Tools Efficient Disaster Management

A Bag of Holding

The fundamental goal I have for a wallet via its design is that it prevents me from randomly collecting crap.

Years of folding leather wallets with myriad pockets and flaps all yielded precisely the same result: a Costanza-sized monstrosity that contained random crap that at one time I thought I needed, but eventually became useless clutter. This collection sat in my back pocket as a constant reminder of a tidying task I never did. Meanwhile, the massive collection of clutter ultimately destroys the wallet because no wallet is designed to perpetually hold everything.

The current wallet is perfect.

Front of wallet

Back of wallet

It’s perfect because:

  1. There are zero moving parts. Whether it’s a flap or a mechanical money clip, moving parts fail.
  2. There is limited capacity. The card sleeve barely allows me to hold eight card-shaped objects. Eight. This means that each time I attempt to keep a receipt I think I’ll need I have to fold it and slide it into the money clip. This means each time I handle my cash, I have to make a critical decision about the receipt — do I still need it? You’d be surprised by the half-life of items in your back pocket that you recently thought were important when you’re forced to look at them an hour later.
  3. I’m not constantly stressing the architecture of the wallet attempting to contain everything. The current wallet has already lasted 4x as long as its predecessor.

It’s with this wallet design win that I embarked on a quest for comparable bag.

The Bag Requirements

My requirements for a bag start with those of the wallet, but with an important essential addition: my bag has multiple use cases. My bag needs to adapt to whatever journey I’m currently on, whether it’s a trip to work; a trip far, far away; or a trip where I’m sleeping in the dirt under the stars. A trip is either work or play, and since I work a lot more than I play, I chose to focus on work scenarios for my bag research.

I’ve heavily used two different types of bags over the past five years, and each has some win. To understand my initial requirements for a good bag, let’s quickly look at each.

Messenger Bag

A Christmas present, this Johnson & Murphy messenger bag was the first work bag I loved. I find it gorgeous. A large, comfortable shoulder strap and decent space made this my go-to bag for years. All that was missing was the addition of a Incase sleeve to give my MacBook a little cushioning and I was set.

In the past few years I began to travel more, and the travel exposed a core weakness: the bag doesn’t scale to far, far away. I found myself stuffing, shoving, and reorganizing headphones and power supplies in the bag, and while the magnet clasp works fine for a trip to work, when the bag is at capacity, it feels like it might pop open at any moment. I had a similar over the shoulder Tumi bag that was my workhorse for far, far away, but after sitting in a lot of airports, I’d seen a new development. Folks were wearing backpacks again.

I’m scarred by backpacks. My memory of backpacks was of these massive canvas-like bags full of immense and dense text books, crumbled paper, and a distinct smell of partially rotten peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. I remember constantly losing important papers in what was the seemingly infinite space contained within my bag, and I wasn’t interested in returning to that frustration.

However, after countless hours watching travelers sport backpacks, it was time to get past my scarring and give backpacks another try. Tom Bihn’s Smart Alec backpack was a chance to test this development.

Tom Bihn Smart Alec

After six months of steady use of my Bihn backpack, not only do I understand why people love them, I also better understand the complete set of questions and requirements I have for a good bag.

Does this bag make me look like a nerd? (Because I am.)

Bag religion is rampant. The only thing I’m looking forward to more than finishing this article is the crazy, foaming at the mouth bag nuts that are going to comment on this piece. My research is far less complete than in prior obsessive excursions, so bring it. I want to hear it. I’ve seen a lot of different bags, and my first requirement is that while I need my bag to be nerd-compliant, I don’t want it to scream “nerd”. This was part of my love affair with my messenger bag. It looked like I was part of the Pony Express when I was actually just a nerd hoofing my nerd crap hither and yon.

My bag needs to walk a delicate line between form and function. I need it to elegantly contain my various nerd crap, but I don’t need to broadcast to the world that, yes, not only am I sporting my nerd gear, I also have a back-up of the aforementioned gear because I’ve built in redundancy. That’s how I roll. I’m a nerd.

The messenger bag is a slight winner in this very subjective category. While the Smart Alec avoids most design disasters that remind me of JanSport-esque high school backpack monstrosities (straps, zippers, every kind of fabric everywhere, minimal pockets, and the color taupe), it makes less of a statement. It’s slightly more function than form. However, it is a better answer to the question…

Am I going to beat you through the security line?

The hands down collective best measure for any bag is its relationship to your situation in the security line at the airport. Let’s start with my mindset when I’m standing in line at security. I’m furious. Everyone’s furious. While we suspect the security line is essential, as we stand in that endless line, we know — we’re absolutely sure — there is a better way.

I’m fuming with this frustration when I finally get to the front of the line, but more importantly, I want to prove a point: I will now demonstrate to everyone the value of efficiency. Grab two trays, slip shoes off and put them in tray #1. Stuff wallet, iPhone, and boarding pass in shoes, belt off — NEXT TRAY — MacBook Air in second tray. Bag behind second tray, luggage behind that. And done. Why yes, I can do this and move the trays at the same time — WHY CAN’T YOU?

No where in the above process did you see “futzing with my bag and looking for shit”. In times of stress, a good bag demonstrates a couple of essential design points:

  • Easy access to the items I commonly need. This means my computer is a single zipper away, but this ease of access does not mean the safety of these essentials is compromised. The Smart Alec is a clear winner here. In addition to the main compartment, there are two external side pockets that are large enough to hold the answers to most travel questions.
  • Simply amazing zippers. My messenger bag has a magnet clasp and that works, but when I’m moving quickly, I’m wondering when this bag held together with a magnet is going to explode. When I close any pocket on my bag, I want to be left with the clear impression that the pocket is seriously closed.
  • A minimum of crap hanging from the bag. Each strap is an opportunity to snag myself on a random piece of crap that I didn’t happen to see at the least opportune time. Traditional backpacks are the worst offenders when it comes to these straps. The designers seem to think I’m always mere seconds away from base jumping off a bridge where I need my backpack affixed to me in seven different ways. I don’t. I need two straps. That’s it.

However, I do want to know…

Can I go ninja?

