Backpacks versus Messengers

Timbuk2 Classic Messenger Bag

My back and I recently got into a conversation about bags. During the two years that I lived in Chicago I would carry a messenger bag to work. I loaded it full of papers, pens, my sack lunch, mp3 player, the occasional laptop, a scarf during the winter, etc. I’m right-handed so I typically placed the bag’s strap across my right shoulder. It felt good and my bag had a pad for enhanced comfort. After walking the mile or so to the L Train, I would attempt to switch the bag to my other shoulder. It never felt very good so I would keep it on my right side. Two years of wearing a heavy messenger bag on my right side made my back ache. I used a backpack during my undergrad. However, a messenger bag seemed more professional. My thoughts were validated by the multitudes of messenger bag wearing Chicagoans. Plus, there seemed to be a culture amongst Student Affairs folks that students use backpacks and administrators used satchels or messenger bags.

Timbuk2 DataDump Backpack

When I came out to Oregon for graduate school, I decided that since I was going to be a student that a backpack was in order. After lugging around scores of textbooks, notepads, the occasional laptop, pens, pencils, water bottles, etc. my back and I were thankful that I had purchased a backpack. I even noticed that at least two senior administrators used backpacks!

I recently purchased a new laptop, and while my grad school bag was still in good shape, it didn’t have a padded laptop compartment nor was it large enough for the new lappie. The new bag is a Timbuk2 DataDump DayPack. The laptop compart is padded with corduroy and it is large enough for a 15 inch MacBook Pro. It is very comfortable. My back and I love the fact that the weight is balanced as well as the fact that the waste strap fits my frame.

I realize that a lot of folks would probably label a backpack as unprofessional. I don’t get it. Why is a messenger bag / satchel deemed more professional than a backpack? I love distributing my consulting gear across both shoulders versus victimizing one of my shoulders. Backpacks are the new messenger bag. Backpacks are professional.

12 thoughts on “Backpacks versus Messengers”

  1. I’ve often wondered myself. My guess is the messenger bag harkens back to the attache case, holding books and papers, and more professional/urban (you don’t carry stuff as far, can get to it easy while riding in cars, etc…) The backpack has a more “blue collar” flare to it. You pack it up and hoof it.

    I use whatever works…but for lots of stuff – backpack!


  2. As the not so proud owner of a black leather attache bag I am in total agreement! Unfortunately I just can’t seem to bring myself to wear a backpack with a suit and tie *fashion slave*.

  3. I really love how messenger bags look, but they started wreaking havoc on my back muscles, especially when they were heavy. I’ve been using a backpack for a few years now, but I still attribute some of my back problems to carrying around a heavy messenger bag for so long. If you wear the messenger bag properly, tight across your shoulders, when you’re on a bike the weight is pretty evenly distributed. Oh well. They can look down on me as much as they want, I

  4. Looks like my comment got cut off :p I was saying that I (heart) my EMS backpack but apparently your blog doesn’t like the “less than” symbol.

  5. I love my TImbuk2 backpack! It’s not as nifty and new as Eric’s (glad you do the shopping so I don’t have to). I’ve had it for about 4 years and it has been great. I think it likey depnds on the culture as to what is considered cool and in the urban vein, being able to catch a bus or a train is so very cool and a backpack stays on my back when I have to run! I also want to say I made the nut stew yesterday and it was delicious!

  6. John – Thanks for commenting.

    James – I think if Larry can do it, you can too :) I’ve run through the Seattle Airport wearing a suit with my backpack on. I think it’s a unique look.

    Ann – Yes, my blog apparently doesn’t like your comment shenanigans. EMS makes some good stuff. Do they have stores in Chicago or did you get it via the internets?

    Patricia – I’m so happy that you made the stew. That makes 2 readers who have made it this weekend! I remember running to catch the Blue Line with my messenger bag. A backpack would have made sprinting a lot easier :)

  7. For me, it is a question of overall presentation. I teach an undergraduate course of 80+ students as a not-terribly-old graduate student, and I go back and forth on whether to “dress up” (to be more “professional”) or to just dress as myself and take the chance that my students will perceive me as less “professional.” So far, I’ve concluded that my students would see through “dressing up,” so I just wear my regular clothes and carry my blue da kine backpack – and I don’t think they think anything of it. Other opinions? Other experiences?

  8. I tried using a messenger bag in college. Soon found out that it wasn’t healthy for my back because of two main reasons: 1. My back hurt, 2. I took human anatomy classes. Switched back to the backpack.

    Entering grad school in Massachusetts, my new best friends brought me to an EMS store. I found a backpack that I used faithfully everyday, even converting from school use to travel use when I flew home to California. I still have that bag and it is over ten years old. Are the stores still around?

    Used the same EMS backpack when I became a HS teacher. It probably didn’t look “professional” but I wanted to encourage my students to use a backpack and use both straps, darnit! And you are right, students are quick to see through any sort of “professional dress” especially when you look younger. I think you can still behave and appear professional through your actions, attitude, etc not just the clothes.

    Now I use a Da Kine backpack. EMS bag is now used for day trips.

  9. So this summer I purchased a backpack baby bag and had delayed that decision for the SAME reason I haven’t worn a backpack since grade school – worried about not being taken seriously. Hippie. Young. Dorky. MOM.

    But man, I LOVE my Land’s End babybag backpack. So many pockets and fits SOOOO nice on my back. I’ve been eyeing the new Vera Bradley bags because they have some really cute computer backpacks with great support for a regular go to work bag. (Before they had no real support for your back or your contents). I guess it seems allowable to have a VB bag to go to work with since it’s a “lady bag” and “mom approved” with the printed patterns.

    Funny topic – but so relevant!

  10. I used a messenger bag for the first year @bluefuego:twitter, got sick of my shoulders hurting + not being able to run through airports as easily. Switched to backpack and never looked back.  I use a Deuter Futura 22, versatile and good in all situations. 

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