Need a big book bag for a small person
November 6, 2010 8:07 AM   Subscribe

Best book bag for a small person carrying heavy stuff on a bike.

I'm a small female and like to ride my bike to nearby coffee shops to study. The bag I take to school (I drive there) is cute, but not really big enough or comfortable enough to carry heavy law books on a bike.
So, I'm looking for a bag that is under $100, big enough to carry a laptop, 1-2 casebooks (thick, hardcover textbooks), and smaller things like pens, charger, phone, wallet, etc., and comfortable enough for a 20-minute bike ride. It can't be too giant length-width, wise, because I'm a very petite person and something too long/tall will bump up on the seat too much. I prefer a cross-body bag rather than a backpack because backpacks are too hot in the warmer months. Bonus points if it's also cute or funky, though obviously that's not the priority.
posted by elpea to Clothing, Beauty, & Fashion (11 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
No panier bags?

I ride with a $30 black messenger bag from Mountain Equipment Co-op. Not terribly cute, just plain and black, but lasted for years and they still have the same model. But precisely because of the issue of it bumping against the seat, I've been looking for some kind of solution with the panier.

I also tried out a "field portage" messenger bag from Joe's Cheap Art Stuff, which was more adorable and had dozens of pen holders, but because of how the strap was attached, it couldn't handle the weight of large books and the straps started coming off after two months.
posted by RobotHero at 8:18 AM on November 6, 2010

Best answer: Links:
Lasted over 5 years:

Broken after 2 months:

You can't see it very well in the photo, but in the MEC one, the strap attachment is sewn into a seam, while the Creativo one was sewn into the middle of a panel of fabric. Which I think was the mistake.
posted by RobotHero at 8:27 AM on November 6, 2010

Best answer: Since you'll be using it for actual bicycling, there's really nothing better than a messenger bag from a company that specializes in them. Timbuk2 bags aren't as good as they used to be, but they're still pretty good, and widely available discounted and/or secondhand. Chrome and Baileyworks are two of the other usual suspects. Two smaller, younger companies are Seagull Bags and Freight Baggage. If cute and funky is a bigger priority than less-than-$100, check out R.E. Load.
posted by box at 9:47 AM on November 6, 2010

I agree with box's suggestion of using a durable messenger bag. However, even with a great messenger bag, you might find carrying heavy textbooks on your back uncomfortable.

You could try putting the textbooks in a simple Wald basket, such as model #139, and using a standard backpack for your more fragile laptop. Buy a couple of bungee cords or straps to keep everything secure. Basket & straps should cost ~$30. If planning on riding in the rain, invest in a small waterproof bag to cover them.
posted by stachemaster at 10:02 AM on November 6, 2010

Response by poster: Re: panniers-- I ride a small road bike and don't really want to put a rack on it. It doesn't have the threads for it anyway (I have a different bike from what I've posted about in recent history, for those who look at posting history ;-p ). I also prefer not to put a basket on. Thanks for all the suggestions so far.
posted by elpea at 10:09 AM on November 6, 2010

I know you prefer cross-body for the thermal comfort, but I just want to suggest a backpack for stability - like if a dog chases you or you have to dodge something, it would suck to have your load shift unexpectedly.

Anyway, I got a bag a lot like this Kelty trailpack, only wayyyy less ugly, at the REI Outlet online a few years ago when I was bicycling to school regularly, carrying an English-major load of laptop, a crap-pile of books and notebooks, food and heavy sweaters (for the 55-degree classrooms).

I still love this bag - it has waist- and sternum-straps so no matter how full you cram it, it sticks tight and keeps your load over your hips. It also has a covered zipper, in case you get caught in the rain, your laptop is less likely to get wet.
posted by toodleydoodley at 11:02 AM on November 6, 2010

Messenger bags have a single strap to make them easy to swing around and access the pocket without taking them off. They are great for going short distances and constantly putting things in and taking them out again. They are not so great for heavy loads like books and tend to be unstable, trying to slide off your back to one side or the other when heavily loaded. If you look, you'll notice most messenger bag companies also make 2-strap backpacks for commuters and those carrying heavier loads longer distances.

As far as how hot you get wearing the bag, I've found that to be more of a function of the overall fit and materials than the type of bag. Comfortable straps that spread the load evenly and let you adjust how high/low the weight sits make a big difference. The better models usually use some sort of sweat-wicking materials on the back and straps and some even have mesh pads on the back.

I'm a big fan of JANDD backpacks myself and currently use a Tozi Kletter as my main bike bag. I also have a 20-year old Mogen that's still going strong. The whole back of the Mogen is mesh over padding, so it breathes nicely on a hot day.

FWIW, I also have Ortlieb panniers for when I need to move more stuff, or just don't want anything on my back. I have a Timbuk2 messenger bag that I use as a dedicated laptop bag/briefcase when I'm on foot/train/car but hate riding with it, and I'll use a laptop sleeve in a pannier or backpack if I'm riding.

The only time I find a one-strap messenger bag superior is when doing food deliveries on skid row, where I am stopping every 5-10 feet and taking out food and water. This is a pain in the ass with a 2-strap backpack, so if I forget to bring panniers, I'll borrow a messenger bag.
posted by Anoplura at 11:11 AM on November 6, 2010 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Just to clarify, I have a really nice backpack that I used to wear on my bike, which I why I don't want another one. It's really hot here half of the eyar in Texas and my back gets way too sweaty. I am able to carry my books in the messenger bag I have, it's just not a comfortable as it could be, which is why I'm only looking for alternative messenger bags. Thanks for all the helpful suggestions, though.
posted by elpea at 11:18 AM on November 6, 2010

Best answer: Well, then for single strap bags, I suggest checking out Freight Baggage, PAC Designs, Bailey Works, and RELoad.

Chrome and Timbuk2 are also well regarded for good build quality, but notorious for uncomfortable straps.

I suggest trying the bags out at your local bike shop. The best way to check how it's going to sit on your back is to fill it up with something heavy like 4-5 u-locks. (Shop employees usually find this clever and amusing.) All the bags will feel pretty good empty, but you'll notice a pretty big difference once the weight settles.
posted by Anoplura at 11:36 AM on November 6, 2010

Best answer: Something to think about for maximizing comfort is your stance on the bike. I carry lots of really heavy things in my messenger bag (and I also love the less sweat situation over a backpack). I have a timbuk2 medium computer bag that I have used every single day for 5 years. Still love it.

The crucial thing for me about carrying heavy things is that I cannot be upright on the bike. The beauty of the messenger bag is that if you are bent over, there is almost no weight on the shoulder strap itself. It is all simply balancing on the small of your back and pelvis, and the shoulder strap (and stabilizer strap, can't forget that) is just there to stabilize the load.
If you look at pro messengers, if they use messenger bags, they are almost always riding in an aggressive position that maximizes this on-the-back weight distribution, among other things.

Anoplura's idea is solid. Even better- see how the weighted up bag feels on your bike, either by taking a spin around the block or riding your bike on the store's trainer.
posted by rockindata at 2:28 PM on November 6, 2010

Best answer: You might want ot take a look at some of the Crumpler bags. They are really well built -- the one I had looked as good as new 3 years later -- and pretty funky. One feature I really like is the buitl-in laptop sleeves some of them come with like this one.
posted by tallus at 4:22 PM on November 6, 2010

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