The rule is: the further you are from your cave, there’s the exponential increase in the chance something will go wrong at the least opportune time. The best example of this is standing in front of 1,000 people who are expecting you to smoothly and expertly talk for the next hour and you’ve just discovered your MacBook doesn’t connect to the venue’s projector.

In my bag, I’m certain I have video connectors for most projectors on the planet. Furthermore, I have a universal power converter, a power supply, two presentation remotes, and sundry other essential white cables. All of these items are expertly collected in what Tom Bihn calls a Snake Charmer bag. This mesh bag is not only of a size that it can handle all of these items, it takes oddly shaped items such as power supplies and Jamboxes and molds them into an easily transportable rectangle that fits inside of my bag.

Tom Bihn Snake Charmer

To allow for ninja-like moves, a good bag is designed to maintain state, which means:

  1. There is a knowable set of intelligently aligned pockets of a size and shape that make sense. This is where my messenger bag fails. In order to maintain that Pony Express feel, the messenger bag design assumes that everything I’m going to lug about is roughly shaped like a stack of 8.5×11 paper. While the MacBook and the iPad are paper-shaped, I have essential items that aren’t square: delicate sunglasses, clumps of pens, and bizarrely shaped collapsible headphones. When I attempt to gear up for the long trip, it’s clear from the resulting lumpiness that the messenger bag was designed for a pleasing form and not useful function.

    The Smart Alec backpack not only has a sensible number of pockets, they are of a size that accounts for the fact that oddly shaped items follow me on my travels. More importantly…

  2. In time of stress, the items are readily accessible, remain safe, and don’t shift around. I can’t predict when I need to go ninja. I don’t know when it’s absolutely essential that I have a pen ready to go in five seconds. When this moment does arrive, I don’t want to be digging feverishly around my bag, placing various items on the floor as I search the bottom of the bag where the small stuff has fallen. The Smart Alec backpack not only has a sensible number of pockets, they are readily accessible and not cavernous. At this moment I can tell you: right side external pocket is notebooks and the essential small crap bag (which I’ll explain in a moment), left external pocket is pens, mints, and playing cards, and the internal top pocket is safe and easily accessible for sunglasses, random small pieces of paper, a passport, and the occasional stash of hard candy.

All my stuff, readily accessibly at a moment’s notice — that’s pretty ninja. Still…

Is my bag smarter than I am?

Everything is exponentially and unnecessarily harder when you’re stressed, and it’s in these moments that you appreciate the design of a good bag. A well-maintained state allows me to go ninja, but knowing precisely where my stuff is safely located is just the first step. A well-designed bag is thinking for you when the last thing you’re doing is thinking. Some examples:

Tom Bihn Essential Small Crap

  • Sub-bags. In addition to intelligent pocket size and positioning, Bihn pushes an idea to help me maintain state: sub-bags. For everyday trips, I have a single sub-bag that I’ll call “essential small crap”. Everything I’d normally lose or constantly be untangling is in a small bag that is transparent on one side, and which sits well contained precisely in the same pocket.
  • An unexpected sense of space. This is a direct contradiction to my requirement that my bag prevents me from randomly collecting crap, but part of being ninja is the need to scale. I will randomly need to lug around a randomly shaped something from here to there and my preference is that my bag does this without fuss. The messenger bag fails here, especially on longer trips. I’m at max capacity on a long trip, which means I’m shoving newly acquired items in coat pockets or onto fellow travelers. As for the Smart Alec bag, I never felt I’ve filled it. Sure, I can lug your randomly shaped something… anywhere.
  • Agility. My agility test is relatively simple: how many people are impacted/aware when I attempt to retrieve my MacBook while sitting in the middle seat? Any answer higher than one is too many. For the messenger bag, I first need to find the handle, which, given how it was shoved under the seat in front of me, is trickier than it needs to be. Then, I slide the bag out, lift the flap, unzip the Incase, and slide out the hardware. If you’re sitting on either side of me, you’re going to be well aware of this process because of my odd elbow gyrations.

    The backpack is shaped like a bullet. You slide the base easily under the seat in front of you, leaving the tip pointed directly at your feet. When I need something, the handle is at the tip of my toes, the zipper is easy to grab and works every time, and the Brain Cell holding the MacBook is right there. If you’re sitting next to me you’ll end up wondering, “When did he pull his computer out?” Whether it’s shoved into an overhead compartment, slid under a seat, or thrown in the back of a taxi, my bag needs to remain accessible and useful. This means I can get to it, and once I get to it, I can perform whatever action I intend without annoying every single person around me.

  • Full range of motion. The defining aspects of a backpack are its most obvious — it’s on your back. After many years of single-strap messenger bags, I was shocked when I moved to the backpack and suddenly had two hands. A messenger bag does not full occupy one of your arms, but your shoulder is in a constant balancing dance with the bag to make sure it’s in the right place. With a backpack, this is a non-issue. When it’s on your back it’s gone and you’ve got a full range of two-handed ninja motion.

Through its design, a good bag makes me look smarter by giving me deft answers to most travel disasters, but I have one more request.

Can I take a bullet? Do I look good after I’ve taken a bullet?

As my bag accompanies me everywhere on the Planet Earth, it’s apt to encounter small random disasters. Briefly dragged on the asphalt, being drenched by half a cup of airplane coffee, or being unceremoniously thrown in the back of a cab. When these micro-disasters are going down, I need two things of my bag:

  1. Everything in it needs to admirably survive and generally remain in the same location, and,
  2. The disaster results in the bag acquiring additional character.

Sturdy is the word you’re thinking. Good solid craftsmanship. Yes, this is all true, but the art lies in building a bag that doesn’t look tired after the unexpected has occurred — the bag needs to look like it’s lived.

The messenger bag is a solid winner here. The bag has had the shit kicked out it, but it doesn’t look like it’s beaten, it looks worldly. The Bihn bag is well constructed out of impressive sounding materials such as ballistic nylon. It looks sturdy, it looks like it can take a bullet, but once the damage is done, I don’t know what story the damage will tell.

