the eternal backpack quest...
July 24, 2011 4:21 PM   Subscribe

Absurdly picky backpack question! Difficulty points: small-framed female, only wants to look like she's going into the woods when she's actually going into the woods...

My back has decided that I need to not be carrying my giant messenger bag any more. Actually it's not giant, just giant for me - (5'7", fairly narrow build). To give you an idea, that bag is about 17x12 and 7 inches deep, and I look like I'm heading off for a weeklong trip. My 6'2" boyfriend carries the identical bag and looks totally normal. As I've started looking around for backpags, this seems to be universally the case - check out him versus her.

So constraint 1 of my hunt is size - I am looking for a small pack that doesn't dwarf me, and can still carry the following:

- A laptop, roughly 13 x 9. Ideally, the "backprint" of the bag should not be too much larger than this, with the laptop carried vertically. I don't care if it's officially a "laptop bag", and would definitely choose something smaller that I can put a laptop + sleeve inside over one that's several inches larger to accomodate a sleeve.
- Sometimes a cord for said laptop
- A paper notebook and a few folders - no more than 1-in thick total
- At least one novel, invariably
- Wallet, phone, ipod, keys
- Space for a water bottle or umbrella would be nice

(Side note, as far as I can tell, you can't search by bag dimensions on Zappos-am I wrong about this?)

Constraint 2 is not looking like a total goof! I'm a grad student, so I can wear whatever the hell I want, and whatever the hell I want mostly winds up being not at all businessy, but more dressy than a lot of the people around me. In the summer, I frequently wear casual dresses or a skirt & top, and in the winter it's more of the same, with more layers and a long wool coat. These fashion bloggers are a pretty good indication of the type of thing I wear when I'm not having a jeans day.

My ideal bag would not have too many toggles, straps, and exterior pockets (just one external pocket with organizers inside is ideal) and not look like either a camping backpack or an all-black nylon sack. I'm agnostic to material, though leather isn't my first choice, and neutral and muted colors preferred - when I was looking for messenger bags I ended up liking the more classical mens' styles much better, but see constraint 1! I like the "satchel" style bags that have been popping up lately, but would like something sturdy that's not going to look trendy or dated in a year...

Am I missing wonderful sites out there for women's backpacks? Bonus points for liberal shipping/return policies, or physical stores in the Boston area
posted by heyforfour to Shopping (29 answers total) 12 users marked this as a favorite
Have you considered a large tote? (I'm not trying to derail, that's just my solution to dressing up and carrying a bunch of stuff. Specifically, I have one of the large bags here. I managed to get it on sale at Magpie in Davis.)
posted by maryr at 4:37 PM on July 24, 2011

Best answer: I think the biggest problem with the bags you mentioned (and that you may have been looking for) is that they are fairly boxy. Men don't look like total goofs in boxy bags because they have the shoulders to make it work. We have small lady shoulders and subsequently need a bag with less heft at the top. My backpack of choice is from The North Face, but it's not made anymore. Specifically, the TOP of the bag is very thin and toward the bottom the bag expands to hold more stuff. This one is pretty similar in size and shape (smaller, actually), but will still fit your laptop, water bottle and umbrella in those two zip pockets, and likely whatever else you need. Whatever you do, make sure you are looking for lightweight women's back packs. Here are two more that are big enough for all your stuff and small enough for you!
posted by two lights above the sea at 4:43 PM on July 24, 2011

I have a similar problem finding packs for a shorter frame while balancing how much stuff I need to haul around.
My current favourite is a bag I picked up from the Oakley store (Google says there is a store in Boston). Check out this site for styles and colours. I have the 2009 version of this one and it's holding up well. My sister just borrowed it for the summer, she and I are both in the 5"4" range. I am in a nursing program and must wear business attire when not in medical scrubs. I typically wear dark dress pants and button down dress shirts with a jacket and my backpack goes well with everything (but also works great for a hike/run to the gym). I carry a laptop, notebook/binder, power cord, and assorted odd/ends plus food and a slim water bottle.
Happy shopping and good luck:)
posted by blubutterfly at 4:44 PM on July 24, 2011

Also, you should take advantage of the product videos that Zappos provides. They will give you a good idea of what they look like on.
posted by two lights above the sea at 4:45 PM on July 24, 2011 [1 favorite]

I generally like Camelbak's products. I've owned several and always found them to be lightweight and well made. AFAIK, they don't make any laptop bags per se, but this looks like it would fit one, and shouldn't be gargantuan on your back. Has a water-bottle pocket in addition to the pocket for the hydration bladder, not a lot of external gewgaws.

