Compared to panniers, backpacks and courier bags give you the freedom to commute on any bike because you don’t need a carrier rack. They’re handy if you plan to make multiple stops, as your luggage goes with you as soon as you step off the bike. And a load on your back is better isolated from vibration from the road, so it’s a good way to carry fragile items such as laptops. Sportier cyclists sometimes prefer the handling characteristics a bag-less bike.
On the other hand, it’s not as comfortable cycling with the load on your back rather than the bike. You sweat more. The weight can make your back or shoulders ache and will put more pressure on your backside and hands. That's why backpacks and courier bags suit shorter journeys and lighter loads.
How big the bag needs to be, and how that space is best organised, will depend on what you want to carry. You might need only five litres, but specifically laptop shaped, or you might want 20-litres with lots of pockets.
Backpacks have two shoulder straps, courier bags one. Backpacks distribute the load more evenly. Courier bags offer quicker access to the bag contents. Whichever you choose, it needs to be stable on your back when riding – particularly if you ride leaning well forward.
Make sure the shoulder strap(s) can be adjusted to suit you. Look for auxiliary straps. Backpacks are more secure with waist and/or chest straps, while courier bags need a stabilising strap running from the shoulder strap to the furthest corner of the bag. (Courier bags can be worn on either shoulder, depending on how you set up the straps.)
Comfort is best with wide straps. Padding on the underside of a backpack will prevent its contents from poking you, but on a courier bag can stop it from hugging your back effectively. Backpack padding usually has channels to allow circulate a bit; this limits rather than eliminates the sweaty back issue. Courier bags sit lower on your back and don’t create so much heat.
As you’ll be using a backpack or courier bag daily, it needs to be robustly built, with strong stitching and fabric that can be be scuffed against walls and floors without tearing.
Most bags will shrug off light showers. External rain covers should keep contents dry in heavy showers and persistent light rain, while seam-sealed PVC works even in cloudbursts. Note that water can get in through stitched seams and zips and occasionally underneath the ends of courier bag flaps even if the fabric itself is waterproof.
In terms of visibility, bright colours are best in the daytime but look less businesslike in the office. For night use, look for hi-viz panels or piping. You can customise your bag with Respro’s Scotchlite Sticker Kits (from £11.99, www.respro.com), or just add a waterproof rain-cover such as Respro’s Hi-Viz Hump Waterproof (£25.99). Some bags also have loops for an auxiliary LED light.
Deuter Cross City
At 25-litres, the Cross City is a generously sized pack. Chest and removable waist strap keep it stable, and there are compression straps to restrain smaller loads. Two A4 files will fit in the main compartment, while your laptop (up to 15in) has its own padded pocket. Outside there's a zipped pocket with an organiser; two stretch side pockets; a flap to hold a helmet; Scotchlite piping; and an LED loop. You’ll probably want a rain cover too. Deuter ones cost from £11.99.
Banjo Bros Commuter Backpack
It might not look it but this bag is completely waterproof. Underneath that tough nylon outer is an impermeable, welded-seam liner. The main compartment has a roll-top closure, with a buckled flap over the top. There's a zipped pocket for valuables and a side pocket for a lock. Overall capacity is 24 litres; there's a 33-litre version for £10 more. Stability is good, thanks to chest and removable waist straps. There's a lot of reflectivity and an LED loop.
The Velocity is a simple, sturdy, waterproof backpack. It's made from welded-seam, PVC-coated polyester with a roll-top closure. This fastens with a Velcro strap, which allows quick access. The latest version of the Velocity has tabs underneath this strap to attach an LED light and/or a helmet. Chest and waist straps keep the 20-litre bag secure , and the foam back padding is comfortable. It's essentially one big compartment, with one pocket fastened inside.
Schwalbe Recycled Tyre Messenger Bag
It's recycled because it's made partly from a tyre that failed Schwalbe's quality control. The rest of the bag is mostly tough vinyl, closed with a big flap, so it's decently weatherproof. Despite its budget price, it sits securely enough on your back as the shoulder strap is stabilised. Capacity isn't huge, at a little over 11-litres, but it's the right shape for a laptop or an A4 binder. Inside there's a separate document compartment and small zipped pocket.
Lezyne Messenger Caddy
The Messenger Caddy is made from vinyl-coated Cordura nylon. It's tough and weatherproof. At 24-litres it's big for a courier bag, and you'll comfortably fit a 17in laptop in its padded internal sleeve. There are lots of labelled pockets under the main flap for stashing other items, and there's a neoprene pouch on the shoulder strap for a phone. A stabilising strap keeps it in place on your back, while a reflective logo and an LED loop offer after-dark conspicuity.
Abus Messenger Bag
Another tough nylon bag, this Abus one is made from polyurethane-coated Kodra – a direct equivalent of Cordura. It's waterproof and very durable. Seams are welded and taped, while the zips are waterproof. The 16-litre capacity includes a compartmentalised main bag, a pocket in the lid, and a phone holder on the stabilised shoulder strap. The bright colour option stands out in daylight. There's also a more subtle grey/black option; both have reflective details.
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