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Reviewed & Compared
by Daniel Atlas
One of the major challenges of commuting to work by bike is that you need a reliable way to get all of your stuff between your home and office as well. Thankfully, there are a huge variety of options for carrying gear on a bike. For many commuters, messenger bags and backpacks are at the forefront of those choices.
Both bags and backpacks are extremely versatile, relatively inexpensive, and able to hold a surprisingly large amount of stuff.
However, choosing a pack can be overwhelming since there are so many options marketed specifically for bike commuting.
Before diving into backpacks and messenger bags, it’s important to consider whether these are a better option for you than panniers – there are advantages, and disadvantages to both carry systems.
Panniers are ideal because they take the weight off of your body and put it on the bike frame.
For many riders, especially those with back problems, this can make a huge difference in the comfort of the bike commute. Panniers are particularly helpful for longer commutes when the strain of hunching over the handlebars with a bag or backpack can wear on your back muscles.
However, panniers do have some drawbacks. By putting the weight of your gear over the rear wheel, they can negatively affect your handling as well as your bike’s acceleration and braking. Since backpacks put the added weight directly over the seat, they won’t have nearly the same effect on bike handling.
Also, pannier bags require a rear rack to fit onto the bike – which makes it very difficult to switch between bikes if you have multiple rides you take to work depending on the season or the weather.
Backpacks are more versatile, following the rider rather than the bike.
Backpacks are also designed to be carried off the bike, which can be an advantage for multi-stage commutes or if you have a long walk to your office from where you park your bike.
Figuring out what gear and other items you’ll frequently be carrying between your home and office are one of the most important considerations when choosing the best bike commuter bag for you.
One of the most common items that bike commuters carry is a laptop. As a result, many bike backpacks – but not all – feature a dedicated, padded laptop sleeve that protects your computer from scratches and bumps. If you have a laptop with a large screen, make sure that the laptop sleeve in the bag you choose is wide enough and tall enough to fit your laptop.
Another common thing for bike commuters to carry is a set of formal work clothes to change into once you reach the office. If this is something you expect to need frequently, be sure to look for a bag with a large main compartment that can hold your folded clothes without crumpling and wrinkling them. If you need to change between cycling and work shoes as well, make sure there is plenty of room to slide your shoes into that main compartment as well.
On the other hand, if you don’t have much with you at all – you leave your computer at work and don’t need to change – you might be able to get away with a small and lightweight bag that has just enough space for your wallet, keys, and a sack lunch.
Read our Detailed Guide to Pick the Best Bike for Commuting here.
Keep in mind that no matter what type of bag you get, you’re only going to want to use it if it’s comfortable to ride with. That doesn’t always mean opting for the most heavily padded backpack or messenger bag – more padding can mean more heat build-up during the hot summer months.
Also, pay particular attention to the straps. If you are carrying a heavy load, a waist strap on a backpack will help distribute the weight onto your hips, while a sternum strap can prevent your backpack from leaning you backward. For a messenger bag, make sure that the carry strap has enough padding to keep your neck and shoulder comfortable as your bag gets heavy.
Are you the type of person who prefers to throw all your stuff together into a single large compartment, or do you need tons of small pockets and compartments to separate your items?
There are backpacks available to cater to both types of people, so really consider how you like to keep organized when choosing a design. Also, note that more pockets aren’t always better – they can add weight to the bag, and outside pockets are not always waterproof.
If the rain doesn't stop you from riding to work, you need to make sure that your stuff will stay dry inside your pack. Many commuter-specific backpack designs are intended to be fully waterproof, while some have a waterproof main compartment with outer pockets that are only water resistant or that will soak easily.
If you tend to take the car when it gets wet outside, then you may not need to worry about waterproofing at all.
This unique backpack from Osprey blurs the lines between a commuting backpack and a hiking backpack, in the process offering some impressive features. First, while the backpack itself is made from durable nylon that is water-resistant, the pack comes with a stashable rain fly that can be looped over the entire pack during a downpour. The nylon outer also comes with Osprey’s lifetime guarantee, and the company will repair any damaged pack for free.
The pack also offers some innovative organizational features. On the front panel of the pack is a stretchy shove-it pocket that allows you to keep frequently-used items handy and that does a surprisingly good job of keeping things from falling out. There is a quick and easy helmet attachment on the front panel as well as a spot to clip on a rear LED light for safety. The water bottle pockets are also zippered so they can be used for a variety of small items.
