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Ok, I know form sometimes follows function - and things can be even more funnily irrational when fashion and trends come into play - but what's the lure of the cyclist's messenger bag? I see them everywhere, and can't help but imagine them to be a big pain in the lopsided way they hang on a single shoulder, not to mention the strap-over-the-head maneauver required to take one off, becoming even more awkward in tight quarters like say a small cafe. But there they are, ever popular.

People who enjoy using them tend to be quite passionate about them - and I doubt it's limited to just the style of the bag. Having little experience riding with backpacks or messenger bags, I ask, why do you choose to ride with one over the other?

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Related question: Pros and cons panniers and messenger bags. (This doesn't concern the backpack-vs-messenger bag issue, but some of the ground covered is related.) I'm interested to see answers to this. I use my messenger bag because it's a good fit for my netbook, but it's not all that comfortable for longer trips, where I'll use a backpack or panniers. –  Neil Fein Dec 29 '10 at 7:07
    
I'm a backpack guy. Easiest way to carry all the spare parts, tools, and regular shoes (if the tools and spare parts prove insufficient) when I'm out cycling. –  Brian Knoblauch Dec 29 '10 at 14:13
    
Are any of these answers useful enough for you to consider accepting one? If not, what else would you need in an answer? –  Neil Fein Feb 23 '11 at 21:56
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Im with Brain. I would rather carry a backpack. I hate when a messenger bag swings off the side because i needed to look behind me or something. –  Matt Adams Sep 18 '12 at 18:41

12 Answers 12

I spent the last two years as a backcountry ranger, in Northern California. There, I wore a backpack almost every day. Now I am a bicycle commuter in Sacramento and I choose panniers first, a messenger bag second, and the backpack a distant third.

There are three reasons why the backpack is my last choice in this list.

  1. Any bag I carry ends up being full. I don't know how that works, but my bag is always full of something. A full backpack rides higher on my back than a messenger bag. This raises my center of gravity and throws me off balance more easily.

  2. It doesn't matter how gently I ride or what the temperature is, by the time I get to work I am soaked with sweat. With a backpack, I sweat even more because there is less airflow between my back and the bag. The messenger bag, which rides lower, covers less of my back and I sweat a little less. Or maybe I just dry out quicker.

  3. Backpacks with hipbelts and sternum straps are designed to move weight off of one's shoulders and onto the hips and torso. This works great if you are in an upright, walking position. When I'm in the drops on my roadbike, a hipbelt is nothing more than a hinderance and a backpack-sternum-strap, though more useful, sometimes tends to choke me. Weight is again transferred to my shoulders and back, which causes me some degree of pain after a while. Messenger bags--at least those that are well designed--have a strap which rides diagonnally across the sternum and which functions better in the riding position to transfer weight to the torso.

Panniers are my first choice, though, because they better solve all of these problems. They are completely off of my back and pretty low on the bike. For longer rides and for my daily commute, I generally use panniers.

Not all of my bikes have a rack, though. I have ridden my bike from Sacramento-to-the Bay Area wearing a messenger bag. I wouldn't have tried it with a backpack.

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Thanks for the info, this is enlightening. A followup question - with panniers do you find it necessary to use a pair with the content's weight somewhat balanced between the sides? –  Sk606 Dec 29 '10 at 20:55
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I ride to work every day with one pannier. Doesn't seem to make a lot of difference. These are on the rear rack, by the way. I do notice more of a difference with only one pannier on a front rack. –  DC_CARR Dec 30 '10 at 17:32
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You should check out ventilated backpacks. I had exactly the same experience with sweat as you describe until I got a Deuter Futura with a mesh back and now I don't get any more sweaty on my back than anywhere else. –  Mac Jun 6 '12 at 1:24
    
+1 on #2. Sweat is a huge issue with backpacks. Before I switched to a messenger bag, after a five minute ride I'd be bone dry with a drenched back. –  Stephen Touset Jul 2 '12 at 14:46
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I'm surprised a rucksack throws your off balance more than a messenger bag, which will hang to one side. Personally I find messenger bags brutal on the shoulder, you just can't carry anything heavy comfortably. Panniers are the great, but I only own race/mountain bikes... so although I commute I can't fit one. –  Amicable Jul 5 '12 at 12:37

The primary reason why bike messengers use messenger bags is that you don't have to take them off to load or unload them. If you're continually picking things up and dropping things off all day, you don't want to be faffing about taking a backpack on and off all the time.

