- Buyer's Guide
The Ultimate Guide to the World’s Best Messenger and Shoulder Bags
Updated 31 October 2021
Backpacks are considered the carry comfort kings. Duffels are the gear haulers. But when it comes to access and agility, messengers and shoulder bags step up for their time to shine. For many users, crossbody bags are go-to choices for quick access to gear on the move. They also tend to draw people who want to carry smaller loads or shed unnecessary carry bulk. And they also tend to get the nod of approval in work settings, where in many cases they bring a more formal and professional feel to your work setup than a backpack.
Messengers vs shoulder bags
So you might have heard the terms ‘messenger’ and ‘shoulder bag’ used interchangeably. But they aren’t actually the same thing. Messengers tend to be associated with more active use (think bags used by bicycle messengers), while shoulder bags play well in sedate settings. Features such as stabilizer straps are more common in messengers (again, to assist in load stability during active use). And in general messengers will wrap round the body more (a rigid design isn’t great if you’re pounding the pedals during a bike ride or trying to move nimbly in outdoor environments). That doesn’t mean you can’t use messengers in less strenuous settings or find shoulder bags that will tackle a little adventure now and then. Ultimately, a lot of factors come into play to determine where messengers and shoulder bags will excel.
Messengers and shoulder bags vary greatly in style, colorways and materials. So to help you choose, it’s useful to think about where you’ll be using the bag. Do you need it for work purposes? If so, is your work environment smart-casual or formal? In these cases, understated colorways like black, gray, navy, or tan will blend in better (no matter how much you may be digging that blazing orange, it’s best saved for after-work hours). Clean silhouettes or soft draping designs will also be easier to fit in formal environments than “busy” designs that draw the eye (but not for the right reasons). If you won’t be using the bag for work purposes (or your work environment is more laid-back), you’ve got a little more freedom in the style department. Yep, bring on that blazing orange…
Size and weight
Obviously your messenger or shoulder bag needs to be large enough to hold all the gear you need it to. But you’ll want to be careful here. The bigger the bag is, the more bulk you’ll be carrying around. Ask yourself if the added space is worth the increased weight and bulk penalty. Maybe you need it or really value the ability to accommodate a variety of loads from one day to the next. But if you tend to carry a set amount of gear, picking a bag that’s just big enough without adding unnecessary weight may be a better option.
So you’ve got a bag that’s the right size and suits your style, but how about getting to your gear? One of the key advantages of messengers and shoulder bags over other types of carry is the on-body access they provide. The ability to easily swing them round to your front to get to frequently used essentials or to access gear from the main compartment without having to remove the bag from your shoulder. Features such as quick-release shoulder straps, exterior pockets, magnetic or one-handed flap buckles, and multiple access points to the main compartment will help you get to gear in a jiffy.
Are you going to be putting your bag through the wringer on regular cycle commutes? Shoving it in and out of overhead compartments or heading off into the wilderness for a day of exploring trails or outdoor photography? The more demanding you are on your bag, the tougher it will need to be. Abrasion-resistant and water-resistant materials along with trusty construction will help your bag cope when the going gets tough. If your bag will be living a more relaxed or sheltered life, you can dial back on the durability, which may help you cut some weight.
While shoulder bags and messengers don’t offer the same level of load distribution that backpacks do, they can still be comfortable to carry. Keep an eye out for a wide shoulder strap that will help spread the load a little, as well as padding on the strap to help enhance comfort. For more active use your chosen bag should offer good breathability in the back panel, a design that hugs the body, and a stabilizer strap or waist belt to help secure the load. And carry handles come in useful too when you want to give your shoulder a breather or are carrying the bag over shorter distances or in more formal environments.
Now we know it can be time-consuming and a hassle to search through countless bag options. But we’re here to shoulder the load. With the above considerations in mind, we’ve rounded up some of the best messenger and shoulder bags to suit different needs and settings… but, hey, it’s worth noting most of the below bags cross categories, they’re not only suited to certain needs, but they’re versatile too. Win!