Efficient Disaster Management

When I stand up to go somewhere, the routine is precise. Right pocket, wallet. Left pocket, iPhone. Keys in hand, grab my bag and go. It’s this sort of workflow precision that allows me to stay cool when the unexpected occurs. My inner dialog during the situation is, Well, see, I’ve got my shit together, so even though this unpredictable thing is going down, I’m doing my part to support predictability.

Whether it’s a wallet or a bag, its design needs to encourage and support my irrational worldview that with the proper level of organization those disasters, large and small, are all manageable.

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78 Responses

  1. That is a very nice wallet. Any chance of a link to purchase it?

  2. This is my workhorse bag:

    It has a generous laptop pocket which swallows my 17″ Dell Precision. The laptop area has 3 pockets: one padded and protected for the machine, a small mesh pocket I have full of phone chargers, usb cables and short ethernet cables and another for papers/my folio notebook. The next pocket is made to hold a media device, but I find it’s depth and location better suited to holding my wallet, watch, cell phone, belt and anything else in my pockets while standing in the airport security line. The next pocket down is unique in that it has a perfect place for my iPad then a glorious amount of space for additional cables, my laptop’s massive power brick, a backup laptop (15″ or less), a ream of letter sized paper, whatever. The we have a couple of other pockets I use for installation CDs, diagnostic CDs, my car keys, etc.

    Fully loaded for a 3-day trip with all my geek gear I can huff it comfortably for several hours and with all of those pockets pointing in the appropriate direction, I am easily the swiftest geek in the security line.

    The only drawback is that is absolutely SCREAMS that I am a travelling geek with enough computing horsepower on my back to snuff a small country.

  3. I just gave up my bag of holding(thinkgeek) for a chrome citizen. The simplification to one pocket works well and it is tighter on my back. I always hated how standard messenger bags would flap around while dogging cars.

  4. I’ve been using a Chrome Citizen for years and it’s the best bag I’ve ever owned. Tough as nails, capacious, just enough pockets to organize but not so many as to restrict my options and it’s comfortable to wear for long periods even with heavy loads. The secret to the Chrome-style messenger bags is that they’re designed to be strapped tight against your back rather than dangling from you shoulder at your hips.

    I’ve never been a fan of backpacks because I feel like the straps pull my shoulders back too much, and they’re uncomfortable over time. The Chrome rests the weight on my shoulder and back comfortably without putting undo strain on any part of me. If my left shoulder gets tired, it can just hold the bag over my right shoulder for a while and the load stays balanced and manageable.

    It’s easy to get in and out of the bag, and it’s easy to take it off or put it on in tight spaces (like busses which I ride to work every day). It’s also comfortable on a bike, though it tends to collect sweat on longer rides. Can’t imagine using anything else anymore.

  5. This article is as useful as your examination of gel pens from a few years ago. Excellent.

    I suspect, but cannot prove, that this bag from Hard Graft might be the perfect hybrid of messenger bag and backpack.

    Until I have $550 to spend on a bag, I will be unable to test my hypothesis.

  6. When you made a request on Twitter for good backpacks, I recommended the North Face Surge ( This doesn’t pass your test of not looking nerdy or like you’re about to do a base jump but since switching I’ve found that my stuff has never been easier to find or grab quickly while traveling. The bottom pocket (on the bottom of the bag) is perfect for stashing cables and charger so you never have a tangled mess.

    One suggested improvement on your process for the security line: put all of your pocket items in an outside, zippable pocket of your bag before you get to the front of the line. This way you don’t have random (important) stuff unsafely sticking out of your shoes and it is one less step. I never like my phone, wallet or watch to be loose while going through the xray machine and sitting at the end of the conveyer.

  7. First, that Hardgraft laptop bag is seriously hot.

    Second, the wallet is a Ferragamo credit card case… I’ve looked at a bunch of sites, but it appears out of stock. Here’s the out-of-stock link:

    It’s spendy, but worth it.

  8. Hi,

    Quick tip if you wear a coat or jacket in the airport: Put stuff from your trouver pockets into the jacket pochets while waiting in line, then going through security is as simple as taking off your jacket & belt and putting them in a tray, putting your laptop in tray #2, and bag afterwards. I find the wallet + change + phone + keys move takes longer.

  9. But what about your towel?

  10. Matt J 13 years ago

    …just in time for Christmas.

    I switched from a backpack to the Timbuk2 Snoop messenger bag less than a year ago. While I love my Snoop and the removeable camera gear case…I miss having a backpack dearly. While I mainly switched out of a desire to have a slightly more “professional” looking bag, your article is definitely making me reconsider.

  11. So, I went with Bihn’s “Brain Bag” (, in part because I now had a 17″ laptop to tote around, and in part because it offered enough space that I could start considering biking to the train station and stashing clothing in it to change into at work.

    Didn’t really do anything on the biking front, but I do like the bag, though it is too easy to load with a pile of stuff that’s wearing on the back (books, in my case).

    Oddly enough I just got a new wallet, as mine was disintegrating by the minute. Ended up going with a Saddleback Leather product ( Sounded like a fairly durable product, with few places that I could stash every last card and scrap of paper known to man.

  12. Nick Husher 13 years ago

    My day-to-day bag is a medium sized Saddleback Leather Briefcase. “Briefcase” is definitely the wrong word for it, since it’s much closer to a large-ish messenger bag.

    I shopped around for a nice bag, since my day-to-day before the was an old North Face backpack I’d had since middle school. The Saddleback is just about the classiest bag I’ve come across. Everything is really tough, high-quality leather that looks significantly better after getting knocked around a bit. I’ve had it for a year, and it’s just now becoming mine: the sides and pockets have become soft and supple, and I’ve figured out the organizational bits inside it. It looks very Indiana Jones-ish when loaded for work.

    The downside is that it’s heavy, and the division of space is much more work-oriented rather than play. It doesn’t fit my SLR camera, and has a hard time with strangely shaped things bigger than a wine bottle. It’s barely sufficient for a weekend at the girlfriend’s, and when loaded to capacity I find I have to convert it to the backpack to comfortably walk long distances.

