Help me find a backpack that isn't a backpack!
March 9, 2014 7:33 PM   Subscribe

I've been using this backpack for everything in my life since 2002. The backpack is finally falling apart, and honestly I'm getting too old to travel with a backpack, but I've never found a better way to carry my (large amounts of) stuff. Help a lady out!

I have considered just buying another backpack, but I think this is a good opportunity for me to embrace adulthood. I'm pushing thirty and I feel sort of goofy traveling with a backpack. There must be a good (and more professional) alternative - adults travel all the time!

Here's what I'm looking for:

- I travel a lot, so it needs to be something that allows me to comfortably run through the airport, walk for hours, hike, carry on my lap during a 10-hour bus ride, etc. I am not interested in a rolling bag. Messenger and duffle bags have caused problems for me in the past (that weight distribution thing) but maybe I've just been using the wrong ones. The backpack distributes weight so well that I hardly notice it on my back, even when it's carrying a laptop, hardcover books, and all of my clothes.

- Something that looks reasonably professional - a few steps up from my current dirty backpacker vibe would be great. Inconspicuous colors (i.e. no Vera Bradley).

- A similar amount of space/compartments to my current backpack. My backpack holds EVERYTHING. I once lived out of this backpack for five weeks. I don't ever need to bring a second bag on any trip of any length, because this backpack is such a beast. Plus it has a lot of pockets (2 big, 1 medium, and like 4 small), so it's easy to keep stuff sorted.

- Rugged enough to survive getting thrown around and over-filled. I realize it's probably too much to ask that it last me for the next 12 years, but it would be nice.

- Not leather.

Any suggestions - for types of bags, or brands, or specific bags - would be hugely appreciated. Thanks in advance!
posted by goodbyewaffles to Shopping (18 answers total) 48 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: Let me introduce you to the Aeronaut. Carries like a suitcase, converts into a backpack, or you can add an optional shoulder strap. Holds a ton of stuff, and fits into an overhead bin. I've had one for four or five years and use it every other month or so, and it looks brand new. I really can't recommend it highly enough.
posted by donajo at 7:42 PM on March 9, 2014 [5 favorites]

Well I can't speak to the too old to carry a backpack since I'm in my 50s and still do so unless I'm needing to look more professional and then carry a roller bag. For hiking, shorter trips, rougher trips and the like a pack still wins in my book. I like my North Face Recon - it holds a ton, has a laptop sleeve that doubles as a hydration system pocket and is very durable. Comes in a lot of colors. I think you have to trade - either it's a pack and super easy to carry or it's a roller bag or shoulder bag and looks more professional but is more of a pain to schlep.
posted by leslies at 7:43 PM on March 9, 2014 [1 favorite]

Best answer: I just bought a Patagonia MLC and took it on it's maiden trip this weekend. It's amazing. I also have a patagonia messenger bag I've been using almost daily for nearly a decade and it's in great shape, so I'm sure this bag will be worth every penny.
posted by lilnublet at 7:52 PM on March 9, 2014 [1 favorite]

Screw professional. Buy a Freitag.
posted by R. Schlock at 8:07 PM on March 9, 2014 [2 favorites]

Have you thought of getting two bags? I mean, I carry a mid-sized "grown up" messenger bag (this one, although I got mine used on eBay) and while I have certainly gone on long walks carrying it, I would not care to hike with it. I also don't think I could live out of it for an extended period. I think that the reason messenger bags may be giving you backaches is that they really aren't designed for heavy loads - even the serious bike messenger ones are designed more for bulk than weight, and they're not the best for travel. (My previous bag was a really nice ReLoad messenger bag in red and grey.)

