Updated September 2017
We are committed to bringing you the most up-to-date guide to assist your messenger bag search. A couple of products reviewed here received updates in the last few months. Our favorite bag, the Patagonia Black Hole, has two new colors without changing anything else. The old colors might still be available at discounted prices in limited stock, so grab them while you can. Also, the OR Rangefinder is discontinued. We are still finding it for sale at a few online retailers at a discount, making it a good time to buy if this bag calls to you.
Patagonia Black Hole 24L
Handles day to day abuse well
Rugged yet sleek, the Patagonia Black Hole
handles the daily grind better than the rest overall. This bag protects your goods on rainy commutes and moves comfortably with your body across varied terrain, from jam-packed metros to the office to bike lane rides. Such versatility makes this model an easy go-to bag for whatever the day might bring. The intuitive organization, great features, and easy access combine for a bag that's "just right." It wins our Goldilocks Award
otherwise known as our Editors' Choice Award. For a demanding town or city life, this pack can pretty much do it all. You'll be glad to have this bag on many of your urban adventures.
Read full review: Patagonia Black Hole 24L
Best Bang for the Buck
Osprey FlapJack Courier
Lots of pockets
Durable and comfortable
Quick to adjust
Awkward cross strap
features more pockets and organizational features than most products in this review, which is in line with Osprey's style, as we see in their backpacking and climbing bags. If you like having organizational features and pockets, this is one of the best. It is a great all-rounder, also proving to be quite rugged and weatherproof for a variety of commuting or travel situations. This bag balanced its performance well across our metrics, and follows closely after the Patagonia Black Hole
, with only a couple of points docked for a pocket that didn't quite work for us, and a comfort feature that could be improved. Messenger bags are typically unisex, but Osprey
slightly breaks the mold. Geared toward women, the FlapJill Courier, is a bit smaller, lighter, and found in alternative colorways
. Note that the Flapjack Backpack is our Editors' Choice laptop backpack and might be a better option for you.
Read full review: Osprey FlapJack Courier
Best Buy for a Tight Budget
Mobile Edge ECO
Sturdy and lightweight
Less formal looking
Small and lacks versatility
blows every other bag out of the water regarding affordability. At $50, it's a fraction of the price of the closest competition — and double the usefulness (or close: the Mobile Edge scored 68 out of 100, and the next most affordable model was $90 and scored 45 out of 100). We skipped over the Timbuk2 Classic
, another great bag, to single out the Mobile Edge
for its stunningly low price and impressively high functionality — and because it is half the price of the Timbuk2 Classic
, and only six points lower on our overall scoring. It is not the most formal for business use, but it has impressive organizational features, the cotton canvas handles like a pair of soft sweatpants, and the price is just stunning.
Read full review: Mobile Edge ECO
Top Pick for Comfort
Outdoor Research Rangefinder
Comfy empty or full
Weatherproof and robust
Low weight and versatile uses
Long shoulder strap
takes a detour from the classic look in design, but not in concept. Its internal main compartment closes with a drawstring, giving it a very different feel, character, and packing performance than the rest of the competition. And time and time again, test after test, we loved it. If we go back to the roots of this kind of bag, Outdoor Research hits it dead on — a rugged bag designed to carry heavy and awkward items comfortably, while allowing ease of access in potentially precarious places, like perched atop a power line. The Rangefinder
became our bag of choice for our various tools. It could even comfortably carry a ski helmet and snacks for a long day at the ski area. Outdoor Research
informed us that this model is going away, so snag it now for a discounted price before it's gone for good!
Read full review: Outdoor Research Rangefinder
Top Pick for Business
Timbuk2 Command Messenger
Easy for travel
Boxy and stiff
has a history of strong performance at OutdoorGearLab. This is Timbuk2's answer to the modern world. It's a "briefcase" for the reluctant business person and ideal for someone who travels a lot with a computer and various electronics and gets tired of having to remove their laptop every time they go through airport security. Timbuk2 introduces a novel concept with the three-sided zippered compartment which opens the bag like a clamshell and slides your electronics through the X-Ray machine while remaining stowed inside that padded sleeve.
Read full review: Timbuk2 Command Messenger
Analysis and Test Results
The modern bag has its roots in the power line workers' bags of the 1950s, which caught on among urban bicycle messengers. The original models were designed to carry heavy, bulky, and awkward tools while ensuring ease of access when climbing utility poles. Our first two, and most important categories, therefore, are Comfort, and Packing and Organization.