  13. Regarding airport security, I’m of a similar mindset: the faster I can get through, the better air-travel-citizen I am. I’ll save you a few seconds on your process–while you’re spinning your wheels in line waiting your turn, put your phone, keys, wallet, belt, and *everything else* into your bag. When your turn comes up, you now only have shoes and laptop/ipad in bins, and everything else is already done.

    Once you’re through security, you can re-arm yourself on the way to the gate, or while waiting to board.

  14. What color is the inside lining of the Smart Alec?

    Shove black gear into a black lined bag and your gear becomes invisible.

  15. Simon Cooper 13 years ago

    Here’s a man who knows where his towel is…

  16. MacReady 13 years ago

    Anyone looking for a backpack that’s highly functional while being tasteful and avoids looking nerdy or tacticool should seriously consider the GORUCK packs:

  17. Here’s why messenger bags win for me over backpacks: I can keep a hand on them in crowds. I don’t worry so much about it in airports, because people tend to give me more room there, but on streets, subways, buses, etc, there’s so much jostling and squeezing in that being able to keep the bag in front of me, and keep a firm hand on it, trumps the ergonomic advantage of a backpack.

    That said, I hate the bags with buckles. My favorite bags are the ones with a flap and a zip-top main compartment underneath. The zip top keeps little stuff from falling out, and the flap helps provide a little more weather resistance 😉

    Ziploc bags work great for cable organization. One cable per sandwich bag, all nested inside a quart or gallon size bag (depending on how many you have). Keeps them from tangling, and makes it dead easy to grab the one you want.

  18. OK, bag nerd here. This is a great post, thanks! It’s also remarkably funny in that I kept feeling throughout the entire piece that you were describing the GORUCK backpacks instead of your Tom Bihn (

    GORUCK’s backpacks (especially the GR1) are, in my opinion, the ultimate bags, and would score top marks in every single one of the categories you mentioned: they’re nearly indestructible (military grade materials with a lifetime guarantee), they look great while being discreet, they have a smart arrangements of zippers and pockets that allow for optimal organization: just the right amount, and you can further customize them thanks to the MOLLE straps.

    And they are a nerd’s dream come true: the laptop is easily accessible and protected enough to go through hell and then some, and the design of the bag always surprises you in a good way. Ninja-like to the max. And then there’s the GORUCK Challenge, of course (http:/ Did I mention the bags are tough?

    Also, they’re built in America, by American workers who take great pride in their craftsmanship. They don’t come cheap but they’re worth every penny.

    I have a GR2 and it’s hands down the best bag I’ve ever owned. I will soon add at least a GR1 and a GR Echo to the family. Different sizes, different purposes. Always prepared and ready for everything.

  19. aczarnowski 13 years ago

    Dammit. I just fought off the “buy new bag” urges. It’s clear I’m going to pay dearly for the followup hits…

  20. I can beat you. Timbuk2 Commute 2.0. It’s a butterfly messenger (TSA approved) so nothing comes out. I flip it open with Air and iPad inside and put it on the conveyor.

    I use a single bin for my coat. Belt goes in the bin or a coat pocket if there’s room. Shoes go directly on the conveyor. My wallet (sans ID) and phone are in my bag before I even get in line.

    I hate backpacks and think they look tacky in any sort of business environment. I don’t like them for travel in general. A messenger looks at least a bit nicer. And with a butterfly messenger you don’t have to remove a single item.

    The biggest problem is people carry too much junk in their bags.

  21. The Tom Bihn bags have multiple choices for the inner liners. I personally prefer to have black on black as it looks cleaner to me but do have a blue liner on 1 of my bags and it does make it a bit easier to find things. If you’re looking for a great messenger bag, Tom Binh is also a great place to go. I’ve got their Empire Builder and Ego bags and love them both! Great for organizing and built to withstand anything!

  22. Dan Bradford 13 years ago

    I’m going to have to second the Commute 2.0 from Timbuk2. I got one as a gift 2 years back and I have never let it leave my side. The laptop fits into it perfectly in the padded, zippered partition, and the front can hold any number of things, from pens to cards to wallet/passport to documents in a couple compartments and zippers.

    I’ve never gone through airport security easier than I have with this bag.

    My only complaint is the buckles – they annoy me, because they hamper quick access. But leaving them undone and depending on the velcro, depending on what/how much I’m carrying, tends to be ok.

  23. Why the Smart Alec and not the Brain Bag?

  24. GoRuck GR1.

    Elegant, simple, efficient, tough, and best of all- very thoughtfully designed.

  25. I have the same security line procedure, including the same, “Imma bout to teach school” attitude, *except* I send my luggage through before the small item bins, so if I get held up at the metal detector by somebody with too much jewelry on, I can keep an eye on my (also small Ferragamo) wallet longer.

    I look forward to learning the outcome of your search.

  26. Brian 13 years ago

    I’ve been using an Ortlieb Flight 27L backpack for a couple years, now, as it’s a zipper backpack that is also immersibly waterproof. As I live in Seattle and carry electronics around a lot, waterproofness was key. They’re hard bags to find, though, and actually are a pain in the ass: the waterproof zippers are crazy heavy-duty and have to be regularly lubricated (!!!) or they become really hard to open and close. Like, really hard. Lots of pulling.

    And I’m pretty convinced it’s no longer immersible; if I inflate it with air and shut it and use it as a pillow while traveling, it deflates over the course of a few minutes. So, thrown in a lake, it would destroy my electronics.

    I haven’t found a good backpack that is both seriously waterproof and also built out with a good interior. Most of them are just giant sacks, which sucks. The Flight isn’t much better, it has an interior organizer bolted in that is basically an afterthought.

    I’m tempted by the Tom Bihn stuff but they don’t really do waterproofing.

    I used to carry a Chrome bag, but if you’re standing upright (i.e. not biking) the weight rests largely on your single shoulder, Chrome bags are asymmetric (i.e. padded only for use on one shoulder) and over the course of several years I found it gave me weird asymmetries and nerve pain in my shoulder when I’d carry super heavy stuff in it over time.

    The Chrome backpacks don’t have waist straps; I can’t bring myself to use a backpack without a waist belt. When I load it up with groceries and it’s 50lbs I don’t want that all on my shoulders.

