canvas. For a sportier but enduring look, go with ballistic nylon. For a more techie look, go with Polybond or Xpac.


  • Kevin

    @Ando: thank you for the very helpful feedback. Can you comment (both objectively and subjectively) on the weight of the waxed canvas compared to another material? Thank you for your help!

    @Timbuk2: Very thorough reply. I appreciate it. On question I have now concerns the weight. I agree that the polybond must be the heaviest and xpac must be the lightest, but can you compare the waxed canvas to the ballistic nylon? No where on your website could I find weights in the dimension data. I would be nice if you could add weights. Since you know the weight of each panel I would think it would be fairly trivial to provide those data for custom or off-the-shelf bags. Just an idea. Thanks.

    • http://www.bellroy.com ando

      There’s a touch of weight in the treated canvas, but not too much. It feels about equivalent to a ballistic nylon. Basically, there’s not enough to worry me, but if you’re a gram counter, you’ll want the fancy tech stuff.

      • http://www.timbuk2.com Timbuk2

        Agreed. Ballistic nylon is a bit lighter than waxed canvas, but not meaningfully so. Polybond is quite heavy (i.e. we don’t recommend an all-polybond bag) and xpac is super light. Hope that helps and noted on include weight info/fabric.

    • Kevin Kirschman

      @ando and @Timbuk2: I appreciated your answers to my last question and am happy to report that I ordered a timbuk2 custom laptop messenger (in black waxed canvas of course). I’m really excited to try it out for myself. I’ll report back after my own field test 🙂 Thanks! Cheers!

      • http://www.timbuk2.com Timbuk2


  • http://www.dogcalledmu.net/ Arnfinn Pettersen

    I’ve been the happy owner of a Swig Backpack for about three weeks, and we’ve become the best of friends. The weight isn’t an issue at all. When empty it’s hardly noticeable. My skepticisim about the security of the side zipper stated above is gone, as the zipper ends so high that it is virtually invisible when properly closed.

    • http://www.timbuk2.com Timbuk2

      Great to hear and thanks for sharing! The Swig is a favorite in the office and like you, we feel the side zipper is more of a win than a liability. If you remember to zip it, just like if you remember to tie your shoes, no crashing/banging should happen.

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  • Anchovy Garbanzo

    Panniers if you don’t like having a sweaty back and wet shirt.

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  • Klavier

    Hey guys at carryology!

    I have a customized bagaboo messenger bag and everki titan backpack, and I find myself switching between more. If I had to stick to one for my job, mainly travelling around my country (Singapore) for work which do you recommend?

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  • mediabrainwash

    The messenger bags hurts the back after a while . Backpacks are much batter at balancing the weight


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