A lot of commuters are choosing to switch to backpacks or panniers for their bike commutes these days. This effectively puts extra pressure on the bag category to up its game in the comfort department — which is no small feat for a bag that, by design, hangs off only one shoulder. We tested these products extensively, in a range of situations, to fully explore the concept of comfort and muse over the reasons to use a bag instead of a backpack or pannier. On our official OGL Ride Test, we took notes on the carrying comfort of a variety of load types and weights; and in our OGL Load Test, we maxed out every bag and reported on its optimum load size, before the bag became unwieldy and uncomfortable.
In our first round of testing, we took the concept of comfort to be quite simple: how does this bag feel on our back and shoulder? How is the padding? And most importantly, how does it handle a variety of load types and weights? At first, we were surprised to be continually drawn to the Outdoor Research Rangefinder
. It is not your classic design — it has a drawstring closure for the internal compartment and a fully padded shoulder strap. We put our ski helmet in it: it was comfortable. We loaded it down with books and electronics: still comfortable. Then we tried to over stuff the bag with awkward items; it was still comfortable. We were impressed. This bag underlines the importance of supple fabrics, thoughtful padding, and intelligent geometry.
The Patagonia Black Hole messenger bag was great for a rest day during an ice climbing trip to Canmore, Alberta. So long as we didn't say "out" or "about," we were easily mistaken for Canadian, clearly due to our stylish and quasi-outdoorsy messenger bag.
The runners-up in the comfort category are less surprising: the Timbuk2 Classic
and the Chrome Mini Metro
, which are functionally similar products. These two rest more angled (or vertical) on your back like a traditional messenger (after all, these two companies define the category). They are easy to adjust with supple fabrics that hug close to the body and move with you, whether on foot, bike, subway, skateboard, etc.
But a few more models deserve mention with above average, but not outstanding, comfort scores. The Timbuk2 Command
is very comfortable in the range of activities that it is apparently designed for; it is a much more business and international travel-specific bag. It was boxy and less versatile in the comfort category but great at what it does best.
Additionally, two of our award winners, the Patagonia Black Hole
and the Osprey FlapJack
did not score as highly in this category mainly due to the lack of cross strap (Patagonia) or a weird and quasi-functional stabilizer strap (Osprey). This is important to mention because if you are not someone who does a lot of long-distance bike commuting, perhaps this cross-body stabilizer strap is less necessary. If that's the case, these two contenders are still above average in the comfort metric.
Packing and Organization
Two factors stood out to us in the packing and organization category: effectiveness and efficiency. A bag, we thought, needs to improve our daily commute with a relatively broad array of attributes: comfort, of course, but also in the way it holds, secures, and allows access to our belongings inside. To be an effective model means that it addresses our needs, as diverse and changeable as they may be from one day to the next. Second, it needs to be efficient. We don't want to be slowed down, weighed down, or in any way hindered by our accessories; we want a bag that makes us feel more free and nimble. An intelligently designed organization scheme will allow us to be organized, but not require us to think too much about it.
These two broad attributes, effectiveness and efficiency, aligned impeccably well in the Patagonia Black Hole
, which earned the relatively rare score: a perfect 10. It did not have the most pockets: that would detract from efficiency. Rather, it had just enough organizational options, not too many that we got lost in a labyrinth of pockets, sleeves, and zippers.
The ECO messenger bag, a model of organizational features.
The runners-up will please those who have a preference for lots of pockets: the Osprey FlapJack
and the Mobile Edge ECO
were trending toward pocket-overload, but remain in the realm of fun and functional organizational features.
Both of the Timbuk2 products also score well. The Timbuk2 Command
is the best business and travel-specific model, with features well tuned to its user type. The Timbuk2 Classic
also has just enough pockets to be fun and functional, but not too many. In theory, this would have been stronger competition for our overall winner, the Patagonia Black Hole
, but it lacked a few easy-access features that made it, overall, slightly less versatile and required a bit more thought to pack efficiently.
Back in the 80s, when bags started to take off among bicycle messengers, not many users were toting around computers the size of a notebook, small space-age touchscreen gadgets, and they certainly didn't have cell phones. All that technology could barely fit in a small building at that time, let alone in a bag that slings over your shoulder. Today, however, things have changed — and most manufacturers have evolved with the times.