    Plus the waterproofing is iffy, it’s just a flap that folds over. I wouldn’t feel safe in a downpour with a laptop in the bag, it’s going to eventually get wet.

    I may have to bite the bullet and just get a non-waterproof backpack at some point as the Flight doesn’t otherwise have much to recommend it. I guess I could carry a rain cover with it or something.

    Looking forward to digging through the rest of the comments to see the other suggestions. I love bag nerdery.

  27. steve s 13 years ago

    agreed re: security lines

    Love my new backpack 5.11 tactical Rush 24. Unbelievably, more pockets than I can use, built like a tank but as heavy as one. Compressions straps make it a little more slim when you dont need the hold-a-lot property (or get the 12). Not for laptops more than 15″ unless you want them in the big compartment. The black is nerdy/commando without being over the top.

  28. and all this is why I like to make my own bags. but then, my criteria are totally different from Rands’. semi-flimsy home-made probably wouldn’t cut it for him.

  29. @Russ I like the juxtaposition of my black bag with a bright red liner. The color difference helps differentiate open from closed. Seems weird, but it falls under the category of don’t make me think when I’m half dead tired. The difference of colors prevents me from pulling it off the bed and not notice that its still open.

  30. Robert Barth 13 years ago

    I’m preferential to Spire USA’s backpacks. They definitely don’t look nerdy, but they probably fail the base jump criterion. However, I’ve flung my (now discontinued) Spire bag, with laptop, all over the place, and the laptop always survives. The space is cavernous, but easily manageable, and you’ll appreciate those extra straps if you carry a heavy load and/or ride a motorcycle. Mine has been shoved under airline seats, stuffed into overheads, and been kicked all over the place and still looks new (though it’s about seven years old) — not a single rip or tear, inside or out.

  31. Joshua Goldenberg 13 years ago

    I recently spent a couple months trying out bags, and looking at every manufacturer I could research. I wanted something that was between a messenger and a backpack – something smallish, just the right size for an Air, plus a buit-in organization system, and able to withstand hard use. Bonus points if I could wear it biking.

    I finally settled on the Maxpedition Sitka, which happens to fit a 13″ air perfectly (inside of a neoprene incase). Its a sling bag, which means it actually has a couple of different positions it can loop around in… (made for quick access to a firearm). I mainly wear it upright, at a very slight angle, with the counter-strap on for riding. Has the milspec MOLLE webbing system on the outside, so I can securely attach a small organizer pouch for carrying super-extra cables.

    The sewing and construction seem indestructable so far, and its surprisingly comfortable. I’ve flown with it twice. Pulling the Air out of the top quickly, for the security line and in-flight – is just a matter of positioning the zippers in the top center of the main pocket.

    Love this bag so far.

  32. Several years ago I switched to a front pocket wallet because my back was giving me trouble. I went with a Slimmy wallet and I really like it. Just three sections. I use one for cash and drivers license, one for cards (credit and bank), and the last for my security badge for work.

    I’ve been looking for a new bag on and off now for months. I’ve got an Incase Sleeve Plus for my 13″ macbook. That holds my laptop, cables, and one book. If I need more books, I throw that inside an old over the shoulder bag, along with more books. But I’ve been wanting a bag with 2 straps, and maybe something waterproof since I’ve been riding my bike to work more often. I’ve had my eye on a Chrome Pawn but I think that might end up being too big. Anyone have any recommendations for a waterproof backpack?

  33. I really love my Tenba messenger bag. The absolute killer feature for me is the quick access zip at the top, as it allows for stealth/quick removal of items, be it laptop for security line or camera for photos.

  34. I recently started carrying a MacBook Air on a daily basis and decided a backpack was required. The Air is not heavy but it did make the old messenger bag swing too much – was always having to hang on to it for fear of it falling off.

    I was surprised to find a 13″ Air was a very poor fit in most bags claiming to fit 13″ laptops – it was either too loose or tight.

    Anyway, what I found was the Crumpler Dry Red No. 5 ( in black. Whether it screams geek is subjective I guess but personally I think it’s just a nicely low-key black backpack.

    It hides the laptop away in a dedicated padded back pocket (one zip away). It comes with an inner pack for cables (which fits neatly into the inner pocket in the main compartment). It has a proper, sturdy handle on top as well as just the two straps; but the handle is quite flat and doesn’t tend to snag on things.

    It has an expandable main pocket (zip that runs around the bag) so it scales up to cope with travel/stuffing a jacket in there. The front pocket has lots of little inner pockets including the important pen sleeves; plus a nice big flat one for documents or books.

    In terms of the stress test… with cat-like agility and effortless aplomb, I managed to fall UP some stairs shortly after I got the bag. I basically rolled onto the bag (rolled out the impact a bit). Laptop ok, bag showed no sign of damage. In fact, the bag did better than my scraped knee.

    Crumplers are hard-wearing (we’ve had other Crumplers for years), they have nice big chunky zip handles and so on – built to last. Basically I love the bag.

  35. Brent Rockwood 13 years ago

    I rarely travel, so I don’t need that kind of space. For the 10 minute walk to my office carrying my 11″ Air, the Ristretto from Tom Bihn was just the ticket. It’s low profile, opens silently (for when you walk into a meeting late), and offers easy access to stuff in the front pocket without opening. I’d love to have the beauty of leather, but carrying a two pound laptop in a three pound bag doesn’t make a lot of sense to me.

  36. Corba Da Geek 13 years ago

    Wow, you guys have expensive tastes in bags!

  37. I’ve been a Bihn disciple for close to a decade now. During that time I’ve had one ID messenger bag that just refuses to die on me. I just change out the Brain Cell for one that fits my current laptop (actually I have a Cache sleeve for my MacBook Air at the moment) and it keeps on ticking. You can have it when you pry it from my cold, dead fingers. I added a Snake Charmer this year and got a nice performance boost.

    All that being said, you do have a point about backpacks being slightly more mobile and accessible, especially in airline situations. They have a higher nerd factor to me, but YMMV.

  38. Guy Dickinson 13 years ago

    I think Tom Bihn’s Tri-Star is pretty much the perfect ‘one bag’ for all the reasons laid out in the original post.

