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Anatomy of a good bag

by , January 27, 2010

If you want the full sized version of the poster click [HERE]

Finding a bag you like the look of is probably your starting point, but there’s then a bunch of less obvious things that can make a huge difference to how much enjoyment you get from your backpack or messenger.

We’ve built this list through failure. Amongst the Carryology gang, we’ve probably owned, borrowed or used over 300 bags, and most of those went wrong in some way or another. We’re hoping this post will help you avoid some of those fails.

We expand on specifics after the jump…


The best bag shape generally resembles the contents you carry with it. That means that briefcases are square like the folders and papers you keep in them. Or hiking packs are usually round with biomorphic shapes, like the clothing and supplies you cram in to them. If you bring a trekking optimised bag in to an office environment, it’s going to look out of place.


External: External pockets best suit items you need on the run, things like sunglasses, tunes, food & books. This not only helps with convenience, it also limits what prying eyes can see when you are retrieving items.

Internal: If you’re reaching for an internal pocket, you really want to be at your destination, or have plenty of time and space, because you’ll need to open the bag up.

While lots of pockets are great for organising items, you don’t want to be opening 5 different zip pockets each time you arrive at your desk. A good trick is to have one zip or velcro flap open your access to several divided pockets.  Yeah, that’s getting geeky.


If you want to carry a helmet, a climbing rope, or a watermelon, you need a large main compartment. However if all you have are large compartments, you’ll find that your bananas tend towards a brown puree mush at the bottom of them.

The best sections can grow or contract as needed. Look out for neoprene gusseting or loose walls that allow this to happen. Good pocketing can also help avoid mashed bananas.


If you’ve gone for a bag with loads of compartments and pockets, make sure they are reasonably transparent or intuitive (mesh or clear walls work well on internal pockets). If not, you’ll need a killer memory or a lot of time spent searching.

Pockets and sections for delicate things should always be high up, to avoid having items wedge against or atop of them.

And if your pack or messenger is built for a laptop, beware if it’s against the back panel. When you ride or skate, your back wants to bend, and that laptop is not going to.


Top access is best if you put the bag down beside you and work from it (many work/study/school bags). This lets you leave most items in the bag, and only retrieve them when needed (using the bag like a desk cabinet).

Front access is great for a travel bag, where you often put it on a bed or chair and open it right up to arrange contents. This is more like a suitcase opening.

Shoulder Straps:

Thick straps distribute load much better, spreading it across each shoulder (dense foam also helps do this). But these attributes tend to lock in the heat, leaving you with sweaty reminders of your activity.

Narrow straps and/or thin ventilated straps reduce the sweat issue, but will cut in and irritate with any major load carrying.

Waist Strap:

OK, we’re going to get really geeky here… lets make this fine print:

In trekking packs, waist belts are designed to take a significant proportion of the load and rest it directly on your hips. This works because the packs have a semi rigid frame, allowing the waist strap to ‘hold the pack up’. When this waist strap element is brought across to smaller day packs, their soft nature means the pack will just slump until the shoulder straps take up the weight again. So don’t expect much load bearing from a waist strap unless your pack has some rigidity.
Having said all that, a waist strap (and a sternum strap) can help improve stability, reducing the amount the pack can bounce around. The downside? By locking the pack to you, you also lock yourself to the pack, reducing your ability to bend and twist. We recommend them for larger day packs, but suggest finding ones that can tuck away when not needed.

Yep, so we’ve probably gone in to way too much detail there. But if you’re still with us, check out some of our other posts on our favourite versatile messengers and backpacks for some bags that tick most of these boxes.

  • David Sassaran

    Another one I would add is about the material on the back of the pack and straps.

    Most bags have a 3D mesh that scratches bare skin really badly. I hate this! I live in Queensland, and wear my pack without a shirt on hot days, and that stuff nails me.
    Can’t they invent something better? Even just wetsuit neoprene or something soft.

    • Ando

      spot on.

      3D mesh is like MP3 portals on backpacks – it’s one of those things that almost every brand copies, despite the fact that they suck.

      The best I’ve seen is on a Herman Miller Embody chair. They have a mesh that breathes yet is soft to the skin. It’s a knitted mesh over a perforated foam, and I wish some bag companies would copy it really soon!

  • Karen

    Very interesting points I just bought a backpack to carry my 8 month son (the most precious cargo in the world) while bush walking, not many designs to choose from and most of them only had one pocket one lousy pocket underneath the compartment to hold the baby which means you have to take the pack off to get to the pocket. it would be so much better if they had clips or slim zippered pockets on straps so I could have easy access to water bottles and baby snacks.

    Bellroy any chance of a kickarse baby transport bags for active mums?

