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Commuting by bike isn’t just about getting to your destination and back. You often have to take some things with you. When you commute by car, you can just toss your stuff onto the passenger seat. Cycling takes a little more planning.
Bike panniers and trailers allow you to carry a lot of stuff without having to keep it on your body, but they’re typically overkill for casual commuting. These options can be pricey, bulky, and may require modifying the bike with accessories such as racks.
Messenger Bag or Backpack for Cycling: Biggest Differences
Messenger bags and backpacks top the list of choices for everyday bike commuters. If you’re trying to decide between a messenger bag or backpack for cycling, know that cycling packs are light, let you carry more, and center the weight on your body, while messenger bags are smaller and more unstable, but easier to load and unload. Messenger bags also transition smoothly to white-collar workplaces.
There’s a passionate debate on whether you should choose a messenger bag or backpack for cycling. These two options have fairly different designs and bring their own strengths and weaknesses to the table. Spoiler: there’s no clear winner. The right choice for you depends on your priorities and the details of your commute. Are you worried about storage capacity? Comfort on long rides? Appearance? Let’s see how these two options stack up in different categories.
The Backpack vs. Messenger Bag Battle
Here’s a controversial one: do messenger bags or backpacks look better? It all comes down to your personal style and workplace environment. A high-end leather backpack branded by a world-renowned company can look more professional than a battered canvas messenger bag with SpongeBob characters printed on it. Meanwhile, a rugged multipurpose backpack may fit into the climbing gym you work at better than a sleek black bag.
Don’t forget that you can carry a lightweight messenger bag in your backpack along with everything else. When you get into the office, just transfer your items over. You could also keep a professional-looking briefcase at your desk and use that. Basically, don’t let appearances keep you away from an otherwise solid option.
Ease of Use
These two options are something of a draw here. One slings across a shoulder, while the other slips over both shoulders.
Messenger bags have a major advantage: you can pull them to the front and gain access on the go. This is vital for bike couriers. But do average bike commuters need this?
Backpacks, meanwhile, are the easy ‘set it and forget it’ option. Just pop your laptop and lunch into the backpack, zip it up, and everything will stay secure until you reach your destination.
There are two things to consider here: volume and weight. For the most part, backpacks are coming out ahead here. They can accommodate larger items and also bulky items such as clothes, shoes, and multiple meals. They also handle extra weight better. Heavy load distribution is spread between both shoulders and across the back.
You’ll struggle to fit the same amount into a messenger bag, since it has limited capacity, and it won’t be as comfortable to carry. Meanwhile, what about the opposite scenario? What if sometimes you take the minimum to class? A messenger bag needs a certain amount of weight inside it to stay in place at the small of your back. You might feel a little silly taking a whole backpack to carry one notebook, but that notebook won’t be flying around during the bike ride.
There is one exception, and that is electronics. The rectangular shape of a messenger bag is specifically designed for laptops, books, etc. Unfortunately, cycling packs tend to be narrow for aerodynamic and fit reasons. This means you’ll struggle to get a larger laptop inside. If you’re only taking a couple of rectangular items, a bike messenger bag may be the better choice.
Messenger bags tend to make for a less comfortable riding experience. They put the weight on one side. The shoulder strap is usually not padded, and the strap edge can dig into your neck during the ride.
Backpacks have the potential to be more comfortable, but many of them are not comfortable. Packs that aren’t designed for cycling can dig in and strain your back in a number of ways. Models that don’t fit your frame (e.g., if you’re narrow-shouldered) can chafe at the hip strap, and the shoulder straps may slip.
Ideally, you would get a properly fitted cycling backpack, maybe with some extra padding at the back. This padding will protect you from random annoyances like the pointy corner of a textbook digging in.
Back strain and other injuries can keep you from cycling for a long time, so it’s worthwhile to look into your options here. When it comes to weight distribution, a backpack distributes the weight evenly along your spine, the center line of your body. Meanwhile, a messenger bag pulls diagonally along the single strap, even when it’s slid to the back. This means that your body is constantly firing those balancing muscles on one side to compensate. It’s less of a concern during occasional short rides, but the risk of back injury increases over time and with a heavier load.
Nonetheless, a messenger bag may be more comfortable than a backpack that’s not meant for cycling use. The sternum straps and hip belts on those packs are designed for upright walking. When you’re bent over the handlebars, they can dig in painfully and cause muscle strain. Packs designed for cycling have different placement of straps that will work with cycling postures.
If you commute in warm weather or just tend to get sweaty, this can be a major concern. It’s not always possible to shower when you get to work. Changing into dry clothes won’t necessarily help with any smells or sticky, uncomfortable feelings.
The bad news: if you’re prone to sweating, you’ll get back sweat with both of these options. For the messenger bag, that will be in a stripe under the strap and at the small of your back. But more of your back will be exposed to air and you may feel drier and more comfortable overall.
Backpacks cover much of your back, and the design may reduce air flow over areas they don’t cover. You can get styles with a mesh layer that holds them away from the skin. This improves ventilation a little bit, but it may not be enough relief for you and your working environment.
Many messenger bags aren’t specifically designed for bike commutes. They may look stylish, but they offer little in the way of protection against passing rain showers, mud spray, etc. You could get a waterproof sack of some kind to put over the messenger bag, but then you’ll have the headache of dealing with the wet sack when you get to work or school.
A major advantage of backpacks is that they offer more protection against casual splashing. Rain protection varies wildly by the model. To keep your laptop and papers safe, consider a waterproof pack that is specifically designed for commuting. Adding another layer, such as a backpack cover, is also a good idea.
A messenger bag that swings to your front can distract you and create a dangerous situation. Certain models come with detachable extra straps for more security. Some people find these very helpful. Others think they’re awkward to use.
Remember that easy access is one of the big advantages of messenger bags, and any extra straps may take away that easy access.
Sounds like backpacks are the winner here, right? Not so fast. Some riders report that a heavily loaded backpack rides high and alters your center of balance. This is a particular risk for improperly fitted packs and packs that are designed for walking, not cycling.
Another major concern is restricted head movements. That one strap on a messenger bag is unlikely to get in the way. Riders can look around and over their shoulders with ease. General purpose backpacks, meanwhile, may rise high enough that they press on the back of the helmet. This restricts vision and could even compromise your helmet’s effectiveness. Cycling backpacks are specifically designed with a low profile and don’t do this.
Unless you work in an outdoorsy or active environment, messenger bags win on style points. It’s also noticeably easier to get things in and out of them, but you won’t be able to carry as much. Backpacks take the lead for the volume of what they can comfortably carry. They may also be safer, as the weight is centered and the bag is securely strapped to your body.
What about protecting your items from the weather, or rider comfort? This depends on the materials used and personal preference. You’ll also want to consider how long your daily commute is. You may be able to tolerate the messenger bag digging into your shoulder for a couple miles, but that could get obnoxiously distracting and cause significant shoulder pain during a long ride.
Finally, prioritize your health and safety. If your messenger bag keeps sliding around and throwing off your balance, ditch it. If that heavily loaded backpack is sitting too high and causing persistent back pain, you may want to look into a different solution, such as panniers, for a better biking experience.