I commute to work just carrying a light laptop and/or my tablet computer, my lunch, and a few papers.

I'd prefer to use panniers rather than a backpack or messenger bag, but once I get to work, I have to carry the bag around day and therein is the rub. Almost all commuting panniers that I've seen convert to a messenger bag using a single large shoulder strap. I don't like shoulder bags as they hurt my back.

I'd really like to see a commuting-size backpack/pannier but these seem to be almost non-existent. Is there a reason why they are so rare? Am I missing out what could be an enormous market -- the businessperson who bike commutes but still needs to carry their bag on their back once they get to their work campus?

  • Pre-emptive comment #1: The related backpack/pannier questions have to do with large backpacking (cross-country camping) backpacks and not small commuting backpacks/rucksacks/laptop bags. – RoboKaren Mar 7 '17 at 7:13
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    Pre-emptive comment #2: My spine is out of whack, which is half the reason I would prefer to use panniers and the other half of the reason why I don't like shoulder bags. – RoboKaren Mar 7 '17 at 7:14
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    Mine get filthy in the winter, easier to keep the filth off me as a shoulder bag that is flipped dirty side out when required. All backpack-panniers I have seen have the back facing the wheel which means a dirty back when worn 2) For your spine, distribute the load to two panniers and wear crossed to even out the load. 3) keep a backpack at work. I used to keep a clean computer bag in my office so I didn't carry around a dirt bag to meetings. – Rider_X Mar 7 '17 at 7:48
  • I think you've got the question right. I know you're not in the UK, so these brands might not mean much but I've just switched from a cheap backpack pannier (union34 brand) to a much more expensive (Altura). I'll try to answer with some of the pros and cons. – Chris H Mar 7 '17 at 8:54
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    @Rider_X I agree with the dirt issue. The cheap one I had (linked in my answer) had a zip-up cover for the backpack straps. That was just another thing slowing down converting it, which didn't bother me on the train, but did if I was rushing to get out the door. The new one -- apart from having the straps away from the wheel (use the rain cover or get a very wet back!) -- is also wipe-clean/water falls off. – Chris H Mar 7 '17 at 9:13

They exist, but they're hard to find in real life, probably because the market is small. All the ones I've looked into would take a large laptop, but I've only tested with little netbooks. There's at least one fairly recent review online.

I'm in a similar position: sometimes I need to walk or even run with my pannier (also I switch between bikes daily). I need to carry work clothes but not smart ones. I've had two backpack panniers both in the 20--30 litre class. That's enough for a change of clothes and a laptop, plus cycling essentials, and even a gym kit, but a (large) pair of shoes is a squeeze.

The cheap one (£20--40 £/$/€ on eBay/amazon) was quite big. It had some nice features, but converting between modes was slow and relied on removing a plate that held the rack hooks. This wasn't as secure as I would have liked -- it fell off a few times until I reinforced it; the rack hooks also needed replacing with stronger ones (Carradice) after the flimsy plastic failed. A year of daily use and the fabric is going on the corners.

union 34

The new one is made of much tougher fabric and is much easier to convert. The backpack straps are on the outside when riding, away from the wheel and therefore the worst of the dirty splashes. This also means no adaptor plate to lose. This came from a large (chain) bike shop, but they only had the one type in stock. This meant I could try it on (but not on the bike which was in the wrong city). You may need to decide whether you want a left or right model as some are tilted to avoid heel strike. I got this wrong but can get away with it on a big frame.

altuta morph

To return to the headline question: many people settle on a backpack (or even a shoulder bag) for this type of need, reducing the size of the market for convertibles (which also need more design and hardware so are more expensive). I could in the winter but the extra sweating rules it out even in mild summers we have here. You can of course stuff a backpack in a front basket, or strap it on to a special handlebar rack -- the latter would probably be better for a laptop.

I'm sure many people (like me) return to their desk at the beginning and end of the day and can dump the pannier there. I keep a different bag (conference freebie) for when I need to carry more than a handful of stuff around the site. While this may not suit you, it further reduces the market. In fact my laptop shoulder bag pannier has an insert sleeve that did this job very nicely when I rode door-to-door rather than the convoluted commute I have now.

Something to look out for when choosing from the few options that do exist, is how well do they carry a helmet (assuming you don't want it clipped on with its own strap and swinging around). My old one can fit a helmet in the outer pocket only if the whole bag isn't too full; on my new one you can tuck the helmet in to the pocket formed by the cover for the rack attachment points however full the bag is.

  • Edited to include photos. – RoboKaren Jul 19 '17 at 20:32

The main reason is that the backpack straps and the pannier hardware are in the same place, meaning that the straps get in the way of fixing the pannier to the bike, and then you need to have a panel to cover the pannier hardware and dirt from riding.

I found this recent review of the various backpack pannier options pretty helpful.

  • Plus I'm guessing the pannier hardware would not feel great pressed up against your back. – Stephen Touset Mar 13 '17 at 9:36
  • Timbuk2 made a model with backpack straps on one side and pannier hardware on the other— which was a great commuter bag, but unfortunately the pannier hardware was crap, and repeatedly failed in daily use. (They were good enough to take the bag back after a year of repeated failures, which says great things about their customer service.) – Alan Gerber Mar 13 '17 at 15:58

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