    • Ando

      the world of child carrying! Thanks Karen, I think we should do a post on that soon, as there are a lot of brands doing it poorly (and our 3 mnth old is going to need something more than a Baby Bjorn soon).

      The disappointing thing is that trekking packs have been doing a great job of giving access on the go, so the baby brands just need to look over the fence.

      The most complete system we’ve seen for access on the go is from a small Kiwi inventor called Aarn. He has a ‘bodypack’ system that tries to balance loads better between front and back. Really thorough supporting research from one of the world’s great carryologists: http://www.aarnpacks.com/

      But seeings as he doesn’t make a baby carrier, you might be able to add a better waist belt with those feature on it. Stores like MEC and REI in Nth America have loads of clip on features like this belt: http://www.rei.com/product/762916 or these sort of holders: http://www.rei.com/product/799338

      And then maybe we can submit a request to one of the trekking brands…

  • Tobe

    i totally like your blog and iam so happy about all the topics. Iam a designstudent from germany and doing my master thesis about bags and finding a better way to carry 😉
    so i need your blog for inspiration. and i like to know ALL your problems about carrying.. THANKS

    • http://www.bellroy.com ando

      make sure you send us a copy of your thesis when you’re finished. We’ll post the best bits on the site and share it with all our other carry addicts. In the meantime, we’ll keep trying to send some inspiration your way.

  • http://mikenbondi.blogspot.com Mike

    I keep looking for a messenger bag that has an acceptable number of internal divisions and sealable pockets, PLUS external mesh pockets.

    Speaking to the mesh/webbing pockets, I want
    1. a sealable pocket on the flat outside surface to hold stuff like maps
    2. at least one side pocket to hold wetware like a waterbottle or small umbrella.

    One of the internal pockets should be appropriate for holding perishable/squashable content like fruit or treats for my dog.

    The only one I’ve found close to requirements was a Timberland messenger bag at a store in Amsterdam. I hated the orangey-colour which stained very easily. I don’t have a picture of it, but just for reference, their current offering is http://tinyurl.com/timberlandmessenger

    The intent is to use this as my main day bag and it may be carried for up to 8 hours at a time. I have an awful time trading off the load-balancing ability of a backpack vs the easy accessibility of a shoulder-mounted bag.

    • Ando

      some interesting points. I think you have a great feel for where items should go to maximise space. Bear with me on this response, as I might have a solution or two…

      We agree:
      We reckon that the most under-utilised part to messengers is the sides. If you put a roundish object like a water bottle or power pack in the front of a messenger, it bulges out and wastes all the space beside the item. If it goes in a side pocket, you hardly notice its there.

      And while we don’t really use maps anymore (thanks Mr Jobs), there’s not much other than maps or a magazine that suits the flap of a messenger.

      Your options:
      I can see why you haven’t yet bought that Timberland satchel. It looks a bit tech-ugly. Have you seen Patagonia’s Half Mass and Critical Mass messengers? With a side pocket and flap section, they might suit your pocketing brief: http://www.patagonia.com/web/eu/shop/luggage-shoulder-bags?k=1G-an

      But they are still only single strap messengers, so I would not want to carry it for 8 hours. If you are after access on the go, with extended carry periods, the most innovative solution we have seen is from Decathlon. Excuse the terrible ad (Euro’s can be so stylish, and so not…), but check their Wed’ze Reverse One system in action: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=R5_Jrw_HlXU

      It’s a really clever solution for giving backpacks the accessibility of messengers. While the packs are a little basic, the system is really clever: http://www.decathlon.co.uk/EN/reverse-one-brown-87987825/

      Hope that helped with some ideas,

    • H

      Hi Mike
      I am with you. I have been looking for a long time for a good practical and comfortable satchel. Not easy.
      There are some solutions as Ando mentioned. And hopefully we will see them applied out there. So much emphasis is place on backpacks! There a some amazing bags on the market. however satchels seems to improve very very slowly.

      My main frustration with satchel is the comfort. It kills my back to carry them around for too long. The only one I found good was the old Crumpler strap system. When the foam was built in and wrapped around the shoulder. They have changed it for a worse solution. This is when designers just want to design something new, and not for the health of the product. Satchel are a prime victim of this. Every brand do the same bag, but no one question if what they do is better.

      There a lot to do in this area and I hope you will find one. If you do please post it on this blog and share your precious found.

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  • Ksenia

    Hi, If you don’t mind i’d like to ask your opinion on where laptop pocket should be, if not along the back?

    >>>And if your pack or messenger is built for a laptop, beware if it’s against the back panel. When you ride or skate, your back wants to bend, and that laptop is not going to.

    Being in the middle of the main compartment or aligned with outside doesn’t seem better, I always thought that it’s lesser evil, to make it along the back (I’m designing backpacks for few years and this statements of yours confused me)


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