We’ve written a lot about backpacks on the Strategist. Whether you’re looking for the best travel backpacks, laptop backpacks, or even a backpack with wheels, we’ve got you covered. We’ve also rounded up the best good-looking backpacks for work. The difference between those bags and commuter bags is that, if you’re walking, biking, scootering, mopeding, or riding the subway, your backpack needs to be a little bit more functional than if you’re hopping in your car to go from your garage to a garage at the office. A good commuter backpack has to hold everything, while not being too heavy or uncomfortable on your shoulders. It has to be secure, and able to stand up to surprise rain showers, which not every backpack can do. To find the ones that will work, we spoke to commuters who take all different modes of transportation, from their own two feet to a Revel scooter, about the bags that help them get from point A to point B. Here are their recommendations.
Best commuter backpacks for $100 or less
Staci Jacobson, who bikes over five miles from Bellevue Hospital to her Astoria Boulevard home every day, does it with this laptop backpack. “It holds a decent amount,” she says. “I typically carry my meals for the day, a book, my helmet, a change of clothes, and sometimes shoes.” All of that can get heavy, but she says the padding on the back and straps helps. Her favorite thing about it is the shape. “It has a good structure to it,” Jacobsen says. “When it’s heavy I’ll fold it up and put it in the bike basket and it’s typically able to bounce back.” She says it’s not always waterproof, but for under $30 it’s still a pretty good deal. It also comes with a USB port, laptop sleeve, water bottle holder, and luggage strap so you can use it on multiple modes of transportation.
Timbuk2 is probably already a brand you associate with commuting. Founded by a bike messenger in 1989, the company started with their classic messenger bag (a version of which we’ve reviewed and loved). Thirty years later, they have a number of different options, including backpacks, which the cool people we spoke to say are great for all different types of commuting. Jimmy Standley, the president of Solé Bicycles, says his No. 1 recommendation is Timbuk2. It’s also a favorite of Veronica Hendrix, Revel’s senior manager of customer service, who specifically likes this roll-top version. “I ride a moped with it comfortably, as well as the subway,” she says. “When the train is crowded it’s just small enough for me to place it in my lap.” She says it was the perfect companion for an hour-and-15-minute moped ride from Harlem to Gowanus. “The backpack wasn’t heavy to the point that it weighed me down at all.” The weight, of course, largely depends on how much you put in it — and this thing can hold a lot. “There are literally a million large/small compartments to store any and everything you need from keys to computer and everything in between,” Hendrix says. “There’s also a hidden water bottle compartment in the back that fits my water bottle comfortably.” Even stuffed to the brim, it feels comfortable thanks to the cushiony straps, she says. She’s also a fan of the roll top and the reflective materials, which are essential for commuting at night. If you’re interested in other Timbuk2 styles, Jordan Sanchez, a barista at Blue Bottle Coffee in Tribeca who bikes to work, previously told us the Grid Pack is great for commuting, and we’ve heard the Tuck Pack is just as good a work bag as it it is a grocery bag.
Tiffani Gibson, the senior manager of corporate communications at Lime, is a fan of this Samsonite backpack, particularly because of the highly visible reflective stripe down the middle. It also has adjustable padded shoulder straps, a USB port so you can charge on the go, a padded tablet sleeve, a padded phone compartment, three credit-card slots, a water bottle holder, and a slip pocket.
Best commuter backpacks for $200 or less
If you are looking for something completely weatherproof, Gibson recommends Rains. She says it will work for commuters riding scooters, bikes, or mopeds. “When it comes to commuting on a micro mobility vehicle, it’s important to not only choose a backpack that is comfortable, but bright in color because of the visibility it provides,” she says. “It should also be weather-resistant and large enough to hold all of your essentials.” The Rains comes in more than ten colors, including this bright yellow that drivers won’t be able to miss, and it has adjustable straps so you can wear it the most comfortable way for you.
You can often find Pia Velasco, the senior beauty and fashion editor at Hello Giggles, biking around with this backpack in tow. “I CitiBike almost everywhere, so I put it in the basket and strap it in,” she says. “It fits perfectly. If I do use the subway, it’s an easy backpack to take off and put on.” She’s never had a problem riding with it from her apartment on 84th Street all the way down to the World Trade Center. Although it’s technically a diaper bag, all that really means is it has plenty of room and compartments for everything you need. “It holds SO much,” Velasco says. “This is what I love the most about it. It fits my laptop, two bottles of wine, all my chargers, makeup bag, a change of clothes, my wallet, and any other shenanigans I may have with me. It’s my Mary Poppins bag.”