Best shoulder bags for travel
Easy to store. Lightweight. Adaptable. If these are top priorities for your travel carry, then this bag is one to add to the packing list. Patagonia’s Lightweight Travel Courier Bag weighs just 232 grams (8.2 oz.) and stows conveniently in its own pocket. Great for stashing in larger luggage until needed, this weather-resistant shoulder bag provides front zippered and side stretch pockets, with an additional interior zippered pocket. Whether you’re carrying essentials on the plane or sightseeing with day supplies, it’s a solid pick that won’t eat too heavily into your bank account either.
Pacsafe have spent years honing carry with integrated anti-theft features that don’t draw unwanted attention. With its slim, low-key design and discreet anti-theft features, their Intasafe Sling is a great choice for both business and leisure travel. Features such as Pacsafe’s eXomesh slashguard, Roobar locking system, a Carrysafe slashguard strap, secure zipper tab, and RFID-blocking storage protect your gear from opportunistic thieves. And to keep the rummaging at bay, there’s also a range of interior pockets and space for a 10″ tablet.
The Metrosafe LS200 packs a host of anti-theft features into its compact design that suits carry-on use or a day trip equally well. An integrated Lockabout security clip, eXomesh slashguards, Carrysafe slashguard strap, zipper hooks, and RFIDsafe blocking pocket are just some of the features that will keep sticky fingers away from your belongings. The bag’s main compartment has a padded 10″ tablet sleeve and there are plenty of pockets in the front compartment to organize small essentials.
Best heritage-style shoulder bag
Fancy a blend of classy heritage styling and everyday functionality? United by Blue’s Lakeland Laptop Bag delivers in dapper style. The weather-resistant bag is made with organic waxed 18 oz. cotton canvas and vegetable-tanned leather. And with its lifetime guarantee you know the durability is on point too. Suitable for work or play, the bag offers quick-access pockets, along with interior pockets and a padded 15″ laptop sleeve. On the portability front you’ve got options too, with a removable crossbody strap and top carry handles.
If you have a soft spot for leather carry, it’s hard not to be drawn towards WP Standard’s gear. They do a darn fine job of combining old-school charm and modern-day functionality. Just like with their Vintage Leather Messenger Bag, which gives a nod to antique postal bags but provides a leaner, modern design. It’s crafted with full-grain vegetable-tanned leather that will only get better with use. Inside you’ll find a suede-lined laptop compartment, with further exterior and interior pockets to store smaller items.
Best heritage-style messenger
Trakke’s Bannoch Messenger is a handsome fellow that’s equally up for a day in the office or a stroll outdoors. And if you love bags with lots of organization, this is not one to miss. Handmade in Scotland with Salt & Pepper Canvas, it’s designed to keep the weather at bay and also includes a dry-finish waxed canvas lining for added peace of mind. With 17 pockets on hand including a Gask pocket array and interior 15″ laptop sleeve, you’ll have no problem keeping your bits and pieces tidy and accessible on the move.
Bedouin Foundry make some of the most beautiful messengers around, with sophisticated silhouettes and premium materials that exude quality from day one to years down the line. But it’s not just pretty looks here. The Barbarossa is meticulously handmade in Lincolnshire, England, and built for years of demanding use. It features a suave combination of 12 oz. waxed canvas from Halley Stevensons and Italian vegetable-tanned leather. A sleek and uber-strong AustriAlpin Cobra buckle does the honors of securing the flap, beneath which you’ll find two sleeve pockets. An interior laptop sleeve holds your tech on the go, while the bag’s fully padded design also makes it an attractive choice for camera carry.
Best shoulder bags for tech
If you’re after a rugged build, organization options galore, and all in a design that remains slim and adaptable, look to the Cargo Works 13″ MacBook EDC Kit. The bag offers two compartments to carry your tech and everyday or work items. The front compartment features elastic webbing and pockets for smaller accessories and a tablet, while the padded main compartment keeps up to a 13″ laptop safe within its soft microfiber lining. You can carry the bag by hand, with the removable shoulder strap, or secure it to the handle of rolling luggage when travel calls.