The laptop sleeve is separate from the main compartment of the pack, which makes it much easier to slide a laptop in compared to other packs. The sleeve is large enough to fit 15-inch computers. The main compartment itself is not huge, especially when all of the other compartments are being used, but if you are stuffing items in it can fit a surprising amount. However, don’t expect to keep clothes wrinkle-free with this pack as you might with larger backpacks.
This stylish backpack from Timbuk2 uses a roll-top design and a waterproof nylon construction to keep your gear dry. The roll-top is easy to close and open thanks to the simple metal hook-and-loop closure on the outside of the bag, which can be quickly cinched down or loosened according to how much stuff is in your pack.
The pack’s organization is designed for people who prefer a single large compartment. While there is a padded laptop sleeve, it is inside this main compartment and only fits laptops up to 15 inches. There is a zippered closure on the front of the pack, although the compartment space is big enough only for a phone or wallet. The remainder of the pack’s front has a Velcro panel and some gear loops, although these are unlikely to be helpful to the majority of commuters.
A major advantage to this pack is the ventilated mesh back panel, which stays surprisingly breathable during the hot summer months thanks to the ventilation channel down the center of the panel. While the straps are padded enough for moderate pack weights, there is only a sternum strap and no hip belt so the backpack can get uncomfortable when it is packed with heavy books or other heavy items.
This high-quality backpack from Thule incorporates many design features targeted to make the commute to work as comfortable as possible.
First, in contrast to many other cycling backpacks, the laptop sleeve is on the front of the backpack rather than directly against the rider’s back. This improves the pack’s ability to contour to the shape of your back and improves the breathability of the paneling during hot rides. Second, the paneling itself is a foam material rather than a mesh. This gives the backpack more structure against your back and prevents it from sliding down when weighted. Finally, the backpack straps are relatively wide and feature a highly adjustable sternum strap to keep the bag from pulling you back away from the handlebars.
The pack also offers some nice features for organization. While the main compartment is relatively cavernous, there is a dedicated laptop sleeve for computers up to 15 inches. Also, there are two mesh water bottle pockets and a zippered pocket in front of the laptop sleeve – although this pocket can be so tight as to be somewhat useless. The backpack also hides a helmet attachment, which can be used to store your helmet on the outside of the pack when you’re not riding.
Although the pack is waterproof by design, it is especially ideal for rainy conditions thanks to the included rain fly. The fly is brightly colored to keep you safe in dark, overcast conditions and can be stashed away inside the pack when the sun returns.
If you live in a rainy area, it’s hard to beat the waterproofing of this backpack from Sak Gear. In effect, the backpack is a modified pannier bag and features a similar heavy-duty 500-denier PVC construction. Unlike nylon and other fabrics that are designed to keep water out but will eventually soak through, this PVC material will never allow water to penetrate.
The backpack features a unique closure system that offers two ways to keep it waterproof. First, the top can be adjusted like a roll-top bag, with a buckle system that then serves as a carry handle. Second, the top can be pushed down and cinched with buckles to straps on the sides to keep the top from flopping around while you’re riding. Both methods are easy, although chances are you’ll pick one and stick to it rather than utilize the versatility.
The outside of the pack doesn’t reveal much organizational capacity – there is just one splash-proof zippered pocket for small items like keys and papers. However, the inside of the pack is thoroughly divided so that you can have separate spaces for wet and dry gear, as well as small zippered and mesh pockets to hold small valuables from being lost in the large interior space.
Note that while this bag is ideal in the rain, it can suffer in hot, sunny weather. The back panel is not very breathable, in part because of the heavy PVC fabric behind it. Also, the straps, while mesh, can hold in heat.
This backpack from Thule is ideal for the organized cyclists who want to keep all of the different items in their pack perfectly sorted. The pack features a wide array of pockets both inside and outside the pack and uses a unique side zipper that fully opens the front of the pack to reveal the interior and keep all of the pockets within reach.