Chrome makes a number of laptop bags. They've got more of a hipster vibe going on, fwiw.
posted by adamrice at 5:00 PM on July 24, 2011

Maybe this one? This is the one I'm saving up for!

They have inserts you can buy for a computer, along with a great search guide to make sure that your computer will fit in there.

I've had other bags from TB, and I absolutely adore them. Super sturdy and they're made in the USA...bonus!
posted by Zoyashka at 5:02 PM on July 24, 2011

I have a black Patagonia backpack and it is as professional as a backpack gets. Looks like they have a new bag designed for a woman's torso that looks pretty great.
posted by k8t at 5:13 PM on July 24, 2011 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Just so you're aware, a standard adult backpack is around 19" minimum. A kid's backpack is a standard 16" (after graduation from 12".) If you want the smallest backpack for your laptop, I'd wander down to Target or Walmart or whatever and pick up a kid's pack to see if shopping online in that line will work for you. This adult size laptop backpack is as small as I've seen grownup ones (and I do like it.)
posted by DarlingBri at 5:37 PM on July 24, 2011

Have you checked out Haiku bags? I have a small messenger from them that I love the design of (though not that it's a bit too small to stick a lunch in). They've got a ladies' backpack that looks reasonably dainty in the photo, at least. It's 11x17x7, but cut fairly sleek. I think a laptop bag is going to be limited by the fact that they'll be designed to fit a reasonably large laptop, KWIM?
posted by instamatic at 5:55 PM on July 24, 2011

Or, if you just want a smaller messenger, they've got that, too. That one looks like the same design I got a few years ago; it fit my netbook beautifully, but not really my fifteen inch clunker.

Hm, it's 10x12x3.5, so it might be a tiny bit tight for you, too. But they've got one that's 15x12x5, maybe that would work?
posted by instamatic at 6:01 PM on July 24, 2011

Re-reading your question I'm not sure if you want a backpack, a messenger back, or a satchel. But in terms of backpacks, I have a Dakine pack that I really love. It's just the right size to carry my stuff on my walking commute to work, and it's very sleek and well-made. It's worlds nicer than whatever Jansport book bag I was using before.

The Crystal is 18 x 12.5 x 6 and the Academy is 16.5 x 10.5 x 7. I think mine is an older version of the Academy.
posted by Squeak Attack at 7:39 PM on July 24, 2011

I recommend Seatbelt bags -- I have a purse, that five years later still looks fabulous. A tote seems like it would carry everything you need, while also looking good with dressy clothes. (They do list the dimensions of each bag, so you can check it.)
posted by Margalo Epps at 7:49 PM on July 24, 2011

I have this bag.

Like you, I'm not a fan of boxy bags, and I prefer a low profile. When I leave class wearing this backpack, people often ask, "where's your bag?" because they don't notice it on my back, and from the front, it kinda looks like a vest. (Mine doesn't have the chest straps and the loops pictured in the link.) And it can definitely carry all the things you mentioned without bulging.
posted by TG_Plackenfatz at 8:15 PM on July 24, 2011

I have this Belkin bag and rather like it. It's a smallish form factor and I like the minimalist look. It is a bit square and not specifically a women's bag, however.
posted by axiom at 8:36 PM on July 24, 2011

Response by poster: Just to clarify, I am looking for backpack recommendations specifically, sorry about that! I've been having back/neck pain issues, and need a bag that evenly distributes weight and stays on my back...

I really like the Haiku style, by the way, though their backpack probably is on the larger size of what I'd consider, and the Dakine line of bags I'll definitely be exploring. Keep the suggestions coming if you have them, and thanks to everyone!
posted by heyforfour at 8:41 PM on July 24, 2011

I have the small version of the Chrome Backbone Messenger Pack and love it. Durable as hell, like all Chrome bags (will survive a downpour, a baseball bat, and being dragged down the street on a rope behind a motor vehicle; will not survive a sledgehammer or katana).