Most of the models in this review have kept true to the spirit of the messenger bag, even in modern times: to allow ease of access to one's tools. Today, that often means our technology. The Timbuk2 Command
topped the charts with its care and attention to carrying and accessing electronics, even featuring a zipper compartment that opens the bag like a clamshell, and allows you to breeze through TSA security checks without removing your laptop. We had several runners-up, all award winners of some sort, but all for slightly different reasons. The Osprey FlapJack
was the most similar to the Timbuk2 Command
, with myriad organizational options for your Mobile Edge ECO
also had a distinct and thoughtful approach to toting around laptops, tablets, and phones. And the Patagonia Black Hole
kept a straightforward and streamlined approach which we found to be just enough, not too much, and as a result, an easy bag to adapt to our changeable needs.
The Black Hole messenger bag keeps electronics safe and secure, and still easy to access.
The Timbuk2 Classic
and the Outdoor Research Rangefinder
were two models that were less remarkable for our electronics storage, but still well above average. To earn an average score in this metric a bag had to have a secure and padded laptop sleeve, at a minimum.
Ease of Use
A bag needs to keep up on a potentially rigorous commute, whether on a bike, foot, subway, skateboard, rollerblades, Uber, Vespa, etc. This is a bag for many types, from the urban athlete to the reluctant business person. We put these products to the test on our humdrum daily errands, as well as our epic urban adventures, and even pushed the boundaries with a few ski trips. In our OGL Load Test, we assessed how logical, intuitive, and easy the bag was to pack and how easily we could access the contents.
There was no perfect 10 in this category. But two of our award winners, the Patagonia Black Hole
and the Osprey FlapJack
came darn close. These two got knocked down by small details or relatively inconsequential design flaws (like the odd cross strap on the FlapJack), or the simple fact that it just didn't knock our socks off (but was still really good, in the case of the Patagonia product).
The scores were a bit top heavy in this category, a good sign for a design that originated with the goal of allowing ease of access to awkward, heavy, and bulky tools. Our lowest score, however, while still roughly an average rating, was the Chrome Buran II
. This bag is awesome for bigger users and for folks who need the huge capacity, and are otherwise a perfect fit for the bag — but it was quite cumbersome, awkward, and otherwise unpleasant for the small to the mid-size user. Arguably, it is still faithful to its roots, just a bit limited in its user base.
Wear and Tear
The trifecta: if comfort is number one for a bag, and packability is second, then durability must be third — after all, what good are the first two without the third to follow them?
The iconic Chrome bags stole the show in this category, with the impressive (though bulky and heavy) double engineering. Each model is essentially two bags: a liner and a durable outer shell. This ensures excellent weatherproofing, and stellar durability. If we could have given these products an 11 out of 10, we would have.
Messenger bags getting loaded with paper for our waterproof test.
Our runners-up, however, achieved a level of durability that was more than satisfactory, while still keeping the bags lightweight and supple. Our next favorite models for durability were, again, our award winners, the Patagonia Black Hole
and the Osprey FlapJack
. The Outdoor Research Rangefinder
. The Timbuk2 contenders scored above average, but the Timbuk2 Command
lost a few points for the strain on some of its zippers, and the Timbuk2 Classic
simply showed wear and dirt on the fabric.
The Volume/Weight Ratio is a simple calculation. A higher number tells us that we get more functional capacity out of less overall weight — an excellent feature because this means the bag itself is contributing less of the heft resting on your left (or right) shoulder.
The Outdoor Research Rangefinder
stole the show here. Next up, you guessed it, the Patagonia Black Hole
and the Osprey FlapJack
The Black Hole messenger bag performing well in the volume measurement.
Check out our metrics if this category is of the utmost importance to your purchase.
We Gave Style a Pass
The Chrome Mini Metro messenger bag, a classic.
Style is not a metric in this category because it's so subjective. However, there is a strong argument to be made for the style and statement you make with your bag. These bags have been around for a long time, at first adapted from military map bags for the broader public. The messenger bag, as we tend to think of it, has its roots more firmly planted in power line worker's bags from the 1950s. In the 80s, this style was updated, adjusted, and reappropriated to bicycle messengers, and the style has exploded and expanded from there. It is urban to the core. And they mirror their hard-working, physically fit, and very badass owner.