    It’s a backpack when you need to get through a crowded airport, a perfectly compartmentalised travel bag for multi-day travel, has ‘one zip’ access to a laptop, incredible materials and construction, and can be carried anywhere without looking like a student on a gap year.

    And it fits under airline seats, which has transformed my airlplane experience.

    If only TB did affiliate links!

  39. wendy 13 years ago

    I have a black Hamptons Hybrid from BBP,

    It’s a hybrid messenger/back pack with an exterior compartment for my laptop (so no flipping it open to access my computer). It also has all the right size pockets to hold all my essential gadgets.

    I also equate back packs with high school and messenger bags tweak my back so this bag is the perfect solution for me.

  40. For anyone interested by the wallet, here is a simple one I have had for a year now, seems to fit the bill described here. A little pricey, but quality leather has a price, and it’s made in Montreal, Qc :

    Thanks Macready and Jon for the link to goruck, I feel 300$ lighter.

    In the same vein of well built bags by people who actually care, have a look at this Kiwi company :

  41. Jon Liang 13 years ago

    I have found Grid-It! invaluable for “going ninja” within the 8.5×11 confines of my briefcase-backpack.

  42. Matthias Breuer 13 years ago

    For a nice combination of a backpack’s functionality and a timeless look that only gets better with age and (ab)use, you might want to check out the handmade leather backpacks from Custom Hide (

    They are somewhat less functional than Tom Bihn’s designs, I suppose (if only because leather is heavier by nature) – but they are an excellent amalgam of both worlds.

    Also – as the name implies – they do custom designs/modifications to existing designs too, giving you a lot of freedom in picking the perfect bag for your needs.

  43. Harald 13 years ago

    I have a wallet from exentri (, which is perfect for my use. Two cards easily accessible from the side pockets, cash have a room in the middle and tickets and receipts can be easily folded inside for quick storage.

  44. John S 13 years ago

    For the last 4+ years, my bag has been a Waterfield Designs Cargo (large)

    It’s a great bag, lots of organization, and I have some of their gear bags to organize chargers and cables. BUT, I’ve come to the conclusion that the messenger style and my back don’t like one another.

    I considered a backpack–but not sure if it would really work for the job; leather messengers would be heavier than the current bag, so logo; those hardgraft bags are gorgeous, but I finally went with a laptop rolling brief:

    I looked at alot before choosing this one: Tumi, Victorinox, etc. and while this one fell into the middle of the prices, it was by far my favorite. It can clip onto the top of another roller bag if needed, or I can put my CPAP on top of it if they are the only two bags I’m carrying on. It’s also small enough to carry onto a regional jet, which was a major factor. I can also remove the laptop without having to pull the bag itself out from under the seat. I just bought it today, so I’ll see how it goes. It’s my work bag; I actually just moved to a Mac mini and an iPad instead of a MacBook for my personal stuff, so I have a smaller bag for non-work travel.

  45. HugMonkey 13 years ago

    I think I’ve always been a backpack guy. I’ve definitely always been a bad nerd. I’ve spent my life looking, but I’ve never found the perfect bag. But now I’m close.

    I’m gonna add my vote for GoRuck.

    Simple, well thought out, and tough. Plus, they open flat! Sounds like a small thing, but when traveling with a backpack it’s a big deal.

    Easily better than everything else I’ve tried, and I’ve tried a lot; Lowe, Lowe Pro, Tom Bihn, Maxpedition, Swiss Gear, North Face, Crumpler, and more I can’t remember. Right, I’ve spent too much on bags.

    So now I’m all in with GoRuck, I love ’em more the more I use them:

    GR Echo for everyday

    GR1 for trips

    GR2 for big trips

    Perfect! Well, almost.

  46. HugMonkey 13 years ago


    That second sentence should have been ‘bag nerd’ not ‘bad nerd’!

    Bloody iPad!

  47. Romeyn 13 years ago

    Here’s another plug for the Hamptons Hybrid from BBP bags: I think you’ll find it meets all your requirements and then some.

    With this bag and a Scottevest Fleece 5.0, which is essentially like wearing another carry-on bag, I can comfortably take a 2-3 day trip and hold all my clothing AND gadgets.

  48. I’ve worn the Chrome Citizen in torrential downpours and windy blizzards. Nothing inside that bag has ever gotten wet (except once when a water bottle in the bag was leaking). A flap works pretty well when the edges of that flap more than cover the opening in the bag. It won’t pass a submersion test, but I’m not swimming with it.

  49. Checkout rickshaw bags, . I dont own one myself but i have ogled them several times in the dogpatch. Once i was with my daughter and we got a tour of the factory.

  50. A couple of years ago I bought a little REI bag, something to be purse-size but not too much of a PURSE. (Which I guess is the gal version of not wanting a bag that screams “nerd.”) I’m pretty sure this is the current iteration.

    * Flap pocket holds my bus pass or similar.

    * Outer pocket holds keys, wallet, pen/pencil, mints, and lip balm. (Used to hold my phone, when I had a smaller one.)

    * Main zippered compartment holds one or more of: eee transformer, small knitting project, lightweight jacket, towel (yes, really!), book, etc. Plus I have a little zip-up pouch with hair doodads for my long hair. I’m honestly astonished at HOW MUCH this compartment holds.

    * Inner zipper pocket contains the weird “junk drawer” stuff: glasses wipes, cards I don’t use often, headphones, lady supplies, etc., etc.

    Only two things I’m rarely entirely satisfied with are my phone, now that I have a big phone, and loose change…and the velcro flap closure is kinda lame.

    But I will say that I am much less likely to lose my keys or my wallet, which used to happen all the time.

  51. I’ve been a messenger+sub-bags person for years, and the “messenger bags want things to be shaped like a block of paper” really resonated.

    So, having read the article, I immediately placed an order. A few hours later, I got a call that the black/black color combo is now out of stock (unsurprising).

    Thinking about what color alternative I might choose, I google-image searched to see some real-life examples and — wow, that bag sure looks BIG!

    My daily needs include an 11″ MacBook Air, an iPad, and a WaterField accessory bag that contains various cables and a power supply.