The pockets start on the outside, with an easily accessible Velcro-closure panel pocket for storing a variety of items. There is also a reinforced shell pocket, which is ideal for delicate items like sunglasses that you don’t want to crush when you put the pack down accidentally. On the inside, there is a 15-inch padded laptop sleeve that sits against the rider’s back as well as numerous small mesh zippered pockets for storing a variety of small items. All of these compartments do take away from the space of the main compartment, but there is still plenty of area for a set of folded clothes or shoes.
Where this backpack does fall short is in waterproofing. While the pack made from high-denier nylon, it cannot stand up to more than a very light rain without soaking through. It’s also worth noting that the top of the pack can allow splashes to get inside the main compartment since it is a fold-down flap rather than a roll-top closure.
This extremely stylish backpack from Burton is designed to make a statement as well as comfortably hold moderate loads in good weather. The pack is beautifully designed, with a flap closure that is double-strapped down to the front of the bag to keep it tight. The exterior of the pack is made from heavy-duty nylon, but Burton finished it nicely to give it a clean aesthetic and a better feel than the nylon in other packs.
Unfortunately, that exterior aesthetic means that there is little in the way of the external organization – this backpack has no external pockets or water bottle holders. Also, the nylon is water-resistant and will hold up for a short commute in the rain, but can soak through with longer exposure to water.
The inside of the pack is closed with a drawstring underneath the flap, which allows the backpack to be overstuffed with clothes or shoes. There are laptop and tablet sleeves – up to 16.5 inches and 10 inches, respectively, although neither has much padding to protect your devices. The only other organizational compartment inside the pack is a small mesh zippered pocket near the top of the pack.
The pack is comfortable for moderate loads thanks to the padded shoulder straps, sternum strap, and back panel. However, there is no hip belt for distributing larger weights, and the back panel is not well ventilated for hot rides.
This small backpack from Timbuk2 is ideal for commuters who only need their small laptop and a few other items for their day. The backpack has an oddly rectangular shape but is comfortable thanks to the wide shoulder straps and ventilated mesh back panel. A carry handle on the top of the pack is a nice touch for riders who want an additional option for transporting their pack off the bike.
The backpack is constructed from polyvinyl, which is highly waterproof even in pouring rain. However, Timbuk2 decided to use a flat panel that is cinched down with buckles rather than a roll-top closure, so be wary of water getting into the main compartment when it is raining hard.
The exterior of the pack features two stretchy water bottle holders as well as a single zippered pocket, although the latter competes with items inside the pack for space. The front panel of the backpack is also covered in daisy-chain webbing and offers a large Velcro strip on the outside of the flap closure, although these may be difficult for many riders to utilize effectively.
The interior of the pack does not have much in the way of the organization except for a 15-inch laptop sleeve and some additional divider sleeves. Unfortunately, there are no zippered pockets on the inside of the backpack to hold valuables.
This classic messenger bag from GoFar is designed to fit laptops with screens up to 17.3 inches in size, making it one of the few options for riders with larger computers.
However, there are some other features to recommend this bag for riders with smaller computers as well, and it is difficult to beat the value of this messenger.
First, the bag is made from high-quality, durable nylon that offers water resistance to moderate storms. Importantly, the outside of the bag is resistant to scratching and tears from anything you encounter during your ride.
The shoulder strap is one of the best features of this bag, as it includes comfortable padding and a set of cam straps that make it easy to modify the length of the shoulder strap instantly. There is also a carry handle on the strap itself and on the top of the bag to offer the widest variety of carrying methods. The back of the bag itself is a mesh fabric, which offers impressive breathability when the bag is against your back in hot weather.
The interior of the bag is relatively simple, with just a divider and stretchy Velcro closure to keep your laptop in place and protected. For storing smaller valuables, the bag offers a single zippered enclosure on the outside of the closure flap.
This messenger bag is stylish and about as simple as it gets, which makes it perfect for urban commuters with short rides which are looking to make a style statement. The messenger bag is available in a variety of colors and is made entirely of cotton canvas, which is much more comfortable against the skin and looks much more pleasing to the eye than nylon. However, that does mean the bag isn’t water resistant at all, so you’ll want to leave it at home if there’s rain in the forecast.
The messenger bag doesn’t have any structural support but remains comfortable even if it only has a laptop or a selection of soft items, like clothes and shoes, inside. The flap top is sealed closed with a Velcro strap, while the shoulder strap is well padded and easily adjustable with standard metal buckles. While there is no exterior zipper pocket as on other messenger bags, there are two water bottle holders – however, note that they are not stretchable so you’ll need to find water bottles that fit perfectly.