Incase takes tech protection to the next level with their Reform 15″ Brief. An integrated compression-molded cage crafted from impact-absorbing Tensaerlite™ material ensures bumps and shocks aren’t a concern for your precious tech. The Tensaerlite™ cage fits a 15″ MacBook and includes a faux-fur lining for added protection. The bag’s lay-flat opening helps you move quickly through airport security screening. And for smaller accessories and EDC, the front organizer compartment has you covered with multiple pockets and a tablet sleeve. Sling it over your shoulder with the included detachable strap or carry it with the top handle for briefcase-style mode.
Best messengers for tech
The Chrome Buran III nods to heritage styling but is built for modern-day tech carry. A host of pockets provide quick yet secure access to tech and EDC items, including a dedicated padded 17″ laptop sleeve and interior attachment points for Chrome laptop sleeves. The messenger also features a reversible shoulder strap for right or left carry, a weatherproof liner, and Chrome’s iconic seatbelt buckle with an integrated bottle opener.
Timbuk has your tech carry well covered with their Especial Stash, a weatherproof messenger designed to keep tech secure and safe from the elements during your daily commute. Complementing the weather-resistant exterior is an interior waterproof 15″ laptop compartment. Magnetic buckles provide ease of access, while the ambixdextrous strap offers comfy carry. Rounding things off is reflective detailing to help increase your visibility in low-light conditions.
DSPTCH are well versed in creating durable, practical bags for urban needs and their Tech Messenger is no exception. The Tech Messenger’s free-standing design creates a useful mobile workstation, with plenty of pockets keeping items tidy and easily accessible. The bag offers padded storage for a 15″ laptop, along with separate tablet storage. And with its tough, water-resistant build and lifetime guarantee it’s a bag you can rely on for years to come.
If you’re looking for rugged handmade construction, weatherproof protection for tech, and versatile understated styling that can transition from work to play, the Khyte might be just right for your needs. It features two-layer weatherproof construction and water-resistant zippers to protect gear from the elements. Multiple pockets and organization options including an externally accessible 15″ laptop sleeve keep your daily or travel items well organized. And with a variety of colorways on offer, you can choose one that speaks to your personal style too.
Best budget messenger bag for laptops
If you’re after sleek simplicity that blends into work or play environments, Incase’s Compass Messenger will steer you right. The understated design works equally well in an office or your local cafe. Straightforward organization complements the low-key design, with a padded 15″ laptop sleeve and a choice of internal and external pockets to store small items throughout the day.
Best shoulder bag for laptops
With its understated, water-resistant design and variety of useful pockets for organization, Bellroy’s Laptop Brief is a fine pick for the office, travel use or catching up on a couple of emails in your local cafe. Available in two sizes to suit 13″ and 15″ laptops, the bag includes a luggage pass-through sleeve and a padded shoulder strap that can be tucked away when not required.
Best tactical messenger
ORBITGear’s R200-OV “Kestrel Storm Bringer” pairs expert craftsmanship, versatile design, hard-wearing construction and awesome value for money in a messenger that can adapt to a range of daily and travel carry needs. Large enough for 12″ tech devices, it also provides attachment points for personalized setups as well as a choice of interior and exterior pockets for smaller items. Handmade with 1000D CORDURA in a handsome olive colorway, this limited-edition piece is available in just 50 units and includes an ambixdextrous strap system for easy portability.
If you’re looking for tough materials, excellent handmade construction, and practical design for a variety of day-to-day needs, all with great value for money, this messenger should be on your shortlist. It features VX42 laminated X-Pac, premium AustriAlpin Cobra and Fidlock hardware, and a variety of pockets and compartments to organize your gear. Its versatile design holds commuting essentials and travel gear equally well, while its burly build is backed by a lifetime warranty for peace of mind.