Messenger Bag Alternatives
With so many options today for carrying your belongings, we first want to discuss a few alternatives to the bag before we dive into our awards.
The first images we see on Timbuk2's website is of people wearing backpacks while riding bikes. Many of our colleagues report having gone from bag, to pannier, and finally settling on a simple backpack for their bike commutes. As such, we believe that the classic "messenger bag" has bigger shoes to fill in the modern world. It's a casual briefcase for reluctant business people; it needs to be comfortable for a variety of commuting methods, from cycling to walking to crowded subways, and jerky buses; and it often needs to hold a few other random items like gym clothes, rain jackets, climbing shoes, etc.
We see the bag being supplanted by backpacks for many urban bicycle commuters, and in turn, the messenger bag seems to be replacing the formal briefcase — likely for the casual style and the increased carrying comfort (a softer-sided bag is nicer to carry and handle). We liked to use our bags as a carry-on or "personal item" on flights for their carrying comfort, and how easy it is to quickly stash essential items or pull things out in a crowded and busy airport.
Laptop backpacks are the most popular substitutes for bags. Typically, they are much more comfortable, especially for longer distances and can often carry more stuff. However, they aren't as stylish or waterproof, and they aren't as easy to get into on the go. Messenger bags let you reach all your items without even taking the bag off your shoulder. Because they cover less surface area on your back, they also keep your back dry on hot summer commutes.
Probably the biggest reason to choose one over the other comes down to your priorities and personal preferences. Do you value comfort and capacity or quick access and style? If you commute long distances, you'll probably prefer a backpack. If you just use your bag to carry your laptop around, you'll probably do better buying a messenger bag.
If you're buying a bag primarily to carry your laptop, keep in mind there are some laptop bags for under $30 that may serve your needs well for a lot less money than the bags in this review. Although laptop bags may not be as waterproof, durable or stylish, they usually offer more laptop protection than messengers. They are also lightweight, slide under an airplane seat easily, and provide immediate access to your most reached for items. While not waterproof, they often fit easily in a waterproof backpack or bag, which gives you even more protection. The founder of OutdoorGearLab has been using the Case Logic 17.3-Inch Laptop Case
for years even though he has the option of holding onto many of the tested bags in this review. It only costs $23.50 and holds all the essentials for a lightweight mobile office. See our article on our favorite mobile office setup.
Want the protection of a laptop bag, but the style and features of a messenger bag? You can always purchase an inexpensive laptop sleeve! Laptop sleeves are a fantastic and cheap way to keep your laptop safe in any bag.
Panniers are saddle bags for your bike; although cyclists on bike tours frequently use them, they are also a fantastic way to carry your things on an everyday basis. They have the capacity for quite a bit of stuff and are particularly great for groceries. In the summer, you'll stay much drier keeping the load on the bike and off your back. Panniers aren't as versatile because they are harder to carry around when not riding. Also, some people don't like the feeling of added weight on their bikes, citing reduced mobility. If this isn't an issue for you and you don't need to walk far once you reach your destination, panniers are tough to beat.
The Timbuk2 Classic is a fantastic bag and a great value. Notice the bike light attachment, hidden flap buckles, reflective material, and padded shoulder strap.
The messenger bag continues to evolve with the times, evoking thought and conversation around the ideal design for the modern user. Many cyclists are switching out their bags in favor of a backpack, which is more comfortable because it shares the weight of the bag on both shoulders, and many commuters don't need to whip their bag around to the front to pull out a document or other delivery item. More specifically, they want their stuff to stay dry and safe for the ride to the office, school, coffee shop, etc., arriving well organized and ready for a busy day. A messenger bag, therefore, is emerging more like a casual briefcase. It's an excellent "personal item" for your next flight, or an urban commute bag for long walks and public transportation where you want to swing your valuable items around to the front for increased security in crowded public areas, and to make yourself a little less bulky in a crowded metro.
While this laundry list of uses for the modern messenger bag may not mirror the original utility bags of the 1950s power line workers, the spirit of the bag holds strong. It is rugged, allows freedom of movement, provides ease of access to your tools, and remains comfortable throughout your busy day, whether perched atop a power line or several stories up in a skyscraper.