The inside of the bag features a single cavernous space, which is ideal if you have a lot of stuff to carry and still prefer a messenger bag. There is a small zipper pocket for valuables, but expect to put your laptop in a protective case as there is no divider padding your computer otherwise.
This messenger bag is designed to hold up to the elements thanks to a heavy-duty, water-resistant Oxford fabric construction. You wouldn’t know the bag is so effectively waterproof just from looking at it, though – the exterior design is highly stylish and features sharp metal buckles to button down the flap.
Another great feature of this messenger bag is that it features a total of nine different compartments. The first is a zippered pocket on the outside of the closure flap, which is perfect for quick access to small essentials. There’s also a small zippered pocket on the back of the bag for a phone, although the pocket is nicely padded so it won’t irritate your back while riding. A side pocket can hold a small water bottle, while a button-closed pocket underneath the flap is ideal for a small tablet or a notebook. Inside, there is a padded laptop sleeve large enough to hold a 13-inch laptop, as well as another divider for organizing your stuff.
The shoulder strap on this messenger bag is easily adjustable, although the shoulder pad is not as thick as on other bags so you may want to limit this bag to shorter rides. Also, the bag can be quite warm in hot summer weather since there is no ventilating material on the rear of the bag.
This commuter backpack from Fjallraven is not only functional but stylish enough to show off.
Regarding functionality, the backpack is large enough to fit a 17-inch laptop and offers a padded sleeve on the inside of the main compartment for protection. While there is little else in the way of the organization – there are no external pockets and no other dividers inside the main compartment – the backpack offers a drawstring opening that allows you to stuff the interior with as much as you want. Alternatively, the compartment is large enough to organize work clothes and shoes so that they don’t get wrinkled on the ride into the office.
The pack itself is made from Fjallraven’s G-1000 HeavyDuty Eco fabric, which is both water resistant and highly durable. The fabric is finished on the exterior with leather accents and leather belt straps that make it simple to cinch down the flap closure. The drawstring area of the interior is made from a beautiful canvas material that finishes off the authentic look of the backpack while still being highly functional.
One neat addition to this bag is the removable pad that lines the back. This not only serves to keep your back comfortable when riding with a computer lining the bag but also can be removed to serve as an impromptu seat cushion when needed. The bag is relatively breathable, although the leather straps can be thin and may cause some discomfort on longer rides.
This small commuter pack from Fjallraven is constructed from the company’s proprietary G-1000 HeavyDuty Eco fabric, which is sourced entirely from organic and recycled materials to take a lighter toll on the planet. The fabric also has some benefits, including being able to hold up to moderate rainstorms without soaking through and being resistant to scratches and tears. Despite the weight of the fabric, the pack weighs just 1.5 pounds thanks to its otherwise minimalistic and clean design.
Despite its overall small size – the pack is just 20 liters – it can fit a 15-inch laptop in the padded storage compartment. Also, it has multiple options for organization, including a small zipper pocket on the front of the pack and a secondary zippered compartment that sits just in front of the main interior pocket. There are also water bottle holders on each side of the pack.
The back panel doesn’t feature any ventilation, which can be a problem in warm weather as the G-1000 fabric is quite heavy. However, the shoulder straps are wide and padded, and the pack is small enough that there’s no need for a sternum strap or hip belt. A carry handle made from leather finishes off the pack.
This backpack from Lekesky is constructed from a unique fabric: waxed canvas. That not only gives it the look of a genuine leather bag for the style but also renders it highly waterproof and resistant to scratches and tears. It’s also surprisingly lightweight for its size at just 1.2 pounds.
The bag features a roll-top design to ensure that its contents remain dry in any weather conditions. Once rolled down, the top is clipped into place by connecting to buckles on either side of the bag. While this means there is no carry handle, the organizational features more than make up for this deficit.
The exterior of the bag includes a large pocket with button closure. In contrast to other bags, this front pocket is its own space and does not compete with the main compartment of the pack. On the inside of the bag, a padded laptop sleeve fits computers up to 15.6 inches in length and a secondary divider offers space to secure a tablet or documents. There are even more slider pockets on the other side of the interior, which offers space for books, clothes, or more documents. Two stretchable water bottle pockets – one on the inside and one on the outside – also allow you to carry multiple bottles and keep them organized.