Why not get one bag for daily use and one for travel? In fact, if you do this you can even fold up the daily use one inside the travel one and use it at your destination as a day bag. Get a backpack for travel (unless you're a suit, it won't matter if you're traveling with a backpack) and a messenger bag for daily. Or get a bigger backpack for travel and one of the more sub fusc "grown up" backpacks that are available this season, like this one from Everlane.
posted by Frowner at 8:19 PM on March 9, 2014 [3 favorites]

I totally feel you. I've long felt like I look a bit of a doofus wearing a backpack, but over the years I've migrated from a briefcase/laptop bag, to a messenger bag, and now, finally, to a backpack. The thing is, if you've got more than just a little bit of stuff to carry and you want to keep both hands free, a backpack is really the only way to do it that's not going to eventually leave you in pain. There are only so many ways to load cargo onto a human body, and for moderate-to-heavy loads a backpack is by far the most comfortable – which, if you're doing it every day, eventually equates to "least damaging".

My solution was to go with a backpack that at least didn't make me look like a high school student. I am in fact a graduate student so I didn't need to worry too much about looking business-professional, but I did want to at least look like an adult. I eventually settled on one of these but more businesslike options were also available.

In particular, I found I tended to like backpacks from brands that are better-known for making quality messenger bags. I'm talking specifically about Timbuk2, Chrome, and Crumpler. All three brands make a quality product, and their stuff is more fashionable than the norm. Quite a few of the options (particularly Chrome's, in my opinion) look reasonably professional, especially in darker or more muted colors. Perhaps one of them would suit your tastes?

To be perfectly honest though, my favorite backpack to actually wear is my Osprey Daylite. It was much less expensive than my Timbuk2, and while it makes you look a bit like you're preparing to summit a fourteener, it is incredibly comfortable, light as a feather, and will fit a 15" Thinkpad despite being apparently quite small. It's a lovely little thing.
posted by Scientist at 8:20 PM on March 9, 2014 [2 favorites]

That's a very student-y looking backpack; I think you can probably find some options that are a little more grown-up looking. (And from your travel requirements, I can't imagine any bag will be nearly as comfortable and convenient as a backpack.)

Travel & technology backpack
Laptop backpack
Little more outdoorsy
Just from a quick survey of ebags

I see a small but growing number of attorneys going into court with backpacks instead of briefcases ... black, laptop backpacks, which they often carry by the top loop in the courthouse but put on their backs out of it. It doesn't look as out-of-place in a professional setting as it used to, as long as it's a black backpack that looks like it can carry a laptop.

But yes, you may be happier with a "city bag" and a "travel bag" separate, depending on what stuff you're carrying around!
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 8:27 PM on March 9, 2014 [1 favorite]

I think the thing about backpacks looking non-grown-up is because they are ideal for certain purposes (hiking, travelling) and not others (work, shopping). So using one as your primary bag all the time says that you "aren't grown up enough to be able to afford or think about different bags for different purposes". (Personally I think minimalism is its own reward and there is nothing wrong with only owning one bag, but YMMV).

So yeah, I don't think there is one bag that can replace everything a backpack can do. I personally have transitioned in recent years to a large tote bag for work (can fit lunch, gym gear, student essays, laptop, but is not comfortable to carry for longer than 15 minutes or so at a time, which is not an issue at work), a briefcase for interviews/conferences, and a backpack for travelling or hiking. I use the tote or the backpack for shopping depending on whether I am just wandering through a farmer's market or spending a full day at the mall.
posted by lollusc at 8:31 PM on March 9, 2014 [1 favorite]

I have the older Patagonia MLC and it's lasted for 18 years, been to Europe, Australia & Africa. I've gone up to 3 months with only that one bag. It's smaller than the new one, but still too big for an every day bag. For day to day I just use a tote bag, like the ones you get from a book shop. When I travel I can just throw the tote bag into my MLC. If my MLC ever gives out, I'm going to get this Head Porter Overnighter.

I guess I'm confused by some of these responses... is it just for travel, or travel and every other day, too?

If it's just for travel, you might want to search for "weekender bag."
posted by BabeTheBlueOX at 8:38 PM on March 9, 2014

Best answer: My wife has the Tom Bihn Smart Alec, which is almost exactly the same size as your previous pack. It's very minimalist and doesn't scream "minor niner". It works great as her everyday "briefcase". Like all the Tom Bihn stuff we own, it's been bomb proof. This is still a backpack though.