A secondary reason is that the flat rectangular shape of a messenger bag is more suited to the kind of things that messengers tend to be carrying (e.g. documents).

As to why the rest of us non-bike messenger types use them, there's no question that fashion is a large part. We all want to pretend we're one of those messenger free spirit types, rather than stuck in an office all day ;-)

But as well as being perceived as more cool, messenger bags are good for carrying laptops due to their flat rectangular shape. Backpacks that are designed for cycling don't tend to be as suitable for full size laptops - for example, my Deuter rucsac is fantastic for mountain biking, but my 13" laptop is quite a squeeze to fit in. (Of course there are cycling backpacks designed to take laptops, but they're not widely used from what I've seen).

Personally I'm lucky in that most days in the city I'm riding a Brompton folding bike, and I use a messenger bag that clips to the frame when I'm riding:

alt text

It's perfect for a laptop, and as well as getting the weight off my back it also carries it low on the bike at the front, which doesn't mess up the handling.

On those days when I don't have the Brompton, I'm doing a bike / train / bike journey and as the bike legs are short - and during the day I may well have to go to a client on public transport - I use a different messenger style bag. But I definately wouldn't want to use a messenger bag for a long journey, my preference would be to have the luggage on the bike, or to use a backpack.

(As an aside to the point about messenger style bags being easy to load and unload, interestingly a lot of photographers - who are also taking things in and out of the bag all day - are moving to sling bags, which can easily be swung around for access and don't have to be taken on and off for access. It's not something you think about until you're using a bag, but being able to access it without needing to take it off is important if you're in and out of it all day).

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+1 for the ability to swing a messenger bag around to the front without having to take it off. –  Mac Jun 6 '12 at 1:21

There are a few reasons I prefer a messenger bag or backpack over panniers.

  • A bag on your back is easy to carry around off your bike. If you're using a bike as your primary mode of transportation and making multiple stops, it can be inconvenient to secure your panniers without detaching them and carrying them. I can get off my bike and go to a concert or other social event while still wearing my messenger bag, it kind of sucks hauling around a pannier off the bike. (I've had pretty good luck with a convertible pannier / backpack though).
  • Security is easy with a messenger bag. It's always on you, so you don't have to worry about locking it up with your bike.
  • Accessability is easier. I can swing my bag around to the front and grab things out of it easily. I might need to get off my bike to access my panniers.
  • It's a platform for lights. I have a rear blinky and front flasher on my bag. When I switch bikes, I don't have to worry about switching my lights.
  • Panniers affect bike handling. I find that your bike itself can be a bit less responsive when it's loaded. It's harder to 'throw it around' and do quick acceleration when the bags are rack mounted. I find that even with a pretty full messenger bag, I can still mash the pedals, cut hard turns, make 'twitchy' moves & turns, it's easier to bunny hop, and I can skid stop on a fixed gear easier without things on my frame.
  • No pedal strike issues, pannier's dragging when cutting turns hard, or issues with knocking panniers in to bollards & posts on trails.

    There are definitely places where panniers excel over messenger bags. Especially if you're not dealing with a lot of urban riding, doing long tours, or carrying a lot of weight. Neither is better all the time, it all depends on your needs and riding style.

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    A lot of properly designed messenger bags don't have to sit lop-sided. They have a big shoulder pad and distribute the load pretty evenly over your back. At least the one's designed for actual messengers do, there are a lot of 'cheap' bags that are aimed more at the fashion of a messenger bag than the function. –  Benzo Jul 2 '12 at 14:33

    I actually always wear a backpack. I would like to get packs to put on the back of my bike. But I only have one bike and it's carbon so I will not add any pack frame to it.

    I did, however try my friend's messenger bag one time and it left a bruise the size of a softball on my back.

    I think messenger bags could be good if you have only a lunch a jacket and a notebook. But I have to carry a laptop and textbooks to school so my pack usually weighs about 25-30lbf, and I commute 25 miles a day. When I put all of my gear into the messenger bag the bag kept on slipping off my back the whole time. And, like I said, it left a nasty bruise.

    My back does get sweaty from backpacks, but I like them because you can secure them to you with the chest strap, and hip strap. (Sometimes when crouching over the hip strap doesn't do anything, but the chest strap is always nice to keep the pack stable.)

    So, bottom line, I prefer backpacks. But I can see, if you aren't carrying heavy items that a messenger bag may be preferable.

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    I'll add to the already, good reasons for using a messenger bag.