    Do you think the size of the bag is way overkill for such minimal needs?


    — Matt

  52. I’ve been using a Hampton Hybrid on and off for the past year. While I like the idea of it, I find it uncomfortable to wear for extended periods of time. There doesn’t seem to be a way to adjust the shoulder straps to suit me. And while it provides direct access to my laptop, there isn’t room for my Neocase and my laptop – so the case travels empty in the main compartment. Access to the main compartment requires flipping the cover upside down – disaster if you forget to close one of the cover compartments.

    The number on criterion for a backpack for me is, will it stand upright on its own? Can I set it down and not have it fall over? Can I remove my laptop and power supply without bracing the thing the whole time?

  53. Lots of great bag suggestions here but what about wallets? I’m a front-pocket-wallet-guy and found the perfect companion here: I’ve been using the Jimi for years now and love it. If an external money clip is your thing (I find it uncomfortable in a front pocket) they have the Jimi X.

  54. aczarnowski 13 years ago

    Looking over all the suggestions nothing grabs me as good enough to make me jump from my, discontinued, Victorinox narrow messenger for business or my (one of 50 zillion equally fine) tactical nylon 3-day for flights. The original article nailed in, shoulder bags/messengers don’t expand well or work on an airplane and backpacks are all soulless nylon. And many of both suffer from the black-hole-of-stuff problem.

    Since a backpack with soul is possible while the shoulder bag problem is fundamental, I was inspired to try and find a waxed cotton/leather backpack that used some of the great features in newer bags. Fail. Everything I saw was a reproduction of a turn of the century canoe paddler’s bag or had “modern touches” in the exact places they weren’t needed (looking at you LL Bean).

    Ah well. Back to waiting for for a miracle.

  55. steve s 13 years ago

    all-ett “world’s thinnest wallet” the orig is like strong paper, but lasts more than a year, I’ve moved up to the leather version. carries more than most of the ones mentioned so far, but I need to survive trips with foreign currency and >5 receipts/biz cards a day.

  56. Mike E 13 years ago

    I’m tossing in another vote for Crumpler bags. I’ve had one of their backpacks for two years now and a messenger bag of theirs for six years before that. Excellent quality, not too nerdy and lots of storage, size and color options.

  57. I spent a lot of time searching for the bag that couldn’t hold too much, and was slim enough that I could get it into the back seat of a 2-door hatchback without moving the seat.

    I carried one of these for years, and it was perfect, until the zipper broke, I sent it back to be repaired and they sent me the ugliest laptop backpack on planet earth in return. So awful.

    Since then I switched to a belkin slim, which is not quite as slick but can fit an extra computer in a pinch (handy for traveling with a husband who also wants his computer) and collapses down otherwise.

    Now I’ve driven a car with four doors for nearly two years and I still forget that I can just open the other door and put stuff back there.

  58. I fantasize about having a bag that is:

    • both wheeled and convertable to a backpack
    • has wheels that don’t make a lot of noise on rough surfaces
    • waterproof
    • small enough to be practical on the subway during rush hour
    • big enough to carry enough stuff for a day or two away from home
    • sized for airplane carry-on
    • has special clamps for attaching securely to a standard bicycle rack

    Haven’t found it yet… my current bag scores 4/7

  59. Dennis R 13 years ago

    A Baggallini messenger bag has been my daily driver for years. Lots of pockets, small enough for commuting, cross-body mostly-backpack easy to swing up for ninjaing. (Black ripstop, of course.)'MES160

    Great to have so many recommendations for a larger bag, though. Been needing to upgrade my Targus 17″ laptop backpack for ages.

  60. Haha, welcome to the world of carry. If you’ve made it this far through the comments, you definitely want to check out, where every post is a little like this one.

    Amongst our contributors at Carryology (most of whom are bag designers by trade), Goruck is probably the most universally respected bag brand for the sort of feature balance you describe.

    If you prefer more MacGyver pocketing, check out, or if you are keen for a messenger (better for hot climates, access on the go, and avoiding schoolbag flashbacks), check out Mission Workshop (the guys that started Chrome bags but then evolved it). Their VX messenger is rad, and will deal OK with those awkward sized bits, and admirably with varying load sizes:

    None are cheap, but all have a bit more style/cred, and all will keep their mojo for much longer than the shiny nylon dork yuckiness that many backpacks are guilty of.

  61. What can I say – I am still rocking my blue and black Wenger Backpack from college (seven years ago). The two mesh side pockets are great for drink carrying and holding mp3 players.. it’s front pouch is a good insta-stash, and the the three zipped areas carry various levels of things I need. I’ve never had problems with security but I should get around to washing it one of these years. It looks like a few highlighters have broken and soaked into the fabric.

    I don’t own a laptop so it’s mostly books, papers, and clothes that gets stashed in the bag. I thought about at timbuk2 bag, but honestly couldn’t justify the cost to be trendy looking. Plus I’ve grown moderately attached to my backback from over the last nine or ten years.. though the bags look mighty interesting.

  62. @Dan I really liked the Jimi wallet too, but mine broke. After that, I moved on to the Flipside:

  63. sam twillo 13 years ago

    As referenced by LD above, I am little surprised you haven’t gone for a checkpoint (TSA) friendly bag that doesn’t require removing your laptop/tablet at all. I have such a bag from Cocoon and must say I love the experience. Worth a look-see.

  64. I use a Kata DR467 – the camera/lens pockets in the base are handy for all sorts of odd shaped things.

  65. André 13 years ago

    Why do people put there shoes in the trays when going through security? I don’t walk on your stuff. Don’t put your shoes where I put my stuff.

  66. Steve 13 years ago

    Just wondering since there aren’t great pics of the interior of the Smart Alec; you use the Brain cell suspended to hold your laptop, but where does your iPad get stored? Been looking for something slightly bigger than the Booq Mamba I’m using now, as I need to fit a few more bits in and don’t have the room, and this setup seems great.