Designed for Jason Bourne-type operatives, the Arc’teryx LEAF Courier 15 is built to perform, adapt and blend in. A serious bit of kit, honed for the hardest gear users on the planet, it’s made with a ‘cannot fail’ attention to build, access, and adaptability – working in the field, as well as for everyday civilians wanting to crush their daily missions (whilst carrying a laptop and a few snacks too).
Some messengers are very overt in their tactical vibes. But if you want a more subtle tactical approach, consider the Vertx EDC Courier. The design is low-key enough to fly under the radar in informal settings, while offering useful features to keep you prepped for a busy day. Inside you’ll find a 15″ laptop sleeve and multiple pockets for smaller EDC or work items, while the concealable front panel is MOLLE compatible for additional organization. There’s also an additional Velcro-lined concealment panel to further customize your carry setup.
Best tactical shoulder bags
Built tough and flexible to adapt to changing loads and environments, the Load Cell Shoulder Bag is made with hard-wearing Cordura fabric to embrace demanding use. The low-key design stealths easily into a variety of settings and accommodates a range of setups, from EDC to travel essentials. Plus it won’t break the bank either, which is always a bonus.
If you love carry that offers a lot of flexibility, the Mystery Ranch 3 Way Briefcase Expandable is definitely one to scope out. It adapts to a range of carry needs thanks to its stowable backpack straps, removable shoulder strap and top grab handles. There’s also plenty of pockets on hand to neatly store items, including a padded 15″ laptop compartment. And if you need more space? The design expands to provide an additional 5L of storage for larger loads.
Best shoulder bags for photography
The Aspect DSLR Shoulder Bag keeps a small camera setup safe with trusty Thule functionality and excellent value for money. The bag features padded tablet storage and customizable dividers in the main compartment to tailor it to different needs. You’ll also find top, front and side pockets for camera accessories and EDC items. The front-folding lid makes it easy to access gear on the go. And speaking of on the go, there’s a top carry handle and an adjustable shoulder strap for shoulder or crossbody use.
Keen on versatile camera carry with the freedom to convert an existing bag into a camera bag? The Niko Hold could be just right for your needs. The bag can be used as a standalone camera bag, with carry handles and a detachable shoulder strap for convenience. However, you can also fit the Niko Hold inside almost any Chrome bag (or another bag if the dimensions suit) to convert it into a camera bag. The Niko offers a wide opening for easy access and customizable dividers to adapt to different loads.
With its water resistant, low-profile design the f-stop Florentin is an appealing option for carrying camera gear under the radar in urban settings. Suitable for a small camera setup, the Florentin includes a removable padded main compartment with three dividers. There’s also storage for up to a 12″ tablet or laptop, as well as a front organizer pocket. You’ve also got portability options on hand here too, with a luggage handle sleeve, top carry handles and a shoulder strap.
The Roamographer is a head-turner for sure, merging vintage charm with luxurious construction. The bag is handcrafted with durable and beautiful American Bison leather and features a removable camera insert with multiple pockets to protect and organize your photography gear. A camera can also be secured to the shoulder strap for ready access on the go. The Roamographer comes in a choice of sizes to suit smaller or larger loads too.
Best messenger bag for photography
One of the most innovative camera messengers to hit the scene in recent years, Peak Design’s Everyday Messenger does double duty as an EDC bag and camera bag. Available in 13″ and 15″ options, the bag thoughtfully combines a variety of features into a stylish and functional whole. From expandability and one-handed access to highly customizable organization with FlexFold dividers and multiple pockets, the folks at Peak Design have pretty much thought of everything. All brought together in a weatherproof, durable and stylish design that moves easily between diverse carry environments and requirements.
The ONA Brooklyn takes inspiration from 1940s school bags but delivers a photography twist. The tuck lock closures provide easy access to the soft interior, where three dividers help organize your gear. Externally you’ll find a front pocket as well as a back pocket suitable for slim items such as a tablet. Handmade with full-grain leather, it’s a stylish pick for both formal and informal photography shoots.