    • Backpacks, I've found, can sometimes stick up too high, making it difficult to raise your head; especially if you have an aggressive riding position (which most real messengers have)
    • Properly packed, a messenger bag can be every bit as comfortable as a backpack. The myth that the single strap causes back issues is false and I haven't found any research to prove otherwise.
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    I agree with most of the comments about messenger bags being better for riding. However... I find it very odd no one has mentioned yet that if you ride wearing a full face helmet (like a downhill or motorcycle helmet) it is always hitting the top of your backpack which it actually dangerous and motion/sight limiting. A messenger bag with the thick strap and stabilizer strap of some sort allows free motion of your head. Plus less sweat (sweat is bad on a bike stuck in traffic) and I in general carry about 30-35 pounds in mine without shoulder pain like I would get with a backpack.

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    Welcome to Bicycles Stack Exchange! Your original answer seems to be targeted at motorcycle riders, not bicyclists. I have edited the answer to clarify. If I have significantly modified your intent, you can re-edit the answer, but please keep things targeted to Bicycling. For an intro to how this and other Stack Exchange Q & A sites work, please Take the Tour. –  Gary.Ray Sep 18 at 13:18

    I just wanted to mention that using a messenger bag is great in terms of security as well. It keeps your belongings close to your body where they can be closely monitored. This is great for cities where crime might be an issue. Rucksacks and Panniers can leave you vulnerable to theft, with your things out of your sight. If you're in the UK, Chapman Bags makes very durable messenger bags: http://chapmanbags.com

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    I personally only use a backpack, but most of my riding is off road recreational, not commuting. I have never see a messenger bag or panniers when out on technical single tracks. Every MTBer I know or have seen either has a backpack or nothing. With a good backpack, when out on a ride, I don't even know its there most of the time, however I sometimes go to the corner shop for milk etc, and just grab the closest backpack - things like the kids school bags are horrible in comparison, I would never use one for a serious ride.

    Most of the disadvantages of backpacks mentioned here are dealt with buy purchasing a high quality cycle specific bag. This includes

    • Mesh ventilation for back to help stop sweating.
    • Hip straps rising higher at the front than a normal backpack
    • Top of pack profile allows full range of movement with helmet on and head up.
    • Bulk of volume low and close to back.

    The major disadvantage of a backpack over a messenger bag is the need to take it off to get into it.

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    When I did commute I would use a Kelty backpack. I was never concerned with the sweaty back thing because I was lucky enough to have showers and a locker at work. If I needed to stay clean the sweaty back would be a real concern of mine and then I would opt for panniers.

    The messenger bag thing is such a fad. Don't buy into it. It is not functional like a backpack or panniers. The people who use them want people to see them. It's a fashion statement on par with skinny jeans and thin mustaches.

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    I think its largely a style and personal preference thing, as well as carrying capacity these days. I find it a lot easier to find a reasonable sized messenger bag which can fit some books as well as my computer and a change of clothes than a decent sized backpack these days due to the monstrosity of those laptop compartments among other things.

    The riding style and conditions also come into play. Since a backpack has 2 (or possibly 3 straps if you have a chest strap), it doesn't move much when riding around (and I would be inclined to think that it balances the pressure on the straps better than a messenger bag - certainly, when I switched from backpack to messenger bag, I found it uncomfortable at first). A messenger bag can move to some degree (which is useful, if you're say a bike courier), but if you're riding on snow/ice (say, you're a winter commuter), a messenger bag can be a bit of a liability due to the mobility. There are "cross straps" that Timbuk2 sells for their bags which cinch the bag down to your body, which are useful for reducing this movement, but it is a bit more than a backpack even so. [The extreme version of this would be a messenger bag Camelbak, which probably wouldn't work for mountain biking well. ]

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    I personally prefer messenger bags. They are generally light weight, lie close to your body, and provide easy access to all materials. For example, Timbuk2's newer bags have a lightweight design, secure Velcro, and a Napoleon pocket for easy access to small envelopes and documents.

    The one strap messenger bags have been in use for decades. There are pictures of bike messengers from the 1940's using the one strapped messenger bags. The designs have changed for a greater social appeal, but the same sturdy, secure, and efficient principals still apply.

    Hope that helps!

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    I prefer messenger bags. I currently use the Mission Workshop Rummy. The strap is extremely comfortable (it must riding 30 miles per day) and I can fit more into this bag than most backpacks that are out there. I've had the same issue with a much sweatier back with a backpack than i have with my messenger. As for as it hanging to the side, a real messenger bag rides center of the back and a little lower than a backpack. My messenger is also water proof unlike many of the backpacks available.

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