Are backpacks or messenger bags better for commuting on a bike and why?

Commuting by bike doesn’t just involve the actual riding. You need to think about transporting clothes, food, water, a laptop,  and anything else you need for the day. So, bike aside, you need to think about how you are going to carry all your gear. Some commuters opt for a basket or pannier rack, but, particularly if you want to use your bike for casual cycling or road biking, having to continually take racks on and off your bike can be a pain. Additionally, you might not want the added rack weight. In which case, it boils down to two options - a backpack or a messenger bag. 

We’ll explore the pros and cons of each below.

The backpack v messenger bag battle

Ease of Use: We’ll start with how easy they are to use. In general, there isn’t a lot to separate them here. If you want to regularly access your bag then a messenger bag is slightly easier, but do you really need to access your bag that frequently? Being able to access a messenger bag, without taking it off, is the main benefit here. However, even with a double strap, messenger bags can also swing from side to side, which can actually make them harder to use and access. This is emphasised if the bag is heavier. A backpack is a more sturdy option, with also the capability of ease of access pockets for a wider variety of items - mobile devices, laptops, keys, wallets, and so on.

Summary: A messenger bag is slightly easier to access on the go, but lacks the sturdiness and options you get with a backpack.

Practicality: If you commute regularly, you’re likely to come across adverse weather conditions at some point. A waterproof backpack for cycling is essential for these times. You don’t want to get to your destination with wet clothes or items. Backpacks, specifically designed for commuting, are the best option by far here. Messenger bags also offer good waterproofing but are far less practical in terms of design and build. They are more suited for fashion, rather than practicality. Additionally, of the two, backpacks are the more stable option due to the two straps, rather than one.

Summary: Backpacks are the more practical option to weather storms, mud and wear and tear. 

Storage capacity: If you need to carry lots of items, such as clothes and a laptop, a backpack is hard to beat. Messenger bags offer storage as well, but the heavier they are the more uncomfortable they are. Backpacks typically have more options and compartments to keep everything neat and organised. They can also carry more without becoming too uncomfortable through foamed padding with air vents

Summary: Both have good storage capacity, but backpacks have more compartments and organisers. 

Appearance: Messenger bags are the more fashionable of the two, especially if you prefer a cross strap to the standard backpack straps. That said, plenty of backpacks designed for cycling also look the part. 

Summary: Except for specialist bags for couriers, messenger bags are more of a fashion accessory than backpacks. 

Comfort: If you’ve used a messenger bag before, you’ll probably already be aware of the shoulder strain you can get, particularly if the bag is heavy and if cycling for a long period of time. Backpacks spread the weight more evenly and are, therefore, offer a much more comfortable riding experience. Back pain from messenger bags is quite a common issue from a cross strap. A messenger bag puts extra strain on one side of your neck and shoulders.

Summary: Load distribution is far superior from a backpack and one of the biggest differences between the two.  

Overall verdict

The overall benefits of the messenger bag are the ease of getting things from it without taking it off and the style. However, in terms of comfort, practicality and storage, it lacks what a backpack can offer. A messenger bag would not be suitable for any long trips or with a heavy bag packed and, let’s face it, how often do you need to take things out of your bag when you are cycling anyway.

A lot is based on personal preference but from a practical point of view, backpacks are much more suited to regular commuting and longer rides. So, unless you need to constantly access your bag as a professional courier or for fashion reasons, the pros of backpacks outweigh the messenger bag. 

Do you agree? Any points we haven’t made? Share your experience using either bags.