Best messenger bags for professionals
Lexdray’s Symmetry Mumbai Messenger Bag offers flexibility and a little personality, while still retaining a functional, work-ready design and aesthetic. Multiple compartments and pockets keep your tech, work supplies and EDC easily accessible. But that organization is also adaptable, with a large main compartment that stays slim for smaller loads but accommodates larger loads or bulky items when duty calls. And with its tough, highly weather-resistant build, you don’t need to worry about rainy commutes.
If you appreciate carry designed with clean sophistication and minimalist loads in mind, this Troubadour Messenger Bag is a suave addition to your setup. The bag offers a honed blend of excellent craftsmanship, timeless style, and simple versatility. The padded laptop pocket protects tech on the go, while the adaptable design moves from work to the weekend with effortless ease. And with its magnetic flap closure, you’ll enjoy struggle-free access wherever the day leads.
Classy, functional and luxurious, the WANT Les Essentiels Jackson is a boss on the business bag front. The efficient, clutter-free organization includes a 15″ padded laptop pocket, along with smaller interior pockets and two additional pockets under the flap. And while the buckle closures are straightforward, as an added bonus the bag also features a top zip for easy access to tech or documents. Whether you carry it as a briefcase or shoulder bag, this refined piece will elevate your work carry to executive level.
Best shoulder bags for professionals
Bellroy’s Duo Work Bag packs a lot of functionality into an understated, clean design that suits formal and informal work settings alike. Top carry handles, a removable shoulder strap and a luggage pass-through sleeve provide portability options. The bag has a padded 15″ laptop compartment and a variety of additional pockets organize work tools, EDC and travel items. Plus it’s expandable when you need extra packing space. Rounding things off is a durable, water-resistant build that will protect your gear from the elements while looking stylish every step of the way.
With its lightweight yet durable build and sleek lines, the Jeremey Small Ripstop Satchel cuts a dashing figure in the workplace. Made from waxed cotton fabric with silicon buckled closures, and fitted with a soft leather base, it won’t you down during the commute. A quick-access back pocket stashes small essentials, while the main compartment suits minimalist loads and includes a padded tablet pocket.
Best cycling messengers for professionals
With its stealthy looks, weatherproof and durable build and versatile design, the Restrap Pack Messenger Bag wheels smoothly from the cycle commute to the office. The tough 1000D Cordura build rolls with demanding use and there’s a stabilizer strap for enhanced load stability during active use. The bag fits a 13″ laptop and has sufficient space to stash a change of clothes if needed.
Building on years of bikepacking and outdoor cycling experience, Apidura’s City Messenger fuses technical construction and expertise with clean aesthetics for urban settings. The messenger features waterproof, lightweight CT420 Marle material and welded construction to keep the elements out. The zipless opening offers quick and convenient one-handed access and you also benefit from dedicated storage for 11″ or 13″ tech. Add in the ambidextrous strap and you get a stylish commuting companion for on and off the bike.
The Brooks England Strand exudes pared-back professionalism with its clean design made from weatherproof coated nylon and Cordura. Inside you’ll find a padded laptop compartment and pockets for small items, while an exterior back pocket stores quick-access items. And for carry comfort on the go, the bag has an adjustable shoulder strap and a belt to secure the load.
Made in the USA with water-resistant, durable HT500 fabric, the Mission Workshop Monty Advanced is tough enough to embrace whatever the commute throws at you, while delivering sleek work-friendly styling. It fits up to a 15″ laptop in the main compartment, with a selection of pockets to store smaller gear. It secures with Mission Workshop’s Arkiv® closure system and provides a removable stabilizer strap. Plus it’s backed by a lifetime guarantee.
Pricey but oh so chic, the Brooks England Barbican Hard Leather Shoulder Bag is crafted in England with vegetable-tanned leather (the same used in their saddles). Simple, suave and adaptable, this shoulder bag looks slick in office settings, out and about in town or on your travels. The adjustable shoulder strap also serves as a waist belt for securing the bag during more active use.