The backpack also features relatively wide straps for comfort, although the back panel can get warm during hot days since it is not specifically ventilated.
This sling bag from OUSIRUI is one of the few bags of this type durable enough to be used for bike commuting. The bag is constructed from polyester, which makes it waterproof enough to handle most rainstorms and splash from the road while also ensuring that it’s durable enough to last for years of riding.
The small size of this bag is ideal for commuters who don’t need to bring a laptop or a lot of other large items to the office. There are four main compartments, two of which close with zippers and two of which close with buckles so you can be sure your stuff is secure inside the bag. The largest of these compartments could fit a small tablet, but overall they are best designed for carrying food, essential valuables, and a small amount of clothing.
The strap on this pack is thoroughly wide and padded to keep your shoulder comfortable during the ride. For commuters who are used to carrying a backpack or messenger bag, the weight of this bag will be hardly noticeable. Also, although the back panel of the bag is not ventilated, this is not a major issue even in hot weather as the bag does not cover your entire back.
This backpack from RESECU is designed to be 100% waterproof and ready for anything you can throw at it. The pack is constructed from heavy-duty 420-denier nylon and thermoplastic polyurethane to make it nearly impervious to water and extremely difficult to rip or puncture. While not an issue while bike commuting, the backpack is so waterproof that it can float if dropped into water.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, this backpack features a roll-top design with little in the way of organization. There are no pockets on the outside of the pack, as this would detract from its waterproof qualities, although there are compression straps so you can match the size of the bag to the amount of stuff you’re carrying. The inside of the bag is a cavernous 50-liter compartment with no additional dividers, so if you’re carrying a laptop, you’ll want to have it contained within a protective case.
This is one of the few bike commuter bags to come with a hip belt in addition to a sternum strap, which can go a long way towards distributing the load if you manage to fill the pack with gear. However, because of the rubber construction of the pack and the lack of a back panel, you’ll need to be careful how you pack it – whatever is inside the pack will be what is rubbing against your back. This also means that while the backpack is ideal for extremely wet conditions, it can be somewhat sticky and sweaty to ride within hot and sunny weather.
The weight of your bag or backpack add to the overall weight that you’ll be carrying on your back, so it can be worth considering – especially if you have suffered from back pain while riding in the past. In general, heavier bags are made from heavier, more durable materials or offer more pockets or dividers. However, having all that organization does you no good if the bag is causing you pain because of its weight.
Whether you prefer a roll-top or a flap closure largely comes down to personal preference, although it can have an impact on the waterproofness of your bag. Roll-top closures are typically quite waterproof since the twisting of the material makes it nearly impossible for water to leak into the main compartment. Flap closures, on the other hand, may be more or less effective at keeping water out – waterproof bags with flap closures often have a secondary protection measure, like a drawstring closure inside.
Whether you prefer a messenger bag or backpack largely comes down to your preference. Some messenger bags offer space for larger laptops, although these days it’s also possible to find backpacks that can hold large laptops, so this is not a huge factor anymore. Messenger bags may be more comfortable for short commutes than for long commutes since they put all of the bag’s weight on one shoulder, whereas a backpack distributes weight over both shoulders. Also, backpacks may be less likely to shift around on bumpy roads than a messenger bag.
Having the best commuter backpack or the best commuter bag can make a big difference in whether you’re able to get everything you need from your home to work and back – and to accomplish that task comfortably in any weather.
Our overall favorite commuter bag on the market today is the Osprey Packs 34 Radial Daypack. This unique pack is water-resistant and comes with a hidden rain fly so that you can use it in any weather. Plus, even though the material is durable enough that you likely won’t need it, Osprey offers lifetime repairs on their packs.
The backpack also offers some of the best organization we’ve seen, with a dedicated laptop compartment, spots to carry your helmet and a rear light for safety, a large shove-it pouch on the pack’s front, and zippered water bottle pockets that can double as pockets for your valuables.
The only downside to the pack is that the main compartment can be somewhat cramped, but there’s enough space throughout the bag’s many compartments that this isn’t an issue for most commuters.
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