Going back to school. Need carrying device.
August 14, 2019 10:39 AM   Subscribe

So I'm starting grad school in a couple weeks and I'd like some recommendations on a suitable method of carrying things. I could always pick up a $30 generic backpack, but maybe there are better options.


-I'll have a 25-minute bike commute in a humid climate (New Orleans) so I think a giant messenger bag is probably overkill. Ideally, I'd like a medium-sized messenger bag that can fit a few textbooks as well as odds-and-ends (phone, wallet, tablet, etc.), and which I could also use for going to the grocery store and such without looking like a highschooler.

-I am moderately mean to bags. I don't try to be, but cheaply-made stuff tends to disintegrate after a sadly short length of time in my possession. So I'd like something that's reasonably humanproof.

-Water-resistant is pretty important because rain happens a lot here. I will not be wearing a fucking poncho.

-Ethically-sourced and -produced things to the front of the line, please.

Price range: <$100, ideally. I can go higher if there's a more glorious option above that.

Thanks y'all!
posted by tivalasvegas to Clothing, Beauty, & Fashion (17 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
I have/had a Timbuk2 messenger bag that was great and fits all/most of your criteria, ethically sourced is hard to pin down outside of Patagonia or other big name/Bcorp type vendors. The only downside I had was that after a few years of disuse (after college/bike commuting) I pulled it out of the closet and the the inner lining (PVC-ish material I think) had begun cracking and disintegrating in a most unpleasant fashion. Warranty attempts (because they carry a nice warranty I think) were unsuccessful and that was pretty disappointing. Total lifetime was over 5 years of decently rough usage so I wasn't angry, just sad.

I wouldn't do this on a bike but older generations of Saddelback classic briefcases/bags are amazing and get compliments from pretty much everyone from normal folks to the head of my company's legal team who said he liked his as well but mine (older generation, bought used) looked nicer somehow. The leather now isn't as nice and it's still way over your budget and not going to be *great* in the rain/harsh elements.
posted by RolandOfEld at 11:08 AM on August 14, 2019 [1 favorite]

Even for only 25 minutes I am a huge fan of getting things off my back when riding ESPECIALLY in the heat/humidity. Get a rear or front rack. You can either get specialized bags (I have and like this Timbuk2; got it on sale for 50% off in an unpopular color) or you can strap down a backpack or briefcase. "Humanproof" suggests Chrome or Timbuk2 (as casual options), and there's usually at least a few models on sale from both.
posted by supercres at 11:08 AM on August 14, 2019 [5 favorites]

Oh yea, I missed that. Weatherproof panniers + a less robust/specific bag is a better option. Agreed.
posted by RolandOfEld at 11:10 AM on August 14, 2019 [3 favorites]

Messenger bags suck for riding bikes; backpacks are better but still suck. As supercres says, you'll be a lot happier carrying your stuff on a rack.

Tough Traveler is where I get indestructible stuff, but is probably not the look you're going for.
posted by metasarah at 11:23 AM on August 14, 2019

Like RolandOfEld I also came here to recommend Timbuk2 bags. They're pricey but of very high quality. Super durable, super practical, and you can customize the looks too.
posted by signsofrain at 11:30 AM on August 14, 2019

Yep, get a rack and panniers. Ortlieb is spendy (check ebay, etc. for used) but I can vouch that they hold up well (they were my grad school bags!). They stand up on their bottoms if loaded decently and hold a ton. Having a pair is nice for balancing the load. The shoulder straps were decent enough for my purposes despite my having shoulder problems.

The budget option is a square 5-gallon bucket with attachments drilled into it, searching for "bike bucket" should tell you what you need to know. The upside is that you can set them up to be left on all the time and carry whatever you want inside, providing there's space where you're parking your bike.
posted by momus_window at 11:38 AM on August 14, 2019

I would go for a waterproof pannier, probably. But I also own a really nice small Alite backpack and would like to recommend it for its size, simplicity, and general low key vibe.

Huh, looking at their website they don't seem to be making the exact design anymore, but this is probably the closest current offering.
posted by Lawn Beaver at 11:41 AM on August 14, 2019

I'd get a rack/panniers or basket . I did OK with a back rack and strapping my bag to the rack with bungee cords. It was nice in the rain because I could just put my bag into a garbage bag before strapping it on and I didn't have to carry a wet bag around after my ride. with another bike, I really loved having a large basket attached to my handlebars. No one could argue that it looked cool and it really depends on the bike's frame and whether you have room to accommodate a large basket. Both of these worked well for me because it took away the need to balance heavier items in two panniers and I had simple options to avoid carrying around dirty/wet bags.
posted by quince at 11:47 AM on August 14, 2019

I have an older model Chrome backpack similar to this one that I bought with similar priorities in mind. It cost about $180 but has held up well over the past few years. They're designed for bicycle commutes and make it easy to fit some groceries in on your way home while still protecting your laptop.
posted by 4rtemis at 11:48 AM on August 14, 2019

If you're biking in the rain you need a back that closes with a flap or a roll, not (only) a zip. Zips leak.
posted by caek at 12:26 PM on August 14, 2019

I don't know if they would suit your style, but for toughness in bags, I have never seen anything tougher than Jansport. I am more-than-moderately mean to bags, I have worn out every bag EXCEPT the Jansports I've had. (I was even really hoping to wear one out, since I didn't really like the design -and it just - wouldn't - wear - out. I finally gave in, and passed it on to someone else. It's still going).