  67. nathan alexander 13 years ago

    Great discussion. For me after using a Tumi bag for several years, I got tired of the old school look eventhough it was super well made. I switched to a Timbuk2 b/c I liked the sportier look with solid construction, but then I realized the shoulder strap left something to be desired. I ended up discovering BBP a few years ago from a co-worker and it’s about as perfect a bag for me as possible. It’s very similar to Timbuk2’s messenger bag, but it has a very nifty ergonomic backpack system. The bag hangs low so it’s been stressing my back much less and I find myself standing more upright which I’m sure is good for my posture. The bag itself is solid too and my favorite feature is a toss up between the top-loading computer compartment or the way you can slip it over the handle of my roller bag. Why carry a bag when you can just rest it on your luggage? Anyhow, here’s their URL.

    I have a Brown/orange combo which looks like they discontinued. I’m tempted to get the all black bag b/c it is pretty slick.

  68. I would also like to see a pic of the interior fully-loaded. I’m wondering if all the crap in my current mega-bag will fit.

  69. Bronwyn 13 years ago

    Features I must have in a backpack: waist straps, waterproof bottom, top handle, and short enough for short me when strapped and loaded.

    Feature I desperately want: backpack with a detachable purse/waistpack instead of a top pocket, so that I can take my essential stuff without taking everything, or taking time to transfer many small objects.

    Feature I’d pay extra for: backpack with all of the above that is aesthetically pleasing enough for a professional designer to wear to work, including meetings.

  70. Gyroplast 12 years ago

    Hmm. All these years, and no-one suggested a vest with oodles of pockets as an alternative to take care of all the random, small stuff?

    Notebook (paper), various types of pens, sunglasses, cabling, card reader, a bunch of SD cards, various credit card sized items (driver’s license, etc.), some “quick-grab” cash, batteries, pill box, smartphone… I could go on and on what I stash in there and my cargo pants. This eradicates my need for a wallet altogether, I just need to watch out to not end up overstuffed and carrying 15kg of useless trinkets around with me.

    A wise person once said that before you optimize your storage, you should strive to minimize the amount of items you plan to store.

    Seriously. Don’t optimize your loadout for being stranded in the middle ages through a time-travel accident. I know you want to, but resist the urge, I implore you!

  71. I think youve made some truly interesting points. Not too many people would actually think about this the way you just did. Im really impressed that theres so much about this subject thats been uncovered and you did it so well, with so much class. Good one you! Really great stuff here.

  72. dolof taxres 10 years ago

    Boring Boring Boring. hsve absolutely. np idea. whst kind of bags. you used didnt usr or. give s dsmn, trash bag works good. used. one for forty years. minimalism. you can mske handles and safety pins close it. and when you get home its the perfectcan liner,rain coat,windshield cover, or laundry bag. etc.

  73. I love my “world’s thinnest wallet” made of thin ripstop nylon. Two companies make them. I bought the one that doesn’t have that company’s logo on the front. Cost $15. Cheap. The two card pockets oppose each other along the wallet’s folding crease, which prevents the from falling out. Most wallet have the card pockets facing up and out of the wallet. Poor design. This wallet is so much thinner and lighter than my previous nylon wallet (EMS brand) that it almost gets post in my pocket. Amazing. FYI, I carry 8-10 cards – 4 or 5 in each card pocket. There’s also a long pocket for paper money. I don’t like money clips. Also, I wanted to post on your Gel article, but couldn’t find a comment box. I made a Facebook group for fans of the Pilot Varsity “disposable” fountain pen. There are now over 200 members, worldwide. For the record, this one CAN be refilled, and several YouTube videos show how it’s done. Easy. I recommend Noodlers brand bottled ink. See their website. Thanks. I’d love to hear from you, but know you’re busy. Thanks for all your hard work. – Anton Ninno, retired teacher (but still teaching fulltime!) in Suracuse, NY. Here’s my FB Pilot Varsity fountain pen group link –

  74. BrianC 9 years ago

    Great article….I thoroughly enjoyed reading it. At this moment I’m sitting in the Frankfurt Airport on my way to LAX returning from a business trip. I’m constantly evaluating my travel bag/bags. I’m currently lugging around a Saddleback Leather Front Pocket Briefcase, a Genius Pack High Altitude pack and a small pLeather duffle. To many things…I need to trim it down. I spent a grip on my SB bag so I don’t really want to let it go but I really like the design of the Tom Bihn stuff. Like I said I really enjoyed reading and relating to your article here. Thanks and safe travels my friend.

  75. Anirban 9 years ago

    Absolutely love the Johnson & Murphy messenger bag. I have a similar one from Ryoko Bags, it holds my camera gear as well so thats a plus.. Here’s the link

  76. I completely agree that 5.11 tactical Rush 24is an amazing backpack . I have had this pack for a couple years and it has been a pleasure to own. There are plenty of other reviews that go into detail about the pack, so i wont do that here. But one thing this pack is missing is a waist belt. I have found that the Condor 241 battle belt with a 1-1/2″ web belt is a perfect combination for a waist belt on this pack. For a belt I am using the Blackhawk! 1.5 inch instructors gun belt. The best part is that you can get them to match some of the colors this pack comes in. See a video review of the pack with an attached waist belt setup on youtube under the ODCaveman channel by searching for 5.11 rush 24 waist belt.

    I would highly recommend this product and someday plan to purchase its bigger brother the rush 72 to keep in my vehicle as sort of a “bug out bag” and keep this one reserved for day hikes or traveling as a carry on. The materials this bag is made out of seem very durable. The design is well thought out, there are so many compartments and pockets that you really can keep a ton of stuff in there and yet keep it all organized. Another thing to note is that at least for me, I have to keep the shoulder straps quite tight to take advantage of the yolk design of the shoulder straps. This keeps the pack riding higher up on my back and keeps the yolk closer to the back of the neck area. If you are a person who wears your pack hanging down at your ass then the design is pretty much defeated.

    Also the chest straps can be easily moved around by simply taking them off of the molle. They have a break in the plastic clip that holds them to the shoulder straps to allow you to remove them and adjust them. Before purchased I read great reviews about it on

  77. Nice review, if you are going to update your article with new cool products, contact us, we would like to suggest you our customizable camo backpack:

  78. I am a big fan of 5.11 edc bag. You can keep almost everything in your bag. Because it has lots of pocket to keep those small things.