A more luggagy travel-oriented bag is the Red Oxx Sky Train. Soft luggage, carry on maximum, with straps for back carry, very well configured for light packers. I've used the similar Air Boss now for more than 15 years and it's still going strong. Highly recommended.
posted by bonehead at 9:01 PM on March 9, 2014 [1 favorite]

What about going in the direction of versatility? I have a previous version of the Betabrand Cornucopia Bag, which I use practically all the time for everything.

It's just so versatile. It opens wide at the top, so you can stuff a ton of shopping in, if you do your shopping on a bike or walk at a farmer's market. It has plenty of room that can be structured to create more or less defined spaces, there's a laptop compartment, a loose change/key, several sections with zippers. It can be carried in a variety of ways - backpack straps as well as a shoulder strap and hand loop and it's just endless - open it up and a cornucopia of stuff fits in.

Does it look professional? It doesn't look easily classifiable like a backpack, so it can pass as a practical item in almost any setting. It's so useful, I go everywhere with it - and receive spontaneous compliments on this bag almost every day, whether at Trader Joe's or a farmer's market, or wherever.

It's really well made and sturdy - I've had mine for a couple of years of heavy use and it still looks brand new - and it doesn't break the bank at $80 - and again, it can carry a TON of stuff... the only limitation is how heavy a load you can physically carry.
posted by VikingSword at 9:33 PM on March 9, 2014

I'm seeing a lot of the Herschel Packs around at the moment. Some are studenty, others are downright classy. Backpacks really are basically the best way to carry laptops if you have to walk, bike or be on transit, so there are more grown up styles around that fit with dressier clothes.
posted by Jon Mitchell at 11:12 PM on March 9, 2014

Another vote for Tom Bihn bags! Exactly what you describe you're looking for. Particularly the Aeronaut or Western Flyer. I originally found out about them through Ask too, and they are amazing. (Not that it matters, but also the only bag I've ever received complements on/asked what make it is from complete strangers while traveling).
posted by atlantica at 5:57 AM on March 10, 2014 [1 favorite]

I'm 40 and I still carry a backpack. I have a Tom Bihn Synapse and I love it. They now make a bigger size that might be better for you.
posted by Mavri at 6:14 AM on March 10, 2014

Honestly I carry a rediculously blindingly blue backpack into a very professional work environment. It helps that it has a very minimalist exterior, and looks like serious (outdoors techincal) business. (and actually I do use it for intended purpose of backcountry skiing, but it's lines are clean enough with no extra dangly straps and I use it as a gym bag as well as to ferry papers between offices).

If you like the look of leather, one of my colleagues carries a bag like this satchel. Also there are camera bags that convert (actually camera bag is a good search term to use, since they have tons of pocketses for everything)

This is on the cheaper and girlier end of handbags that convert to backpacks. (a friend of mine uses something more like this when she bikes to work)
posted by larthegreat at 7:29 AM on March 10, 2014

For traveling, check out TADgear's FAST Pack Litespeed or FAST Pack EDC. I find my SSCY Tack bag a little more versatile in both form and function, though YMMV.
posted by evoque at 7:30 AM on March 10, 2014

Slimline black backpacks look plenty grown-up these days. Grown-ups have to recognize that they need to distribute weight that they're carrying, or their backs/shoulders are going to suffer for it. Next time you're in an airport security line, look around to what the other travelers are carrying. You'll see a lot of backpacks, even on the business travelers.
It was in one of those airport security lines a couple of years ago that I finally made up my mind to ditch my old Jansport, which was bulky and looked very student-y. I bought a slimline black Timbuk2 that is amazing. It is comfortable and can hold a significant amount, but it doesn't double my depth like my old Jansport.
posted by aabbbiee at 8:11 AM on March 10, 2014

Response by poster: THANK YOU. This was awesome. Those suitcase/backpack/duffle hybrids are perfect - I'm either going to go with the Patagonia MLC or the Tom Bihn Tri-Star, which appears to have exactly the capacity of my beloved backpack. Obviously they are both pretty expensive, but it sounds like they will hold up forever, which is worth the investment. Hopefully I won't have to ask a luggage question for a long time!
posted by goodbyewaffles at 3:03 PM on March 10, 2014 [1 favorite]

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