Best men’s outdoor messenger
Built as a lighter version of the original, the Chrome Industries Welterweight Citizen is a tough and adaptable messenger for carrying work supplies and weekend essentials alike. The water-resistant bag includes a stabilizer strap, reflective detailing and a quick-release buckle for life on two wheels, along with sufficient space for up to a 17″ laptop and pockets for storing smaller items.
The Stealth Sling is a dependable outdoor companion for fishing trips. It’s built with a range of intuitive organization options to keep your fishing gear secure yet easily accesible when required including a net holder and quick-access storage for fly boxes. Designed to be light, quiet, comfortable for all-day wear and of course water-resistant too, it’s a dependable piece that gives you the freedom to make the most of fishing trips.
With its abrasion-resistant build, waterproof lining and reflective detailing, Timbuk2’s Especial 22L Messenger takes commuting or outdoor exploring in any weather in its stride. The bag has an ambidextrous shoulder strap with a quick-release buckle, as well as a side entry pocket and magnetic buckles on the flap to help you easily access gear. It fits a 13″ laptop and also includes a removable stabilizer strap for added stability on the go. And its lifetime warranty is a welcome bonus too.
Best women’s outdoor messengers
Tough and versatile, Patagonia’s Black Hole Mini Messenger packs a punch with its all-rounder adaptability, making it a solid pick for outdoor and urban use alike. The lightweight bag is made with water-resistant bluesign® approved fabric and offers a selection of webbing loops and pockets to organize your gear, including a 15″ laptop sleeve.
Osprey’s FlapJill Courier Bag features a w0men’s-specific fit, along with a variety of pockets to keep smaller essentials tidy. Inside you’ll find storage for a 15″ laptop, while externally there’s a removable webbing hip belt and a handy top grab handle. The flap secures with a buckle and Velcro, allowing for quicker Velcro-only access or added security with the buckle closure.
Arc’teryx blends sleek technical construction with everyday functionality to create a messenger that looks good on urban streets but is tough enough for outdoor adventures too. The Fyx 13L Messenger provides a padded and suspended 15″ laptop sleeve and quick-access pockets for organizing your gear. And it maintains its structure when empty, ensuring it looks smart wherever it’s used. The water-resistant AC² fabric flap helps protect your gear from the elements and there’s a reflective bike light loop too for added security on two wheels. Additionally the ambidextrous shoulder strap and waist belt help keep the load comfy and stable while you’re out and about.
Best ‘designer’ shoulder bag
The Ally Capellino Kenny brings chic style to your daily commute, about-town jaunts and travel excursions. Made with lightweight, abrasion-resistant, and water-resistant Cordura© nylon, it’s tough enough for daily use and understated enough to suit a variety of carry environments. The bag is large enough for 13″ tech devices and includes a minimalist yet functional range of pockets to keep your gear organized without cluttering up the design.
Looking for a dash of designer flair in an understated and practical design for work and play? Ally Capellino’s Brin Granular City Bodybag is a worthy pick, fusing attractive styling with straightforward functionality. The bag is made with handsome Italian textured granular cotton mix fabric, an Italian bridle leather strap and reinforced corners for added durability. It can be worn across the back or chest and has a double zip opening for convenient access. Uncluttered in design, the bag includes an interior zipped pocket for storing valuables.
A lot of designer bags lean heavily towards fashion over function. But côte&ciel delivers a great mix of both with the Oder-Spree Mimas Messenger Bag. The bag combines a slight stylish sheen with reflective detailing, in an ergonomic design that carries close to the body for comfort. Complementing the fashion-forward styling is functional organization including a padded laptop pocket, two exterior zipped pockets and an open rear pocket for quick-access items.
Best large Japanese messenger
Rugged street style, flexible carry options and plenty of space makes this AS2OV Cordura Dobby 305D 2Way Bag well suited to overnight trips, hauling large day-to-day loads or combining gym and work gear for convenient one-bag carry. The bag can be carried as a messenger or a tote and offers a variety of pockets including a padded laptop pocket.
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What’s your favorite shoulder bag or messenger? Hit us in the comments.