Unfortunately, it doesn't seem to be available online (I got it at the SF store). Bother.
posted by Lexica at 8:50 PM on July 24, 2011

Just to clarify, despite "messenger" in the name, it's a 2-strap backpack and distributes the weight extremely comfortably and stably. I can carry much more weight in this than in any previous pack, far more easily.
posted by Lexica at 8:52 PM on July 24, 2011

If you're still having back trouble with the stylish backpack, switch to one with a large and padded hipbelt, or even an oversized fanny pack type from mountain hardware.
posted by sebastienbailard at 9:43 PM on July 24, 2011

BAGGU makes a stylish canvas backpack, though the straps may not be as supportive as you want.
There's also this one by Roxy.
posted by JuliaIglesias at 9:44 PM on July 24, 2011

Think seriously about waist straps and a sternum strap, if possible. They will really help out your shoulders and back.
posted by leahwrenn at 11:00 PM on July 24, 2011

Some of the crumpler backpacks sound up your alley - not cheap though.
posted by superfish at 2:26 AM on July 25, 2011

Take a look at Tom Bihn's backpacks. Not cheap, but made with care in the USA. The Synapse is narrow near the top.
posted by brianogilvie at 4:28 AM on July 25, 2011

I think you need a Kanken! The classic Scandi backpack developed to relieve back pain in Swedish school children, and now loved by hipsters, cyclists, and people all over the world who don't want a super tech-y sports backpack.

They do 15 and 17 inch laptop versions. You can buy them from this site, which is based in the UK, but will give a 20% discount to anyone based outside the EU (cos you don't need to pay the VAT that we do). However you would probably be able to fit your laptop + sleeve in one of the normal Kankens and wouldn't necessarily need a laptop version. The classic version is about 15 x 10 inches.

They are kind of pricey for a simple, plain backpack, but on the other hand, it's hard to find anything like them. They even come with a seat pad! I love mine and use it daily for cycling around town. They look very low-key and would blend in well with the outfits you've linked to, IMO.
posted by Encipher at 4:46 AM on July 25, 2011 [1 favorite]

Encipher: I think you need a Kanken! The classic Scandi backpack developed to relieve back pain in Swedish school children,

I would just point out that if you're betting on style, the Kanken is where I'd put my money. The messenger-style bag craze that ended up killing all of our communal backs started with the classic Danish school bag, which became the must-have goods toter for middle and highschool kids in the late 1980s through the mid-90s. They looked like this, but came in red, green, blue and black, and kicked off the trend that emerged for messenger bags. The desirable, authentic and ridiculously expensive ones had a white cross on them.

If the Danes now say "Kanken!" then based on previous success with trend styling, I'd say Kanken!" too.
posted by DarlingBri at 9:53 AM on July 25, 2011

Timbuk2 Swig?
posted by gingerbeer at 12:07 PM on July 25, 2011

I was going to recommend the Timbuk2 Candy Bar, which might actually be a little too small? Timbuk2 bags have a certain style to them that may or may not appeal, but they're one of the few things to which I have brand loyalty, as they are almost indestructible. You can also customize colors and whatnot on their website.
posted by lillygog at 6:56 AM on July 26, 2011

Oh, bummer, looks like you can only customize the Swig, but they at least give you pictures of what the bag looks like on a human.
posted by lillygog at 6:59 AM on July 26, 2011

Response by poster: Hi everyone! Just to update, I wound up with a Dakine Garden (which, at 20L, is right in between the Crystal and Academy bags that Squeak Attack linked to). It carries everything I listed above very comfortably, and in a pinch I'll be able to fit a good deal more (lunch and a change of clothes, perhaps), as long as I don't want to access anything quickly - the main compartment is pretty narrow and deep. For my usual daily commute this is just what I was looking for!
posted by heyforfour at 9:47 AM on August 8, 2011

Response by poster: Oh, and on a style note, after some poking around on the Dakine website I determined that a lot of the bags in the women's and men's sections were simply renamed clones ("Garden!" "Factor!") of each other in a different selection of colors/fabrics...
posted by heyforfour at 9:49 AM on August 8, 2011

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