Knapsacks with zippers will be water resistant; they won't be as water resistant as a messenger bag or top that rolls. That said, my partner has a rain cover for his knapsack that he loves; it's lightweight enough for him to carry everywhere. So, if you're perfect bag for other purposes isn't so waterproof there are options.

Another option for cycling other than wearing your bag or using panniers is the classic Toronto thing: ziptied a milk crate ziptied to the rack on the back of your bicycle. They make nice deep holders which can take a large knapsack and/or messenger bag. I've done this and carried a large knapsack this way. I do sometimes worry about security, but I live in a very safe city and I keep my bag with my wallet, phone, etc., in the front basket, so I can keep an eye on it (not so good if you only carry one bag).
posted by jb at 12:33 PM on August 14, 2019

Personally I hate carrying panniers around all day when I'm not on my bike, they only worked for me when I was going home -> office -> home with nothing in between. Walking around campus all day with panniers full of stuff is the most annoying thing I can imagine. Personally I ADORE my Ortlieb Velocity backpack (currently on sale at REI!). The bag itself is super light which seriously makes a difference (especially compared to lots of panniers). The padding is structured to let air flow down your back, important for biking in the summer. It's very waterproof, I used it in PNW 24/7 rain. It is the most comfy backpack I've ever owned.

I have no idea where Ortlieb is on the ethical stuff, their website says nothing. Before I got the Velocity I used Baileyworks bags, which are awesome and handmade in New England. I've known employees who said it was a good place to work but that was a couple decades ago before the original owner sold it. Only some of the models are waterproof (some are just 'water resistant'), and they are more expensive.
posted by 100kb at 12:33 PM on August 14, 2019

I'm a regular bike commuter. Before I had panniers and it was still summer and not as rainy (where I live), I had a bike rack with a milk crate, and I'd put my messenger bag in the milk crate. I could carry my bag if I needed to (if I went to the grocery store and wanted to have more storage space, I would put things in the milk crate and then carry a loaded messenger bag) but generally I didn't because in warm, humid conditions, it gets hot carrying a bag pretty quickly.

So I think the cheapest and back-friendliest solution is to get a backpack and a bike rack and a crate of some kind, and toss the backpack in the crate. (And it's not only kids who carry backpacks. Messenger bags and shoulder bags look cooler, but carrying a few books like that on the regular is not great for your body. Find a backpack you think is cool so you want to wear it.) You can also use a messenger bag, of course.

The next step up for expense: panniers, but the kind with a shoulder strap so it becomes a messenger-type bag you want to carry. North St Bags makes, as one example, a pannier that converts into a backpack so you can carry it nicely both on your bike and on your body.

Carry around a pannier can be annoying so I'd get one that's also made to be carried for a longer time.
posted by bluedaisy at 1:19 PM on August 14, 2019

Messenger bags are only really good if you're constantly getting in and out of your bag, on a bike.

I used a Timbuk2 messenger all through college, and upgraded to a Chrome right afterwards. Both survived well, although I didn't do anything stupid like drag it on the floor. The Chrome is a lot better as the strap is attached to the bag at an angle, so that with books/laptop it actually wants to lay flat against your back instead of trying to trying to jam the corner into you. The heaviest I've carried was probably around 40 pounds and it was very uncomfortable.

Then I had to walk around with my messenger bag (for like an hour), and what seemed like a perfectly reasonable amount of weight became unbearable on my shoulders and back. It was tiring to just stand with it. I switched to a cheap backpack with no frame or suspension and it was like carrying air. I've never gone back to a messenger bag.
posted by meowzilla at 1:28 PM on August 14, 2019

I also want to say best of luck on bike commuting in New Orleans. I loved my bike there and in fact did not have a driver's license at that time in my life, but the roads are shit (carry a patch kit!) and people are very often drunk driving - not kidding, I assumed everyone on the road was a potential drunk day and night. Learn the best streets on your route to work/school. For instance, I always used Race St. instead of Magazine going uptown. Hope it's changed in the last decade plus!

(maybe you already know this! apologies, I am just writing on the off chance you moved there for grad school from somewhere with a different culture around bikes - and drinking for that matter)
posted by Lawn Beaver at 1:42 PM on August 14, 2019 [1 favorite]

If you're commuting by bike, a rear rack and a pannier bag would be the way to go (especially when the weather is hot). Nothing worse than being unbalanced by having weight over your shoulder. Plus, having it touching your back doesn't help with sweat.

I commute by bike and have this Ortlieb messenger bag. I like it because it's waterproof, very sturdy, and looks more or less like a normal bag when off the bike. It is a bit more than your $100 limit, but I've been thrilled with how well it holds up - I feel like the cost is worth it. You can get it for less used.
posted by owls at 3:18 PM on August 14, 2019

I'd think about a waterproof backpack or messenger bag, but transport it in a milk crate on your rear bikerack. Use a bungee cord or carabiner to keep from popping out.

As an alternative to a fully waterproof backpack, you could get a decent vanilla backpack at rei, but also a waterproof pack-cover.
posted by sebastienbailard at 8:04 PM on August 14, 2019

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