Lauren Chan, the founder and CEO of plus-size womenswear brand Henning, says she’s been loving Dagne Dover these days, specifically this sling bag. The one-strap bag was designed with hiking and biking in mind, and Chan uses it every morning when she walks her dog Pepper to the park. “I love it because it’s extremely functional,” she says. “There are loops all over the outside to attach a carabiner with house keys to. I also attach a carabiner with poop bags so I can easily see if I have enough for the trip.” In addition to the loops, there are also mesh pockets which she keeps toys in, and on the inside, there’s room for water bottles, a collapsible dog bowl, some treats, and a towel. It’s likely too small for a laptop, but if you don’t have to lug one back and forth, this bag would be perfect for anyone biking or walking to work.
[Editor’s Note: This bag is currently out of stock, but there are more on the way. You can sign up to be notified when it’s available.]
If biking is your main mode of transportation, you might want to fully trick out your ride with a pannier, which biker Cole Schwartz prefers to an actual backpack. Commuting with a backpack, especially in the summer, started to suck so much,” he says. “They are hard on your shoulders and make your back super sweaty and gross.” Panniers on the other hand attach to the bike so you don’t have to worry about that. Each bag is 20L, which he says he never fills all the way. “For a beach trip I can put a couple towels, water bottles, snacks, sunscreen and still have plenty of room,” he adds. “Sometimes I’ll use only one bag if I’m just buying a couple bottles of wine or a few groceries.” While you will look like a food delivery driver (Schwartz’s roommate calls them his “DoorDash bags”) riding around with these bike bags, it beats showing up to your destination with a backpack-shaped sweat stain. The panniers come off if you need to carry your belongings around and can be carried by the attached shoulder strap. If you prefer the backpack feel though (for short, non sweat-inducing distances), for an extra $55, you can get this carrying system that will transform your pannier into a backpack.
If you don’t want to fuss with a two-part system, for less than the price of the panniers above, Schwartz recommends Ortlieb’s Vario, which is a backpack and bike bag all in one. It was designed with people who bike to work and school in mind. It holds a 15-inch laptop with room for other office essentials and brown bag lunch as well. Everything will stay protected thanks to the waterproof fabric. Off the bike, you can easily hook your helmet into integrated straps so you can always keep track of it and throw the whole thing on your back.
One of the charms of New York City is getting to catch a show on your commute thanks to all the artists that pop on and off the train to share their talents with us. While most of the backpacks on this list would likely work for someone going to an office, they might not be the best fit for when the train is your office. “This is a backpack I’ve used in the subway in the past when working with my subway pop-up concerts,” says Rick McGuire, who runs the Instagram account Subway Creatures. “It’s extremely useful for carrying my equipment, such as mic stands, mics, wiring, etc. It includes tons of padding and space for everything I need to haul. It’s pretty much function over style but also comfortable considering what it’s being used for.” It can also hold a laptop and water bottle, and it’s water resistant, which will come in handy next time the subway floods. Given how much it can hold, McGuire says it can get bulky and heavy, so “always remember subway etiquette, don’t wear ANY kind of backpack on your back during a crowded commute,” he says.
Best commuter backpacks for $300 or less
Cotopaxi Allpa Travel Pack, is more like a suitcase on your back. It can hold whatever you need for work and your plans afterwards, or throw in a few days worth of clothing and use as a carry on. “I like versatility – something that can go back and forth between the slopes and my desk,” says Brendan Wallace, the co-founder and managing partner of the venture capital firm Fifth Wall. He has this bag in the dark forest color. It has enough room for a weekend ski-trip, but it’s not so big that your day to day items will get lost in it. There’s a designated spot for your laptop, a top-zip pocket for quick-grab items, and even an exterior shortcut pocket so you can get to the main compartment without fully opening the bag. “I appreciate anything that keeps me organized when I’m on the road,” Wallace says. “The zippered pockets make it easy to separate my gym clothes from my iPad and other essentials, and its waterproof exterior ensures I’m not clocking time in the Apple store replacing my gadgets.”
Standley’s been using this Timbuk2 backpack for more than ten years and says, “It doesn’t look over a few years old.” He lives in California, and his commute is only two miles, so the bag hasn’t seen much wear and tear on the daily. But this backpack isn’t just for work: He travels with it, too, toting it along “to China and back.” It’s probably the least-tactical-looking of all the Timbuk2 bags, which is nice if you have to walk into a meeting with it. Even though it has the simplistic look of a Jansport, it has all the useful functions you expect from the brand. “My backpack can hold a laptop and a day’s worth of other essentials and still feel lightweight,” Standley says. “The leather trim and waxed canvas make it water-repellent and suitable for light rain. It’s just comfortable to ride with the way it sits on my back, and I know my valuables are secure with the different zippered pockets.”
In addition to bike panniers, Ortlieb makes travel bags, accessories, and regular backpacks. “The selling point here is that it’s waterproof,” says Gibson of this roll-top version. Except for the front pocket, everything is made from 100 percent waterproof fabric to keep all your belongings safe. It’s also stitched with reflective yarn to let other riders and drivers know you are up ahead. It has straps for carabiners on the outside and plenty of room inside. “It’s large enough where you can travel with all essentials and even some groceries if you need to swing by the store,” she says.